The sound of gunfire and flakes of brick shrapnel spur his race into the sewers. It could be mere minutes before Kendall and his men force the steel door open and he must get out of sight. Heedless of the damp, treacherous path, he pelts on taking every turn available until at last exhaustion takes over and he pauses to catch his breath.
Until an hour ago he was The Yellow Mark, the most feared man in London, slave and tool of the late Doctor Septimus. Now he is Olrik again, but a much-depleted version of himself. A wave of dizziness nearly knocks him to the ground but he manages to brace himself on the damp wall. It’s hard to think, but think he must or his freedom will be short-lived.
One thing, at least, is clear. He must get to the surface. Down below, there are no safe hiding places and he is becoming disoriented and hearing pursuers from every angle. Olrik resumes his journey, but more deliberately this time, checking for possible exits. Just as the distant sound of footsteps sends his heart lurching, he spots his escape route and pulls himself upward, cautiously lifting the sewer cover. With no watching eyes evident, Olrik scuttles out of the hole and carefully replaces the metal plate. He runs to the nearest alley and drops to his knees beside a crumbling plaster wall. The snow is falling in large, heavy flakes. His tracks will soon be covered. Olrik leans on the frigid wall for support as he catches his breath. With a gasp of disgust, he realizes that he’s wearing the ridiculous pullover with the huge Yellow Mark that Septimus found so amusing. Cursing himself for an idiot, Olrik yanks off the offensive garment, turns it inside out, and puts it back on. The cheap, snow-wet knit is horrible on his skin and offers little protection against the weather, but at least he’s no longer obviously branded.
Without shelter, he’ll perish, Olrik thinks as he starts back into the street. It’s so bitterly cold and he has no coat, hat, or gloves. He doesn’t even have a handkerchief to cover his face or wipe his streaming nose. What luck to be stranded on Christmas Eve! If he had even five shillings he could get a cab. If he could even find a cab, he could perhaps force… but no, he’s in no state for a hijacking. Hell, if he were well enough, he could walk the 12 miles to his London haven even without a coat, On a normal night, he might have had a chance of lifting a coat from a restaurant, snatching a wallet from an unwary drunk, but tonight nothing is open; bustling London is quiet.
Olrik spots a church at the end of the street. He peers through a narrow pane of glass in a side door and sees dozens of the city’s very poorest sleeping on the floor. The door is locked. For a moment, Olrik is very tempted to knock for admittance and take his chances, but trusting to other men is not his habit. He leans against the door and wonders how long it would take for someone to find him if he just let go and passed out on this damned step. Would waking up in jail be so bad? It’s a fleeting thought.
In a state of utter weariness, Olrik looks into the night, searching for he knows not what among the lamps, the ever-heavier snow, the empty storefronts. There’s a tobacconist’s right across the street. It would be easy to break in, Olrik thinks, but the chances of there being any cash on hand are slim. Still worth an effort, perhaps. With a start, Olrik realizes that the shop is familiar. He’s bought cigarettes there more than once. Dazed, he steps away from the church and looks up and down the street. Dear lord, he knows this area. In fact, unless yet another thing has gone terribly wrong, he has a bolt-hole nearby. Which way? He turns around twice to orient himself and the memory kicks in. Olrik starts half running, half-staggering yet again.
In fifteen minutes, he’s crouched behind a new but undistinguished brick block of shops and offices. With numb fingers Olrik pushes at one of the protruding bricks, then another. Please, oh please, let this be it. The third brick gives slightly. Olrik wiggles it free and fishes out two keys, one steel, the other brass, and immediately drops them into the snow. With whispered curses, he replaces the brick, and then digs for the keys. The larger of the two fits the plain steel safety door beside the delivery bay. Olrik is careful to lock it behind him as he steps into a completely dark passageway. He creeps up two flights of stairs as quietly as possible, feeling his way in the dark in silence, although the chances of anyone else being in the building are low. On the second floor, he takes the smaller key and opens what appears to be a storage closet.
The bolt-hole entrance is built rather like a darkroom. The outside door opens to what looks like a closet, well-used brooms and all, but there’s a hidden door at one side that leads into the actual apartment. No light can leak out, and the room is completely soundproofed. By now Olrik is trembling and on the edge of collapse. A voice in the back of his head warns him that it’s during moments like these that mistakes are made. Olrik forces himself to systematically lock the outer doors behind him and listen carefully before he takes another step. He reaches into a tiny alcove and pulls out a loaded pistol, then opens the main door.
The room is utterly quiet and smells musty. There’s a faint light coming from two tall, thin windows on the far side. Olrik steps over to the window, closes and bolts the steel interior shutters, and finally snaps on a few lights.
This particular hideout was built to his specifications, but Olrik is laying eyes on it for the first time. Olrik’s London legal counsel, Thomas Delaney, built it through an untraceable line of shell companies and sub-contractors. It’s a bit like a ship’s cabin, with little space wasted. There are shelves and built-in drawers along two walls. The furniture includes a table with two simple chairs, a rocker, and a solid couch that can double as a bed if need be. The real bed is in a heavily curtained alcove, flanked by shelves and backed by a wall hanging that covers a small, inconspicuous door that leads to an escape route between the walls. All the large items are covered with white, waxed cotton drop cloths. In one corner there is a kitchen in miniature, and beside it, a tiny but complete bathroom. There’s also a small television and a radio, but no telephone. The electricity and water are poached from neighboring tenants, but stealing phone service would draw attention.
Olrik takes a deep breath and walks into the bathroom. It has been well stocked with soap, towels, shaving equipment, even a manicure kit and tweezers. May God or Satan or whoever chooses to bless Delaney for thinking of everything. Olrik strips off his hateful costume and leaves it in a sodden heap on the floor. He steps into the shower and soaps up three times in an attempt to wash away the memory of Septimus’s hands and the hurt they inflicted.
Leaving the shower brings on the chill again, but it’s not as bad. Olrik towels off rapidly and hurries back into the main room. He musters the strength to make one last check of the security precautions, turns off the main light and yanks the bed covers aside enough to crawl in. The sheets feel cold against his skin and he hasn’t bothered to strip off the dust cover, but Olrik is past caring. He rolls slightly to each side to draw the bedclothes closer and begins counting backward from one hundred. He is asleep before fifty.
Many hours later, he awakes to the sound of bells. For a tense moment, Olrik lies still, waiting for Septimus’s command and the inevitable blow. It doesn’t come and Olrik realizes that he is safe – safe and free for the first time in a long, awful time. He isn’t even cold, which seems miraculous.
Olrik stretches and reluctantly limps out of bed, sore in every limb and joint. He explores the built-in storage areas along the walls, finding both practical clothes and disguise materials. There is a long mirror hanging inside the single narrow closet. “You look like death’s younger brother,” Olrik mutters to himself. He has lost, he estimates, a bit over a stone. His eyes and cheekbones have an unhealthy hollowness and he is covered with bruises and welts. Some are from his adventures as The Yellow Mark and others are from Septimus’s cursed whip, cane, and boots. Thank Christ the old freak wasn’t stronger, or he would have drawn blood more often.
Olrik slowly and carefully treats his wounds with supplies from a massive and comprehensive first-aid kit. He may have a few of these marks for the rest of his life, he thinks, but for Septimus life is over. This is not the first time Olrik has dealt death to someone who has hurt him, but he hopes to hell that it is the last. He slips on a pair of new trousers that gape at the waist, two pairs of socks, a brand-new undershirt and a heavy grey jumper. Olrik pulls the coverings from the furniture, folds them, and tucks them into one of the deep drawers near the floor. He makes the bed, military style as always, turns on the radio and risks opening the steel shutters a bit to let in some natural light. The snow has finally stopped falling, but it’s still fairly thick on the ground. Olrik decides that he won’t set foot outside until it’s gone if he can possibly help it.
The tiny kitchen is, as expected, well stocked, mostly with food to fit Delaney’s taste. The man is a bit of a glutton, a fault Olrik is more than ready to forgive at the moment. He puts water for coffee on the stove and searches for treasure. There are tins and packages of milk, fruit, soup, fish and meat, as well as sweet and savory biscuits, oatmeal porridge, a stock of strong drink, tea, coffee, preserves, sugar, and a parcel containing what, incredibly enough, proves to be a cake crammed with dried fruit and laced with brandy. Olrik prepares some porridge and laces both it and his coffee with sugar and evaporated milk, contrary to his usual custom. He sets the tiny table and eats like a gentleman, with only the radio for company.
Of course, there is news of the recovery of the Crown Jewels, but his name does not come up. Apparently, M15 is happy to let the public believe that the culprit is dead and the affair of over. Actually, that is the case. Olrik reflects that he is probably not technically guilty of the crimes he committed as The Yellow Mark. If there was even a chance that he would ever be tried, he could reasonably plead temporary insanity. Blake and Mortimer are, damnably, the heroes of the day, and there is much talk of honors and patriotism and the general superiority of everything British. Fortunately, this is Christmas day, and the annoying talk gives way to music as the stations run at half-staff.
Olrik spends his Christmas Day in a languorous state of relief and exhaustion. Delaney has, inexplicably, included a shelf of classic literature in his arrangements; good, wholesome fare suitable for the whole family, just the sort of thing one expects to find in a gangster’s lair. There is no question that Delaney is a brilliant planner, but he has his eccentricities. Olrik takes Robinson Crusoe back to the rocking chair and reads it until he gets to Friday’s appearance. Crusoe is too much like Septimus for comfort, so he switches to the Alice books, which are new to him. Sometimes he thinks about his ordeal in the desert and his terrible time with Septimus, sometimes he thinks about his next steps. He tends his injuries, paces the tiny room to stretch his aching limbs, and eats strange meals of cake and soup, chutney and cheese biscuits. He collapses on the bed or in the rocking chair and has horrible dreams.
Nearly a week goes by before Olrik feels strong enough to make a move. The morning of New Year’s Eve, he disposes of The Yellow Mark’s outfit in the building’s furnace and makes an inventory of all the supplies he’s used and other items that should be added to the stores. Next, he tidies the space, replaces the drop cloths and the gun, and packs the soiled laundry into a shabby suitcase.
His disguise for the journey is a brown suit that has seen better days, a cheap raincoat, and a sad felt hat. With a graying mustache and sideburns, an undecorated cane, and a pair of tortoiseshell glasses, he looks like a convalescent soldier, or perhaps a shopkeeper about to enter bankruptcy. A stoop to take three inches off his height and a slight limp complete the effect.
It’s not a long journey, but he takes a circuitous route and makes several stops along the way, blending in with shoppers and celebrants. By the time his last cab reaches West Wimbledon, he’s laden with shopping bags and the sun has long since set. Olrik walks the last few block to a smart, well-maintained building of fashionable flats. His appearance attracts little notice beyond a few supercilious glances from partygoers who have no idea that they’re looking at their landlord.
The flat on the top floor has the sterile aspect of uninhabited places, but the few furnishings are elegant and comfortable. These rooms are the closest Olrik has to a real home in England. He’s never done anything criminal or even shady under the name “Geoffrey Ross”. The books on the shelves were picked up over many years, and while the artwork is worth a small fortune, each piece is something he loves to look at, not a mere investment. Olrik ditches his current disguise and puts away the groceries and toiletries he purchased that afternoon. He opens a window to let in air and starts a fire because he feels like it.
Olrik mixes three fingers of the finest gin available over ice and adds a bit of tonic. He relaxes in his favorite chair. He looks outside the open window and notes that it has started snowing again; huge composite flakes, just like the night of his escape. Olrik’s hands tremble. He sets the glass down and holds his head in his hands. The shaking spreads to his entire body and he has to force himself to take long, slow breaths until it stops.
When the spell is over, Olrik takes a long sip. To hell with it, he thinks. He has been through worse. He will not be beaten. Septimus is dead. He will finish this drink and that will be it for tonight. He will not become dependent on drink or pills. No doctor will ever have power over him again. He will eat a good dinner and go to bed early. Doubtlessly he will wake many times with nightmares and there will be many more episodes like this one. To hell with it. Tomorrow he will slip into the skin of Mr. Ross and prepare to receive visitors. Mr. Ross always has callers when word spreads that he’s between travels. He will take a brisk walk, whatever the weather. He will call his broker, write to Delaney, and resume contacts with former business associates who enjoy diplomatic immunity. He will devote this week to finding some quick, one-man job. He will rob the courier or frame the ambassador or snatch the Duchess’s letters; whatever it takes to get back in the game. Whatever it takes, he will survive and he will be strong; and if someone hurts him again, that person will die. Septimus is dead, but Olrik is alive and while his heart still beats, he will fight. There is no alternative. There never has been.