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1 - Arrival

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Phillens didn’t know why he had bothered to bring his coat. The bright sun asked again. Plus the sky, a soft gradient of azure, light and spectrum blue, with not a cloud in sight.

In either case, the questioning had led him to drape the coat over a shoulder. But then the shoulder drape had brought the issue of a warm microclimate. So folded and slung over an arm became the alternative. At least the sour fizz drop was stopping him from getting too deep into the coat business. That and having to cross yet another road. This had to be the sixth one along this stretch; appearing beyond a shop to his right like the others. Descending curbs like them too. Plus half-road, half-kerb cars; stepped-back houses; and more of that deep, soulful, cloudless sky.

A similar set of streets ran away towards the sun on the further side of the road Phillens was travelling along. But they were shorter and, from the two that he had spied so far, ended at north-facing houses. Then again, at least he had completed a street crossing without a near-miss with any vehicles. One in as many streets was enough. Three in three would have been too much.

In the case before last it hadn’t been a vehicle, but a Father Christmas chap. Without the boots, red and white jacket and cap. But with a beard, sunbeam-smile and an oncoming trolley. A frantic jump step to the right had got Phillens to safety. Only to find himself a step short from going into a herd of school children who would have left him for dead.

Or felt like it, he noted, stepping onto the far bank of the asphalt river and continuing along the next pavement. Now that he had crossed canal number six, he was going to have to pay more attention to the street names. Although he wasn’t sure if it had been canal six or seven. Montarion had said that Don-Julise was the seventh. But was that if you were coming from Ginsberry Road or the direction of the Bridge? And numbers didn’t mean a thing if every door you passed was either a restaurant, aquarium, barbers, or corner shop with not a number in…

Well, it was on a corner, he frowned, only the far side of yet another street crossing. One he hadn’t the faintest idea how he had reached the edge so quickly after the last called Fer-Julise. A shop with window displays that were not the latest properties of an estate agent. But did have a curve of seats like the waiting area of a barbershop. What looked to be a tortoise-paced goldfish was cruising across the nearest window; whilst Phillens took out the seenbetter-days card Montarion had given him the evening before last.

A card that also had a luminescent goldfish...

James & Jones: Intuitive Consultants.

Phillens had to look again. The second bit may as well have been spraystencilled on as an afterthought. Not only on the card but both illuminated shop signs too. A hoot from a piccolo train reached his ears. Only they didn’t run any more, and not from the inside of a shop. In fact, he couldn’t remember opening the door to go inside in the first place. Or the interior looking so spacious that a ball could travel in comfort from one side to the other. Not to mention the bright summer’s holiday music whilst the piccolo train flowed its way through tunnels, over viaducts and past leafy stations…

“Can I help you?” a voice asked.

Phillens almost choked. Ask wasn’t the word; yawned more like. The yawner didn’t have a counter, but a base of operations; with three mirror-smooth screens and a pilot’s chair. Indeed the train left the ground, and soared above the owner’s chair via a Millau-style bridge; accompanied by another whistle and hoot from the window-swimming goldfish; its bright outline mirrored on the side of the lady’s sunglasses.

“I can put you back outside if you want,” she continued, pushing a sweep of viola hair behind an ear. “Or even Ullista Road if you’re worried about not making the bus.”

“Sorry, it was, the train,” he began.

“The train?” the lady half-raised an eyebrow. “Sure it wasn’t a bus?”

“That train,” Phillens said, pointing at the pink and green locomotive now in the midst of a loop-the-loop.

“Oh…” the lady said, following the loop then lowering the eyebrow. “I suppose it’s an unusual sight on the first appointment.”

“Too right,” said Phillens, turning back to the lady. “Did you say first appointment?”

“You didn’t come last Wednesday,” the lady leaned forward. “Or the Wednesday before that. The pipsqueak assured me that he had taken everyone’s names down; all two of them.”

“But I was - led to believe - that it could be sorted in one appointment.”

“Montarion should know better,” the lady said, pressing a keypad. “We’re not a practice.”

“…You know M-Montarion?” Phillens managed to gasp. But the lady was holding up a mirror that had the same liquid effect as one of the screens. “Confirm name, status and whether you want to go ahead,” she said as Phillens stared, not at his reflection, but a flock of hot air balloons gliding over a park.

“Phillens Martens. Unsure, but wish to go ahead.”

“Well done,” the lady said as one of the screens brought up Phillens’s face, an Unsure tag and top three choices of toothpaste? “At least Mont’s briefed you on how to answer. So many can’t get past status.”

“You mean, that was a test?” said Phillens. Since when did he like mint-laced banana and he only used the sparkle gel as it didn’t set his mouth on fire.

The train, halfway through a double island crossing, hooted as if in answer; whilst a door slid open to the right of the desk.

“Room eleven,” the lady said, passing Phillens what looked to be a crystal golf-ball. “Listen as well as speak. And be truthful.”

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