Raise your hands: have you ever thought about disappearing? Be honest. Have you ever wondered about going off the grid—vanishing, and starting a new life someplace far away? It isn’t easy. Forget NSA surveillance. Facebook alone makes going underground a monumental task. Going dark today takes smarts, luck, and incredible discipline.
I realized how difficult it is to duck under the radar when I was researching my novel The Shadow Tracer. In the book, skip tracer Sarah Keller hunts down bail jumpers, debt dodgers and people evading arrest. As part of learning how skip tracers work, I ordered a book online. The second I clicked Buy, a dialogue box popped up: "Share that you purchased How To Disappear with all your social networks?"
Yeah, disappearing takes thought. You can’t just hit the road. Not with CCTV cameras at every bank service till and petrol station forecourt. Not with chip-and-pin debit cards recording every purchase of crisps. Not with mobile phones logging your location, giving pursuers a trail of breadcrumbs leading directly to you. Not with friends and family tagging you in their photos, with your location pinpointed to within a meter via the global positioning system.
There are plenty of lousy ways to try to disappear—ways that generally end with exposure, ridicule, or arrest. Falsifying a new ID, for example. Don’t try that at passport control unless a top flight government agency has forged the documents for you.
As for faking your own death: forget it. Pseudocide inevitably backfires. That’s because it does the opposite of what you want: it draws attention to you. Fake your death in a dramatic accident and you’ll get search and rescue helicopters scouring mountainsides for you. Your friends will leave flowers at the campsite where the grizzly bear allegedly dragged you into the forest. And they’ll be accompanied by TV news crews trying to find bloody traces of your supposed body.
No, to disappear, you have to reduce the shadow you cast on the world, so that when you step out of the light, hardly anybody notices that you’re gone.
And once you do that, you have to stick with it. No going back. No visiting Mum and Dad at Christmas. No sneaking into the hospital maternity ward to get a quick look at your sister’s new baby. Because if anybody’s after you—a private investigator, a stalker, the cops, MI5—there’s a strong chance they’ll be there ahead of you, waiting.
To disappear, you have to be willing to kiss it all goodbye.
I couldn’t do it. But because I’m sadistic (on the page), in The Shadow Tracer I force Sarah Keller to do just that—to go on the run, and with her five-year-old daughter.
So if you find yourself being chased across the American southwest by the FBI and some fanatical hired killers, and want a few tips about staying off the grid, Sarah Keller is your gal. Just be sure you buy the book with cash.
The Shadow Tracer by MG Gardiner is published by Penguin