“Hello, Mrs Smedley?” The man in overalls held out his laminated i.d. badge like an amulet. “You called us about your washing machine.”
Annabel Smedley looked the young man on her doorstep up and down.
“That’s right. Three days ago.”
“The thing is,” the young man flushed, as though embarrassed by the question he had to ask, “we sent one of our operatives to this address…”
“And, ah, no one’s heard from him since. Did our operative arrive at this address, Mrs, ah, Smedley?”
“Yes. Big fellow, smelled of onions. Nice enough, though.”
“So, he was here?”
“And he fixed your machine?”
“Well, not exactly, no.”
“What do you mean, Mrs Smedley?”
“I think you’d better come in.”
Annabel stepped aside so the young man could cross the threshold. She closed the door behind him and locked and chained it – you couldn’t be too careful these days.
She showed him to the kitchen and to the gleaming white box that was nestled under the sink unit. The drum was turning slowly, purring like a big cat but instead of water and clothes sloshing around inside it, there was a red glow like burning embers, coals in a floe of lava.
“It’s been like that for ages,” Annabel Smedley wrung her hands. “I don’t like to be any bother. But I had to call. I’m running out of clothes, you see.”
The young man crouched on the floor, peering at the machine. He could feel the heat coming from it like a kiln but, oddly, the plastic porthole and metal casings appeared unaffected. The brand name was unfamiliar to him: Inferno.
“He squat there just like you are now. He pushed all the buttons but he couldn’t make it stop.”
The young man glanced over his shoulder.
“Did he open the door, Mrs Smedley?”
“Well, no, not exactly…”
The young man stood up and faced her; she seemed anxious.
“You see, the door just opened by itself. He was standing right there, looking at me, just like you are now. And behind him the door swung open and I tried to warn him but I couldn’t speak. And the – the – machine seemed to just kind of yawn. It pulled him in, like a spider going up the vacuum cleaner pipe, and the door slammed shut. I could see his face pressed against the door. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes. Round and round he went, faster and faster, and then – poof! – out like a light.”
But the young man was no longer there to listen. During Mrs Smedley’s account, the machine had done exactly as she described. Mrs Smedley watched the young man spinning, one hand pressed against the inside of the door. And that look on his face – yes: it was just like the other man’s, the one who had smelled of onions.