1 New York City has a light of its own, a dazzling glare that is utterly unlike the soft, cloud-strewn summers where I grew up. I once found its intensity disturbing, like the city’s, but I miss it now. It was glowing on that May morning as I stepped from my apartment building. Sun shone on the budding leaves in Gramercy Park and illuminated the Art Deco gargoyles of the Chrysler Building in the distance along Lexington Avenue.
My gym was nearby, a box with windows on one corner of Irving Place, filled day and night with New Yorkers pounding on long lines of running machines. Some watched monitors and wore earpieces, cords dangling from their ears and swinging in time with the rhythm of their runs. It was a Sunday at the end of a surreal, stressful week—one filled with fraught events that I hoped had been resolved. I walked slowly, trying to relax, letting those events filter into my subconscious.
Two men were playing chess on the sidewalk as I passed. They were both slim and scraggy with thinning hair, and one had a trimmed white beard. As they played, they kvetched about the state of the city, the rise in subway fares, and gentrification on the Bowery. The one playing black prodded a knight forward at the white king, and as he released the piece, the other swooped his queen across and seized a rook with two fingers. The clack of the white queen’s base being slammed on the board echoed across the street.
“Ach,” Black tutted to himself.
“You didn’t see that?” White cried.
The first ten minutes on the treadmill when I reached the gym were painful—my muscles creaked, my throat burned. At about the fifteen-minute mark, the urge to stop was succeeded by a state of boredom, and my thoughts drifted. I always felt this moment, before I started the countdown to the end, when the experience became soothing. As that small but pleasurable window opened, I glanced over the monitor tuned to Fox News on a nearby machine.
Then I jabbed at the red “Stop” button.
The screen revealed a live feed from a news helicopter—the image of a police chase or maybe a crime in progress. The camera shuddered as it circled, but the scene was clear enough: Harry Shapiro’s house in East Hampton. There was the lawn by the dunes, the blue pool, the squares and circles of the cedar-shingled roof, the chairs on which we had sat. The seats were vacant and no one was in sight—only house, lawn, dune, beach, and black-and-white vehicles jamming the drive. His Range Rover was parked by the house, apart from the melee.
“You using this machine, man?” someone asked me from my left. Without noticing, I had climbed off my own and drifted toward the screen.
“No,” I said. “Go ahead.” Other channels were showing the same image, but I tuned to Fox, with its red banner at the bottom of the screen: Death in the Hamptons. The news anchors, when I put on the headphones hanging on the machine, were talking excitedly but not making much sense, as if in the grip of mania.
“We’re going to Bruce Bradley,” said a woman’s voice, “who is at the scene. Bruce, what can you tell us?”
The shot cut to a man with a blue blazer and a bland face, standing at the entrance to the lane where Harry lived and looking professionally grave. In the distance I could see the low, misty outline of Harry’s guesthouse.
“Melissa, I’m in East Hampton, the Long Island beach town known as a retreat of the wealthy,” he said sonorously. “Detectives were called to a house down this lane last night, where they found a body, I’m told.”
The woman anchor started to ask something, but a man’s voice cut over her. “Bruce, this is Jack. Can you tell us the identity of the victim?”
“The police are not saying, but my sources tell me that the deceased is a banker who was well known on Wall Street.”
“Jesus,” I said—loudly, because of the headphones. A woman on a machine nearby looked over at me reprovingly. “Sorry,” I said, holding up one hand. It was shaking from the rush of fear as I put it on the handrail.
For weeks afterward, that anxious feeling of the world breaking up around me was never far away; even now, whenever I’m in New York, a quick glimpse of Fox News can make my heart rattle. It was more than the threat to my livelihood: it was a sense of being wrenched from the frame I had around me, the detachment I had built from other people with all their disordered emotions. Love. Jealousy. Despair.
After pulling off the headphones, I stepped down from the machine and started to walk back to the changing rooms. Near the door to the workout room, I was hit by a wave of dizziness and sat down to place my head between my knees. I didn’t need to watch any more: I already knew what had happened. Harry Shapiro had killed himself. I also knew, with absolute certainty, that I was to blame.
When Rebecca was on duty, she would sometimes return home in the early hours and sit silently in the kitchen before coming to bed. I’d know then that a patient had died on the operating table. We shrinks don’t lose many patients, so we never get used to it in the way that a surgeon must. Patients of mine had killed themselves before, but, unhappy as it made me, I’d never believed it was my fault. They’d been in a chronic condition, had been battling their death wish for a long time, and I’d done all that I could to help.
Harry was different. I’d known he was in danger, and I’d let him die. I’d allowed myself to be bullied and bribed into failing him.
My head was still between my knees, but saliva had stopped running in my mouth and I could feel the dizziness starting to ease. I raised my head to see a gym trainer looking at me with concern, thinking that I must have overdone it on the machines. I grimaced at him as if he were correct, got up, and grabbed a towel. Then I went to the showers and stood under one for a long time.
Excerpted from A Fatal Debt by John Gapper. Copyright © 2012 by John Gapper. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.