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       Floors, p.1

           Patrick Carman
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  by Patrick Carman

  For Riley,

  whose imagination inspires me


  Title Page


  You will prosper in the field of wacky inventions


















  About the Author


  Merganzer Whippet was an impulsive young man of fifteen when he raced into his father’s room just in time to hear these fateful words. Merganzer had just finished his tenth consecutive year of boarding school, during which his father had been busy building a financial empire. Needless to say, the two had never been close.

  The words were not the sort of thing Merganzer’s father was known for saying. People close to the old man would have expected something like Buy cheap, sell high! And whatever you do, don’t squander the family fortune. But twelve seconds later, Walter E. Whippet was dead. You will prosper in the field of wacky inventions were the only words of advice Merganzer had been given.

  If only Merganzer had known they were spoken by a man who’d been talking gibberish for weeks.

  Things might have turned out differently.



  Leo Fillmore awoke to the sound of snipping. It was Mr. Phipps, the gardener, trimming and shaping the bushes outside the small window, his ghostly shadow moving across the basement walls. Every Monday at the crack of dawn, Mr. Phipps trimmed outside Leo’s window, the echo of the shears like a voice that seemed to say Wake up, wake up, wake up!

  Leo sat up in bed and thought first of his mother’s voice; then he thought of ducks and breakfast. After that, he remembered the one thing he’d hoped to forget in his sleep: Merganzer D. Whippet, the owner and creator of the Whippet Hotel, was gone. He’d been gone a long time — one hundred days and counting — and Leo was beginning to wonder if the man who’d built the most extraordinary hotel in the world would ever find his way back. He tried to set this thought aside as he watched Mr. Phipps’s shadow pass by.

  Leo was a small boy of ten, with a sizable blob of curly hair on top of his head. Were she still alive, his mother would have cut it months ago. Sometimes Mr. Phipps, who was quiet by nature, would look at Leo’s head like it was a tall green hedge that needed trimming.

  When Leo’s mother died, he and his father had moved into the basement boiler room from which the two of them took care of the Whippet Hotel. Five years later, it felt like the only home Leo knew. They slept on cots separated by a glugging Whirlpool washer. There was a desk made of cinder blocks with an old door for a top, piled high with tools and manuals and receipts. The basement window let in soft light and shadows. There were other, larger tools and boxes every where, and shelves full of old doorknobs and hotel parts. In the dampest, darkest corner of the basement sat a giant, leaking boiler.

  It may sound as if the basement of the Whippet Hotel was a shabby sort of place to live, but it was cozy and especially cool in the hot summer months. Leo loved the warm sounds and smells, his threadbare blanket, the tiny kitchen that folded down from one of the walls, and the gulping boiler that never seemed to sleep.

  As Mr. Phipps moved on, the sound of snipping growing softer outside the window, Leo tiptoed to the coffeemaker and the paint-splattered sink. Soon enough, the coffeepot filled the basement with the rich smell of morning, and Leo’s father started to stir. A few minutes later, Clarence and Leo Fillmore stood in their pajamas before the call center, taking stock of the day that lay ahead. The call center occupied all the space above the makeshift desk, and it was but one example of the strange and unusual things Mr. Whippet had created throughout the hotel. There were bells and buzzers and lights on the wall that flashed and spun. There was a horn with brass pipes that twisted all along the ceiling. There were dials, banks of buttons, and meters with water pressure readings and temperatures. And in the very center of it all was a shark’s head, its crooked teeth smiling gleefully. Under the shark’s head was the word Daisy, presumably the shark’s name. Daisy looked as if she had come blasting through the wall and gotten stuck there, forever cursed to deliver messages in the Whippet Hotel basement.

  “We’ve got about thirty seconds before she wakes up,” said Clarence Fillmore, slurping the coffee and scratching the gray stubble on his chin. Daisy’s eyes were closed as if she were in a dream, chasing a school of terrified goldfish. “We’d better get out of these pajamas.”

  Leo knew better than to doubt his dad’s intuition. Clarence Fillmore had an uncanny sense of timing when it came to the Whippet Hotel and its many needs, so Leo had already pulled on his maintenance overalls by the time the first message arrived.

  Daisy’s eyes opened wide and the sound of a ticker-tape machine filled the basement. Lights blinked yellow and green, a sign that whatever message Daisy was about to deliver was not a catastrophe. If a water main had burst or the air-conditioning had gone on the fritz, there would have been a siren wail and red lights, which were both very unpleasant at the crack of dawn.

  A thin strip of white paper, like an endless fortune out of a fortune cookie, curled out of Daisy’s mouth.

  “Ms. Sparks, as I suspected,” Clarence said, ripping the curling paper from the shark’s crooked teeth with his big hand. “It wouldn’t be Monday morning at the Whippet without her.”

  Leo took one end of the long, curled strip of paper in his hand and looked at it curiously. “I used to think Mr. Whippet was in charge of the orders, even if they came from someone else,” he said. “I guess I was wrong.”

  Clarence Fillmore looked at his son and felt a little sad for the boy.

  “You know Mr. Whippet wouldn’t leave for good without the ducks,” Clarence said. “Stay focused, Leo. It will take your mind off your troubles. And besides, the last thing we need is Ms. Sparks breathing down our necks all day.”

  Clarence Fillmore was a big, lumbering man, often slow to speak. Like a giant in the basement, he was constantly ducking under pipes and ductwork. Leo had long understood that these characteristics of his father’s made some people think Clarence was a simple maintenance man without much going on upstairs. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Taking care of a hotel, especially this hotel, required an encyclopedic understanding of architecture, machinery, cooling systems, heating systems, plumbing, duck control, and a million other things. Without his dad on the job, Leo suspected, the Whippet Hotel would probably keel over within a week.

  “A day without Ms. Sparks would be nice,” Leo said. “Sometimes I wish she’d go on vacation and never come back.”

  Ms. Sparks, who had become more and more demanding each day Mr. Whippet did not return, was the desk clerk and general manager of the hotel. She had long fingers for pointing out all the things Leo and his father hadn’t done, and she wore an outrageous beehive hairdo that seemed to say I am in charge here. Don’t cross me. Whenever Ms. Sparks gave a command to the maid or the gardener or anyone else, she leaned forward and gave them the evil eye, her great head of hair te
etering over whomever she was ordering around, casting a dark shadow.

  On this particular day, Ms. Sparks’s ticker-tape list of things to do was four feet long. Before Mr. Fillmore could read the entire thing, Daisy was at it again, only this time the paper was pink and the red siren was spinning and howling in the basement.

  Leo tore the ticker tape from the shark’s mouth and Mr. Fillmore flipped a switch on the call center, silencing the alarm.

  Leo read the pink message: The ducks are on the ledge!!

  Leo stared at his father, hoping against all hope he would be sent to the roof of the Whippet Hotel.

  “Did she use an exclamation point?” Clarence asked, sipping once again at his coffee and rubbing his temple.

  “Two of them,” Leo replied, handing over the pink ticker tape. His dad examined the note carefully.

  “The last thing we need is Betty wandering around the hotel, biting the guests. The sooner you get up there, the better.”

  Leo grabbed one of the hotel walkie-talkies and headed for the door before his dad could change his mind.

  “Hold on a second,” said Mr. Fillmore, and Leo thought for sure he would be told to work in the maintenance tunnel instead. He could already hear the order to fix the pipes on the third floor instead of walking the ducks.

  But Mr. Fillmore had something else in mind, something he hoped would raise his son’s spirits, if only a little. He stared at a panel of colored knobs and pressed a red one with the meaty palm of his hand. Then he typed some letters on a keypad and a key card began to emerge from the call center wall. Words were being etched onto the card as it came out, but Leo couldn’t see what they were.

  “This should do the trick,” Mr. Fillmore said, handing Leo the key card. “Just be careful. And buckle up this time. We don’t want any more bloody noses so early in the week. You know how Ms. Sparks overreacts.”

  Leo had held many Whippet Hotel key cards, which were about the size and shape of a credit card. But each Whippet Hotel key card was special. For starters, no one but Merganzer D. Whippet knew how they were made or what they did. It was rumored they tracked the recipient’s every move, monitored vital signs, even read minds. If you had a long-stay room at the Whippet, you had a yellow key card. A short-stay card was green.

  Clarence Fillmore and Ms. Sparks had blue key cards, which opened many doors. And then there were the red Whippet cards, like the one Leo held in his hand. These were one-time-use key cards. Once they were inserted into a wall or a door, they vanished.

  There was one other card — the silver key card — that Mr. Whippet kept in his pocket on a matching silver chain. This card opened every single room in the hotel … even the secret rooms that almost no one had ever seen.

  The edges of Leo’s red key card were lined with wispy shapes and lines, and in the center were the words To the Roof, Pronto! No finer words had ever been printed on a Monday morning.

  “The Double Helix?” Leo whispered, excitement welling up in his voice.

  “You know what Pronto! means — now get going before I change my mind,” said Mr. Fillmore.

  A few seconds later, Leo was running up the basement stairs into the lobby of the Whippet Hotel, thinking what a perfect Monday morning it was turning out to be.

  Usually, when it was time to walk the ducks, Leo used the duck elevator to make the long climb up to the roof. The duck elevator was a contraption very much like a regular elevator, only shorter, narrower, slower, and bursting with the aroma of wet feathers. But this was an emergency — time was of the essence — and that meant he’d have to use a different, more secret way to the top of the Whippet Hotel.

  Leo stood before Ms. Sparks and felt the shadow of her beehive hairdo as he held out the Whippet key.

  “It’s a Pronto! key card,” Leo explained. “See, it says so, right there.”

  Ms. Sparks’s pencil-thin eyebrows went up as she lurched forward over her desk, reading glasses dangling precariously on the very tip of her nose. Then, as was her custom, she delicately pinched the Whippet key card and tugged it out of the boy’s hand. She scratched the card with a fingernail to test its authenticity.

  Once the key card had passed inspection, Ms. Sparks chided, “If Betty bites another guest, I’m blaming you.”

  Betty was the head duck, a real troublemaker when she wanted to be, but Leo knew how to keep her calm and happy. Ms. Sparks hated ducks — Betty in particular — and she loathed the maintenance crew, otherwise known as Leo and Clarence Fillmore.

  “Don’t worry about Betty,” Leo said. “I can handle her. I brought treats.”

  Leo patted the front pocket of his overalls just to be sure he had what he needed. While he did, the new summer bellboy began creeping ever so slowly away from the front door toward them. His mom was Pilar, the hotel maid. She’d been with the Whippet a long time, but this was the first summer her son had been allowed to work at the hotel.

  The boy arrived at Leo’s shoulder, staring down at the key card.

  “You have a Pronto! card,” said the boy. “Lucky.”

  Leo nodded and tried not to smile with too much excitement at the shorter, darker-skinned kid in the spiffy red uniform. How did he even know about Pronto! cards?

  “Remi, door, now!” barked Ms. Sparks, and the new boy hightailed it back to his post, where he stood staring morosely at the floor, glancing up now and again to see what was about to happen. Leo felt sorry for him, stuck as he was in the lobby with Ms. Sparks all day. The poor guy must be cursed.

  Ms. Sparks turned to a bright green statue of a frog on her desk. It had a big belly, like a frog Buddha, and it was laughing. She placed the card in a slot right about where the frog’s belly button would be if it had one, and the card disappeared. This sent two orange marbles shooting out of the frog’s head toward the ceiling, landing perfectly on two metal tracks that swished and turned wildly overhead. Watching the marbles make their way down the tracks gave Leo a chance to take in the entire lobby. The space was dominated by huge green plants carved into the shapes of animals, set against purple walls. There was an elevator with polished gold doors — strictly for guests — and a wide, ornate staircase with a red carpet and dark wood banisters.

  The orange marbles followed the tracks to a green giraffe, twisting around its neck until they hit a long straightaway and disappeared into two holes above a little orange door. The door creaked open ever so slightly and Ms. Sparks leaned over the desk, once more giving Leo a look of death. The new bellboy stole a longing glance at the orange door, but didn’t have the courage to come closer.

  “Do NOT, under any circumstances, put a duck in there,” Ms. Sparks commanded sternly. “If you have a duck on your person, use the duck elevator.”

  “Yes, ma’am,” said Leo. “No ducks where ducks don’t belong. I wouldn’t think of it.”

  Captain Rickenbacker, who had shown up two years ago and hadn’t left the building since, entered the lobby with his red cape flapping behind him. He was a technology millionaire many times over, but he’d grown weary of the stress and the computer screens. Ms. Sparks liked to say he’d gone a little off his rocker, but Leo wasn’t so sure. Captain Rickenbacker had fallen head over heels for the hotel from the moment he’d stepped foot into the lobby. He loved the Whippet Hotel. It made him happy. It made him content. And so he had stayed — two years running — on the third floor, in one of the oddest rooms in the hotel.

  Leo knew better than to get into a conversation with Captain Rickenbacker — it could take a long time — so he quickly opened the small orange door and went inside. He looked back at the bellboy, who gave him a thumbs-up. Leo returned the gesture and closed the orange door behind him.

  Once the door was shut, Leo knew what to do. He’d been inside several times before, always with Mr. Whippet. Being alone now made him miss Merganzer Whippet even more.

  Leo put these thoughts aside and walked the few short steps in the near darkness to a seat next to a set of twisting poles that seemed
to rise endlessly into the dark above. Sitting on the seat made the poles glow dimly — one orange, the other red — and suddenly the tunnel leading up was full of white dots, like stars in the sky.

  This is going to be good, Leo thought, first buckling himself in with the seat belt, then pulling the shoulder bar down. It felt like being on a roller coaster, only better, because Leo knew what came next. No sooner was he strapped in than the Double Helix, which is what Mr. Whippet called it, sent Leo twisting up the center of the Whippet Hotel like a wound-up bolt of lightning. His face felt like it was melting as the Double Helix flew up and up, rounding the glowing poles as it went, arriving at the roof in five seconds flat. Stopping was almost as fun as taking off, and it was the main reason wearing the seat belt was a good idea.

  I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that, even when I’m a hundred years old, Leo thought. He’d arrived on the roof right next to the pond, from where three ducks observed him curiously. They all had the same iridescent green heads, bright orange beaks, and black and white feathers.

  “Step away from the ledge, Betty,” Leo said as he got out of the Double Helix and walked slowly toward the other side of the pond. The roof was open-air, and Betty, the largest duck of the six and the only one with all black feathers, had convinced two other ducks to join her on the ledge.

  “I have treats,” said Leo, digging into his front pocket and pulling out three slices of pumpernickel bread. Betty was off the ledge in a flash, followed by the other two, and then by three more swimming out of the pond. Now Leo was surrounded by all six ducks, each of them quacking for some pumpernickel.

  “What you really need is a good long walk on the grounds,” said Leo, tearing off bits of dark bread as he inched his way toward the duck elevator. Betty and the other ducks were like dogs, really — if they had a good long walk every day and they got fed, they were happy on the roof. But if they were left alone for too long, they grew restless and irritable. They’d fly down to the lobby and start biting people.

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