Archive for July, 2010


One of Layla’s most fundamental skills is climbing and rappelling.  She doesn’t ascend cliffs or rocks so much (excepting at archeological digs); instead she stealthily tackles buildings.

Tomb_Raider_Underground_4

Well, this last Sunday I finally went down to REI with the intention of climbing their (dramatically named) Pinnacle.  I figured that my upper body strength may finally be good enough for me to make the attempt at getting in a harness and learning the ropes.

I ended up not climbing.

Not only was there a wait time of over 90 minutes, but entire families were there taking pictures and filming each other crawling up fake rock face.  That’s when I realized that I really, really don’t want my first – and potentially pathetic – attempt at climbing to be a public event witnessed by hordes of shoppers.  My climb would also be a rushed affair in which I would have to get up and down fast because other climbers were waiting in line.  Under such circumstances I trulywouldn’t learn what I need to about the sport (or in Layla’s case, a key professional skill.)

That’s when I decided that, although it may cost me a little money, I really have to do this climbing thing correctly.  I need to learn the ins and outs of how to climb in a harness and how to tie the ropes and get up and down them, and how to use all of the equipment.

screaming climber

The good news is, there are several rock climbing schools and clubs around Denver and Boulder, and for a rank beginner on a budget like me, there’s an indoor place just a few miles away.  A one-hour one-on-one class is $50.   Since I just got my federal income tax return (I filed an extension and  got my taxes in a few weeks ago), I can afford one whole intro class, and I’ve scheduled it for this Saturday a.m.

That’s about the only Layla thing I’ll be doing this weekend because I have family that’s coming into town and will be staying with me.  Hope your own upcoming week is exciting.

If Layla ever finds herself alone in a room with William Jacques, she would do very, very bad things to him.

446courtroomJacques is a 41-year-old graduate of Cambridge who has been called Britain’s most prolific thief of rare and precious books.  His thefts include first editions by Isaac Newton and Galileo.  Just this month he was convicted in a London court for the second time and sent to prison for three years.

Layla would have given him a lot more than three years’ worth of injuries.

book thief

She’d hurt Jacques not only because he has stolen an estimated 500 extremely rare antiquarian books worth more than £1 million and dating back to 1514, and not only because he devastated the special collections of British leading libraries, thus taking them away from historians and other scholars.  He has also, because of his “arrogance, greed and an obsession with money,” damaged some of those books in order to disguise their origin and sell them more easily, usually to auction houses across Europe..

You hurt irreplaceable antiquities, Layla hurt you.

I don’t think I’ve ever really described in this blog what Layla Daltry does.  Quite simply, she’s a very well paid antiquities hunter, one who loves rare, precious written works and is “addicted to the hunt.”

Here’s a longer explanation:

medieval_libraryAs an expert in manuscripts, books, letters, and just about anything written in Europe from the fall of the late Roman classical period up to the Enlightenment, she could pick and choose her work as a field agent for museums, top auction houses, and well-heeled collectors.  Armed with their names, she gained entrée into the private libraries of great estates.  She could investigate their rare works to track down even more precious, elusive antiquities.  She uncovered the provenance of medieval illuminated manuscripts and informed the museums interested in buying them, or the auction houses that wished to sell them, whether or not they had been stolen or forged…

Of course, Layla carefully concealed from her clients the methods she sometimes used.  She never told them that she often tracked down stolen works by befriending unsavory people with questionable jobs.  Or how she crossed paths with tomb raiders and black marketers and bartered with them for information.  She never let slip how she knew better than to contact the authorities once she learned that this thuggish industrialist or that unscrupulous banker had arranged to have an artifact stolen and now jealously possessed it.

sotheby

The very wealthy know how to get away with anything, hence matters would only get messy if she tipped off Interpol.  Thus she didn’t explain to her clients that, with the help of a former lover, she had developed the skills of the finest cat thief.  Getting into very high upper floors, scampering across rooftops, slipping past holes in security systems – that’s what she was really good at…

So that’s basically what Layla does, and that’s her passion.  Waddya think?

Also, if any of you are writing thrillers or mysteries along a similar vein as The Compass Master, or if you’re just interested in art theft, scams and swindles and high-end auction  houses, I found a great resource.  It’s www.museum-security.org.  Look under the archive for the category of “Auction Houses and stolen objects,” (http://www.museum-security.org/?cat=6) and you’ll find plenty of cool stuff that could inspire an entire novel or screenplay.

Have a cool weekend.

As you know, my latest Layla goal is to learn how to get into and out of places I don’t belong. 

blue bear

Well, secretly penetrating a members-only national convention seems to be a requisite skill.  A character in a movie or on TV or in books sneaks past security to mingle with the dues-paying crowd in a convention center or swank hotel.  Once in, he or she must then meet with someone or steal something or whatever.

Luckily for me, Denver has the honking big Colorado Convention Center.  It draws a lot of national and even international groups, which mean I’ve got some handy opportunities to practice gate-crashing.   That’s why, on Sunday morning, I put on some business casual clothes and went down to see if I could get in and snoop among convention-goers. 

You know what I discovered?  It’s really easy.

There were two conferences meeting this weekend:  NASFAA (National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators) and a national Catholic youth group.

big brother smaller

Okay, neither one could get your pulse pumping with excitement, and neither one has any reason to employ beefed-up security.  But hey, this was merely a practice run so I had to work with what was on the calendar.  (The upcoming Unmanned Aircraft Systems conference sounds much more thriller-appropriate.)

A few obvious facts:  security cameras were everywhere so I avoided acting or looking fishy.  On the other hand, only a few guards were around and they appeared to be a) very bored and b) primarily concerned with assisting people.

You know how movies show people choosing their nametags off tables?  That doesn’t seem to happen at large conventions.   Instead there was a line of booths with  letters of the alphabet posted on signs, and people lined up at them according to the first letter of their last names.  Two clerks worked each booth, and the name tags were kept beneath the booths’ tables.  Obviously, my swiping a tag was out of the question. 

On the bright side, I didn’t seem to need a tag.  Some NAFAA people weren’t wearing one,  perhaps because their conference was just beginning.  But if a tag had been necessary I could have made my own.  Within minutes of walking around and looking at people, I had memorized how the name and other words were printed on the tags and where the logo was placed.  A Kinko’s/Fedex office was only a few blocks away.  I could’ve skipped over there, designed my fake name tag, gotten the logo from the organization’s website, and stuck my design in a standard plastic sheath.  It really would have been that easy.

name tag

I also could have attended the big opening presentation and fitted right in with everyone.  I know this because I walked into the large lecture hall where the techies were setting up their film and sound equipment, and convention goers were starting to gather.  People smiled at me liked I belonged. 

People also smiled at me at the Catholic youth group.  That conference, in contrast, was ending with a mass in another hall.  Being a lapsed Catholic, I knew what to do to blend in (what prayers to say, the cues to kneel, stand, or sit), but out of respect I only remained for a few minutes.  Although it appeared to be a welcoming group, I had still taken the precaution of picking up some free brochures at the booths outside the hall (on Catholic colleges and monasteries, etc.) and was carrying them about in a visible but casual manner.

All in all, my convention-crashing experience wasn’t a heart-racing experience, but it was kinda fun and I learned a few Layla tricks.  The thing is, I’m not at all accustomed to misleading people, however innocently, or pretending to be someone I’m not.  So maybe such minor forays, with steadily increasing intensity and challenges, will be good for me.  Like free acting classes in the theater of (fictional) life.

First of all, I’M BACK!

If you tried to get into this website this morning, you may have noticed that it didn’t come up.  Instead there was just a filler page.  Turns out my blog was up for renewal so I had to pay a bill and click a few buttons.   SO glad it’s back up (I was in a royal panic because I thought my blog baby was permanently lost).

Anyway, onwards and upwards with my current entry, which concerns…

A couple small problems with my latest Layla plan.

bxp66767

You know the one I’m talking about – how I want to make some kind of security breach. Get into a place I don’t belong, leave my calling card, and get out undetected.

The first problem is pretty basic:  I DON”T HAVE ANY TIME!

Pulling off a stunt like that – even in a humble way on my first try – takes some planning.  It means scoping out the environment, checking people’s routines, learning when the place will be open or locked up.

None of this is hard to do.  But finding the time while working full time and generally just having a life means it’ll probably take me a couple weeks to pull off something noteworthy, or at least something worth telling you about.

Then there’s the second problem:  I KNOW PEOPLE WHO’VE ALREADY DONE SOME REALLY COOL SECURITY BREACHES.

And if I want to get any respect from them, I’ve got to top them.

In her comment on my last entry, Hart suggested getting into a country club (Check out her great blog, CONFESSIONS OF A WATERY TART).   That’s a great idea, especially since there are a couple of very snooty and fiendishly expensive ones in the Denver metro area.  The complication?

My brother already did that.  Worse yet, he was only teenager at the time. And he snuck in more times than he could count.

golf elk

It was all very innocent.  He and a friend simply treated the golf course as a personal park.  They’d climb over the fence, hang out around the trees where no one could see them, enjoy the scenery and the fact that they were in a place that was off limits.  Being teenage boys, they probably figured they could outrun anyone who might find them.

One day they were hidden by those trees and bushes when a golf ball came bouncing down over the hill and landed near them.  The golfers weren’t yet in sight.  My brother grabbed the ball, ran to the nearest golf hole or whatever it’s called, and dropped the ball into it.  Then he ran back to the hiding place.

Moment later a few men appeared.  They looked everywhere for that ball.  Couldn’t find it.  Finally one of them peered into green’s hole and started shouting for joy.  He’d gotten a hole in one! He couldn’t believe it!  He was ecstatic!  It was the highlight of all his years at the sport!

Of course my brother and his friend stayed out of sight and tried not to laugh too loud.  Hence to this day some poor happy schmuck out there thinks he had a genuine hole in one.  He’s probably still boasting about his feat.

Now do you understand my dilemma?  I have to top a stunt like that.  Damn.

thiefSeveral years ago a thief got into an office where I worked.  I know this because I’m the one who found him.

It happened over the lunch hour. Everyone in the office had left except for me.  My desk was near the entrance, which was a wall of glass through which you could see the bank of elevators and part of a short corridor that led around them to our suite’s back entrance.  Ours was the only suite on the entire floor.

I was taking files to a co-worker’s office near the back when I almost walked into a man.  He was young, tall, and fairly well dressed.  Almost before I could react, he blurted that he wanted to know if we taking any applications.  He added a couple more practiced lines about how he was job hunting by going directly to offices.

lightning thief

He was bullshitting me – that was obvious.  It was also obvious that he had gotten off at the elevators and instead of heading through the big glass doors of the only suite on the floor he had entered through the unmarked back door.  Still, I played along with his act that he was lost.  After all, I was alone and he was bigger and stronger than I was.

I’m afraid we don’t have any open positions, I babbled cheerfully.  And I kept talking like a polite airhead who couldn’t possibly be a threat to him as I walked slowly back toward the entrance.  He followed me while I gave him encouraging words on his alleged job search.  By that time I had already assessed him and figured out how best to defend myself if he attacked, which he probably wouldn’t.

And he didn’t.  Instead he left and got on an elevator.  Of course I called security and they caught the guy when he reached the lobby.  They found nothing on him and let him go with a warning; a short while later a woman on another floor reported that the wallet from her purse was missing.

What a loser!  A petty thief with a flimsy cover story.  I mean, I could do so much better than that!  And Layla could really outshine him.  But then, I’m no thief and Layla is… Well, when she gets into a place she doesn’t belong and removes certain property, it’s usually from a wealthy bad guy who came by it illegally.

I’ve told you this story because I think it’s time I started putting some of my Layla skills into action.  No, I’m certainly not going to steal anything.  There’s also no way I’ll risk getting arrested and then embarrass myself (“But officer, I’m just going to write about this in my blog!  I was never going to leave the premises with this expensive work of art!”)  I would also never risk getting some poor security guard fired. 

keep out

And yet…

Wouldn’t it be fun to see if I could get into and out of a place I don’t belong and leave my calling card (“Layla was here”)?  We’ve all trespassed at least in minor ways in our lives.  But what if I up the ante?

If you have any ideas, let me know.  In the meantime, I’ll start looking around.

As you know, I’m on a strict budget for a little while.  After all, skydiving, paragliding, and general life expenses can put a dent in one’s wallet.

compass

This has forced me to look around for some very cheap thrills/ hero classes/ whatever.  Happily I’ve found a few good ones.

I just signed up for a free class at REI I’ve always wanted to take and never got around to before now.  That’s the Maps, Compasses and Orienteering class at my local REI store.  It’s FREE (this is important) and taught by a U.S. Geological Survey person, which means someone who really knows his/her stuff.  I’ve certainly always known how to use a map and for me a compass is a handy tool.  But this kind of class takes orienteering to a much higher level.  Definitely the kind of skill Layla already has down pat.

By the way, the compass in Layla’s story The Compass Master is the drawing/ architectural two-pronged tool rather than the navigational kind.  In the old days it used to be called a divining tool.  Cool metaphor.

Galileo use

I’ll also be getting in line for the free REI wall climbing.  My upper body strength still isn’t what it should be, then again I doubt that I’ll ever feel sufficiently strong, so I might as well go ahead and learn about harnesses and ropes and other basic stuff.  Ideally, I’ll be able to afford the basic equipment soon and can practice on some buildings.

In August my regular fencing class on Thursday will be on hiatus.  That means I can go with a guy pal to some place like the Mercury Café, where for cheapie prices on Thursday nights we can have dancing lessons.  That’s dancing as in waltz, tango, and other kinds of  pas de deux that heroes are supposed to excel in.

tut

I’m also scheduling myself to check out (on the sly) the security at the Denver Art Museum.  The King Tut exhibit will be there for several months, so you can imagine what the security will be like:  so tough even Layla herself wouldn’t attempt a breach.  Still, she’d check it out if only to keep her knowledge sharp.  I saw the Tut exhibit in Cairo years ago and it really was spectacular.  It’ll be great to see it again.

Anyway, these are just a few small experiences I’ve got planned.  What I really want and need is to come up with some more ambitious (but still cheap) plans, something more exciting.  I”ll try to plot something out over the weekend.

Hope you have a good weekend too.

I hate to do this, but I”m asking you to cut me some slack.

Yes, I just finished up a three-day weekend, which means that I should have had time to do some serious Layla training.  Like learn evasive driving maneuvers while going 120 mph in a Ferrari.  Jet off to the islands to get certified in Scuba diving.  Learn how to shoot a crossbow.  SOMETHING interesting.

treehouse

But – mea culpa – I didn’t do anything significant.  That’s because I can’t afford squat right now.  For at least another month I’ll be on an extremely tight budget.  My impecunious state is frustrating because Layla, in contrast to me, always has a healthy bank account.

At least I was able to practice a few small Layla skills.  I caught up on some French and watched part of a French movie, which taught me that I still need subtitles and I really don’t know French slang.  I did a bunch of great stretches and worked on my upper body strength.  Best of all, I visited my friends Doug and Cil.

praire_dog and birds

They live in the open country between Boulder and Longmont, where I went skydiving a couple Sundays ago.  They have lots of land, two horses, board a third one, and are benevolent landlords to an extensive prairie dog colony, bunches of birds, and the occasional bald and golden eagles.

I always thought it would be ideal to have both a city home and a country one.  Right now Layla only has her large penthouse in Dublin, but I figure she’s ready to look into a cottage on the Mediterranean coast of Spain.  (In Ireland, people who can afford a second home get one in a warmer climate.)  As for me, I got my city place and friends in the country.  I’m lucky.

horse nose

I had hoped to do some horseback riding with Doug, but this wasn’t to be.  In the late morning the weather was too warm to go galloping about (while avoiding the prairie dog holes), and in the afternoon the rain clouds rolled in.  Instead we did other country stuff:  Cil pulled weeds, Doug groomed the horses, and I helped to sweep out the stables.  Hey, living in the country can mean work.

The point is, while glamorous people like Layla of course know how to ride, they also should know the basics of caring for horses.  This means cleaning the muck out of their hooves, brushing them down, putting medicine on any cuts or bug bites, and getting them the heck out of the stable you just swept down because they’re raising their tails in that coming attractions way.

So now the weekend is over and it’s time to get back to office work.  In the next few weeks I hope to see Doug and Cil again and maybe do some riding with them.  It’s not the most exciting hero sport to do, but I still like it just fine.

paragliding_green

This morning, I finally, FINALLY did it.

I WENT PARAGLIDING!

Yes I know, this shouldn’t be a big whup.  But you’ve gotta remember that I signed up and paid for a paragliding session LAST OCTOBER!   Trouble is, paragliding is dependent upon the whims of the wind gods, and whenever I tried to schedule my session with Kay (of Peak to Peak Paragliding), they threw a hissy fit.   Then a long, crappy winter set in.   Then I was the recipient of that nasty lung/ribs injury and had to take time out to heal.

But today the weather was gorgeous and I got to fly.

Here are the basic facts about paragliding:

1)  It ain’t a cheap sport.

2)  Getting to the launch site can be a real bitch.

3)  Once you’re take flight, it can be a remarkably serene experience.

4)  When you land, it’s a good idea not to come down on a cactus.

There were a few of us in the paragliding group this morning.  We met beside a highway at the base of some foothills west of Denver; and that’s where we left most of the vehicles and took only two in a drive up a winding road along sheer drops (a couple family members of other flyers had come along only to watch and would drive back down).  

Para_launch

It seems that before the guard rails were installed along that road cars would regularly tumble over the edges and crash in the ravines; only a major effort involving helicopters lifting out those wrecks cleaned up the landscape.

We parked near the top of a hill and went the rest of the way on foot to an unmarked slope that serves as a launch site.  That’s when I got to find out what it’s like to hike up a long, very steep trail with a 45-pound paragliding pack on my back.  I paid $175 for his experience, I kept reminding myself as I panted and strained and my calves turned to jelly.

It took the three pilots only about 15 minutes to set out their three chutes.  I was going on one of the two tandem flights.  Before I knew it, I was strapped into the gear, Kay was strapped in behind me, and we were trying to run hard and fast down the slope.  Trying is the key word, because in seconds I was throwing my weight against the dragging power of the rising chute. 

paragliders_many

And then we lifted up on the wind.

I felt weightless.  Once we were airborne and I was sitting in the harness’s soft padded seat, I seemed to be as heavy as a dandelion seed.  The hill and houses and roads spun lazily below us as Kay steered right and left and away from the hill, and had me moving right and left with her.  “Throw your butt cheek into it!” she commanded when I didn’t go in either direction far enough.  It’s not often you hear those words shouted at you.

A couple times I could see far below what looked like the partial debris of a wrecked car in a ravine, or maybe it was a smashed paraglider.  That made me a little nervous.  But most of the time I felt serene and almost, in a fleeting way, powerful.  After all, I was up there hanging on the wind and having a blast while below me earth-bound cars and people were scurrying about, oblivious to the fact that I was silently and literally looking down on them.

Unfortunately, there were no strong thermals for Kay to steer us into, which meant we couldn’t get enough sustaining lift and the flight would last no more than ten or fifteen minutes. 

We landed in a field just beyond our original parking area and near the highway.  In what seems to be my natural inclination, I landed on my butt instead of my feet, yet it was still a remarkably gentle landing.  I also managed to avoid the many little cacti sticking up out of the weeds and brush.

tresspassing signs

Would I paraglide again?  In a heartbeat.  But between lessons and the equipment, we’re talking about $4,000 to $5,000, and I absolutely don’t have that kind of money.  Not for fun stuff. 

More relevant to this blog is the question, Would Layla paraglide?  Absolutely, both for fun and because it’s a brilliant way to get into a sealed-off forbidden area.  Of course, she could do the same with skydiving, but there’s a tradeoff:  she wouldn’t need thermals, but the plane she jumps from can be heard from the ground.  So the circumstances would dictate which type of flying she must use.

As for me, I can finally say I’ve done both skydiving and paragliding.  And that feels really good.