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Michael Shaw has learned much in his two years with Redwing, and not just because the company pays for professional development. Being in close daily contact with Ivan Ostrovsky means exposure to a degree of sophistication and experience he’d only dreamed of growing up Webster City, Iowa. On his first day of work Michael had listened in astonishment as his boss negotiated in three languages during a conference call. On day three Michael witnessed his boss puzzle over a personal letter, then move a piece on his onyx and alabaster chess set. That’s when Michael started keeping a work journal.

Mr. Ostrovsky speaks at least five languages like a native, and has books in a few Michael can’t even identify. He’s an excellent chess player and can ride a horse, fly a small plane, fence, and imitate voices with unsettling skill. Michael discovered the last one when the old man had done a perfect impression of President Reagan, causing the assistant to choke with laughter. Mr. Ostrovsky seems to know everything there is to know about military history and has a broad understanding of fine art, international travel and cuisine, and classic philosophy. He makes casual references to hunting and fighting that make Michael think that the urbane Mr. O may have had a wild and adventurous youth.

What his boss doesn’t know is just as interesting. Ostrovsky’s grasp of American history is confined to military and political events, although his knowledge makes up for in depth what it lacks in breadth. He appears to have read very little modern fiction or have any interest in popular culture. He has season tickets to the opera but avoids Broadway. He knows motorcycles, but has never ridden a bicycle. He’s been to several White House events, but has never attended a birthday party. Michael’s abilities had been tested by Ostrovsky’s requests to explain “homecoming” and “hand turkey” but luckily he has a knack for explaining things in a way the boss finds amusing.

As Michael applies his pearl-handled penknife to the latest package from Andromeda Video, he’s reminded of one of Mr. Ostrovsky’s more startling admissions: apparently he hadn’t seen a motion picture until he was nearly thirty. He’d mentioned it lightly, as if it were perfectly normal. Michael imagines that his employer was either too busy, or too poor, or maybe living in some backwater where cinema was unknown back then. Whatever the case, Mr. Ostrovsky has made up for it since. He wouldn’t be caught dead in a Blockbuster, but he buys a dozen or so every month, and twice a year the rejects go to the second floor break room so Redwing’s lower echelon employees can help themselves.

Eight months into Michael’s employment Mr. Ostrovsky turned over most of the responsibility for choosing movies, and so far it’s working. As Michael has written in his diary, Mr. O enjoys a good adventure story and thoughtful science fiction. War movies and crime stories have to be excellent or the boss starts grumbling and pointing out plot holes. Same with horror; he loved Frankenstein and watches it regularly, but turned up his nose at Son of Frankenstein. Comedies are the most tricky as Ostrovsky only appreciates the darkest of the dark, movies that Michael personally finds creepy and unsettling. He likes Hitchcock, Kurosawa and Powell. Lately he’s been catching up on the classic films from the teens to the thirties. He also likes to be surprised now and then, which is how an obscure Swedish silent about the golem and Catch-22 ended up in the permanent collection.

This lot of movies is a good mix: Anatomy of a Murder, The Mummy, Monsier Verdoux, Alien, The Little Foxes, Night of the Living Dead, After Hours, Saboteur, and a strange new film from England. The last was something Mr. Ostrovsky had specifically requested. Michael hasn’t read any reviews, but the cover art is intriguing, all black and gold; The Yellow Mark. It looks interesting. Michael makes a mental note to ask if it’s any good.

 

***

Sometimes Ivan Ostrovsky yearns for someone to burst through the door and shout, “We have you now, Colonel!” There’s a Glock 17 in a custom-made drawer in his desk, just in case. He’s only ever taken it out to clean it. The handful of people who suspect that he is Colonel Olrik can do nothing about it without running headlong into his personal wall of government protection. Except for one long-retired CIA man, there’s nobody who knows exactly why Ivan Ostrovsky is off-limits, but he is, for as long as he lives.

Ostrovsky doesn’t miss being pursued by law enforcement on literally every continent, not really. His life is still interesting, challenging even. It would be foolish to complain about being too comfortable at his age, especially when a lifetime of war wounds (as he chooses to think of them) has left him his share of aches and pains. The Redwing Building is not a gilded cage or a prison of his own making. That kind of thinking is a luxury for flippant people who’ve never been near a real prison, in Ostrovsky’s view. He’s spent time in a gulag, a few penitentiaries, innumerable holding cells, and far too many secret laboratories; don’t go whining to him about the horrors of a safe, luxurious life.

It is safe, especially now that he no longer goes into the field. It is luxurious, from the fireplace in his office to the broad terrace in the penthouse flat that tops the Redwing Building, a building he owns, albeit through a corporate entity. Striking out as a private defence contractor after he’d put in his allotted time with the CIA had been a massive gamble. He’d thrown every bit of wealth, will, and effort he had into Redwing, at an age when most men are preparing for retirement. Ostrovsky had led the security missions himself the first year, rations, combat showers, musty cots and all. Unlike earlier bets on the likes of Basam Damdu, Voronov, and Georgevitch this one had paid off. He’d had the good luck and insight to get into the business just as the use of mercenaries was exploding. Redwing had grown exponentially the first two years, from one hundred rough soldiers and a handful of well-trained officers to a crack force of more than a thousand, plus support staff from clerks to cooks. Today Redwing is, well, still tiny for a defence contractor - only six thousand employees - but that’s as many as most colonels command. “The Black Bird” has earned its place in the industry and has a good reputation for flexibility, quick responses, and reliability, especially in rescue and surveillance operations. Even the big players have to admit that when it comes to human intelligence, Redwing can compete with anyone.

This is a particularly American kind of success. Ostrovsky came from the nowhere and rose high and fast. In this land of democracy and equality, his rumoured aristocratic background is a huge asset, and nobody cares about his shadowy past, especially not after he was invited to the Reagan White House. He has his own army, literally, and nobody thinks this is strange. The Redwing building is a castle if you squint at the mid-century architecture. He doesn’t have acres of farmland and forest, but New York real estate is an every-growing investment. Like his wealthiest ancestors, Ostrovsky does very little menial work. Unlike them, he has only two personal attendants: Michael Shaw organizes his time and arranges for haircuts, car maintenance, art auctions and the like. He even chooses films on tape, sparing Ivan the labour of scanning through catalogues. Mrs. Katz is at the flat four days a week to cook and tidy, and supervise the invisible army of gardeners and cleaners who make his home a showplace. He doesn’t need a valet or a butler and while he knows people in apartments with live-in help, it strikes him as ridiculous. No flat, however impressive, has the privacy and dignity of a great house. Besides, his staff are attached to the company, not the land, and can leave at will. They’re not serfs or peasantry. They’re responsible for themselves and Ivan likes it that way. There will be no internal revolution, and barring a disaster out of nowhere, the company can’t be taken from him.

Ostrovsky reflects on his situation as he watches dusk fall. People are chattering and shifting furniture in the outer offices. How lucky that after a lifetime of gunfire and explosions his hearing remains undamaged. Too bad the same can’t be said of his neck and shoulder. The weather must have changed suddenly because both are throbbing. There are still important matters to decide, but that’s the kind of work that can be done in a hot bath. He buzzes his secretary and almost before he’s finished speaking Michael is there with dry-cleaning in one hand and a heavy leather tote in the other. He and Myrtle Chang must have a psychic connection, or perhaps he’s grown predictable in his old age.

Michael leads the way, the bodyguard brings up the rear. It’s a new man, William Fordyce, and so far Ivan likes his style. On the way, Ostrovsky entertains the thought of his imaginary “see here, colonel” fellow trying to get to his office. He’d most likely be tackled before he got to the front desk, but if he made it past the first line there are a dozen armed men just like Fordyce in the way. Hell, Michael would throw himself on an attacker and his only weapon is a day planner. Anyone who tried attacking from above or outside would soon realize that the Redwing building is as fortified as Fort Knox. Even the flat has a small armoury and a safe room, but Ostrovsky is thinking of having that converted to a housekeeping office. There just isn’t enough danger in the world.

Mrs. Katz is happy to see them, as always. Like Myrtle, Lynda Katz has a bond with Michael. Ivan suspects that they discuss him and alert each other to his moods. That’s to be expected. It’s been the same in every army he’s served with, every government, every gang; good underlings watch out for each other. Michael goes straight to the bedroom to put away the dry cleaning, two suits and a dinner jacket. Ivan no longer dresses for dinner at home, but that’s no reason to be unprepared. When was the last time he wore it? There was Die Walküre at the Met in September, so four months. That’s a bit too long even for a busy man. He’d skipped every holiday party and event. Hell, he’d barely left the building, such were the demands of the business. Things should slow down soon, though. He’d been able to bring on Browning, an old colleague from his days with The Company, and Doris Huttering is proving to be surprisingly cut-throat and creative. He makes a mental note to actually look at the invitations that Michael sets before him next time.

“Mr. Ostrovsky? I have your schedule ready for review. I’ll just wait here?” Michael says, dragging his attention to the here and now.

Ostrovsky waves him away and changes his suit for flannel trousers and a sweater. On the way to meet Michael he overhears Fordyce and Mrs. Katz talking. Apparently the weather is terrible and she’s made coq au vin. Fordyce will be back in ninety minutes to escort her downstairs to the car that will return her to her home in Staten Island, just as always. Michael was offered the same perk, but he refused, insisting that he enjoys the subway.

Michael has the list of meetings and events for tomorrow ready: mission updates, financial projections, plans for an upcoming meeting in Virginia; nothing unusual except for a presentation on creating a dedicated development facility. Michael has picked up the first volume of Eisenhower at War and the latest shipment of movies is in. He’s started to enjoy movies more and more since the advent of home video players, and despite his resolution to get out more, this weekend seems perfect for staying in.

Ostrovsky picks up a tape at random. Ah, there is it, that warning tremor in his gut. It’s very slight, but how infuriating that a mere symbol could trigger him, a symbol on a few ounces of plastic and mylar at that. He takes a good, long look. It doesn’t burn his fingers. It doesn’t bite. It’s a striking logo, but loses must of its impact when reduced to a few inches. Maybe he should be glad about the reaction; it shows that his old instincts are still there, however blunted.

“That one looks interesting. Sci-fi, I think.” Michael says, as he scoops up the remaining videos and waits, expectantly.

“Sci-fi. Adventure. It’s by the fellow who made that preachy dystopian film.”

Brazil. That movie gave me nightmares.”


“I thought it was rather funny. I’m curious to see what he does with the subject matter. The film is loosely based on historic events.”

“Really? I had no idea.”

Of course Michael has no idea. It’s all history now, and few Americans pay attention to history. Besides, the official accounts of the Yellow Mark crimes stripped away all references to the real technology, the alien encounter, treason, and the true identity of the “monster” who terrorized London. No doubt the director has taken further liberties. Why is Michael looking at him expectantly?

“Sorry, sir. I asked if you wanted me to cue it up for you.”

“No. You can put them away. But leave the book on the side table.”

Ivan pours himself a pre-dinner gin and tonic and readies a second for Mrs. Katz, who is fussing over Michael. She’s given him a bag of something, probably the biscotti she made yesterday. Ivan enjoys a well-made confection now and then, but there’s no way he can keep up with Mrs. Katz’s baking. No doubt Michael will share them with the boyfriend Ivan isn’t supposed to know about. Maybe he should extend company benefits to same sex couples; it would be no skin off his nose and could get some good press. Benefits! Again he is struck by the difference between these American employees and the servant class of the old country. Ivan finds it all amusing; under any name he’s always prided himself on his adaptability.

He finishes the drink and waves as Michael heads out the door. Mrs. Katz takes the glass and informs him that dinner will be served in fifteen minutes. Good. After dinner he’ll take a hot bath and think about the new lab. Then bed and a book. It’s tempting to plunge straight into The Yellow Mark, if only to get it over with, but he knows from past experience that any reminder of that episode interferes with his sleep, and he needs to be sharp for tomorrow.