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The hair is unmistakable: old-fashioned Russian hair, swept back from the forehead, thickly and unusually abundant. Leonard stands on the rug a meter from the television screen to see more closely. The video footage is grainy and unsteady, purposefully amateur. The man reading the prepared statement in the curtained room does not mean to be recognized. Indeed, he has masked his face to the bridge of the nose with what appears to be a child’s scarf. His voice, crudely distorted on the sound track, is childlike too. He wears sunglasses, deﬁantly unfashionable E-clips, ten years old at least. The light beam from the camera is lasered at his chest and the lower half of his scarf, so that what little of the face can be seen—the ears, the eyebrows, and the forehead—is underlit and ghostly. But still the hair is unmistakable.
Leonard sits. He stands to ﬁnd the remote console. Sits again. He is breathless, and it is with a shaking hand that he clicks open an on-screen toolbar, pastes a password, enters “Personal Briefcase,” selects Menu, Archive, Album, Austin, and waits for the ﬁle of photographs to download. A hundred or so chattering thumbnails peel out of the icon and tile across the desktop. It is easy to spot the group of images he wants. They are indoor shots, ﬂash bright, and the only ones without an intense sapphire sky. Those days in Texas were almost cloudless. He highlights a single photograph with an archive date of 10-27-06 and expands it. And there they are, the three of them, posing side by side in Gruber’s Old Time BBQ, meat spread out across the table on butcher’s paper, with polystyrene tubs of pinto beans and coleslaw, and a line of bottles—Shiner Bocks. The room is blue with smoke and, he remembers, blue with swearing. He zooms in on the man to the left in the photograph and drags the expanded image up the screen so that it is parked next to the newscast box. It is only a few minutes before the video segment is repeated, and only a few seconds after it begins Leonard is able to freeze an image of the masked face. Now he can compare. He cannot tell exactly what he hopes to ﬁnd.
On the left, photographed without much care or interest eighteen years previously by the girl who cleared tables at Gruber’s, is Maxie, the big-smiled American son of Russian immigrants. That much is certain. His black mustache and beard were sparse and adolescent in those days. His hair, long on top, parted slightly to the right, was swept back over his ears, with just a few loose strands. He looked like the teenage Stalin in that famous early photograph that became the poster for the biopic in the early 2020s, Young Steel, unfeasibly handsome and intense. And on the right, snatched from the newscast, is the masked man, guarding his identity and ﬁlmed by whom? A comrade, colleague, accomplice? Neither of the images is well deﬁned—a frozen, hazy video clip and an overexpanded photo detail, a mosaic of pixels. The evidence is blurry at best. But Leonard is convinced. These two images, separated by almost eighteen years, are of the same man: the same swept-tundra look, the same wind-sculpted brow, the same off-center widow’s peak. No sign of balding yet, or gray. It’s Maxie, then. Maxie Lermon. Maxim Lermontov. On active service, evidently. His head at least has aged extremely well. His head has aged much better than Leonard’s own. Leonard’s hair is gray, a little prematurely. It is not abundant. As (almost) ever, Maxie has the edge on him.
Now Francine has come home. He hears her keys, the two sentinel notes of the house alarm, the impact of her bags on the hall ﬂoor, the clatter of her shoes, the squeak and whine of the lavatory door and the air extractor. He listens while she urinates, ﬂushes, rinses her hands, squeaks the door once more. Should he say anything about his disquieting discovery? he wonders, deciding no. But her not kissing him when she comes into the room, her not even pretending a smile, and him so disappointed, seeing her so pretty, makes him speak.
“See this,” he says.
Again he banks the images and places Maxie-masked and Maxie-young next to each other on the screen. “What do you think? Are they the same man?”
“Probably.” She chin-tucks. Her Chinese teacup face, he calls it. The corners of her mouth are down. It means she is impatient, wants to get to bed. “Who is he, anyway?”
“This is the one”—he points—“who’s got those hostages. You haven’t seen the news?” She doesn’t even shake her head. What does he think a teacher does all day? “This one. . . well, he’s someone I used to know. In America.” Again he chatters thumbnails across the screen. “See, look, that’s me. In Austin. Almost twenty years ago.”
“You eating meat?”
“Boy, I should say. What is that place, an abattoir?”
Maxie is still talking to the camera, though after Francine has gone upstairs to bed the telescreen is muted to a whisper. He is repeating his demands and suggesting a way—some government concessions, some troop withdrawals, safe transit to an airport, a ﬂight to somewhere he won’t specify—for “ﬁnishing this without mishap,” a word so much more menacing than bloodshed, say, or death, especially when spoken behind a mask and dark glasses, especially when deliberately mispronounced and with the slightly comic Yiddish inﬂection that Maxie is using to disguise his voice. Leonard shapes his hands ten centimeters from his stomach, miming his saxophone, and blows a pair of notes, three times, at the screen: Misch-app. Misch-app. Blood-sched.
The same reporter, accumulating coats and scarves as the evening gets chillier, updates every half hour, standing in the street ﬁfty meters from the house of hostages. The “suspects,” who took refuge “randomly” when ﬂeeing through the gardens after what the police are calling “a bungled incident,” have at least one handgun that has already been “discharged at ofﬁcers.” They might have more, she says. The broadcast helicopter shows a suburb darkening, the whirring siren lights of police, ambulance, and ﬁre brigade, and the orange glow of curtained houses. The garden trees and sheds and greenhouses become more formless as the night wears on. The hostages—no details for the moment—are being baby-sat by Maxie Lermon, as yet unrecognized, as yet unnamed.
Leonard ﬂattens the futon and fetches the guest duvet from the cupboard. He will not go upstairs tonight. Francine will already be asleep. Any noise he might—he’s bound to—make (he’s a slightly lumbering left-hander) will irritate her: the light switches, the bathroom taps, the ﬂoorboards and the mattress, the intricate percussion of getting into bed in a modern wooden house with its muttering, living materials. She needs more sleep than he does because she’s never quite asleep. She’s waiting for the phone to go, waiting to be woken by the phone, dreaming of it so persuasively that many times she has sat up abruptly in bed and reached out for the handset in an almost silent room. She lifts it, even, and only hears the dial tone and her own somersaulting heart.
Leonard could pick up the telephone at any time to offer information to the police. He knows he should. Identify the unidentiﬁed. Supply a name. Provide intelligence. But it is already late and Leonard is still trembling. It has been a tense and shocking day, and he is too tired and troubled for anything except retreat. It has gone midnight. Everybody will be sleeping now, or trying to. The police, the comrades, the hostages. Leonard will be sleeping soon, still dressed, on his futon, so frequently his bed these days, the television ﬂickering, Francine unreachable upstairs. Tomorrow he should phone. He will phone. He will never phone. He does his best to sleep.