From the moment he walked in, Jessup knew the guy was going to be a problem. Most of the applicants at least tried to look respectable, and not like one of the head cases from D Block. The kid wore black jeans paired with a pink t-shirt with an Abrams tank on the front. A man just didn't do that kind of thing if he wanted to be taken seriously. The red rooster-tail hair style and mascara didn't help much either.
Still, the kid did make it past the first two cuts in HR, so he must have had something to offer. Jessup shook hands with him, despite the kid's black nail polish, and invited him to sit. Brigham, sitting to Jessup's left didn't shake, just spit tobacco juice into a coffee cup as he looked at the kid.
“Mister Tarot,” Jessup said, “why don't you start by telling us a little bit about yourself.”
“Yeah, well for starts, just call me Tarot, okay? That's my name, like it says on the resume.”
“I never did trust a man with only one name,” Brigham said, scratching his beard, "it's not Christian.”
“Well I ain't no Christian, Gramps,” Tarot said, “you got a problem with that? This some kind of Christian-only job?”
Jessup put a hand on Brigham's arm, gently pushing the retiree down into his seat. “Hold on there, son, we're an equal opportunity employer here. Hell, Brigham here hasn't darkened the door of a church in over thirty years, ain't that right?”
Brigham spat into his cup.
Tarot smiled and crossed his legs. “Yeah, no problem. Sorry. But this job is right up my alley, so I'm just nervous, that's all. I mean, I may be overqualified, you know?”
“You a former governor of Texas?” Brigham said.
“Then you ain't overqualified.”
“Let's start with your experience,” Jessup said.
“Well,” Tarot said, “if you look at the resume, you'll see that I design my own guillotines, from the finger choppers up to the one we used on tour to chop off seven heads at one go.” He reached over and tapped at the bottom of the resume sitting in front of Jessup. “There's the link where you can go see my stuff on YouTube.”
“On tour?” Jessup said.
“Yeah, I'm in a band. Or was, I mean. We used manikins for the guillotine stuff, so if it worked on them, it should work on the real thing.”
“We don't need no Frenchie executioners,” Brigham said, “we need a hangman.”
Tarot shrugged. “I figured out how to get seven hundred pounds of razor steel to go through five cattle carcasses without splintering the bones. Compared to that, how hard can rope be?”
Brigham spat. “Hoo-eee! Rope ain't hard! How many times I heard that one, eh Jessup?”
“Tarot,” Jessup said, “Brigham here was the state's hangman for over twenty years. Before him, the state got sued seventeen times for botched hangings. What's your record, Brigham?”
“One hunnerd and five executions, not a one contested. You wanna know why, son?”
“You gonna tell me anyway?” Tarot said.
“Because it's an art. They make machines for lethal injection, and electrocution. Between the Army and the video games there's enough shooters around for thousands of firing squads. But hanging? It's a lost art.”
He sent another string of brown spit into the cup.
“Nope, ain't no one around that know's how to work rope, fewer yet that know how to make a painless noose and set the sandbag so's the neck snaps but the head stays on.”
Tarot's scowl disappeared. “That's so metal! Can you teach me how to do it?”
“Hells no! I'm a hangman, not a professor! Besides, I'm retired. I don't have time to start from scratch with blockheads like you.”
Tarot didn't say anything for a few seconds, then stood up and looked at Jessup.
“Fuck this man. I ain't getting the job, am I?”
“I expect not.” Jessup said.
The next applicant didn't seem remarkable to Jessup: a man in a charcoal grey suit, glasses, and a John Denver haircut. Brigham seemed to do a double take, and his eyes narrowed. The applicant's resume consisted of a single line.
1992- Present: Simmons Rope and Chain Company, Senior Manager, Quality Control. Developed testing methods for natural and synthetic fiber ropes and cording. Expert in nooses, snares, and knots.
The man looked all around the room, though wouldn't meet Jessup's eyes. He settled on staring at Jessup's shoes.
“Mister Thomas,” Jessup said, “why don't you tell Brigham and me why you're the best person for this job.”
“I'm intimately familiar with how rope behaves and how to avoid even the most uncommon problems with the medium.”
“Hoo-ee! The medium?” Brigham said.
“Indeed, sir,” Thomas said, shifting his gaze to Brigham's shoes, “for example, the effect of humidity on the coefficients of friction in natural fibers. I would expect that being an expert yourself, you use hemp rope in this climate because manila fiber tends to bind and twist on itself in the winter months. We wouldn't want to unduly chafe the – er, participant.” He let out a dry, staccato laugh.
“Hemp?” Brigham said, jerking his head, “Did you say hemp? What kind of fool do you think I am? Hemp is too springy. I've always sworn by manila.”
Thomas looked up at Brigham, a corner of his mouth downturned before he quickly looked back at the floor.
“I- I assure you, hemp outperforms manila in every way.”
“Hippy marketing claptrap.” Brigham leaned closer to Jessup. “Next thing you know, he'll want to hang 'em from sus-tainable bamboo scaffolding or some such other crap.”
“I co-authored a paper on the tensile and binding properties of hemp fibers that was accepted by the American Rope and Cable Manufacturers' Association,” Thomas said, straightening in his chair, “I thought it might be padding my resume a bit much to include it, but I can direct you to their website so you can read it yourself.”
“The ARCA is an industry lobby, more interested in tax cuts than their product. They'd worship a poodle in a mini-skirt if they thought it would save them a couple bucks.”
“That doesn't have anything to do with hemp,” Thomas said. He squirmed in his seat, and his face took on a pink cast.
Brigham leaned forward. “Hemp's not even on the same level as nylon.”
Thomas leapt from the chair, shaking a finger at Brigham. Whatever he meant to say was lost as he choked on his own spittle. Tomas pitched forward coughing, his face turning red. Jessup stood and walked around to Mister Thomas. He laid a hand on the man's shoulder, and helped him straighten as the coughing ended.
“Perhaps we should take a break,” Jessup said. Mister Thomas rose and slowly made his way to the door. He murmured a thanks to Jessup, who held the door open for him. Jessup closed the door behind him and cocked an eyebrow at Brigham, already absorbed in digging out a new wad of tobacco from a foil-lined pouch.
“You've always insisted on hemp ropes,” Jessup said.
“Sexual deviant,” Brigham said. “Autoerotic asphyxiation. Can't get off unless he or someone else is getting choked.”
“You sure?” Jessup said, “Even if he were into that autoerotic thing, so what?”
Brigham looked at Jessup, the bulge sliding from his lower lip to his cheek as he moved the tobacco around.
“Guy like that will screw up a hangin' on purpose. He seems smart enough to maybe only mess with one in ten, or one in twenty. Hell, he may only do it once in his career, but he'll do it. And once is too many.”
“Aren't you always saying you're not a doctor?”
“I'm not. I'm a hangman, and it's my job to know these things. Besides, he didn't have a beard either. Can't trust a hangman without a proper beard.” He reached for his mug. “Send in the next one.”
The next few interviews were little better. The kindest words Brigham has for the applicants were 'dumber than a box of rocks,' 'sharp as a ping-pong ball,' and 'a flat-head in a Phillips world.'
“There's just one interview left,” Jessup said.
“Good. I wanna get home and watch Bass Masters.”
“Could you try not to tick the applicant off this time?”
“If their delicate sensibilities are offended by an old fart's brain droppings, then they're not cut out for the execution business."
The door opened, and Jessup knew he was doomed to at least another month behind the table with Brigham. A woman walked in, tall, middle-aged, with a lined face and blunt nose giving a solid no-nonsense quality to her that Jessup usually associated with farm wives and restaurant owners. She reached out and gave Jessup's hand a firm shake.
"Miriam Boxleitner, pleased to meet you."
She stuck out her hand to Brigham, who chose to spit into his cup instead. She gave a slight shrug and collapsed in the chair, as if she had been on her feet all day.
"Well," Jessup said, leafing through his folder of papers, "I don't seem to have your resume on hand, do you have a copy?"
"I don't have one. Who needs a resume to be a hangman?" she said.
"Then how do we know you're qualified, missy?" Brigham said.
She screwed up her face in thought. "Well, when I was younger, I took up taxidermy."
"We don't mount prisoners to the walls, last time I checked," Brigham said.
She looked at him and smiled. "No, I expect you don't. However, my mentor had me practice on small animals before he'd let me work on other people's jobs. So I went around to the local farms and offered to take care of any strays they had."
"The job's for a hangman, not a dog catcher," Brigham said.
She nodded. "To make sure I didn't ruin the pelts, I hung 'em rather than shooting them. I got pretty good at it. My record was thirteen cats at one time."
"How'd you manage that?" Jessup said.
"Easy, you get a stepladder and string a few of 'em up on each rung."
Jessup looked at Brigham, who was working his wad of chew from cheek to cheek.
"You ever do anything bigger than a cat?"
"A few cows, two deer and an alligator."
Brigham's wad of chew stopped moving.
"An alligator? Neck's too thick for hanging." he said.
Miriam spread her hands. "You have to run a slip noose around the end of the snout to get the extra leverage needed for snapping the neck at the main noose."
Brigham spat into his cup. "What else you got?"
"My maiden name was Johnstone, I grew up in Kansas."
Brigham's eyebrows shot up.
"What is it?" Jessup asked.
"Nicodemus Johnstone was the most famous headsman and hangman in the Kansas Territories. Some say criminals feared him more than Wyatt Earp." He turned to Miriam. "I thought your family was out of the business."
"Grandpa and my dad never took up the craft, but we still have great-granddad's papers. I figured someone in the family should keep in practice."
"Hemp or Manila?"
Miriam shrugged. "I'll take hemp if I can get it, but I'm used to making due with what the state provides."
"What do you do now?" Brigham asked.
"I work at the DMV."
Brigham stared at her for over a minute. She calmly looked back at him.
"I don't trust hangmen without beards," he said.
"I expect you'll get over it," she said.
Brigham nodded. "I expect so." He turned to Jessup. “She's not perfect, but she ain't an idiot.”
It was as close as an endorsement Jessup had heard from the old codger over the past two months of interviews.
“Do you have any moral objections to killing a man?” Jessup asked.
“What's the pay grade?” she asked.
“The job's coded as a G-27.”
“Yeah,” Jessup said.
“No objections, and I can start on Monday.”
“Hallelujah,” Brigham said, “You're hired. Call me at the bait shop if you need any pointers.”
The image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at //commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hangmans_Noose.jpg under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.