Please welcome back our dear friend Simon Wood!
This year’s Left Coast Crime convention, held in mile high Denver, allowed me to bring out my inner twelve year old boy. It was the chance to take part in a surveillance and counter-surveillance exercise. This was one of the extra-curricular activities held during the convention that I jumped on the second I saw it on offer. Short story writer and ex-DEA agent, R.T. Lawton, put the exercise together. A surveillance team would have to track a bad guy on the streets of Denver. The object was for the bad guy to lose the team and for the team not to be spotted and not to lose their bad guy. How super cool is that? This was my chance to join the ranks of James Bond and Harry Palmer as the latest spy about town.
I signed up to be one of the hunted. I put that down to my narcissistic side where I want to be followed by strangers all the time. As the hunted, I was a ‘Rabbit’ and I was going to be hunted by a team of cougars. I got quite excited as I’d heard that cougars were predatory older women. Nice. Sadly, cougars was just the term for the surveillance team that would be tailing me. So I shelved the idea of being chased by women all over town for another day.
I wasn’t alone in my rabbit status. Fellow bunny girls and guys were Marcus Sakey, Reed Farrell Coleman, Margaret Coel, Jason Starr, Donna Andrews, Michelle Gagnon and Twist Phelan. The identities of the cougars were kept from us to keep things interesting. For extra flavor, rabbits and cougars were briefed separately. Us rabbits were taught some techniques for exposing cougars, such as doubling back, entering buildings and watching for who stops, etc. And the cougars were taught their little tricks for avoiding detection. I was given a map of downtown and a list of places and times to meet one or more of my fellow rabbits to make “exchanges.” I was given my start place with a time to be there and told just to do my thing and avoid my cougars.
The game was set.
Hmm, little problem there. I know the streets of Denver like the back of someone else’s hand. Also, I get lost in unfamiliar places. So to avoid wandering the streets hours after the game was over, stopping strangers and asking, “I’m a rabbit and I’m lost, how do I find my hotel?” I did a little homework. I walked the route ahead of time. I timed myself and looked for alleys and neat places to hide. I should add that I was supposed to change into a disguise part way through the exercise and I needed a phone booth or somewhere to do that. I also didn’t want to walk around with a map in my hand looking like a tourist dufus. My dry run was a good move on my part as I noticed there were a lot of police and private security on the streets of Denver. I drew more than a couple of glances from some rent-a-cops during my test. The last thing I needed to do was get picked up and packed off to jail. It gave me time to come up with a little plan.
The game kicked off in the late afternoon. I walked the first leg of my route slowly, looking over my shoulder. It was surprising to note how paranoid I became after the first thirty seconds. I’m going from place to place on my route and all I can think about is that I’m being followed by people I don’t know. They could be anyone. I must treat everyone with suspicion because everyone is out to get me. Will I ever be safe? So I treated everyone I saw as a potential cougar. It didn’t take long to spot cougars milling around Denver’s streets. They were so focused on their rabbit and I was so focused on looking out for people following me, it became easy to spot them. That was the shortcoming of playing a game with so many players in such a small geographical area, but I rolled with the punches. I was here to play.
When I reached the stage of the game where I could break out my disguise, I wasn’t sure if I’d lost my cougars. So many were milling about that I just had to hope my daring costume change would do the trick. I was quite wily, in a way, with my disguise. I have a padded denim jacket where the lining unzips and is a different jacket. I also have a pair of glasses that makes me look like Tim Maleeny and a trusty baseball cap. Because of the law enforcement presence I didn’t like the idea of ducking into a building to change, but I found a very conveniently located building to use as a shield. I walked up to it on the wrong side of the street. I waited for traffic to head towards me and I bolted across the road. If anyone was following, they’d be taking a chance crossing the road after me. The second I went behind the building, I peeled off my outer coat, pulled on my hat and glasses and emerged the other side of the building a new person. I took a couple of odd streets to check for cougars and I seemed cougar free.
I went to my last meeting spot pretty sure I was in good shape. I did check though. I stopped in front of a shop window and pretended to looking at their wares while I was looking for cougars. Sadly, I hadn’t looked at which store I stopped in front of and I was checking out the latest offerings from Bare Essentials. It took me a moment to realize my error which was backed up by three cosmetologists eyeballing me and thinking, he’s not a winter complexion. I decided that telling them I was trying to avoid cougars wouldn’t have helped.
As I walked back to the convention hotel pretty sure I’d evaded my cougars, I thought about the little things that continued to give me away. I was wearing a wedding ring and earrings. I should have removed those when I changed. Although I had changed, I couldn’t change my shoes. I’d realized this when I was packing, so I packed some very ordinary sneakers. Anything unusual would have stood out.
Sadly, I didn’t get to use my big weapon. With all the security hanging around, I decided to use that disadvantage as an advantage. If I hadn’t been able to give my cougars the slip I was going to go up to a rent-a-cop and use my accent. I was going to say, “Hello, I’m a tourist in this fair nation and I hear stories about violence and muggers. I’ve seen Law & Order, don’t you know, and some people are following me. Those people over there to be exact. Now it could be nothing or it could be something, but do you minding talking to them while I find my hotel.” With this accent and innocent face, it would have worked like a dream.
Anyhoo, the teams returned to the hotel and we all swapped stories. Everyone enjoyed playing spy for an hour. The kid in all of us is hard to shift and when you’re as short as I am, it’s nearly impossible. Personally, I had a hoot taking part. I may have taken it a little too seriously, but it will work its way into my books and stories. Check the bookshelves if you don’t believe me.
Yours in disguise,