The Phil Phorce is a fictional periodical featuring my favorite characters from my own writing. It comes out in episodes, once every three months or so. To find out more and to read previous episodes, please go to these two pages: About the Phils and the Phil Phorce. Please enjoy Phil Phorce, Episode 6: Soap Opera.
They took Gologer to the Blanks’ headquarters, all of the Phils scrunched together on the big black pad stretched across the dragon’s back. Percival was quite proud of it, actually—he had designed it himself, and it seemed to be holding up well.
“Do you think I could move forward?” shouted Quirk from the rear, where he was half on, half off the pad. He looked kind of funny with his face screwed up against the wind and his knuckles white as the clouds.
Percival waved him off, grinning. Yes, he was pleased with himself.
The Blanks’ headquarters looked like a warehouse from the outside, surrounded by others just like it in the small coastal city. The city sprawled along the Gulf of Mexico, having formerly been a primary shipping port. Most of the warehouses were now empty.
Gologer landed heavily on the wide, flat roof where a small team of Blanks waited for them. Percival dismounted the dragon and approached them.
“Percival,” said one. Percival recognized his voice from the phone. “Thank you for coming.”
“Just paying a debt,” said Percival.
Quirk approached, massaging his fingers. “Next time, I want a different position,” he said. He shook the general’s hand. “Good to see you, Jordan.”
Jordan nodded. “Your dragon can hide in the warehouse to your left. We’ll bring in some cows for him.”
Gologer grunted in appreciation and bounded away.
“Come in,” said Jordan. He led the way inside.
“The missing man, Christopher, is one of our most effective recruiters. He’s in charge of the first step of the orientation process, making sure the recruits know who we are and what we do. After that, he sends them off for training. Between dismissing one recruit and calling in another, Christopher disappeared.” Jordan led the way into a gym of sorts, with all sorts of fitness equipment. Percival counted nine treadmills and one device that looked like a bobbing-for-apples simulator.
“According to his last recruit, Riley,” Jordan said, gesturing to an embarrassed young man sitting on a weight lifting bench, “he was cleaning up a spilled coffee just before he disappeared. He went into this bathroom for paper towels and hasn’t been seen since.” Jordan opened the bathroom door and gestured inside.
The bathroom was normal, for the most part. The trash can was overflowing with paper towels and there was no soap near the sink, but nothing looked odd except the floor.
It looked to Percival like a desert in miniature. Small, brown piles of dust were scattered across the floor like sand dunes, drifting slightly in the draft from the doorway. Percival gestured for Quirk to take a look.
“There was a monster in the plumbing,” said Quirk. “It’s obvious, really—your man flushes something offensive down the loo, which angers the monster, who pops up and swallows him whole. The monster then does a bit of dusting and sweeps it up into these piles here. Anyone could see that.”
“And anyone but an idiot could tell it wasn’t true,” said Percival.
“It happened in a book once,” said the old lady. “Minus the dusting.”
“Perhaps the guy dusted all over, swept it into little piles, then climbed out the window,” said Sebase. “We already know he was a clean freak—who in their right mind would clean up a coffee spill?”
“Was he in his right mind?” Phume asked Jordan.
“Of course,” said Jordan. “We wouldn’t let him recruit if he was loony.”
“I knew a duck who was loony, and they still let him be a duck,” said Quirk. “Never underestimate the power of loons.”
“Maybe we’re looking at this the wrong way,” said Steve. “Perhaps the sand came from this guy after he was brutally murdered. Do Blanks bleed sand?”
“No,” said Jordan.
“Have you analyzed the dust?” asked Percival.
“We’ve looked it over with a magnifying glass a couple times, but we don’t have the equipment we would need to figure out its chemical makeup.”
“I still think this guy was brutally murdered,” said Steve. “All the signs point to it.”
“Where’s his blood, then?”
“Cleaned up by the murderer. This linoleum is easy to wash.”
“We don’t get murdered,” said Jordan. “Unless it’s our destiny to die like that, we don’t suffer from intentional attacks.”
“Perhaps it was his destiny to sweep the place, then die,” said Feiron.
“His body would still be here, and there wouldn’t be any dust,” said Jordan.
“What’s the point of this?” asked Percival. “The Blanks aren’t even human—why are you so set on figuring out what happened to this guy?”
“If he was killed, it was not the way Blanks normally die,” said Jordan. “That means someone has the power to kill us when they wish, and we need to know about it.”
Phoenix had been examining the piles of dust. “Guys,” she said. “He was teleported away.”
“But there wouldn’t be any dust then either,” said Quirk. “Just a bright flash of light and a zooming noise, and they’re gone.”
“Like the time machine from that one show,” said Sebase. “Nurse What.”
“No, teleportation like you use,” said Phoenix, nodding at Jordan. “You teleported Liam and I into the Castle Under the Cloud.”
“I remember,” said Jordan.
“When Liam went, he basically crumbled into dust, which collected in piles where his feet used to be.”
“We don’t know exactly what that dust comes from, but we’ve hypothesized it comes from a shed layer of skin that doesn’t teleport with their former owner. Why the clothes go along and the skin doesn’t, we don’t quite know.”
“Well, fascinating,” said Percival. “It seems to me like we’re finished here. You know what happened to your man, so we’re done, right?”
“Our agreement was to find the person who did this,” said Jordan. “And now that we know he’s still alive, we need to at least try to get him back.”
“You can do that, can’t you?”
“I think we should keep working,” said Quirk. “I’m having a blast, and I wouldn’t want to pay half a debt.” He stared at Percival for a moment. “Do you have something to say, or would you like me to remind you that I’m your superior?”
“In that case, I think we need to examine your teleporting machine,” said Quirk. “But we can get started on the rest of it as we do that. In order to be teleported away, he would need to touch something, correct?”
Jordan nodded. “Ours looks like two metal pillars.”
“So something in this bathroom caused him to teleport,” said Quirk. “We need a list of your suppliers for appliances, soap, water, paper towels, whatever you have in there.”
Jordan called over Riley, the recruit. “Want to be useful?” Riley nodded. “Good. We should have records of bathroom appliance purchases. Find every such record back three years and bring them to us.”
Riley nodded and raced off.
Quirk turned to Jordan. “Once we have that list, Percival can take a few people and check out some of the major manufacturers. While he’s doing that, we need to look at that teleporter. We should be able to solve this quickly.” Quirk grinned at Percival. “Have fun.” He followed Jordan to the teleporter.
“Hello,” said Percival. “Do you mind giving me your name and the name of your company?” He and the old lady sat down in front of the desk. The chairs were extremely soft and reminded Percival of Monty Python.
“I’m Marcus Callaway, the CEO of Dyslex Soap Company. Have a brochure.”
The old lady took one, but Percival declined.
“And what do you make?” asked Percival.
“We’re the Dyslex Soap Company,” said Marcus. “We make soap. It says so in the brochure.”
“Have you ever sold any soap to a group called the Blanks?” asked Percival.
Marcus tapped on his computer and brought up some past orders. “Yes. They order from us regularly. Our last shipment was a week and a half ago.”
“Do you know anything about the Blanks?”
“No, we usually don’t investigate our customers,” said Marcus. “Why? Are they in trouble?”
“They’re under investigation,” said Percival. He was pretending to be FBI, which was working quite well. “What kinds of soap do you make?”
“We make antibacterial hand soaps, everything from well-loved types like clementine to lesser known herbal scents like dragonwort. Fewer people go for the lesser known things—between you and me, they tend to smell like grass.”
“Amazing what marketing comes up with these days,” said Percival blandly.
“Isn’t it? Just last week, they came to me for approval for a plan to make cilantro soap. I’m not even sure what cilantro smells like, but I didn’t approve it. I wash my hands of their marketing ploys.”
“Indeed. What do the Blanks usually order?”
“They usually order plain, generic soap, but on the last order it seems they tried dragonwort.”
None of the companies they had interviewed thus far had appeared to have anything to do with Christopher’s mysterious disappearance, and this was no different. Why did Quirk get the exciting job with examining teleporters while he had to interview businessmen?
“Thank you,” said Percival, standing and shaking Marcus’s hand. “We’ll be in touch.”
“Here’s a sample of our dragonwort soap,” said the optimistic CEO, handing the old lady a small packet. “Try it and see what you think.” He waved as they left.
Percival whistled for Gologer. While he waited, he flipped open his phone and dialed Quirk.
“This is getting nowhere,” he said before Quirk finished his greeting.
“Nice to hear from you too,” said Quirk. “I assume you’ve had no luck.”
“Come on back, then. We may have found something.”