Call me, Ishmael," said a voice on the answerphone. "I have something interesting to offer you. You know where I am. I know I can rely on your, er, discretion."
Ishmael's wife, Amelie, deleted the message. "If it's more Sussex Pinot Noir, we're not interested," she declared. "Far too sticky and jammy. People don't want that kind of thing any more. What happened to that vineyard in Cumbria we were dealing with? The one that did the Shiraz we liked?"
Ishmael peered out of the window at the protestors on the pavement and their familiar placards. "It's still on the approved list, but they've exceeded their production quota," he replied. "Whatever's left will be powering a detention centre by now. Or sold on the black market to people who've probably since been rounded up and placed in one."
The shop was known officially as Approved Alcohol Sales Centre 633, but the locals knew it as Ishmael's. Every day, from 4pm until 9pm, it did a steady business among the town's wealthier and more independent-minded citizens - people who didn't worry about being heckled and jeered by prohibitionists as they entered the shop.
Wine started at £40 a bottle, £30 of which was duty, so Ishmael and Amelie were not rich enough to afford much of what was on their own shelves.
Beer, capped at 4 per cent abv by the Department of Public Morals, sold more briskly, but sales were restricted to six cans per person per week.
Spirits were still luxury items, even though the maximum legal strength had been cut to 30 per cent abv in the recent Budget. Despite the reduction in alcohol, the government had not relaxed its pricing regime.
When Amelie unbolted the door at 3.59pm, Sol was already waiting outside. "Get my message?" he smiled. She ushered him inside.
"Why can't you just wait for us to call you?" she demanded, as Ishmael offered him a banana.
"Compliments of the house," he said. Fruit was supposed to account for a minimum of 25 per cent of the store's snack lines and the bananas were good quality, grown by a local farmer. But the Department of Public Morals' newest diktat demanded that at least 50 per cent of the fruit must be organic, and so Ishmael was faced with boxes of healthy produce he could not legally sell.
The three made self-conscious small-talk as customers drifted in. Nobody was served without presenting their electro-ID card, though younger customers tended to favour the skin chip. Amelie thought there was something distasteful about the way they brandished their forearm over the counter and their name, age and address appeared instantaneously on the till screen. One press of the "validate" key would reveal all their alcohol purchases over the past four years; their criminal convictions and any comments that may have been keyed in by a registered alcohol counsellor.
Ishmael was serving a young Libyan immigrant; there had been quite a few of them in since the country had joined the EU. The lad looked younger than 21, the minimum legal age for buying alcohol, but was actually 24. Ishmael saw on the screen that he had bought six bottles of light Cognac in the past three months and a dozen cans of lager, and was suspected (but not convicted) of being drunk in public just over a year ago. He was "medium risk".
Playing by the rules
Ishmael uttered the familiar mantra in a single breath. "You confirm that this alcohol is for your own personal consumption in a private place and that you are aware of the damage to your health that alcohol may cause and further you undertake not to harass, intimidate or otherwise inconvenience any other person after consuming the alcohol you are purchasing?"
The man nodded. "Sorry, you have to say it aloud," Ishmael insisted. The request was acceded to and the Libyan left with a cardboard-packaged Chinese Colombard.
Amelie watched the remaining customers with a mixture of envy and suspicion. There was talk about restricting entry to drinks retailing centres, using a retina recognition device to prevent criminals and problem drinkers getting on the premises in the first place.
Such people knew they would not be served in any licensed store, and supermarkets had long since been banned from retailing alcohol of any kind. But they were known to try their luck in shops like hers, grabbing whatever they could before making a run for it.
The problem was, Ishmael and Amelie could be fined and even shut down for allowing alcohol to be stolen. It counted as "unregulated distribution". The shop's licence was up for renewal in six months and a committee of local councillors, religious leaders and the Department of Public Morals' local chairman would be deciding whether it should be extended for another five years. Such committees tended to regard persistent shoplifting as a threat to community wellbeing and a sure sign of a badly managed business.
When the shop went quiet, Sol made his move. "Business good?" he enquired.
"As good as it can be when the government is regulating your profits," Ishmael shrugged. "And when half the retailers in the county are competing illegally. There are at least three places in this town where you can get export-strength Absolut. Not that watered-down rubbish we have to sell these days."
Sol smiled. "Off Licence News reckons vodka sales have never been higher. I know it's shocking that a private citizen can access the website of a state-run alcohol magazine but, as you know, I have contacts in high places."
A tempting offer
"Spittoon hasn't been very funny since OLN got nationalised," Amelie mused. "But anyway, Sol. What's this proposition you've got for us?"
Sol flipped open his mobile and a hologram of a bottle danced in front of them. It was recognisably vodka, but the technology was old and Amelie and Ishmael could not make out the small print.
"Christ, Sol," whispered Ishmael. "That looks like 42 per cent . We'd lose our licence on the spot if we got caught. And get sent to a Community Compensation camp."
Sol chuckled. "There's a lot of money to be made here, kids. This isn't any old vodka. This is the real deal - full-strength, single-varietal - made purely from one species of potato, but don't ask me to pronounce it. Goes for twice the price of the official stuff and they can't get enough of it in the Caucasus. And, being 'exclusive', there's no need to worry about little things like duty."
Ishmael looked at Amelie. Amelie looked at Ishmael. And, in an office just five miles away, via wireless technology and a pin-sized camera in Sol's jacket, a Department of Public Morals inspector looked at both of them. "Good work, Sol," he murmured. "Good work."