The Last Game? ( Part 1)
|Image from WikiMedia Commons|
Felix Lechat almost chokes on the slab of coffee cake standing in for a late lunch when he spots the headline on the third page of the Arts section: “Tower of London Exhibit to Bring British Crown Jewels to New York.”
A quick gulp of his almost-cold coffee stops the coughing, but not before he’s sprayed bits of cake all over the front of his black sweater and drawn the eyes of the Starbucks patrons sitting nearby. Grinning sheepishly, he wipes his face with a napkin and returns his eyes to the newspaper.
The crown jewels coming to New York? Get out. Felix knows that British law prohibits the regalia from leaving England. In fact, the only time one of the pieces in the collection ever leaves its secure home in the Jewel House at the Tower of London is for an official State occasion. If you want to see the crowns, orbs, scepters and other trappings of royalty that have adorned the kings and queens of England for the centuries, you pay your £18 and stand in line with the rest of the guidebook-toting visitors. He can’t imagine the royal family allowing the gem-encrusted collection to wander the globe, even if the law did allow it.
Felix is a thief, and a rather good one, if he does say so himself. And there isn’t a jewel thief in the world who wouldn’t want to pull off the mother of all heists, the one everyone knows is impossible. Felix is no different, but he prides himself on knowing when to play and when to stay, so to speak. The only thing anyone arrogant – or just plain stupid -- enough to try a robbery at the Tower of London would score was a long prison sentence. Like every other self-respecting professional, he’d scoped it out and realized that it was the stuff of dreams and nothing more.
Despite the fact that the whole Tower of London experience smacks more of a Museum of the Macabre attraction than a serious bit of British history, its Jewel House is heavily guarded. The elite Coldstream Guards are deterrent enough. The L85 rifles they carry are purely ceremonial, but the guards are divisional army and quite capable of kicking butt. The real protection comes from the Beefeaters, though.
Beefeaters may look like fops in their funny hats and gilt-adorned scarlet tunics, but Felix knows they rank among the fiercest police forces in the world. Rumor has it that Mossad takes lessons at their feet, a rumor Felix knows to be true. Their duty as "guides” at the Tower of London is a perk, one each Yeoman Warder of the Beefeaters works hard to earn. They take turns at the Tower of London when they aren’t about the real business of protecting the Commonwealth, which they do transparently, without failure or fanfare. Even the so-called secret but well-known British spy agencies – the dashing James Bondian MI this-and-that guys of Hollywood films -- don’t know the extent of the Beefeaters’ duties.
And the only reason that Felix knows any of this is thanks to his second cousin and friend Nigel, a Beefeater himself. Ha, Felix loves the irony of that. If old Nige only knew what his yank cousin was really up to… Hmm, might be time to give Nigel a jingle. Just to catch up, you know?
After he finishes reading the article, Felix sets the Times aside and washes the last morsel of cake down with cold coffee. He swipes his hand over the crumbs powdering most of the front of his six-foot frame, and leaves the coffee shop, pulling on his leather jacket as he makes his way though the line at the counter to the front door. Out on a sidewalk crowded with holiday shoppers, a glance at the Breuget on his wrist and quick calculation tell him it’s “tea time” in the UK, but what the heck? Nigel won’t mind having his dinner interrupted by his American cousin. Felix pulls out his BlackBerry, brings up Nigel’s number and presses the green call button.
After a proper hail-fellow-well-met exchange of pleasantries – Nigel is a Brit, after all – Felix cautiously picks his brain. According to Nigel, who is nearly beside himself over the “innate stupidity of politicians,” a much-needed reinforcement of the older bits and bobs of the Tower of London has collided with a much-needed reinforcement of bits and bobs of the empire’s public image. Despite advice “from everyone with a brain,” Parliament issued a temporary visa, as it were, allowing a selection of treasures from the crown jewel collection to make an international goodwill tour. The jewels will become a part of the much-publicized Tower of London exhibit due to travel the globe during the coming year.
“And how does the royal family feel about this?” Felix wonders aloud. “Surely they aren’t supporting it?”
“You’re not paying attention, bloke. I said ‘everyone with a brain,’ didn’t I? Not sure about this, but I rather think it was their idea, and a bloody bad one at that. I’d say they’ve all made quite the dog’s breakfast of it.”
“You or any of the other guards traveling with the exhibit?”
“That’s the worst of it, Mate. The whole thing is traveling in an armored container, and the firm doing the carting is secure enough. But at stops along the way? They’re relying on the security at each museum. Fucking crazy, if you ask me. It’s not like no one’s ever hit a museum, you know?”
“True, but it doesn’t happen very often. What, maybe a handful of times?” Felix offers in a reassuring tone.
“Still don’t like it.”
The cousins chat a bit longer about the family and their respective holiday plans, then Felix wishes him a jolly good evening, and “rings off.” His head is reeling with what he learned. The planets must be in alignment.
And Felix’s mind is off and running.
Whenever I talk about my job at The Independent Observer, I often find myself speaking in extremes. You know, things like feast or famine, sink or swim, good news and bad news. I never set out to be a cop-shop groupie, as a crime reporter is sometimes called in disparagement, but the job seems to be the requisite jumping-off point for reporters on metropolitan newspapers. I couldn’t avoid putting in my time on the police desk, and hey, it beats the society scene. As it turned out, I’m good at the job, and I’ve stuck with it longer than most.
Maybe I’ve read too many police procedurals, but I think there’s a certain gritty glamour to it. Yeah, I know. So sue me. Spend a little time with guys like O’Malley, the Observer’s grozzled veteran crime reporter, though, and you’ll see what I mean. The police beat’s got it all: mystery and mayhem, scoundrels and heroes, blood and guts, greed, passion and, of course, sex. And O’Malley’s got a story illustrating every one of them.
O’Malley’s retired now, but like the old fire horse, he still hangs around the newsroom. You can often find him slouched in whatever chair is empty at the moment with his feet up on the nearest desk, his beat-up fedora pushed back on his head and an unlit cigarette behind his ear. He regales us “cubs” with tales of what it was like back when he was on the job. According to O’Malley, the job was always better, tougher, more intense – you pick -- “back in my day” than it is now. He and his cronies were real news hounds. But there’s one thing even O’Malley admits is an improvement, and that’s the portable police scanner.
“Back in my day, we were pretty much chained to the scanner here at the police desk until we picked up a call that might lead to a story.” O’Malley’s voice carries an odd mix of scorn and envy. “You kids got it soft. You just clip that gizmo to your belt, pop in the earpiece, and away you go. ”
And that’s just what I’m doing now, as I ride the elevator downstairs to grab a bialy from Pete’s Coffee Wagon, a sidewalk fixture outside the Observer’s front door. No sane person would drink the brown swill they call coffee in the newsroom. I think Fiorello La Guardia was mayor the last time that pot saw soap and water.
I pull on a hat and shrug into my coat before stepping out into the unseasonably cold air. Outside the double doors, I follow my nose around a bell-ringing Santa to the source of the inviting aromas riding the piercing cold.
“Hey, Pete. You keeping warm? It’s way too cold for December. Can I get a coffee and a bialy with cream cheese, please?”
I stand jiggling up and down, rubbing my hands together for warmth, as Pete pulls a warm roll from a compartment on his cart.
“Here you go,” he says as he hands me the oniony bialy-with-a-schmear in exchange for the ten in my hand. “Joe’s comin’ right up, Winchell.” I’m pretty sure Pete calls every Observer word slinger Winchell.
As he turns to pour my coffee and make change, I pick out a likely call from the dispatcher chatter in my ear.
“Hold the coffee, Pete. and keep the change. Gotta run.” I’ve already got my hand in the air to flag a cab as I speak. Time to get to work.
Continued in Part 2