THE BIG DIG
(Ninth in the Carlotta Carlyle series)
St. Martin's Minotaur
I used to work with Happy Eddie Conklin when I was a cop. He had a gruff voice, a blunt, dogged manner, and while he was
freakin' old enough to be my father, as he reminded me often enough, he never treated me like a child. When he asked me to meet him at Ocean Wealth in Chinatown, I accepted for two reasons: they serve pungent, spicy squid to die for, and I knew he'd cover the lunch as a business expense.
After a minor heart attack, cushioned by eighty-percent disability, he'd moved on to join a national security firm. I'd bailed at the same time, sans pension, driven a cab nights while I got the Carlyle Detective Agency off the ground. My name is Carlyle — Carlotta Carlyle — and I've been an independent operator for more years than I hung on as a cop. I run a solo shop, pilot a cab in-between cases, and don't stress my first name because it's seldom seen as a plus in the business.
Eddie, now head of Foundation Security's Boston office, was early, wearing a gray suit that did its best to make him look ten pounds lighter, seated at a table big enough to handle two plates and a teapot. He rose, clasping my hand in both of his, yanking me into an embrace.
"Business, I tell ya, fantastic. Boomin' don't come close. Lack of trust in this town, geez, it's amazin'. Due diligence alone, bodyguardin' alone — I could run my own freakin' police department, ya know? Ya like this place? Ya want something to start?"
He relayed my order of hot and sour soup to the hovering waiter and demanded "egg rolls, spring rolls, whatever ya call 'em," as well. "Bring that sweet sauce, ya know? The duck kind."
I poured steaming tea into small white cups.
Eddie looked prosperous, from his blue silk tie to his tasseled slip-ons. His gray hair was short, his jaw freshly shaven. He glanced around to discourage eavesdroppers at neighboring tables, lowered his voice half a notch. "So how's your boy, Mooney?"
Some rumors have a longer half-life than nuclear waste. Lieutenant Detective Joseph Mooney, head of Boston Homicide, is another former colleague. We're friends, no more, never so much as a misguided one-night stand, but the grapevine says otherwise. If Eddie was planning to use me to cozy up to Moon, all I'd get out of lunch would be calories.
"As far as I know, he's okay."
Responding to my icy tone, Eddie changed the subject. "Ya got yourself shot up, I hear."
"Good. Glad to hear it."
He was studying my face like he'd never seen green eyes, a pointy chin, or flaming hair before. Made me wonder whether I looked drawn or pale. I widened my smile, hoped the extra wattage would substitute for blusher.
I wasn't fine, tell the truth. I had raised red scars on my left thigh from a through-and-through bullet wound. I still couldn't play volleyball, and the exercises the physical therapist demanded ranged from painful to torturous. Just yesterday the jerk had mentioned that my leg might always ache in bad weather. Considering I live in one of the slush and muck capitals of the planet, his words hit like a death sentence.
The tea was too hot to taste, so I set my cup down on a paper placemat bordered by Chinese signs of the Zodiac. "So, business is good," I said, aiming Eddie back toward professional ground.
He sniffed his tea suspiciously, searched the table for a non-existent sugar bowl. "I got regular jobs up the wazzoo and a lot of special shit, too. The presidential debate at UMass? I handled that, the local stuff. They had G-men for the vice-president, FBI, Justice. A few more red-carpet deals like that, I could retire rich."
I tried my tea again. "You got the ex-presidents when they speak at Faneuil Hall?"
"Damn, that's comin' up, right?"
"Patriots' Day." April 19th is Patriots' Day in Boston, always has been, always will be. They've tried to turn it into another one of those Monday holidays, but it rankles. Nobody celebrates the fourth of July on the closest Monday.
"I don't think so." Eddie nodded gravely like I'd just offered him the job. "I got my plate too full, which is why I'm here. I'm interested in spreading a little largesse your way."
Largesse. You can go years without hearing anyone say that word. It plinked against my eardrums like a rattle of gold coins.
"The Dig." He mouthed the word rather than speaking it, very hush-hush.
When you say "the Dig" around here, you don't need to elaborate. The Dig is the Big Dig, formally known as the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project. It's the biggest urban construction project in the history of the modern world, no less, a mega-dollar boondoggle to some, a brilliant and farsighted plan for Boston's transportation future to others. Read it either way in the newspapers, hear it praised and damned daily on talk radio.
The Central Artery/ Third Harbor Tunnel project is all about runnning 161 lane miles of highway through a 7.5 mile long corridor. Easy enough, except that instead of racing through some featureless desert, the corridor slices straight through the heart of one of the nation's oldest, most congested cities. Add the news that half those highway miles are located in tunnels and include four major highway interchanges. Plus there's a landmark bridge over the Charles River and an under-Boston-Harbor tunnel for good luck.
To weary natives, it seems like it's been going on forever, but really, here in the year of our lord 2000, the Dig is just hitting its stride, moving into the heaviest period of construction, with four thousand construction workers planting three million dollars a day deep into the ground.
"There's stuff going on." Eddie kept the whisper low. "Graft. Fraud."
"No shit." I widened my eyes. "Gambling in the backroom?"
A guy Conklin's age, especially an ex-detective, ought to know his vintage Bogie movies better. I bit the inside of my cheek. Really, the very idea that a project okayed by the federal government in 1987 at a pricetag of two point six billion, and currently playing at fourteen billion bucks and counting, might have graft and fraud associated with its execution. . .
I was shocked, simply shocked.
Eddie leaned his head close.
Foundation Security had been hired by the Inspector General of the Commonwealth after a series of scathing reports lambasted said IG's failure at ferreting out Dig fraud. As Eddie told it, the IG wasn't sure which of his guys were on the take, so he'd opted to bring in fresh blood. Eddie and his ops had already uncovered a few irregularities. Nothing major, but the TV broadcasters had eaten them up — and the IG's office had finally grabbed some positive headlines.
Would I be interested in joining his team, on a temporary basis that might lead to something more than temporary?
Before my lunch with Happy Eddie, I'd been juggling medical bills, grocery bills, property tax payments, deciding whether, and then when, to loot my little sister's college fund. I'd been nursing a bum leg, dunning deadbeat clients, paying full rates for physical therapy. In short, I was more than ready to consider the delights of a regular paycheck plus health benefits. I gulped tea and wondered whether I could deal with the concept of having a boss again, whether I'd lost the knack of working well with others.
Happy Eddie Conklin's safe, secure, and possibly longterm job looked pretty damned good to me.
Geshmak iz der fish oyf yemens tish. That's the Yiddish for what my mother's mother might have said about the situation: "Tasty is the fish on someone else's dish."
And so, eight weeks ago, after polishing off Kung Pao Prawns and Pungent, Spicy Squid, I'd signed on the dotted line. Foundation Security, for their part, provided two weeks basic training. There had been initial scepticism among Eddie's colleagues as to whether a 6'1" redheaded woman could move from site to site undercover. Before my final training session I'd invested in a box of Lady Clairol, Ash Brown. I'd worn my newly mousy hair in an upswept do, and added a pair of clear spectacles. When the instructor gazed at me blankly as I entered the room, and politely inquired whether he could help, I passed with flying colors.
I thought I knew the Dig when I started, but what I knew was myth and legend. I knew that depressing the Central Artery was the notion of a young MIT-trained engineer, Fred Salvucci, who later became Governor Dukakis's transportation secretary, that it was his dream, and some said his revenge for his grandmother's Brighton home, bulldozed almost forty years ago because it lay in the path of Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chairman William Callahan's ill-planned Turnpike extension. I knew that Salvucci's idea had been initially derided, that then-state rep Barney Frank had reputedly said it would be cheaper to elevate the entire city than sink the artery. I knew driving through and around the Dig. I knew confusing signs and miles of blue-and-yellow barriers. I knew endless delays and complex detours. I knew the sound of travelers, cabbing into the city from Logan Airport, catching their breath at the mouth of the Ted Williams Tunnel, gasping at the forest of giant cranes that loomed over the South Bay.
I didn't know the icy bite of wind on construction sites, or the stubborn grit that stayed under my nails, or the sticky blue clay that clung to my boots. I didn't know union rules and OSHA standards and how a hardhat limits vision and when to wear earplugs to prevent hearing loss.
I didn't know shit, and I still didn't, not after a mere six weeks on two sites. But I had a better idea of what I didn't know, and I was developing a fine disdain for clueless civilians who didn't even know that the blue-and-yellow barriers went by the name "kit-of-parts."
I hadn't mined gold on either of my previous sites. The rumored drugs at the pit where I'd toiled as a laborer traced to a single user, not an established ring. A brief truck-driving gig hadn't revealed the promised gas-siphoning scam. Oh, I could have made a case against a couple of petty scroungers, but really, was it worth it? Seemed to me the big guys, the heavy-duty grafters, were walking tall while I kept an eye out for two penny-nail theft.
Maybe my third site would be different. The job was.