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       Floors, p.10

           Patrick Carman
 
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  “I’ll tell you what we’ll do,” he said. “I need to check in with Dad and fix the trouble on seven. That shouldn’t take more than an hour. We’ll tell your mom we need to get to the roof and fast or Betty and the rest of the ducks will revolt —”

  “I see where you’re going,” Remi interrupted. “We’ll get the green box on the way up, then split up on the way down in the duck elevator.”

  “You walk the ducks, I’ll finish my work, then we meet in the Central Park Room —”

  “— where we’ll find the blue box and rescue Blop from the Railroad Room!”

  Leo hadn’t thought about the part that included rescuing the robot, but they could cross that bridge when they came to it. Remi gave him the note that was in the envelope attached to the gold dragon ring, and the two boys leaned in close over the makeshift magnifying glass.

  “How could anyone write so small?” asked Remi, but he was beginning to understand that a great many strange things could be found in the Whippet Hotel.

  “That’s odd,” said Leo. “No one has stayed in that room for years.”

  “What’s odd? What does the note say?”

  Leo put his eye to the glass and read the note aloud.

  “ ‘You are cordially invited to a dinner party on eight. Arrive 8 sharp. Do not be late! MR. M.’ “

  “It has to be Merganzer! He’s here,” said Remi. “He’s come back.”

  But Leo wasn’t so sure. There had been clues, but could it really be him, moving around in the hotel, secretly setting things in motion? He added things up in his head:

  There had been someone in the Room of Rings or the Ring of Rooms.

  Captain Rickenbacker had been sure of seeing his imaginary archnemesis, MR. M.

  A dark figure had appeared in the Central Park Room.

  Someone had set the train in motion.

  And now this: A very tiny invitation to a dinner party on the only haunted floor of the hotel. It was all quite mad, really, but more than that, there was something about the whole business that didn’t feel like Merganzer D. Whippet at all.

  “I think there’s something else going on here,” Leo said, stepping to the call center to make a red Double Helix key card. “And I think you and I are going to get to the bottom of it.”

  “I’m with you,” Remi said, standing up and putting the gold dragon ring in his jacket pocket. “Just tell me one thing. What’s on the eighth floor?”

  Leo handed Remi the red key card and started for the door.

  “It’s the Haunted Room. Didn’t you know?”

  Remi’s face went pale. He hated ghosts and ghouls of any kind.

  “No one’s stayed on the eighth floor since I came here with my dad five years ago.”

  “Perfect,” said Remi, but he was feeling better. As they came out of the basement, he could see the orange door that led to the Double Helix. He knew he was about to fly up the middle of the hotel.

  Now that was the kind of thrill he liked.

  The trouble with putting ponds in a hotel room is that they require constant care. Merganzer D. Whippet had long visited the ponds daily in order to keep every thing just so, but he’d been gone a hundred and one days and counting, which was a long time when it came to ponds. Not only had Leo been put in charge of walking the ducks every day in Merganzer’s absence, he’d also been tasked with keeping the ponds in working order. He had, in the past few days, done a poor job.

  It was for this reason that Leo had not been surprised to see the note from his dad: Trouble with the fish. Ms. Pompadore had been staying in the Room of Ponds and Caves since her arrival. It had long been one of the most popular and expensive rooms, and Leo had to admit, it was a magnificent place to spend an afternoon.

  “You see why I called,” said Ms. Pompadore, holding Hiney in one arm and a drink with a tiny umbrella in the other. There were seven ponds, all of which were shooting water from broken valves or pipes.

  “Yes, ma’am,” said Leo. “I can see why you called.”

  Leo had with him his pond tools: a retractable net, a hose with a latch that would let in fresh water from the maintenance tunnel, and a vest from which hung all sorts of wrenches, picks, and hammers.

  “I’m going into the theater,” said Ms. Pompadore. “Come see me when you’ve finished and I’ll have a tip for you.”

  Leo had to work not to roll his eyes, because Ms. Pompadore’s idea of a tip was usually in the range of a nickel and a lint-covered gum ball.

  Ms. Pompadore set Hiney down, and the dog began to bark and run around the biggest of the seven ponds. Leo took a long look around, breathing in the deep green air as a blue dragonfly flew past. Paths wound all about the seven ponds in the room and wooden bridges crossed over the tops of each pool, from which a guest could look down on the lily pads, the jumping frogs, and the colorful fish. The walls of the room were made of jagged black stone, where three large openings appeared. One led into the bedroom, another into a sunken pool and spa, and the last into a theater cave where guests could watch reality television or movies.

  “Move aside, Leroy, and I mean it,” said Leo. All the ponds were full of giant fish called koi, and Leroy was the biggest of the bunch. In the time that Merganzer had been gone, Leroy had gotten downright scary — four feet long and fatter than a king-size watermelon. The only way he would let you pass without spitting water in your face was if you fed him hard candies, which Leo did. He tossed a handful of candy to one side and Leroy swam lazily away.

  When Leo arrived at the pump, he found that it was blocked, one of the medium-size fish having gotten close enough to be sucked inside. Its tail was still wagging, a good sign, but getting it out would be impossible without the hose.

  Leo moved a rock on the edge of the pond and found a plastic pipe, which he jammed the hose into. Then he turned it on full blast and the fish burst out of the pump and out of the water. If there were such a thing as a screaming fish, this fish would qualify. Hiney watched the fish spin through the air and belly flop into the pond, and started barking all over again. Leo fed Leroy another handful of candy and inspected one of the green plastic pipes, which was spewing water all over one of the paths like a broken sprinkler. He’d need to turn off the water and wrap the pipe in a special kind of tape that Merganzer had given him.

  It took almost another hour to fix all seven ponds, and somewhere along the way Leo began to wonder about such a large number of problems. Pipes were known to crack, but this was ridiculous. All seven ponds at once?

  “I’ve finished,” said Leo, peeking into the theater cave when at last he’d fixed every pipe. Ms. Pompadore sat on a giant couch, watching a show that appeared to be about training dogs. This struck Leo as ironic, since Hiney was the least obedient dog he’d ever seen in his life.

  “Be a doll and come back again tomorrow,” said Ms. Pompadore, her eyes never leaving the big-screen TV. “Those pipes are breaking by the hour.”

  “You should stop feeding Leroy,” said Leo, feeling terrible for having fed the giant fish himself. “He’s getting too big.”

  Ms. Pompadore ignored Leo for a moment, then shook her eyeballs free of the TV.

  “Did you say something?”

  Leo shook his own head, hoping not to get into a long conversation with a bored Texas socialite.

  “I’ve left a loaf of pumpernickel on the table for Leroy,” she said, turning back to the show. “Be a dear and feed him on your way out. But don’t give any to Hiney — he’s on a diet.”

  Leo’s eyebrows went up as he turned and started for the door. No wonder Leroy was getting so big; Ms. Pompadore was feeding him entire loaves of bread.

  As he passed over the wooden bridges and looked in at the orange-and-white fish swimming lazily in the ponds, Leo was certain that someone had been in the room before him, making all the trouble with the pipes.

  But who?

  It was seven thirty, and for the first time all day, everything in the Whippet Hotel was calm. It had taken
Leo and his dad until then to do as Ms. Sparks demanded upon her return from errands: “Put every guest request to rest!”

  Not a bad turn of phrase for such a serious woman, and Leo had felt the distinct sense that Ms. Sparks was in an unusually good mood. Maybe it was because dinner on the lawn had been cancelled due to lack of interest from the guests. This was a common occurrence given that there were six thousand restaurants one could visit in Manhattan and rich people were notorious foodies, always on the hunt for the next great restaurant. Food on the lawn at the Whippet was fine, but more than a few times a week was simply unimaginable, even for Captain Rickenbacker and Theodore Bump, who liked to order in from the finest establishments that would deliver.

  And so it was that the Whippet was quiet as the hour of the dinner party arrived. Almost everyone, it seemed to Leo, was out at a restaurant of their own or holed up in their rooms playing pinball or writing romance novels.

  “My dad is in the basement, but I’ve brought the purple box,” Leo whispered into his radio. “Can you sneak away?”

  Remi was still at the door and would be expected there all the way up until eight, when Ms. Sparks would finally relieve him of his duty.

  “Ms. Sparks is doing that head-bobbing thing, you know what I mean?”

  “Seen it a thousand times,” Leo answered. Usually around seven o’clock, Ms. Sparks became sleepy. Her head would lean forward until the giant beehive pointed at the door and then she’d pop back up again. The back and forth usually lasted about a half hour.

  “Be right there,” Remi said, and the radio went silent.

  Leo was waiting on top of the duck elevator with the green and purple boxes. When he heard Remi enter the duck elevator below, there was only one question on Leo’s mind.

  “Did you get the blue box?”

  “Leo?” Remi whispered. “Where are you?”

  “Up here,” said Leo staring down through the trapdoor. “Shut the door and get up here — we’ve only got a few minutes before Ms. Sparks goes looking for you.”

  Leo didn’t see the blue box until Remi leaned out of the small space and pulled it in with him, handing it up through the hole.

  “Nice work, Remi! You had me worried there for a second.”

  “Still no Blop, but at least we have the box back.”

  Remi closed the elevator and climbed up through the hole, sitting with his legs dangling back into the elevator.

  “Better close the door up, just in case,” said Leo. The last thing they needed was Ms. Sparks discovering the duck elevator had a secret door in its ceiling. The less she knew, the better.

  Leo slid the blue box on top of the purple box, and Remi did the honors, pushing the green box into a set of slots atop the stack.

  “They fit together just like we’d hoped,” said Remi, sliding the elevator door shut and looking at the off-kilter collection of stacked boxes. “It’s starting to look like the Whippet, don’t you think?”

  Leo had been thinking the same thing and nodded his agreement. The two boys stood up then, staring at the top of the green box.

  “Here goes,” said Leo, and he tried once more to slide the top off the box. This time it worked, and Leo pointed his maintenance flashlight inside.

  “Whoa,” Remi whispered, shadows and light filling the box. “It looks so real.”

  Leo didn’t say anything at all, but he was just as mesmerized as Remi was. They’d opened a box to another world, and Leo could think of only one thing: I hope we get to go there.

  Inside were three main things that caught the eye: a junkyard, a field of flowers, and lots of flying objects. The junkyard was filled with tiny broken-down cars, refrigerators, motors, and a thousand other objects in rolling piles. Leo leaned in very close, practically putting his head inside the green box, and saw tiny towers that reminded him of the teetering stacks of newspaper that stood next to his dad’s cot, leaning as if they might fall at any moment. Remi reached in and touched one of the stacks of paper and found they weren’t really paper at all, but small painted sculptures. Prehistoric metal creatures appeared to fly around the box, held up by wires, and the field of flowers covered half the floor with dazzling colors.

  “This is a very strange box,” said Remi. “What’s it mean?”

  Leo wasn’t sure, so he pointed the flashlight to the underside of the lid, hoping for some clues. He was not disappointed.

  “It’s another note from Merganzer D. Whippet,” said Leo, and then he read it out loud.

  A dark and dangerous path you seek.

  Beware the holes, the bugs, the peak!

  A flying goat will be of use.

  Tipping cows, a ghost, apple juice.

  Time is short, tonight’s the night.

  When all have gathered, make your flight!

  M.D.W.

  PS. To get a Flying Farm key card, visit the slug cave, turn the goat two times around, push.

  Remi looked stricken. All this talk of haunted rooms and ghosts and dangerous paths was starting to make him nervous. “How well did you really know Mr. Whippet?” he asked.

  “Pretty well,” said Leo. The two had been very close, which had made it all the more confusing and painful when Merganzer had suddenly disappeared without so much as a note.

  “‘A dark and dangerous path,’” said Remi. “Beware the holes and bugs? A ghost and a flying goat? You have to admit, it sounds like he’s not the most normal duck in the pond.”

  “And you didn’t mention the Flying Farm key card, which is super rare. Know what else?”

  “What?”

  “I’ve been in the slug cave. It’s in the Haunted Room.”

  “Perfect.”

  Just then, the gate to the duck elevator swooshed open below them and Ms. Sparks’s voice boomed into the tiny space. “Remi! Door! Now!”

  The two boys didn’t move a muscle in their hiding spot on top of the duck elevator. What if Ms. Sparks got hold of the boxes? What if she figured out what was going on? It would be the end of their adventure, the end of Remi working at the door, the end of Leo’s dad working at the Whippet Hotel.

  It would be the end of every thing.

  There was a stillness below, and Remi was sure he heard Ms. Sparks sniffing the air.

  “I smell enchiladas,” she said. “Where are you?”

  Ms. Sparks crawled inside and started banging on the walls of the duck elevator. Her hair barely fit inside and she had to turn very carefully from side to side as she pounded on the walls.

  “I know you’re in there! Remi!”

  She was making a lot of noise, between the pounding and the yelling, but she went still as a statue when she hit the ceiling and felt the panel move ever so slightly.

  “So that’s your game,” she whispered, grabbing the edge of the trapdoor and sliding it over violently. Her hairdo rose slowly up into the hole like a periscope. Her head followed, spinning round as she crawled like a dog on the floor of the duck elevator. Ms. Sparks’s eyes darted back and forth, her nose wrinkled at the smell of duck feathers and enchiladas.

  But there was no one in the shaft to find.

  Leo and Remi had fled into the maintenance tunnel with the boxes.

  Milton knew how worried Bernard Frescobaldi could be when something big was about to happen. The hotel would soon change hands, and the pivotal moment had arrived.

  “According to your schedule, we are to make our move tomorrow,” said Milton. “Is that correct?”

  Bernard was tired. It had been a demanding day, and he wasn’t as young as he’d once been. So little time, so much left to do.

  “If all goes as planned with you-know-who, tomorrow it is,” said Bernard. “I have my doubts. You say they called again?”

  “Oh yes, very enthusiastic,” said Milton. “The ponds were a disaster and the paper clips worked exactly as we’d hoped. By all accounts, the Whippet is falling apart.”

  Milton saw that Bernard Frescobaldi was not comforted by this news, and added, “Whi
ch means the hotel could be fetched for a bargain price, as you’d planned.”

  “And yet it seems so peaceful over there,” said Bernard. They’d parked across the street, staring at the iron gate.

  “The boy and his father are efficient, I’ll give them that,” said Milton. “But they’ll be extra distracted tonight. We’ll hit them with a one-two punch that might just knock them out for good.”

  “We shall see,” said Bernard. He glanced at Milton, who he thought was a bit too sure. “It’s all set, then. Tomorrow we make our offer. Before someone else beats us to it.”

  The Whippet had the hotel equivalent of the flu, or so it seemed. Surely there were others watching, waiting for the perfect time to make a low offer, rip it down, and build a skyscraper on the incredible lot. It was, after all, Manhattan. That much property with such a tiny, exclusive hotel was an affront to every developer who drove by.

  No, Bernard thought, it wouldn’t be long. His plan was set in motion and the time had arrived. Come next day, he’d make his offer and be done with it.

  He pulled the files on Merganzer D. Whippet one last time and scanned the many papers, searching for a particularly troubling entry. He felt a twinge of regret, reading the private words of a man he sometimes understood, sometimes did not. A lunatic, a brilliant architect, a brokenhearted eccentric. Merganzer D. Whippet was many things, but mostly, Bernard had come to believe, a good man with few regrets. A little sad, but mostly happy.

  Milton looked at Bernard with mixed emotions. He’d known Bernard Frescobaldi a very long time. He’d been good to Milton, if challenging at times. If this is what he wanted, Milton would do every thing he could to make sure it happened.

  Milton watched as Bernard read the last letter once more, a letter that had been written one hundred and two days before, after which Merganzer D. Whippet had disappeared from the hotel.

 
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