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       Floors, p.12

           Patrick Carman
 
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  Leo nodded. “Very rare. And very high.”

  The key had descended out of a crack in the stone and fallen free, only to be caught on a bed of cobwebs high overhead. The key card had a dairy cow pattern on it, white with black splotches.

  Remi piped in, “Let me guess — fake cobwebs from the fake spider crawling on Jane Yancey’s face.”

  “You guessed it.”

  Remi jumped but came up short by at least a foot.

  “Get on my back,” he said. “You can reach it from up there.”

  Remi leaned over and Leo climbed aboard, standing on Remi’s shoulders. He still couldn’t reach it, so he leapt into the air, knocking Remi into a ninja death roll. After they both tumbled onto the floor of the cave, they sat up, only to find Jane Yancey standing at the exit, her arms crossed over her six-year-old chest.

  “You put that spider on my back. I know you did! I hope you had a good laugh because I’m telling my father, and when I do, both your parents are going to lose their jobs. What do you think of that, Spider Boy and Dumb Face?”

  It was all Leo could do not to tie up Jane Yancey and leave her with the slugs, but he stayed calm, looked at Remi, and shrugged.

  “Which one of us is Spider Boy?” asked Remi.

  “Forget Spider Boy! You’re BOTH Dumb Faces!”

  Remi knelt down next to Jane Yancey and looked her in the eye. “I think someone of your ability could be useful to us. Have you ever done any spying?”

  Leo couldn’t believe his ears. “You really are a Dumb Face.”

  Jane, intrigued by Remi’s question, looked at Leo. “Your dad is a Dumb Face.”

  Leo realized the entire situation was becoming ridiculous. He would not stoop to Jane Yancey’s level. Instead of Dumb Facing her back, he said, “We’re pretty sure Ms. Sparks is a double-agent superspy who wants to take over the hotel, hit it with a wrecking ball, and build a fur coat factory in its place.”

  This was, in a word, brilliant. There wasn’t a six-year-old in Manhattan who didn’t hate the idea of fur coats, given that they always came from cuddly animals.

  Jane Yancey looked them both over carefully, searching for signs of deceit. Finding none, she put out her hand.

  “Partners.”

  Remi shook Jane Yancey’s sticky little hand, then gave her a mission.

  “Keep an eye on Ms. Sparks,” he said. “If she tries to follow us, you’ll know we’re in trouble, since we’re the good guys.”

  “Obviously,” said Leo. “We’re the good guys.”

  Jane scowled at Leo, then returned her gaze to Remi. “I’m good at following people around and shin-kicking.”

  “I bet you are,” said Leo.

  Jane Yancey hauled off and kicked Leo in the shin, which felt about the same as being whacked with a baseball bat.

  “See, told you so.”

  She laughed at Leo as he jumped around the cave, then she crawled away in search of Ms. Sparks.

  Remi laughed at Leo, but only a little.

  “She’ll follow you around all the time,” said Leo, rubbing the sting out of his shin. “Getting kicked was a better deal.”

  Remi agreed Leo was probably right, then looked up at the ceiling, expecting to see the Flying Farm key card.

  “Already got it,” said Leo, holding the cow-patterned card out for Remi to see. “Let’s get out of here before she comes back with a weapon. I have a feeling we’ve created a monster.”

  CHAPTER 12

  THE FLYING FARM ROOM

  Leo had a feeling about needing a duck. He couldn’t say why, other than the fact that Merganzer had always believed that a journey with a duck was safer than a journey without one. But it was more than that. They were exploring the higher levels of the Whippet Hotel, which had always seemed more unpredictable than the lower levels. And Leo had a bad feeling about the Flying Farm Room, a notoriously confusing place. He needed all the backup he could get.

  And so, after sneaking away from the haunted dinner party, Leo had taken Remi through the maintenance tunnels, into the duck elevator, and up to the roof, detouring their entire plan by a half hour in order to retrieve Betty. She was not happy to be bothered, and Leo thought, once again, how crabby this particular duck had become of late.

  Without Merganzer’s silver key card, the Flying Farm Room was only accessible by using Flying Farm key cards. The key cards weren’t made in the usual way, so they were tough to come by. Ms. Sparks kept them in a safe in her room, and they were only handed out on exceptional occasions. In the past, when someone stayed in the room (extraordinarily rarely), Merganzer D. Whippet had attended to the room himself, making sure every detail was in order. Certainly no one had stayed in the room since Mr. Whippet’s disappearance, and this worried Leo greatly.

  “I’ve only been in this room once before,” he said, standing in front of the door with his friend and his duck. “It was a tad … wild. I can only imagine what it must be like now. I don’t think anyone has been in here in quite a while.”

  “It can’t be any worse than the Haunted Room,” Remi said. “That place gave me the creeps.”

  Leo stood back a moment and looked all around, thinking how far they’d come. They were on the ninth floor. Beyond that lay the roof, and between the ninth floor and the roof there was the possibility of a tenth floor that no one but Merganzer had ever seen, not even the maintenance men.

  “We’ve worked our way to the top of the Whippet,” Leo observed.

  “I was just thinking the same thing,” said Remi. “Nine floors. Plus the hidden floors — how many are there?”

  Leo counted in his head: the Room of Rings or the Ring of Rooms, the Railroad Room, and the secret room they hadn’t found yet. “I count thirteen, if you include the basement.”

  “Not the luckiest number,” Remi said. “Maybe there’s another hidden floor.”

  “Or a hundred more.”

  Leo had been making a joke, but saying it made it seem possible. Maybe there were more rooms than either one of them could imagine.

  Betty quacked, nipping at Leo’s pant leg.

  “Something’s wrong with your duck,” Remi noticed. “Are you sure we should take her with us?”

  “I’m sure,” said Leo. “Let’s get going before someone finds us.”

  He placed the Flying Farm key card in the slot. The key disappeared, the door made a baaaah noise, and a new key card appeared. It was gray, with a goat face and words printed on it:

  Come right in, we’ve been waiting for you.

  Leo thought the note had an ominous feel to it.

  “This is weird,” said Remi, but he went right in, just like the card said he should. Leo took the gray key card and put it in the pocket of his dinner jacket, which he had failed to shed after the dinner party. He wished he’d had time to stop in the basement and put his overalls back on. The suit was itchy and uncomfortable, plus it lacked the many tools he preferred to carry around with him. Tools, he had found, were a comfort on an unpredictable journey.

  The door unlocked and they slipped through, captivated by what lay on the other side. They would have been smart to pay closer attention as the door swung slowly shut, because it didn’t quite shut all the way. Someone was in the hall, the toe of a boot holding the door open by the tiniest of cracks.

  As Leo and Remi entered the Flying Farm Room, Remi dove for the floor, which was bright green and soft like grass.

  “Whoa! Heads up!” he yelled, but since Leo had been in the room once before, he knew a few things Remi did not. Betty waddled out into the Flying Farm without them, apparently in search of a pond or a loaf of pumpernickel.

  “Was that a flying pig or have I lost my mind?” asked Remi.

  “Just remember, none of this is real.”

  “It looked plenty real to me. That pig just about knocked me off my feet.”

  Remi stood up again and the two boys looked across the long room. The ceiling was only ten feet overhead, but it looked for all the world li
ke an endless blue sky dotted with white clouds.

  Then Remi was back on the turf, dodging a herd of oncoming sheep that had cannonballed from the sky. There were eleven of them in a V formation, and they were faster than the pig had been. Remi was pretty sure he heard them laughing as they whooshed past like eleven wool-covered fighter planes.

  “These flying farm animals play rough!” Remi yelled, but Leo was still standing, looking toward a fenced-in area way off in the corner of the room. He didn’t seem to take much notice of the flying pigs, sheep, or even the flying bull that was heading right toward them, spewing fire from its nose.

  “Um, Leo? Please tell me you know something I don’t. Otherwise a two-thousand-pound fire-breathing bull is about to ram us into the turf!”

  Remi cowered as the bull landed three feet away, preparing to charge right over the top of them both.

  “It’s been nice knowing you, Leo. Tell my mom I love her, and kick Jane Yancey in the shin for me.”

  Leo was tempted to let the ruse go a little longer, but they had work to do. Playing with the animals would have to wait.

  “Everything up there — the sky, the flying animals — it’s all fake, remember?” said Leo.

  “Even if it’s a fancy robot, it’s still a fancy robot BULL!” said Remi, opening his eyes and turning back to the huge beast, which was now inches from his face.

  “You can pet it if you want,” said Leo. “It won’t hurt you.”

  But the bull looked so real — every thing did — that Remi just couldn’t bring himself to do anything but stay curled up in a ball.

  “Oh, for crying out loud,” said Leo, stepping toward the bull and reaching his hand out to its fire-breathing face.

  “No! Don’t do it, Leo! It’ll fry your arm off!”

  “Just watch,” said Leo, and Remi peeked through his fingers, which were covering his face. When Leo reached out, his hand went right through the bull’s head. He walked around the beast, sweeping his hand through its monstrous body, then slapped it on the butt. The bull reared up on two legs, slamming down on top of Remi.

  “It’s a hologram,” said Leo. “Everything in the sky — including the sky — they’re all holograms.”

  Remi reached out his hand and ran it through the flames shooting out of the bull’s nose.

  “I am the happiest kid in New York City,” said Remi, swishing his hands back and forth through the bull’s legs. He got up and started taunting the bull, just for fun.

  “We don’t really have time to play with the animals right now,” said Leo. “We have to find that hidden room. And I think I know how.”

  Leo and Remi walked through the middle of the Flying Farm with its rolling hills of Astroturf, its split-rail fences, and the sounds of animals all around them. Betty was honking at a herd of six goats that was flying around a red barn (which was also the master bedroom) and Leo called for her to follow. He’d been thinking about the fence around the cows, and how the cows weren’t moving.

  “Let me have a look at that new key card,” Remi said, seeing the herd of goats land on the red barn and begin eating the shingles off the roof. Leo gave him the card, warning Remi to be very quiet if he could. They were approaching a group of sleeping cows, their wings fluttering softly.

  “But cows don’t sleep during the day,” said Remi. He’d never been to a real farm in his life, but even he knew cows only slept at night, and were easily startled.

  Leo shrugged. “I guess flying cows sleep during the day and fly around at night. How am I supposed to know?”

  Remi examined the goat key card more carefully, and noticed that there was a button on the edge, similar to one on a cell phone. He pushed the button and the key card came to life as a touch screen.

  “Leo, you gotta see this,” said Remi. Leo and Remi huddled over the screen, which showed the floor plan of the room. It also showed one goat, sitting on the roof of the red barn.

  “Do you suppose …?” asked Remi, putting his finger on the screen and sliding the goat away from the barn and out over the green grass. The two boys looked back at the real barn and saw that one goat had flown away, following wherever Remi moved his finger along the screen.

  “This must be the goat we’re looking for,” said Leo, thinking of the words from the lid of the last box:

  A flying goat will be of use.

  “His name is Merle,” said Remi, bringing the goat up close and seeing he had a name tag around his neck.

  “Welcome to the adventure, Merle,” Leo whispered. “Be as quiet as a mouse.”

  Merle baaaahed softly.

  “Shhhhhhhh,” said Leo as they approached the pasture gate. “We’ll need to tip them.”

  Remi knew that it was wrong to tip cows in real life — they had a hard time getting back up, making it a pretty cruel thing to do. But virtual cow tipping sounded like a lot of fun to Remi, and he hoped that a holographic cow would tip as well as a real one. They left Betty and Merle behind, hoping they wouldn’t quack and baaaah too much, and tiptoed into the pasture. The cows all had their heads down, eyes closed, giant chests heaving slowly.

  “Ready?” Leo whispered.

  Remi put the goat key card in his red jacket pocket and nodded.

  Leo signaled with his fingers. One … two … three!

  They pushed the biggest cow, and though their hands went right through, the cow still fell over on its side with a loud thud. As soon as it did, its wings began flapping wildly, waking up the other five cows. Confused, they flew into one another, bouncing back and forth until the one the boys had tipped bounced into the ceiling and a familiar sight appeared.

  “I never thought I’d see a hole in the sky,” said Remi, and that’s exactly what it looked like. A ladder shot down, touching the Astroturf in the pasture, and the hole in the sky waited.

  The cows flew off noisily in the direction of the front door as Leo ran back to the gate.

  “I’ll get Betty. You get Merle up the hole as fast as you can.”

  Remi had Merle up and out of sight in no time at all, but Leo had trouble with Betty. It wasn’t like her to run away from him, but he found himself chasing Betty around the red barn, when he heard a terrible sound.

  Someone was putting a key card in the door.

  “Remi! Get down!” yelled Leo, catching Betty and swerving into the barn for cover. When Leo peeked around the corner, he saw a tall beehive hairdo leaning into the room.

  Ms. Sparks had found them.

  “I know you’re in here,” she taunted. “I can smell enchiladas.”

  Remi, who was hiding in the cow pasture, sniffed the air around him, and wondered if it was true. Even though he’d given it to Mr. Phipps, he’d carried his lunch around in his pocket for a long time.

  Leo was holding Betty’s bill shut, but she was a strong duck and she kept swinging her powerful neck back and forth.

  “I’m going to count to three,” said Ms. Sparks, batting away an annoying pig that was trying to land in her hair. She, like Leo, knew the animals in the Flying Farm weren’t real. “I despise the Flying Farm,” she said under her breath, and then started to count.

  “ONE!” She took several steps into the room.

  “TWO!” She took a few more steps, nearing the red barn.

  She was about to say THREE! when Betty finally got her bill free from Leo’s hand and honked, loudly, right in his face.

  “Run for it!” yelled Leo, and Remi was up in a flash, heading for the ladder.

  “HOLD IT RIGHT THERE!” screamed Ms. Sparks, stepping on a holographic cow pie the size of a Frisbee.

  Leo ran out of the barn, carrying Betty like a football. Ms. Sparks was about to take chase, but she didn’t have a chance.

  Jane Yancey darted out in front of her, one hand on her hip and one behind her back.

  “I caught you!” the rich little girl proclaimed. Ms. Sparks wasn’t sure what to do. The girl’s father was a zillionaire.

  “You keep all these exotic animals u
p here so you can get their fur!” yelled Jane Yancey. She kicked Ms. Sparks in the shin, then pulled the giant spider out from behind her back and threw it into the beehive hairdo. Ms. Sparks, unaware of the earlier dinner party and mortally afraid of spiders, flung her head violently back and forth. The herd of flying sheep circled the beehive. The bull charged.

  It was mayhem in the Flying Farm Room.

  “That’ll teach you!” said Jane Yancey. “I’m telling my dad you’re running a secret fur farm in this hotel!” She marched right out of the room and slammed the door.

  Ms. Sparks ran behind her, a menagerie of flying animals tailing her and a giant mechanical spider latched on to her beehive.

  When she looked back one last time, Leo and Remi were gone.

  It was as if they’d never been there to begin with.

  CHAPTER 13

  THE GHOST ORCHID

  I know what this is.”

  Betty quacked at the sound of Leo’s voice, but she had grown timid after being set down. Something about the room didn’t agree with her.

  “How could anyone know what this is?” asked Remi. Merle the flying goat hovered over Betty’s head, watching the duck curiously.

  “My grandpa, the one on my mom’s side, he was a pack rat,” said Leo.

  “And you’re telling me this because …?”

  Leo stepped out into the maze. “His apartment was so full of junk, it made a path that wound from room to room. Do you know what they call a thing like that?”

  “A junkyard?”

  “No, Remi, not a junkyard. It’s called a goat trail, and that’s exactly what this is.”

  The two boys gazed into the maze, which was oddly frightening to behold. The entire thing appeared to be made of junk, pile after pile, rising all the way to the ceiling. Chairs, old dishwashers, cans of paint, picture frames, books, shelves, computers, telephones, car tires — it went on and on and on, and it all looked as if it might crumble to the floor at any moment.

  “Do you hear that?” Remi asked.

 
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