Elongated, looming out of the swirling mist of a crashing sea, a gallows arose. Rhythmic and unmerciful, a drum beat pounded as liquid black shapes swarmed and focused into crowds of people. Hordes of humanity, jostling, shoving, ringing the scaffolding, raised their fists, their mouths open in silent shouts. The drum beat became a steady snare, an intense roll punctuated with the pulsing beat of a heart.
A young woman appeared beside the gallows, her hands bound before her, her plain gown of ivory muslin billowing in the mist. Her dark brown hair fell to her waist in a single thick braid. Her face was pallid, drained of color save for the sharp intensity of her light green eyes and the gash of red of her lips. The gash was blood. In her torment, she had bitten through her lips, chewed them in her anguish, that agony now plainly gripping her visage as her light green eyes darted restlessly amongst the faces of the crowd searching hopelessly for one among them who would take pity, seeking out the distant hills for the sign of a horse and a rider who would even now bring reprieve. None showed no matter where her eyes flitted, and her lips bled and her heart pounded.
An elderly man with long flowing white hair topped by a formal black hat, dressed severely in black robes, stepped out of the crowd as out of the mist and grasped the young woman’s elbow. Like a frightened doe, she startled, her eyes growing wide with shock and fear. For a moment she stood her ground. Unmercifully he tugged at her, and having no recourse, her slight body swaying, her knees buckling, her resolve collapsed, and bowing her head, her thick braid swinging loose from behind her back, she followed him trembling up the scaffold stairs.
On the platform of the gibbet, joining the man in the black robes and the unfortunate young woman was a third man, the sheriff. Holding a decree, he turned toward the townspeople his face set and unforgiving, his voice thunderous, reverberating in the whirring mist.
“You have been brought before us to die.”
The man dressed in black robes grabbed the noose. The drum beat rose in syncopation with the pulsing beat of the young woman’s heart.
“For your crimes, to hang by the neck until dead.”
On the other side of the platform, a young soldier, his young whiskerless cheeks covered with a swarm of angry red pimples, sweat bathing his brow despite the chill of the morning and the swirling of the mist, raised his rifle. The man in black placed the noose around the young woman’s delicate neck.
As the noose was placed around the neck, as one, the crowd sighed and surged forward. In the distance, families that picnicked upon the rolling hills stood, their picnic baskets overturned, their racing children arrested and quieted.
A child, a little girl about five years old with golden curls framing a complexion of creamy ivory and eyes the color of cornflowers, was pushed out in front of the crowd to stand directly beneath the gallows, to stand directly before the condemned woman.
Seeing the child, the young woman moaned and swayed, nearly collapsing, Tears coursed down her cheeks. She raised her bound arms beseechingly out to the little girl.
The twin sound of the snaring drum and the beating heart pounded to a crashing crescendo as the rifle exploded into the swirling morning of fog and mist and horror and the gallows trap sprang grotesquely, its wooden works creaking like a giant plaything in the hands of monsters. A bloodcurdling scream, a name echoing into the fog: “Megan.”
The young woman’s body jerked savagely, a rag doll flopping, a marionette whose strings have been suddenly sliced, plummeting through the trap, plummeting through space, plummeting into blackness and the void.
An explosion of violent white blinding light, a whirring incessant popping, a cackling like the confused squawking of chickens pecking each other’s eyes out when the rooster supreme struts into the henhouse, surrounded Dr. Bethany Rutledge an elegant statuesque woman in her late thirties as she was steered through the crowd of squabbling reporters by her attorney Margo Farber a zoftig, no-nonsense black woman in her forties. Cordelia Lysek, Beth Rutledge’s best friend since childhood, followed behind, her striking blue eyes highlighted by her short silver hair. The trio was trying to push their way through the crowd and up the stairs of St. Andrew’s Hospital on Fifth Avenue and Lexington Street in New York City.
The reporters, paparazzi, cable news, television, and mainstream, refused to give way, shoving their microphones and their mini-cams relentlessly in Beth’s face, the lights glaringly bright. Even news helicopters circled like gigantic wasps whirling overhead. How had she become such frenzied news? But before the question even finished forming in her mind, the answer tumbled into place. Adrian. Of course. This wasn’t about her; it was about Adrian and the upcoming gubernatorial race. And when he saw this coverage blasted up front and raw on the six o’clock news, when he and that guard dog of his, Foster James his campaign director, saw this spectacle, there would be hell to pay, and that hell would be paid by her.
“All right, ladies and gentlemen, let us through,” Margo spoke, her honeyed tones layered generously with the drawl of western Texas from which she had escaped some twenty years before.
“What’s the board’s decision going to be, Margo?” A young twenty-something Asian woman asked, propelling herself forward.
“Left my crystal ball at home this morning, Jen.”
“Is it true proceedings are in place to revoke Dr. Rutledge’s license to practice medicine?” Miguel Javier, an upcoming star from Univision Radio asked.
“I have no knowledge of any proceedings.”
Roger Gentry the pompous white-haired anchor of the local “Live at Five” broadcast pressed his mike into Margo’s face. “I understand the police are looking into Murder One. Any response?”
“Just that you understand more than I do. Come on now, people. Let’s go. Let us through. We have a meeting to attend.”
With a force of will as much as of muscle, Margo thrust them through the swarming hive. Reporters scattered before them like dry autumn leaves. Jenny Chiang, the young Asian newscaster stepped before a camera.
“Well, there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Dr. Bethany Rutledge, esteemed pediatrician and estranged wife of District Attorney Adrian Mountzaire, about to go before the Hospital Administration Board of St. Andrew’s who are right as we speak in the process of deciding whether or not her hospital privileges will be revoked, and if she will be stripped of her license to practice medicine. A bizarre case, surely, and one with unexpected twists and turns, and certainly dire consequences pending for Dr. Rutledge this morning.”
Inside the cool neutral interior of St. Andrew’s, Margo led Beth and Cordelia briskly down the corridor and to the bank of elevators that would take them to the fifth floor where the hospital administration boardroom met.
“Remember, Beth, whatever they say, whatever comes out of their collective mouths, you say nothing. Understood?”
They rode the elevator to the fifth floor. Here the bland neutral beiges and tans of the admitting floor had been replaced with cool blues and splashes of mauve. Paintings by modern artists, Jasper Johns, Joan Miro, and Willem de Kooning lined the walls, each set off with its own illumination.
Cordelia peered closely at an untitled de Kooning. “Is that an original?”
“They’re all originals,” Beth replied.
“Jeeze Louise. For what they spent on these paintings…”
“Don’t get me started, Cordelia. What do you think I’ve been screaming about these past five years?”
“Here we are,” Margo announced as they reached the door to the boardroom. ”Mum’s the word, correct-o?”
“I haven’t forgotten, Margo.”
“Good. From here on out, you speak only through me.” She turned to Cordelia. “Wait here. This shouldn’t take too long.”
The inside of the boardroom was hushed and still. Floor to ceiling windows revealed the busy streets of New York and the bustling traffic on the corner of Fifth and Lex, but in this room, the sounds were a world away, muffled and distant. A long cherry table polished to a gleaming sheen stood in the center of the room with chairs for as many as twenty people ringed around it. There were five seated at the table now: three men and two women. The walls here, as in the corridor, were hung with modern paintings. Beth glimpsed a Rothko, a Warhol, and a Matisse. How she had fought this administration for staff, for supplies, for equipment, for medicine. Everyday she had worked here, it had seemed, she had gone to war for her kids. And here they sat surrounded by luxury, crystal decanters holding amber liquids, a silver coffee service, bone china cups, original modern masters on triumphant display.
At the head of the table sat Dr. Nathan Sturbridge, head of administration, her rival, and about to be in the next very few minutes Beth had no doubt, her executioner. Sturbridge was short and round and as over puffed as a toad. He swept his blonde thinning hair that was turning white back and over in some bizarre comb-over attempt to hide encroaching baldness, as if this poorly executed coif could have fooled a child. His neck was thick and jowly; his mouth a wide pink rubbery gash in his doughy face. With his pudgy hand, each finger adorned with a ring, the flesh pouching out around, he indicated where Margo and Beth should sit. Beth sat at the edge of the chair, her back razor straight not touching the back of the chair. Margo pulled her chair far back from the table, and spread herself into it, taking over the space.
“We have carefully considered the evidence placed before us,” Sturbridge was speaking, not daring to even look at Beth, but reading from some carefully prepared statement. This, Beth knew, was not good. “And due to the ongoing criminal investigation into the death of your daughter Megan, as well as the serious nature of the charges brought against you by Dr. Holroyd in regards to that death, we find we have no other option than to temporarily suspend your privileges to practice medicine at this Institution.”
Beth felt her body sway as if his words had been arrows that had pierced her. She reached out a hand and grasped the table.
“I am sorry, Dr. Rutledge,” the toad was continuing, shuffling his papers, looking about the room, glancing at the others who were looking down; every one of them, her peers, looking anywhere in that room but at her. “You're a fine doctor. Not a one of us in this room believes anything but that.”
A protest rose behind her lips. Margo squeezed her hand. Silence! She would have to remain silent for now. Anything you say can and will be used against you.
“Please believe me when I tell you that all of us hope for a speedy, satisfactory resolution to this matter.” He was rising. Shuffling his papers into his folder. They were all rising. Even Margo was rising. She needed to plant her feet. She needed to rise. Beth bowed her head. Do not show them weakness! But she could not move. “Dr. Rutledge,” the toad cleared his throat. They were looking at her now. Now, they were all looking at her. “Dr. Rutledge. That is all.”
Suddenly, Margo brought the flat of her palm slapping down hard onto that gleaming surface. The force of the strike rang, shattering the stillness and the hush of that sacrosanct room. “That is not all! Not by a long shot!” Margo pointed a perfectly polished finger at each member of the board. “You will be hearing from me.”
She linked her arm through Beth’s elbow. “Let’s go Dr. Rutledge. We’re done here. For now.”
Margo’s energy pulsed through her. Beth rose, and the two women, linked, walked out the boardroom door.
Outside, Cordelia eagerly awaited them.
“They suspended her privileges. Let's get out of here.”
Margo brusquely led them down the corridor.
“Here are the elevators,” Cordelia said as they approached.
“No. They’ll be waiting. Back stairs. This way.”
As Margo hustled Beth and Cordelia further down the corridor, the double doors at the opposite end suddenly opened and Adrian Mountzaire a handsome man, his dark hair salted with distinguished grey in his late forties stepped through.
“Beth!” Adrian called out.
Beth stopped and turned.
Behind Adrian, the door burst open, unleashing a mob of reporters.
“Shit!” Adrian swore and rushed toward his wife. “This way! Come on!”
“I’ll hold them off!” Margo said walking into the eye of the storm with Cordelia bravely at her side.
Adrian steered Beth through the double doors where Margo had been taking her. They dashed down a couple of flights, then re-entered the hospital. Adrian led her through Byzantine twists of hospital corridors and down three more flights of stairs.
“Where the hell are we?”
“How do you know how to get around St. Andrew’s?”
“I’m a lifetime politician, Beth. I’ve been chased by the press all my life. Come on, this way. Through the kitchen.”
Adrian led Beth though the hospital kitchen and out the kitchen door to a back alley. “Foster’s right there.”
A black Lincoln Town Car Limousine purred soundlessly at the end of the alley.
Adrian grabbed Beth’s hand and they made a mad dash for the limo. Adrian yanked the door open, and pushed Beth inside. “Move!” He commanded the driver as he drew himself into the vehicle.
At the wheel sat Foster James, a stern man with a sculpted face and jet black hair. Adrian turned to look out the rear window, though the glass was darkly tinted.
“You lost ‘em. Good work, Foz.”
“That’s what you pay me for, Chief.”
The black Lincoln slipped through the streets of Manhattan, up Fifth Avenue, through the Park, then down Columbus to the 70’s where the car stopped at a tidy brownstone. Foster glided the limo beside a fire hydrant and parked. Adrian slid the window down a quarter of an inch, peering out into the street. It was dark and quiet.
“They haven’t found you yet.”
“Just a matter of time now.” Foster said.
Beth climbed out of the limousine.
“I’ll be right up.” Adrian said to her. Beth nodded and continued up the brownstone steps.
Foster slid the passenger window down, leaning across the front seat as Adrian leaned into the car. “You’d better give this everything you’ve got.”
“I know what I have to do.”
Foster reached across the seat, grabbing his hand. “Do you? Do you really understand what’s riding on this?”
“Don’t be an idiot, Foz! I didn’t come all this way to blow it now!”
“I should hope not.”
“You don’t have to worry about me. If you see anything, call me. Instantly.”
“Like I don’t know.”
“We both know what we have to do then. Good.”
Adrian followed Beth up the brownstone steps.
Excerpted from "Gallows Ascending" by Leigh Podgorski. Copyright © 0 by Leigh Podgorski. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.