“You'll be back?” She watched as I gathered my few belongings, incuriously, just as her question had held no real interest. I had no real interest in her, either, but she had had provided my cover for the night, and I owed her what few scraps of truth were mine to give.
“I'll be back. I don't know when: probably not soon.”
Of course, she had no idea what I was - but then, nor did I, really. An agent of the General Office - one of those names, like "Universal Exports", behind which anything could hide.
Wandering the Great City, never staying in one place for more than a night, never the same roof over your head. Told where to go - never told why, only that it was a move in the Great Game. You might come back to a place you had visited before, but it would have changed, new buildings appeared. And it would be more expensive. That was always the struggle, to survive in the Great City, to see what you must, on the stipend from the General Office that had been set once and would not rise again. Traditions were important to them, more important than our well-being. You had to make friends, to fraternise with the natives, pretend to be one of them. A safe-house was riches beyond words.
We circled, me and my fellow watchers. Through the slums, always alert. Around, through the middle-class suburbs, where prim, nervous eyes peered through net curtains: watchers being watched in turn. The wealthy estates, so far beyond that to fit in, you needed to be taken for a servant. Yet they, too, knew each other: no chance, here, of a quiet night curled under a sack in an outhouse. No, you needed to keep away from private estates. The great railway stations were your friend: anonymity was the best hiding place. A bench, cold or not, the rush of warm air as a train arrived with a stench of steam and smoke. Sometimes you saw fellow agents, fellow observers, and nodded in recognition: then observed, carefully, for if they had a safe house nearby, then you did not. Some of them preferred to drive, or even use the waterways, rather than walk as I did, yet for all their showy exterior, we moved around the City at much the same rate.
And then the final day, your worn clothes cleaned as best you could, when you sauntered up past the most imposing buildings in the land, to the General Office, to report. This was where you belonged, if not for long. This was where you got your orders, the place that issued those cryptic messages you might receive on your travels. Where to go, who to meet, who to impersonate. We seemed to be testing the options for benefit fraud a lot, recently: I had no objections, it usually meant more money in my pocket. Sometimes we were told to do some community service, watching the common citizens doing the same thing.
There was just one undercover assignment we dreaded, that of impersonating a criminal. The worst accommodation of all, and the least money, because we didn't even get the usual stipend: yet, at times, a comfort, because at least that accommodation was free, and familiar. The wording was always the same. “Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass G.O. Do not collect £200.”