The hoodie crackled with static electricity when he took it off. He rolled the shirts he used for padding from his waist and stood wavering over the waste bin for a moment. He trusted his instincts. His instincts had kept him alive until this day. His instincts said the Dutchman would take the bait, give life to Matt’s avatar and he might never need them again. He twirled the wig on his finger. He’d never wear it again, never wanted to wear it again. At the same time he knew he had to be cautious. He packed the wig and hoodie with the shirts in his travel bag. He had never been a good reader of the human mind. That’s why he’d been taken by surprise, why he had almost lost his life. He pushed a chair towards the window and stared at his reflection. The color of his skin was an ashen white as if he’d risen from the grave not a year ago but today. Matt turned his head away and fished the small pocketknife from his jeans. In the shrill light of the room, he scraped the dirt from under his nails, while he ran through the next steps of his plan, looking for snags and loose ends. The life of his avatar had been programmed meticulously. Everything seemed to be in place. Everything was in place.

He looked up again. From behind the royal palace rose an inky sky. The golden cog ship that topped the dome, pivoted in a gust of wind, sparkling in the flood light. Matt stood up and watched the gentle movements of the ship. Soon, he promised himself. Soon the dark of the night wouldn’t scare him anymore. All he had to do was bring his avatar to life.

He pocketed the knife and moved to the small desk in a corner of the room. The laptop cover squeaked when he opened it. It had been working overtime these past months while he hacked computer systems all over the world. He had cut meta tags, removed pictures, images and documents, made them untraceable or replaced them with others. With dogged diligence he had cut his life from the eternal archives of the internet and pasted in a new one: that of Dallas Bard. His avatar. Now it was time for his avatar to morph into flesh and blood, so he himself could vanish.

He checked the spy cams he had hidden in the room and the adjacent bathroom. He watched himself sitting at the desk. The high def cameras showed him pixel perfect. He switched to the Dutchman’s apartment. The living room was dark and silent, just like the bedroom, where Groen lay curled up, eerily green in the picture of the night vision camera. Matt zoomed in on his chest and studied the raising and falling of the man’s chest, the barely noticeable vibration of his lower lip when he breathed out. The sleep of the innocent. It would be a rude awakening.

He closed the laptop and shoved it in his pack. The Dutchman would be asleep for a while, as would Matt’s colleagues and even Victoria, if they weren’t scouring the seedy canals of the red light district. He took his time packing and when he was done, he called the reception with the request to have the suite cleaned as early as possible. Thoroughly, he added, Mr. Bard had a mysophobia that made him raise a stink if he spotted the smallest smudge or fingerprint. He hadn’t used the bed. It needn’t be changed. Not a minute later he snuck off the floor.


Compared to the suite, the room on the second floor was almost as claustrophobic as the elevators. The suite hadn’t been that big, but at least it had had the large windows that allowed for unhindered lighting during the day. This room had two windows that didn’t even deserve the name. Two portholes-sized openings that now, at night, resembled bottomless pits. Matt blasted up the light. He dumped the suitcase and duffel bag on the bed. With a quick glance he reassured himself of the cleanliness of the room. In the bathroom he shoved the flasks with shampoo and lotion aside and replaced them with his own.

With his hands resting on the cold porcelain of the sink he studied his irises, hidden by the gray contacts. It hadn’t just been the Dutchman’s blue eyes that had triggered him. They were equally tall, six one, taller than the average American. They had more or less the same build, the Dutchman being chubbier. They were the same age, born in the same year and only weeks apart from each other according to the Dutchman’s passport.