Curse of the Kohinoor

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Part One of the Untied Kingdom series

1 November 2019 – 16:30

Tower of London

Duleep Singh and his posse swaggered up to the last Tower of London tour of the day. The tour guide fidgeted with his cuff links as he cast his eyes over the group. The sun had just set and the light was failing. The Tower looked almost lovely in this final hour of light. The gloaming.

Duleep looked up the length of White Tower, Britain’s own Fort Knox. Three hundred meters of white brick over an invisible steel skeleton holding the finest stolen treasures of the Empire.

The Tower was in the middle of its annual clean presided over by the ravens who croaked and cawed in disapproval or encouragement. Each team of labourers was working from the Tower roof downward on suspended gantries. The Tower’s stern brick visage was lighter in the wake of their passage. The labourers wore high-pressure-washer backpacks, looking like a team of ghostbusters.

The last lot of the day was a small group: Americans, two European tourists, probably enjoying the last of their unfettered access to Britain before Brexit, and a local-looking chap in a bunnet.

The weary-looking pasty-faced American family of four: mom, dad, pouty teenaged girl and five-year-old boy. “Is this where they used to execute people Dad?” The bright-eyed boy asked.

“Yes, Travis.” Weary-looking Dad replied.

The tour guide gave Duleep and his best friends Frances Mukerjee and Adnan Patel a once over taking in their Burberry-plaid zippered onesies and bright yellow turbans as though they were a just tolerated insult. The guides’ eyes flicked two o’clock high and seven, one and ten o’clock low neatly giving away the positions of the guards. As though their comical red leather jerkins and short white ruffs didn’t do a good enough job already. Snigger at the fancy costume all you like. These guards were still packing Heckler-Koch machine guns and had a hundred years of military service between them.

“All right, bunch up, bunch up!” The tour guide beckoned them group forward with a double handed grasping motion. “Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the Tower of London. The high point of your tour of old London town for there are no places so steeped in history as this former palace.” He paused dramatically.

With practised ease the guide walked backward so he could face his group and still draw them forward.

“The Tower of London has been many things in its long and colourful history.”

“Executions!” piped up Travis.

The guide acknowledged the boy’s enthusiasm with a smile and rolled on with his patter.

“A royal palace, a zoo, a prison. And now it houses the finest treasure on Earth – the Royal Jewels. The Royal Jewels consist of the regalia of State, the sword and sceptre used to open each session of the British parliament and the crowns that Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second wears during occasions of state. Lucky you, the Crown Jewels are all present at the moment. The Prime Minister, Mr Boris Johnson has just prorogued parliament. And so the crown jewels will remain here until the Parliament re-convenes, whenever that may be.”

“Pro-rogued? Does that mean closed? Parliament is our next stop,” said the American Dad.

“Sir,” the tour guide replied, “the Parliament building is open, but the Parliament itself, the gathering of the representatives of the peoples of Britain has been suspended for the time being due to the ongoing negotiations.”

“What negotiations?”

“Brexit…” said one of the Europeans. He was probably Swedish judging by his t-shirt with anti-establishment slogans, cargo parts and Birkenstocks. His blonde dreadlocked girlfriend was texting busily beside him.

“Brexit! Darn right …” the bunnet-wearing moustachioed man of middling years said in a Birmingham accent. “Best thing that useless lot in Parliament ever managed to not quite do. Take back our sovereignty of law and kick out all those blasted immigrants.”

“Right on pops,” Duleep agreed, “kick those lazy arse immigrants out. How dare they come over here stealing our jobs and eating the swans.”

“Bastards,” bristled the Brummie with a nod of agreement.

“Immigrants are eating the swans?” asked the American teenaged girl with sudden interest.

“Yes young lady,” the Brummie replied, “And a great insult it is to the law-abiding tradition-upholding salt-of-the-earth what let them in. The swans of England all belong to Her Majesty.” He faced the Union Jack fluttering from the Tower and saluted.

“Well, hasn’t she got enough to eat already? Ya know … being the richest woman in the world?”

“That is not the point, my dear.” The Brummie replies, “As a result of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 when the very ill-advised government of the day wedded the future and fortunes of this country to those of Europe, this country was flooded with the grandchildren of the very people we fought against in the War.” He spoke as if he had been there.

“You tell ‘em Pops.” Duleep winked at the American lass. Her sullen act did not quite cover a pique in her interest. “Damn white Europeans taking jobs of hard-working natives like us.” He cheerfully directed the statement to the Swedes and created a small group of Britons with a nodded headcount of himself, Frances and Adnan, the flat-capped Brummie and the tour guide. “Clogging up the National Health Service with their sore throats and malignant tumours. It’s a disgrace I tell you. I pay my taxes. And if the bird-burgling immigrants are hungry, they’re welcome to the bloody ravens.”

“Not all of them,” said the tour guide sternly.

“Why?” asked Travis.

“Because young man,” explained the Brummie, “There is a legend that the Kingdom of England will fall if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London.”

“Bet you’re hanging on tight to them right now,” said the Swedish girl with a sly smile.

“Precautions have always been in place against such an eventuality.” interjected the tour guide.

The tour guide snapped around with the precision of a soldier on drill drawing the bulk of the group with him, “This way please.”

He headed for the doorway of the White Tower with the Brummie and young Travis close upon his heels. The story of the two young princes who had died in tower flowed from his lips, whipped away by the chill breeze from the Thames.

“I’m Duleep Singh,” he put out his hand to the American girl, who after a moment took it as though she expected him to kiss it.

“I’m Quinn,” she covered her disappointment well.

“Nice to meet you Quinn.”

“Frances, Adnan, give us some space, yeah?” His two mates grinned and moved further forward into the tour group.

“You up for it yeah?” Duleep asked.

“Pardon me?” replied Quinn looking around for her parents.

“You up for seeing the biggest diamond in the world?”

“Oh yeah,” she smiled.

“The Koh-i-noor. That’s what my people call it. The Mountain of Light.”

“They took it from you, didn’t they?” She gestured with a nod to the lecturing tour guide and his trotting Brummie pal.

“Yeah. They took it from a ten-year-old boy after a really one-sided fight.”

“Isn’t there a curse on it?”

“Yeah,” he seemed impressed, “it’s woman’s thing. Any man who wears it dies.”

“Do you believe that?”

“Sure I do! Self-fulfilling prophesy and all that. Everyone dies. Just a matter of when, innit.” Duleep winked. The tour guide was wrapping up his spiel about the Union of the Crown in 1707 forging the new country of Britain from the two ancient kingdoms of Scotland and England.

Quinn smiled, “Do you think it’s true that the Queen is dead and they’re not announcing it because of Brexit?”

“Nope, that old stick ain’t dead. But she ain’t dancing neither.”

“You’re not a fan then?”

“Pftt … richest woman in the world, doesn’t pay any taxes of her own, but takes money out of ours.”

“What?” said Quinn disbelieving.

“It’s called the Civil List. First thing I’m banning when I’m Prime Minister.” Duleep said with a wink.

“Seriously? The richest woman in the world spends your taxes? And wears the largest diamond in the world which was stolen from a ten-year-old boy.”

“Yep.” Duleep held Quinn’s eye. An untold secret stretched the moment out.

“What?” Quinn asked.

“Well, don’t tell nobody. But me and my boys, we’re going to get it back.”

Quinn snorted in disbelief.

“It’s true girlfriend. That ten-year-old emperor was also called Duleep Singh. My mum named me after him and she told me every day that it is my destiny to bring the Mountain of Light back to India. I’ve been planning for this moment my whole life.”

Quinn’s eyes darted left and right as though looking for an ambush. “For real?”

“That’s right, jannu. My people have a saying – ‘First the destiny is written, then the body is created.’”

Quinn looked impressed and a bit scared.

“Remember our names Quinn, because we won’t be in the papers after this. Duleep Singh, Frances Mukerjee and Adnan Patel are going down in as big names in a secret history.”

“Wow. Okay. Good luck then.”

“Won’t need it Quinn, but thanks.”

Drawn in by the intimacy of a conspiracy, Quinn jutted ahead of Duleep and trotted up the stairs of the White Tower after her family. The gloom outside the Tower was replaced by the gloom within. Feet trotted up winding stairs, grunts of exertion and calls between separated family members. Frances, the tallest of the three Sikhs did a jump and touch, neatly knocking the camera an inch to the right.

“Wow!” Travis called out. And there it was, the Koh-i-noor, the Mountain of Light, the largest diamond in the world set in a squat crown. A cap of purple velvet caged by slender diamond-crusted arms joining at the top in an iron cross hidden behind another enormous diamond. The magnificence and power radiated upon them. The unfairness of its acquisition drowned out by its own beauty.

Wow, Quinn mouthed silently hugging her five-year-old brother from behind. Their faces were reflected in the glass, a pair of awestruck ghosts. Behind them, their parents exchanged a chaste kiss.

Silence fell upon the tour group. Respectful and reverential. The bristling Brummie removed his flat cap and placed it over his heart, standing at attention.

Duleep, Frances and Adnan held a deeper silence. They looked upon their stolen birthright. The sight cemented their cause.

Duleep broke the spell with back-handed slaps to the chests of Adnan and Frances. The Burberry-onesie-clad yellow-turban-wearing trio left the display first, trotting down the narrow stairs and ducking under a rope to a side staircase. Three minutes later the averted camera picked up three Asian men in Burberry onesies and bright yellow turbans joining the back of the tour group leaving the Tower. The texting Swedish girl looked twice at them, scowled and returned to her phone. Quinn spotted them as doubles and gave them a small wave.

“Is the crown real, Quinn?” asked Travis taking her hand.

“Sure it’s real Travis. But it might be a ‘Santa’ kinda real. You know, maybe other crowns help out when the original crown is tired or busy.” Travis nodded brightly and transferred to their mother as their father tipped the grinning tour guide.

Inside the White Tower Duleep, Frances and Adnan in their night-camo unpacked their gear. They listened to the sounds of the Tower of London closing for the night. The beefeaters outside changed their shift with the customary challenge and response. They were in a small half-circle antechamber in front of a vault door.

“Gear check,” said Duleep to Frances.

“Six grappling guns” Frances handed out a pair each. They secured the grappling guns to straps on their belts. “One cosh, a stun gun and a 9mm Beretta pistol.” Duleep took the pistol for himself. Frances and Adnan played scissor-paper-rock. Frances went rock. Adnan went scissors. Frances smacked down his friend’s hand and took the stun gun. Adnan scowled and took up the cosh.

“Plan check,” said Duleep to Adnan.

“Two screws come in, we bosh em,” he swung his cosh for emphasis, “get their keys, get the crown and get out. One of three ways depending on pursuit.”

Duleep nodded and turned to Frances. Frances looked up from the stun gun and continued the spiel. “We grapple over the two walls to the ice skating rink on the other side. We pull the shirts on.” He touched a dark piece of material hanging from his belt. “We blend into the crowd and leave separately.”

Duleep nodded. “Black cab, water taxi, train from Fenchurch or just improvise. Meet up at Heathrow. Gate 17.”

Adnan threw a devil’s horn, “And then we really get started!”

Duleep held his voice level. “First man there, get the rucksack from the locker.”

He turned to Adnan, “What’s the locker number.”

Adnan waved him off, “Yeah, I know … 5639. Come on bruv, we been planning this since we were ten years old.”

Duleep turned to France, “And what’s the locker code?”

“Same as the locker number.” Frances grinned in reply.

“And then we spray the fucker pink!” Adnan clapped his hands. The sound cracked around the antechamber. Duleep glared at him.

“Duleep, are we still doing that?” asked Frances.

“Sure we are bruv,” cut in Adnan. “The crown’s so extra that it doesn’t look real anyway. So we spray paint it pink, wrap it with the other gear and label it ‘stage prop’. Remember, we’re Rajah and the Pukkas heading for the open set challenge at the Roskeld Festival.”

“Bags being Rajah,” said Duleep.

“No contest bruv, you gunna be the fucking mah-ha-rajah. We get to India and we gunna have a ticker tape parade with elephants and all the Bollywood chicks you want!”

Duleep frowned and dropped his eyes.

“S’all right bruv.” Adnan clapped his oldest friend on the shoulder. “Destiny’s guiding us.”

Footsteps on the stone stairway below them. They flattened back against the walls either side of the doorway. Conversation drifted up the stairs.

“How much longer?”

“Dunno, no one’s saying anything, but how much longer can the old bird hang in there.” Two deep voices suggesting deep-chested brawny men. Their tread was slow and in step, they were carrying something heavy.

“That’s no way to refer to Her Majesty.” An amused grunt and footsteps drawing closer.

“Suppose it’s not good news if she wants to hold the crown.”

“Well if I were her, I’d chuck it in the Thames. Let Camilla be crowned with a fake.”

“Fitting.”

The two men entered the antechamber and headed for the vault door. They held a strongbox chained to their wrists. One fumbled with a bunch of keys on a large hoop secured to his belt.

Adnan dropped the man with keys with a cosh to the back of the head. The other guard whipped around with a hand on his holster. Frances stuck the stun gun into his ribs. The second guard was as strong as an ox. He went down on one knee and drew his side arm. Duleep put the Beretta to the man’s head and pulled the trigger. The shot slammed around the tower followed by the clatter of the strong box onto the stone floor. A blood stream shot from the man’s head and hosed Adnan.

“FUCK!” Adnan staggered back.

Sounds of raised alarm echoed up the stairs.

“Quick,” Duleep grabbed for the keys on the first man’s belt. He stirred groggily. Frances lifted him up, slinging the man’s arm around his neck, like he was helping a drunk friend home.

“Bruv! You are so hammered.” Frances said to the guard. Adnan untucked the dead guard’s shirt and used it to wipe the blood from his face.

“Fuckin legendary.” Frances rolled on, “You were goin off, it’ll be all over insta. Come on, let’s get you in the door and into bed.” The guard nodded groggily. Frances manoeuvred the key into the lock. The deep clunk of the bolts thrown back roused the guard further toward consciousness. Adnan belted the guard across the back of the head with the cosh.

Frances slid the man to the floor. The unbarred door sagged toward them. Duleep grabbed the door and took a deep breath. The sounds of alarm and undirected pursuit were baffled by a distant burst of wings and raven calls. A lucky distraction seemed to be delaying their discovery.

Duleep yanked on the door. Frances lent his brawn to the pull. The door swung back, and their destiny was revealed. The real crown of Queen Mary on a bare metal shelf in a vault the size of a closet. As magnificent as a bonsaied mountain of light, the Koh-i-noor winked at him from its crown prison. A mighty lens for the third eye of anyone who might place the crown on their head. What insight would that magic gem grant? What secrets would be revealed? What knowledge would be imparted? Duleep shook the temptation from his head. Only a woman may wear this crown.

A ruckus at the bottom of the stairs outside the antechamber.

“Come on bruv!” Frances slapped Duleep on the back. Duleep grabbed the crown and stashed it in the lightweight backpack. He put the pack on and secured the clips, drawing it close to his body. The three of them bustled out the narrow doorway and up the stairs.

Two-thirds of the way up the tower, they ducked into a cleaners closet. Adnan’s hands shook as he jammed a wedge between the door and the frame. Crushed together in a cloud of sweat and stale breath. They held still as boots thundered into the anteroom below. Shouts became panicked curses. Radios crackled and guns cocked.

Boots tramped up the stairs and back down. The cupboard door was rattled loudly. The wedge held firmly enough to fool the man into thinking it was locked. The sounds of pursuit moved back down the stairs and out of the Tower. But not for long. Adnan prised out the wedge and opened the cupboard a crack. Nothing.

He opened the door and stuck his head out, checking up and down the stairs.

“Clear. Come on.” They tiptoed out of the cupboard and lightly up the stairs heading for the roof. Their escape was in front of them. The staircase ended ahead at a ladder to the roof. The trap door to the rooftop was open! Destiny was guiding them.

A crackle of radio static and a negative sounding mumble. A guard was on the roof.

“This way,” Duleep whispered. A door on their right opened into a circular room taking up the full interior of the White Tower. Dark, musty, attic-like, filled with important archaic junk. Flails, maces, swords, small cages, dilapidated suits of armour. A storeroom for important forgotten items.

With a nod, Duleep and Frances ran to opposite windows.

“There’s the Thames,” said Duleep.

“No, this way!” said Frances.

Adnan picked his way through the dark, cluttered room with his arms spread for balance. His fingertips brushed a cage.

CAW!

“FUCK!” He jumped and snatched back his hand. Adnan’s forehead was slick with sweat.

CAW! CAW! CAW!

Ravens. Six of them.

“Adnan you idiot. Over here!” Frances called out. He had wrenched the window open. Destiny was on their side. The tower cleaning gantry was right underneath.

“Okay, huddle up.” Duleep drew Adnan and Frances in close. “We get out the window onto the gantry. Nice and quiet. Frances, you’re the best climber. Get up the ropes to the roof. Shoot the fucker up there. He’s not gonna see you coming. Get to the gantry controls, take the brake off, and get back down here. We ride the gantry down to the ground, use the grapple guns to get over the two walls, blend into the crowd at the ice rink. See you at Heathrow.” Duleep handed Frances the Beretta.

“No bruv wait! We gotta get the ravens!” said Adnan, his eyes bright and wild.

“What!” asked Frances. “Why?”

“England will fall!”

“What! Why?” repeated Frances.

“The legend man, the legend! England will fall  if the ravens ever leave the tower. These ones in the cage are their insurance ravens! We set those fuckers free and the country falls!”

“No,” said Duleep. “Stick with the plan.”

“Fuck the plan.” Adnan slapped at Duleep’s chest catching him off balance. Duleep staggered two steps back. Duleep’s face widened in horror as he tugged forward away from the halberd the backpack was snagged on.

RIP! CLANG. Clang. Clang. Clang.

Queen Mary’s crown dropped out of the torn backpack and rolled away to the foot of the raven’s cage. Adnan dived after it, snatched it up and tucked it under his arm. He opened the cage with a flourish.

“Fly my pretties!” Adnan said using a ‘wicked witch of the West’ voice. The ravens looked at him with silent disdain.

“Come on, out you go!” Adnan reached inside the cage only to snatch back his pecked hand. The crown slipped from under his arm. He caught it before it fell and put it on.

“Adnan, you fucking fool! NO!” Adnan reached both hands into the cage seizing a raven in each hand. The startled birds cawed, struggled and pecked at him.

Adnan, resplendent in his stolen cursed crown with a raven in each hand turned to face his partners-in-crime, his lifelong friends, his brothers-in-arms. He strode to the open window like an emperor and threw the ravens out.

“And so England falls!” he shouted. A radio squawk from above joined the confused caws of the ravens. A man muttered and footsteps echoed down from the stone ceiling in the direction of the trap door.

“Quick, Frances, get out the window and up on the roof. Shut the door behind him and lock it. Get on the gantry controls.” Frances stepped out of the window onto the gantry and pulled himself up to the roof as Duleep ran to the door and locked it. Adnan returned to the raven cage.

The trap door above boomed shut and a bolt was thrown.

“I’ve got them,” a man’s clear voice close on the other side of the barricaded door to the room said into a radio.

The whine of an electric motor started and the gantry went up past the window.

Adnan, grinning like a lunatic, ran back from the window to the raven cage and reached in. The four remaining ravens burst out at him. He shouted and stumbled back. The scissor-like beaks of the birds slashed at his face. He slapped away at them. One perched on his shoulder and wrenched off his earlobe. Adnan screamed and flailed.

“Adnan!” Duleep held the rattling door. A massive thump pushed him back. The guard was breaking the door down.

Duleep ran to Adnan who flailed his arms and walked backward to ward off the attacking ravens. To Duleep’s horror Adnan was missing an eye. Adnan staggered backward through the window and fell out.

“Adnan!” Duleep put his head out of the window just in time to see his best friend hit the ground with an awful crunch. The precious crown rolled away from him crumpled and ruined. The ravens wheeled down after him. One held Adnan’s eye in its beak.

“Heads!” Frances shouted above Duleep. Duleep drew back into the tower just in time as the gantry whooshed past. The door thumped again giving a dying groan. One more blow and the man would be through.

Frances stood at the gantry controls and extended a hand through the window to Duleep. Duleep stepped through onto the gantry looking for something to shield them from the bullets that would soon follow.

Whup whup whup … a helicopter approached.

Frances whizzed the gantry down the side of the White Tower. Duleep leaned dangerously out looking for Adnan and the crown. The gantry stopped two meters from the ground and they both jumped. Adnan lay underneath the gantry shielded from view from the window above.

“Hey!” shouted Frances. A squawking scrabbling fight had broken out between the ravens. The impact had dislodged the Koh-i-noor, the biggest and most beautiful diamond in the world, from the crown. It winked in the dim light under the scrabbling talons of the birds. Frances charged at the ravens shouting and was dropped by a bullet from the window above.

Duleep cowered under the gantry cradling Adnan’s body as the largest raven won the fight, seized the Koh-i-noor in its talons and hefted it into the air.

“Fly home Koh-i-noor, fly home to India. It is your destiny.” Duleep whispered.

A helicopter landed on the roof of the Tower startling the roosting ravens. Some flew into the rotors and died with wet smacks and snipped caws as soldiers jumped out. The others burst off in all directions, the opposite of a flock, leaving the Tower of London, and the country of England, to its fate.

Just as we must all pay the piper, it serves you well to pay the writer. Thank you for your 99p.