God, he hated this job.
Ken Parker fastened two cords across the sweaty man's chest. He tested the cords' tension by pulling them taut.
"I'm a little nervous." The man was sweating even more.
"Roll up your left sleeve."
The man obliged. Quickly.
Poor bastard. What did the guy do to deserve this kind of treatment? Probably nothing. He was the last of five people Ken had seen that afternoon, and he seemed decent enough.
It didn't matter.
Ken placed a blood pressure gauge around the man's arm. Velcro fasteners held the wrap. He squeezed the bulb and pumped it up. The man's eyes bulged with each squeeze.
Ken looked at his polygraph. Lie detector. Truth teller. About the size of a small copying machine, it sat on a metal stand in the center of his shabby office. He'd always thought it was a scary-looking device. Which was probably the point. It was stark, angular, and boxy, with quivering, trembling needles that left jagged lines on the slowly rolling graph paper.
The nervous interviewee, one Carlos Valez, sat in an uncomfortable straight-backed chair. Can't have these people feeling at ease. No. Gotta keep 'em on edge. Nervous. Scared. Make 'em believe. Then maybe they'll fess up and bare their souls. If they believe this stuff works, maybe it really will.
Ken wrapped a perspiration sensor around Carlos's index finger. The man was dripping. His heart was pounding. Ken stepped back and took a good long look at his interviewee. Carlos was a wreck. Just the way he was supposed to be.
Ken reminded himself to find a new line of work.
"Why are you nervous? You're not going to lie to me, are you?"
"No, I'm just afraid"
Ken plopped into his chair and rolled over to a cluttered desk. "You're afraid the lie detector is going to say you're lying when you're really not."
Ken didn't look up, but he imagined Carlos was nodding in response. That short, jerky, frightened nod he had seen too many times. He didn't need to see it again, so he continued to search his desk. Damn, there were a lot of bills there. He didn't think he was that far behind. And this phone number ... Was this the woman who...? No, probably not. He finally picked up a pack of playing cards.
"Don't worry. We're going to do a little test here." He rolled back to Carlos and fanned out the deck. "Take a card."
"Take a card, any card."
Carlos reached over and his shaking hand hovered above the cards for a moment. His fingernails were dirty, and large, knobby calluses were peeling from his knuckles. He selected a card.
Ken put the rest of the deck away. "Okay, Carlos. I want you to lie to me."
"Lie to me. Look at your card and say no to every question I ask. We're going to calibrate the machine to your responses. Ready?"
Carlos replied with a vague shrug. Ken flipped on the polygraph and thumped it, shaking the sensitive needles slightly. The large roll of graph paper turned slowly, moving beneath the oscillating needles.
It recorded Carlos's every breath.
Every drop of sweat.
Ken leaned over his machine with the authority of a scientist. If they believe this stuff works, maybe it really will....
"Okay. Is it a face card?"
"Is it a number card?"
Ken studied the graph paper. "All right. It's a face card, isn't it?"
The sensitive needles jumped sharply, indicating Carlos's startled reaction.
"Is it a king?"
"Is it a queen?"
"Is it a jack?"
"Is it an ace?"
Ken uncapped a felt-tipped pen and made a mark next to one of the indicator lines.
"Okay, let's talk about suit. Is it clubs?"
"Is it spades?"
"Is it hearts?"
"Is it diamonds?"
Ken looked up. "You have the queen of hearts."
Once again the needles jumped sharply. Carlos swallowed hard and revealed his card.
The queen of hearts.
Ken nodded. "Great. You're what we call an easy read. A lie detector's wet dream. You can stop worrying."
Carlos could not take his eyes off the smiling queen.
Ken put the card away. "Okay. Let's get started. Your employer wants me to ask you about some missing video equipment...."
Springtime in Atlanta. Ken welcomed the arrival of warm weather, but the humidity sapped his energy. Less than an hour after giving the polygraph exam, he lingered around his favorite park, ostensibly stretching, but really deciding if he wanted to run the three miles today.
Never in his thirty-four years had he felt the need to exercise for the sake of exercise alone. He had always been active, and he enjoyed most of the sports he had tried. He kept a lean, athletic build long after most of his high school friends had porked out and gained an additional chin or two. But it always felt good to unwind here after a day of putting people on the hot seat. It was getting harder, not easier, to inflict his polygraph on the nervous souls who paraded through his office, and Ken often found himself finishing the day with his stomach in knots.
As he continued his stretches-cum-procrastination dance, he looked toward the cluster of skyscrapers that was downtown Atlanta. It seemed to be changing all the time. A real city. Not one infested with the redneck country music and lazy drawls the movies liked to portray, but a real honest-to-goodness international city. He had lived in and around Atlanta since he was twelve, yet he did not have an accent. Neither did most of his friends. The New South.
The late afternoon sun was disappearing behind the skyline, so he decided it was time to make his decision. Ah, hell. She'd be waiting for him. He started his run down the jogging path, as he ultimately did every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of each week.
In less than half a mile he saw Margot Aronson.
"Don't slow down!" Margot shouted as Ken approached. She zipped her fanny pack and merged into the path with him.
He looked at her as they ran side by side. Margot was one of the few sane people he knew. She was thirty-three, pretty, and getting prettier with each passing year. Her female friends hated her for that.
She kicked off the conversation. "Tell me about Arlene." Ken's love life was now a big topic of conversation between the two of them.
"Not much to tell. I see her only once every week or two. We have fun. Not much more to it than that."
He snorted as they rounded a bend in the path. Good old Margot. She still hoped he would find someone. Someone special. Someone like her, but not like her.
"There's not even that much of a present. You know, we've seen each other only a few times, here and there ... and she's sure she has me all figured out."
"You mean she hasn't?"
"After just a few dates?"
"What did she say?"
"She says I could never commit to her because I like her too much."
"Huh. Did she say you were a smartass?"
"Did she say you were stuck in a kind of extended adolescence, perhaps never to escape?"
Margot nodded. "You're right. She doesn't have you figured out."
Margot sprinted ahead.
They continued their run in silence, as was their custom. There would be plenty of time to catch up during the quarter-mile cooldown walk. Ken watched Margot running ahead of him. She was one of the few constants in a life that offered little in the way of stability. He hadn't known her during his high school glory days, when his grades were almost all A's and he led his football team to a state championship. Great days, Ken thought. What would Margot have thought of the person he was then?
He had his choice of half a dozen athletic scholarships, but instead took an academic scholarship to the University of Georgia, where he studied for two quarters until his father fell ill with a kidney disease.
The health insurance policy reached its cap in a matter of months, leaving the family in dire financial straits. In what was supposed to be a temporary move, Ken left school and took a job laying cable on the southern coast of Alaska.
He dutifully sent his paychecks home, but still the costs mounted. Fifteen months after entering the hospital, his father died, leaving behind over $140,000 in debts and medical expenses. Everyone had the same advice for his mother: Declare bankruptcy.
No way, Ken told her. His family always paid their debts. Though his mother pleaded with him to reconsider, he was determined to repay each and every cent.
When the Alaska job was completed, he worked on an oil rig, talking his mother out of the bankruptcy option with each phone call. It took him six and a half years, but he finally repaid the debts.
It was the right thing to do, he thought. Do the right thing and everything else will fall into place.
He returned home to find that his old friends had moved on with their lives, starting families and embarking on careers. But for him, with no scholarship and no money, returning to school was out of the question. After a few false starts, he finally found himself in the polygraph business, a field that required minimal training and low start-up costs.
But his finances had grown shaky since he started providing support for his younger brother, Bobby, who was laid up with a disease contracted in the Gulf War.