"If Babylon is a dark dream from another age, it's also very much our own.'"
"Dark, edgy and inflected with just the right degree of lyricism."
"... an examination of the human spirit, a darkened mirror that reflects the true nature of the struggle, not only for survival, but for civilization.
We Know Where You Live
by Matt Finucane
"No," said Wallace, shoulder wedged against the door, "I'm not letting you in."
"That's inadvisable, sir. We are authorised to inspect the premises, and by law -"
"So you keep saying. First of all, I want to see some ID."
The thickset, greying man on the doorstep glanced at his colleague, a tall thin ginger-haired man, both of them dressed in dark green, and they shared a minute head-shake as if in disbelief at this piece of impertinence.
He began what sounded like a rote speech. "I have explained the situation, sir, but if you insist I can attest that we are accredited officers of the Axial Emissions Authority, and are obliged "
"I don't care. I'm not budging and this door doesn't come off the chain till I've seen some proper identification. And once you've done that, perhaps you can 'explain' exactly who the Axial Emissions Authority are." Wallace was careful to keep his tone quiet and his language moderate; God knew what they might be allowed to do if he started shouting and swearing, much as he wanted to.
"Very well, sir. Let's not make this any more difficult than necessary."
Who, you two or me? thought Wallace, watching as the man reached into his jumpsuit. Again, he bit his lip. Just find out what these clowns wanted and, if possible, send them on their way. Besides, the other one was hanging back silently and watching him, as if calculating how far Wallace could be induced to cooperate. "A little closer please. I can't see it properly if you just wave it like that."
The man steadied and raised the card by a fraction of an inch. It was still hard to read, but nothing could have made Wallace put his hand out to take it for a proper look; he had a ridiculous but strong feeling that if he did, they'd grab hold of his arm.
The card was thick white plastic, a blurry photograph in one corner, a logo, a string of what looked like numbers.
"That's not very helpful. It doesn't seem to give me your name, for instance." It was getting harder and harder to keep the sarcastic bite out of his voice, a sarcasm that could quickly tip over into outright hostility. "I'm closing the door now. If you're still outside in one minute - no, half a minute - I'm calling the police. Clear?"
"I'm glad you mentioned the police, sir. I must inform you that if you do not admit us to the premises, we are empowered to return with a police officer, who will have a search warrant."
"Then you can go do that, for all I care," said Wallace, and slammed the door.
As he watched through a corner of the curtains, the men shrugged and got into a dark green van whiskered with aerials. They sat in it for a moment, studying a clipboard, then drove away.
When they came back two days later, Wallace let them in.
"I'm glad you've decided to be reasonable, sir."
"It looks like I don't have much choice. I checked up on you people -"
The man frowned. "Did you not read the letters? We've been sending you notifications for several months about inspections in your area."
"I thought they were junk mail; binned them. I'm too old to waste my time on form letters and rubbishy brochures." Wallace suppressed any note of apology in his voice. Besides, they were just standing on the doormat gormlessly, letting in a cold breeze, and failing not to be obvious they were giving his hallway the once-over.
"But they're clearly marked as official correspondence."
"So's most junk mail nowadays. You might try a more efficient way of getting in touch with people."
The second man looked momentarily offended, but still said nothing.
The other, who'd clearly heard this before, said "A visit with a search warrant or a court order would've been even more official, sir. It's always nice when we don't need to go that far."
"Just come in and stop wasting my heating, will you. For your information, I called the local police. They weren't very helpful, so I told them I'm certainly going to complain about your heavy-handed way of carrying on. It must be borderline illegal, but they vouched for you anyway."
The front door clicked shut and they crowded into the hallway by the stairs. The second man glanced down at the small telephone table and studied the mail spread out on it.
Another rote speech from the grey-haired man. "There are channels available to you if you wish to make a complaint. Firstly -"
"Never mind all that now: but don't think I've forgotten either. Just get on with it. I assume you know what you're looking for."
The man grunted as if this were unworthy of comment and they all walked toward the living-room.
"Live alone, sir?" The deadpan way this was said somehow made it seem an insinuation.
"Not that it's any of your business, but yes, my wife and I divorced a year ago."
"And she left you the axial converter, did she? Very generous."
"Look, what is an axial converter?"
Both men stared at him silently for a full and very heavy five seconds, maybe ten. Then the spokesman said, "By law, every household's axial converter has to be checked for non-phase emissions. Every household has one." It was as close to expression as his voice had yet come; and the tone told Wallace, Don't try and be funny.
"They're usually in here," said the man, sniffing in a satisfied way as they entered the living-room and looked around.
"I'm perfectly serious," said Wallace. "Will you please explain to me what an axial converter is? Is it part of the electrical wiring, part of the fabric of the house, what?"
With an obvious effort at staying poker-faced, the man said, "Please let's not waste time, sir. We hear all kinds of bizarre excuses in this job. You'll be telling us you don't have one next."
"But I'm sure I don't."
The second man spoke, reedy-voiced and sour with triumph. "What's that, then?" He pointed into a corner.
In the corner was something Wallace had never seen before.
It was about four feet high, a translucent, bright blue egg, glowing softly and regularly. The pulses of light seemed to ripple the walls around it slightly.
"I I don't know," said Wallace. "I swear to you I don't know what that thing is. It wasn't there a minute ago."
Secure in his rightness, the first man now let his voice drop a few notches toward insulting, while his colleague grinned. "Come off it, sir. You can try, but you can't deny - and I must say, that's got to be the most feeble excuse of the lot. And you'll still have to pay the fine. But that's a matter for the magistrates."
Before Wallace could respond, both men crouched before the glowing object and brought out hand-held meters and screwdrivers. "Now let's check this baby."
"Emissions, you said," Wallace suddenly realised.
"That's what it's for," the first man snapped, all pretence at patience dropped.
"But what kind of emissions?"
"Good ones, obviously. Unless they're non-phase, which, you'll be glad to hear, it looks pretty much like yours aren't."
"I still don't understand. What emissions?"
Both men straightened up, dusting off their hands. "It's a bit late to be playing the innocent," said the spokesman.
"But I don't " Wallace made a gesture half surrender, half denial. "I don't want it, whatever it is. Switch it off."
"We can't do that," said the second man incredulously. "Don't be crazy. Have you any idea what'll happen?"
"I don't care. Switch it off."
The men silently consulted for a moment, then the spokesman produced a notepad. "Individual requests disconnection of converter. Duly noted, time, date, fair warning given, blah blah blah. Okay then."
He nodded to the other man, who went and did something to the top of the blue egg.
For Wallace, everything stopped.
"Got the date-stamp?" asked the spokesman.
His workmate nodded and produced a rubber stamp and inkpad. The other man took it, stamped the page he'd written, then walked over to Wallace who lay prone and unseeing on the carpet, mouth hanging open.
He angled the neck carefully, then stamped the date on Wallace's forehead. They let themselves out of the house.