Gabe was a strange kid, no doubt about it. He was fourteen, almost fifteen, and had only just entered adolescence. He was a remarkable artist, entirely self-taught, and he spent most of his time—when he wasn’t reading comic books—doing panel drawings with an ultrafine black pen. He was scary-smart, brilliant at math and science, and he affected a world-weary cynicism. But every once in a while a crack would appear in his brittle shell, and you’d catch a fleeting glimpse of the little boy. He didn’t seem to have any close friends. They called him a dork and a nerd at school, he told me once, and I felt bad about what he must be going through. Adolescence was hard enough for a normal kid.
Listen,” I said. “There was once this legendary French acrobat named Charles Blondin, okay? He was famous in the nineteenth century for doing these impossible daredevil tightrope-walking stunts. He strung a rope across Niagara Falls, a thousand feet long. And this crowd gathered and he walked on the tightrope over the falls, hundreds of feet above the gorge, and the crowd went crazy when he got to the other side, clapping and cheering.” Gabe gave me a skeptical glance. “Yeah?” “And then he said to the crowd, ‘Do you believe I can do it again?’ and the crowd cheered, ‘Yes!’ And he did it. And the crowd cheered even louder, and he said, ‘Do you believe I can do it wearing a blindfold?’ And some people in the crowd got scared and shouted, ‘No, don’t do it,’ and others said, ‘Yes! You can do it!’” “And he fell,” Gabe said. I shook my head. “He did it, and the crowd cheered even louder, and he said, ‘Do you believe I can do it on stilts this time?’ And the crowd shouted out, “Yes! You can do it!’ And he did it, and the crowd roared and got even wilder. So then he said, ‘Do you believe I can do it pushing a wheelbarrow along the rope?’ And the crowd roared and cheered and said, ‘Yes!’ And Blondin said, ‘You really think I can? You believe it?’ And they shouted, ‘Yes! Yes, you can!’ ” Despite himself, despite his teenage cynicism, he was actually listening. For a moment he almost seemed to be a child again, listening to a bedtime story. “Is this true?” “Yes.” “He actually did it?” “Yep. He did it. He walked across the tightrope hundreds of feet above the gorge pushing a wheelbarrow, and when he made it to the other side the audience had grown huge and frenzied and totally worked up and they cheered. Really went crazy. So Blondin said, ‘Do you believe I can do it again but this time pushing a man in this wheelbarrow?’ And the crowd roared and said, ‘Yes!’ He said, ‘You really believe I can do it?’ And they all went, ‘Yes, definitely! You can do it! We believe in you! Yes! Absolutely!’ By that time the crowd was completely behind him. They thought he could do anything. So Blondin said, ‘Then who will volunteer to sit in the wheelbarrow?’ And the crowd suddenly went quiet. Totally silent. And he said, ‘What’s the matter? You don’t believe in me anymore?’ And they were silent for a long time before someone from the crowd finally said, ‘Yes, we believe in you. But not that much.’ ” “Huh. Did anyone ever volunteer to get in the wheelbarrow?” I shrugged. “How’d the guy die?” “In bed. Forty years later. From diabetes.
The most I could do was to mull over several different hypotheses. Think them through, turn them over and over and try to calculate which one was the most likely. What I eventually settled on was something like this: my ever-scheming, ever-dissatisfied, megalomaniacal brother had finally discovered a way out of his middle-class purgatory. After his company, Gifford Industries, had secretly acquired Paladin Worldwide, he’d combed through Paladin’s financial records, come across evidence of some mammoth kickback scheme, and made the brazen error of trying to extort millions of dollars from Carl Koblenz, Paladin’s president. But instead of simply buying Roger’s silence, Paladin had come right back at him. Threatened him. Targeted him. Then, one night in Georgetown, grabbed him. After that, well, my hypothesis got even shakier. Had he managed to escape his abductors? That seemed awfully unlikely. Roger was no super-hero. Was he being held prisoner at the Paladin training facility in Georgia in such a lax, loose way that he was actually able to use a cell phone? That was only marginally more likely.
The guy standing behind him—cute, dark-haired, the innocent face of a boy and the body of a linebacker—looked barely thirty. “How’s it going?” he said, smiling, and she couldn’t help smiling back. They each took out leather badge holders and flipped them open. She saw only a flash of gold, a glint of silver. The older one sat slowly, gingerly, on the only chair, as if he had a bad back. “How are you feeling, Mrs. Heller?” His partner went scrounging for another chair from somewhere beyond the blue curtains, the boundaries of her world.