Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Spy-tastic Adventure

It was a cold and rainy day. My heart raced as I zoomed around dirty snow banks in my shiny Mini Cooper, across the Roosevelt Bridge, past Watergate and stoic memorials, with the nation’s Capitol looming large in the fog ahead. When I reached D.C.’s resurgent Chinatown, I met another operative at our pre-designated location. It had been over a decade since our last joint mission, but I spotted her, at the bar, of course, in a trench coat and leather boots. She had a new disguise, replete with long, blonde tresses. We caught up over martinis (liquid courage), avoiding discussion of what we’d been working on since we’d last met. Instead, we reminisced in a sort of cryptic code: “Remember that cockfight in Tijuana?”

Most of the above is true. Only it wasn’t a fancy sports car; more like a mommy wagon. We had caipirhinas instead of martinis, followed by a mighty fine lunch at one of Chinatown’s latest hotspots. We hadn’t really been to Tijuana, but that was an old joke from years ago that came in handy for this write-up. The rest of it is true though.
My real mission that day was research for today’s blog. Washington, D.C., has so many interesting cultural attractions, it was difficult to narrow it down to just one for this piece. But there was a relatively new offering I’d been wanting to check out for some time.

The International Spy Museum is a sleek new museum in D.C.'s Penn Quarter, nestled among the National Science Museum, the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, the Newseum (devoted exclusively to news media), and Madame Tussauds. As a crime writer, one of the offerings at the Spy Museum that attracted me was the opportunity to actually experience being a spy. The museum offers several “sightseeing” packages that for an additional price above regular admission equip visitors with a COBRA-brand GPS device and clears them to take part in a two-hour counterintelligence operation. Oh, what fun!

We chose the Spy in the City mission, and once we were debriefed, we “accepted” our mission (Operation Catbird). Out on the street corner, we received an encrypted message that charged us with locating a suspected terrorist in our midst. We followed one clue after another to locate him. At the night depository, we had a choice of deciphering a code through fingerprint, microdot, or chemical analysis. My friend and I (aka Agents Olive and Ruby) chose different options to experience all the possibilities. Our findings led us to Ford’s Theater then to the stunning new Navy Memorial. We even had a chance meeting with a navy officer who happens to write spy novels himself. (Not part of the tour, by the way, just a very cool coincidence.)

We were supposed to be on the lookout for another operative, someone leaning against a subway sign reading a newspaper, but we sort of sidelined at the memorial. It really was a cold and rainy day, which I thought quite enhanced the experience until my hands froze, as did my GPS. We returned to the museum to turn in our devices, disappointed that we hadn’t completed our spy missions but ready to return for another visit. Then we zipped over to Zola, the sleek bar adjacent to the museum. Amid its elegant décor of secret code, foreign scripts, and red velvet, we downed smooth martinis (the real thing, this time), surrounded by windows overlooking a grand Smithsonian building.

All in all, a worthwhile day in one of the world’s truly most mysterious cities.


  1. Supriya, this sounds like such a fun adventure, even with frozen fingers!

  2. This sounds awesome! Is it a well-known tourist attraction? If not, then it should be! Very cool.

  3. Supriya, I wish I could have joined you. There's something about being in Washington that makes you want to don trench coats and dark glasses. Wonderful post! If and when I get to come, we need a super duper code before introductions!

  4. Supriya, a visit to the Spy Museum and the Newseum are both on my list for my next visit to Washington (later this year, I hope). Thanks for giving us a taste.

  5. 10-4, Donnell! ;)

    Patricia, so excited you'll be visiting! Let me know if you need some company out there. I'm not done exploring either museum. BTW, not making this up, but there's even a Museum of Crime and Punishment around the corner from the Spy Museum (perhaps we can find out what happens when they catch those spies).

    Alli, I do think the Spy Museum is pretty well known now. That part of town is seeing a huge resurgence. It was certainly packed with tourists on the rainy February afternoon I visited.

    Heidi, bring a coat and come visit!

  6. Wow, that sounds like it must have been so much fun! I can't help but think how my kids would be so into something like that... Someday!

  7. Thanks, Heather! And you're right about someday: they recommend for ages 12 and above. But I just discovered the Museum of Crime and Punishment around the corner also offers highly interactive, interesting packages (learning about forensics and crime scene investigation, for example). So much to do here -- come visit!

  8. I think I'm going to name my characters Agents Olive and Ruby in my next spy novel, if I decide to write another one. I've been to the Spy Museum, but not to the Crime and Punishment one. I should try it next time. Someplace (can't remember where now, maybe London) I've seen a Torture Museum. It was small, but impressive, although not in a very positive way.

  9. Look at those gorgeous martinis! What a work of art.