Literary Fiction

In the Canyons of Shadows and Light


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The end of October in 2004 heralds the start of a cold winter for Alex Boswell, a veteran NYPD homicide detective, world weary and cynical, but dedicated to the job. He is investigating an armed robbery in Harlem and the death of an assistant district attorney on the Upper West Side when he starts experiencing mystifying flashbacks and panic attacks. He’s baffled but doesn’t want to think about it too much; not in the NYPD where toughness is prized and admitting to mental health problems could ruin his career. While his cases end up in legal quagmires, he tries to cover up his illness, but his condition deteriorates, and he can't hide it anymore, not when he's having attacks in court or while searching apartments. Finally, his lieutenant orders him to see a psychiatrist. The doctor diagnoses him with post-traumatic stress disorder and unravels the trauma behind the flashbacks – a cop-shooting in 1987 and a car accident in 2002. As Alex takes medical leave, he wonders if he will ever get well enough to return to the homicide squad.

December 23rd, 2004

Alex sunk his teeth into a peeling tag of skin on his lip and looked skeptically across the table at Theresa Gillard. His mind flew through a million things that would be less unpleasant than a conversation with a psychiatrist about his thoughts and feelings. Prostate exams. Catheters. Depositions. The DMV. Internal Affairs. Passover with his mother. Ideally, this wouldn’t take long, and it would be painless, but he wasn’t convinced on any of those counts, and the meeting seemed onerous and inevitable. The last few weeks had been like a rickety, dangerous rollercoaster, the last time he felt really well in himself was, admittedly, a while ago, and after last night, his entire body twinged and ached like half a dozen guys had kicked the shit out of him.

The MNHS interview room seemed cramped and intimate. The lights were dim and the walls confining, but he’d never considered it an entrapping space when he used it for meetings or for naps when he stayed long past the end of a four-by-twelve. It was a sparsely functional room, walls painted with that semi-gloss municipal beige, a stained, slate grey carpet on the floor, and the ceiling fluorescents illuminating everything under a sallow, yellow glow. A bedraggled sofa with olive colored upholstery squatted along the wall under the window, while a flimsy folding table and three chipped plastic chairs occupied the center of the room.

Outside didn’t enliven him, either. The sky looked bleak and monochrome, threatening snow. Grey clouds, grey buildings, grey pavement. What snow remained from the last big snowfall had become dirty slush, melting into grotesque shapes where the snowplows had piled it into banks along the sides of the roads. New York winters could make anyone gloomy.

His impatient irritability made no more of an impression on Theresa Gillard than the ominous clouds hovering darkly over the Harlem tenements. She was an imperturbable woman in her mid-fifties, her brown hair distinguished with streaks of grey, and her green eyes self- possessed and clear. Under normal circumstances, Alex knew her as a forensic psychiatrist, evaluating any hapless soul the police or District Attorney sent her way for their ability, or lack thereof, to appreciate and understand the nature and consequences of their actions, and she also ran her own small private practice on the Upper East Side. No manifestation of the fucked up psyche surprised her. Thus, she treated everyone, no matter how mad they were or what they had done, with unassailable serenity. Though professionally zen-like, she never acted cold nor clinical, embracing even the most distressed patients with empathy and compassion that seemed limitless.

Unfortunately, he was the subject of it, not an unstable witness or a bonkers perp. Because he had those orders, he’d come into work today at 0800 hours with a painful knot in his stomach. He’d signed into the command log at the Wheel desk and dodged the Wheel officer’s questions about his hand, and then he spent the morning at his desk looking at a property log, writing up a DD-5, and reading a supplemental report Ray had written. His left hand was swaddled in a bloodstained ace bandage, frayed at the edges, wrapped around his palm, and then running in a lumpy, amateurish binding halfway up his forearm. It hurt like hell. He almost cried in agony when he tried typing with it, so he gave up, resting the arm limply on the desk while he wrote up the ‘five and operated the computer with his right hand. One-handed typing frustrated him, a simple task like a ‘five vexingly tedious, sluggish, awkward, taking twice as long as it should. Fed up, he took a breather, went for his third coffee, and his boss intercepted him at the coffee machine.

“She’s here,” Lieutenant Jo Gibson had said. “Interview room one. What did you do to your hand?” The lieutenant was a short, stocky black woman from the South Bronx. She kept her hair in tight, short curls and wore drab business suits, which she spiced up with colorful scarves and gaudy earrings. At once, she took no shit from anyone, and she could be hard and scrappy, but she had a warm spirit and was fiercely protective of her personnel.

“Cut it slicing a stale bagel, ma’am. You really think I need this?” 62

She had not said anything – she’d given him that look which rendered words unnecessary: you know it and I know it. His C/O had ordered him to see a shrink, so he had to see the shrink, and while it did not bear thinking about, in his heart he knew that she was saving his ass. She knew him too well.

Alex stood and paced about uneasily. “I can’t be here all fucking day. I’ve got a lot to do.” But he suspected, given the events of the last two or so weeks, that Gibson would be putting him on limited duty, chaining him to his computer for a while.

“We’ll be here for as long as we need,” Gillard replied and then said nothing.

There was a pause so long it felt like alcohol poured on a wound. Alex slowed his pacing, and then sighing deeply, he sank down again at the table and bit off the corner of his right thumbnail, as though anxiety squeezing his heart could be loosened if his teeth cut into nerves. A terrible habit he'd suffered his whole life. He wondered if Gillard noticed. Probably. After all, he would notice tics like that in an interrogation.

“All right,” he grumbled. “Let’s get this over with.”

“I see you’ve hurt your hand. When did you do that?”

“Last night.” The hand throbbed, threatening to detonate into

excruciating pain if he tried doing anything, like typing, as he had discovered. But she was here to investigate what had gone wrong in his head – what the hell did his injured hand have to do with that? Everything.

“How did you injure it?”

At first, he didn’t answer. He didn’t remember, like he’d suffered a blackout. If he hadn’t known for sure that he’d been stone cold sober, he would think he’d gotten wasted and done something stupid. But telling her that he didn’t remember would make him look crazy, and he wanted to downplay that.

“I cut it slicing a stale bagel,” he said with exaggerated conviction. “The knife slipped.”

“You cut it slicing a bagel?” Gillard repeated.

“Yes,” he insisted. “It’s not hard to do.”

Oh, fuck, she didn’t believe him. Thousands of times, he had given a

suspect or a witness the same look: that of utter disbelief. He had spent 63

a lifetime becoming an expert in culling the truth from bullshit. Psychiatrists must do the same.

“Okay,” said Gillard emotionlessly.

Alex swallowed and forced his features into a queer, numb smile.

“Yeah.” A dull kitchen knife had slipped on a bagel so hard you could have played hockey with it, a common enough injury. He could convince himself of that truth. That was why his bathroom had looked like a crime scene this morning. He’d cleansed his wounds there.

But another image flashed through his mind: the stained-glass panel on the bathroom door, shattered into jagged pieces, strewn across the tiles. This morning, he had made a half-assed attempt to sweep up the broken glass, but his hand hurt, his body was sore, restless sleep had exhausted him, and he didn’t know how it got there in the first place. Slammed the door too hard? The apartment was one of those old New York City tenements, built in the second half of the nineteenth century and receiving the legal minimum of maintenance and modernization for much of its life. That ancient glass finally meeting its end was surely only a matter of time.

“What is it?” Gillard asked, noticing the faraway look in his eyes. “Nothing.”

“Are you sure?”

“My apartment’s old, falling apart. Just thinking about what I need to


“Mmmm. One could be very psychoanalytic about that,” she suggested


“What?” And then he thought about it for a second. “The state of my

apartment’s hardly a metaphor for what’s wrong with my fucking head.” Was it not? Worn out and falling apart? “Part of the bathroom door fell off this morning. That’s it.”

She nodded, but with her head tilted to the side, and Alex wanted to run, her face was so unbearably kind. A wayward strand of silver hair fell in front of her eyes, and she pushed it behind her ear. Then she slid a piece of paper across the table, saying in an amicable tone, “Okay, Alex, have a look at this, all right? Just something we have to do to start with. It won’t take you more than a couple minutes.”

It was a multiple-choice questionnaire, which he found bleakly funny. “Like a Miranda waiver,” he cracked. He sat in front of the questionnaire, a pen in his hand, worrying at it for a long while, each question confronting him with the monstrous pain he’d been fighting for weeks, an ache like a fracture in his heart, a tiredness so vast, the Kafkaesque sensation of losing his grip on reality itself. Little interest or pleasure in doing things. Feeling down, depressed, hopeless. Having trouble falling or staying asleep. Yes, yes, yes. Rate it on a one-to-five scale. The pen quivering in his hand, he circled fours.

He finished it, ten questions, and handed it back to Gillard, who turned it over, regarding the answers with an expression he couldn’t read, and then slipping it into her briefcase.

“You were in a car accident two years ago,” she said. “One where a young assistant district attorney died. Is that right?”

“Yeah.” Blindsided, Alex defensively folded his arms over his chest. Where the fuck did that question come from? He felt his blood pressure rising.

“Can you talk about it?”

Once again, he stood up and walked over to the window, distracting

himself by watching the ceaseless flow of cars and people on Broadway. Everyone in Harlem was out there, going about their business like a normal day, and he was imprisoned in here. The day she’d asked him about hadn’t been normal, either, and he never wanted to talk about it again. The capital sentencing hearing in the morning, arguing with his daughter in the afternoon, and then meeting those ADAs in the Blackthorn that evening. After that, he’d blacked out, and his memory returned while he lay strapped to a backboard in an ambulance, wondering how he got there.

Then came the dreadful, destructive thought: was it not his fault that Zoë was dead? A pointless question, and you would think a twenty-year veteran of the Homicide squad would know better than to ask it, but he’d never chased it from his mind.

“I was drunk,” he snapped. “Zoë Sheehan was driving me home. Next thing I know, I’m in a bus, and EMS is asking me if I know who and where I am and what hurts.”

“Is that all?”

He shot her an irascible glare. What information could she want that wasn’t in the police reports from the accident scene? Nothing he could tell her.

Her expression remained unperturbable, but she scribbled on her notepad, as if his inability to remember the car crash had some significance beyond that of a mere alcoholic blackout.

She asked reflectively, “You don’t seem very happy talking to me. Would you agree with that?”

She was a keen observer of people, as keen as any police officer. Caught out, he stared intently at the tenements and traffic. “No, I guess I’m not.”

“Any reason?”

Because you’ll make me see things I don’t want to see, the shit I don’t know how to talk about with anyone, and God forbid any cop beyond this squad finds out I’m talking to a shrink.

But he couldn’t articulate that. He caught his tongue between his back teeth.

“It’s not an easy thing. But your friends and colleagues are concerned about you.”

“I know,” he admitted.

“Why might they be concerned?”

He returned to the table and studied his hands, the left swollen with

motionless fingers under the bandage, the right strong, hardened and rough from years on the street. “What did Gibson say to you?”

“That your behavior has been concerning. Why might she say that?”

“I don’t know,” he breathed unhappily. “I’ve been a bit depressed. That’s all. Is that more concerning than usual?”

“Your Lieutenant thinks it is. Do you?”

“I’ve had better weeks,” he responded evasively. “But what are you gonna do?”

“Figure out why you’ve been feeling the way you’re feeling and find a way for you to feel better.”

His throat hurt like he’d swallowed steel wool. “I’m depressed because it’s the fucking holidays. Always reminds me of how shit my relationship with my kids is. Gibson’s never made me talk to a shrink before.”

“There’s more to it than that, isn’t there?”

He knew that the answer was yes, but he was afraid, and he didn’t answer.

She glanced down at her notes. “Tell me about the cases you had. Starting with the last week of October.”

“We were working one involving the death of an autistic boy at a place called the Elm Tree Care Home in Washington Heights,” he said, his shoulders sagging. Gibson had ordered him to be here, and Gillard had light and power in her. His emotions were scattered, frail, damaged, and the pain in his hand wore him down so much he marveled that he had written up half a DD-5. “Then there was that armed robbery in Harlem, which we worked without a break. Then the next day, we had a Brooklyn assistant district attorney DOA in his apartment.”

“Two new cases in twenty-four hours,” she mused.

“I guess that was unusual. At least now. It was what we did all the time until about the mid-90s, but you shoulda seen what a shithole this place was then. And I was a lot younger.”

“Ray said you stopped being quite yourself after that,” she commented.

As if he could not rest his eyes anywhere, he looked at his bandaged hand, and then the window, and then the door, the squad room, life, on the other side. She had talked to Ray. He wondered what his partner had said about him. Between bouts of disapproval over aspects of Alex’s life, like being a recovering alcoholic, a divorcee, a very lapsed, non- practicing Jew, Ray could be a good friend. Really, he was a good partner, a good cop, loyal and honest, with a perspicacious, analytic mind suited to detective work.

No, you couldn’t fault Ray, as a partner or as a detective. But he wasn’t James Hurley. With James, Alex had the telepathic connection that sometimes gets forged between police partners, where you know exactly what your partner is thinking and what he will do, maybe even before he does. There were still things about Ray that Alex didn’t understand. You didn’t always know what side of Ray you were going to get; the moralistic, God-fearing proselytizing Catholic evangelist, or the incisive, gentle, and funny friend. How could Ray’s faith be so absolute when he did this job? Alex thought that religion was primarily the delusion of having control over your fate, or the bigger delusion that bad shit happened for a reason, when the one thing you learned working homicide cases was that people didn’t, and the universe was heartless, capricious and arbitrary.

“We were up all night working that robbery-homicide case,” he explained. “A cop was killed. That fucks with your head.” The stress of the conversation compressed his lungs like a beam fallen across his chest.

“We’ll get to that. Let’s start with this case – the autistic victim. You went to New Jersey for it. To interview some potential witnesses?”

Those three months could have been three years. Three months ago, he’d still been right enough in himself. In the intervening weeks, he had tried to get back there but couldn’t, and he was homesick, not for a geographical location, but for a feeling of wellness, of wholeness, of normality, that he had lost. He felt as though he had traveled a long and weary way and now only wanted to return home, but it seemed as if an endless, dark sea lay between here and there, and he didn’t know how to cross it.

About the author

I'm a freelance writer, originally from Colorado but living in Glasgow. I did a PhD in the history of psychiatry in the Scottish Highlands, and then left academia to pursue anither degree in journalism. I am published in Horse and Hound Magazine and view profile

Published on May 20, 2020

Published by

150000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Genre: Literary Fiction

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