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       Floors, p.14

           Patrick Carman
 
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  “You two are slow, slow, slow!” yelled Ms. Sparks, who had crept up behind them and was now pushing them forward.

  “Sit down, there,” she said, pointing to the only empty chairs in the room.

  Leo’s dad was sitting in the room, too, along with Remi’s mom and Mr. Phipps. It was the entire Whippet hotel staff: the hotel maid, the gardener, and the maintenance man. And Ms. Sparks, the hotel manager, was about to come unglued.

  “I understand there was a party tonight,” she began, clicking her fingernails on the long table that held the puzzle. “Which surprises me, since I wasn’t invited. No one likes to be left out when there’s a party, wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Phipps?”

  She said it like an accusation, like she knew he hadn’t attended the party.

  “I don’t know about any party,” he said, calm and collected as he always was. “You had to wake me up for this meeting, remember?”

  “Silence!” shouted Ms. Sparks, her hand in his face. “Have you toured the grounds since I woke you? I suppose not. When you do, you’ll find that someone has made a fool of you!”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  Ms. Sparks knew how much Mr. Phipps liked working on the puzzle, futile as it was, and how he especially liked to stack the pieces into groups that looked the same. She swept her hand across one of the neatly organized piles and sent puzzle pieces flying across the room.

  “That’s just mean,” said Remi a little too loudly. Ms. Sparks gave him the evil eye.

  “I’ll deal with you soon enough,” she said, turning back to the gardener, who wouldn’t look her in the eye.

  “What you will find,” Ms. Sparks continued, “is that someone has taken shears to your beloved bushes.”

  “Why, that’s impossible,” said Mr. Phipps, but he was clearly shaken. “I would have heard —”

  “Ahhhh, you would have heard, if you weren’t at a party.”

  “But I wasn’t at the party!” said Mr. Phipps. All he really wanted to do was get up and go look at his garden, but Ms. Sparks wasn’t about to let him off that easily. Leo and Remi glanced at each other — Mr. Phipps hadn’t been at the party, or at least they hadn’t seen him there.

  “They’ve cut up all your sculpted bushes — the ducks, the rabbits — all of them.”

  “What?!” cried Mr. Phipps. “But that’s — well, it’s —” He couldn’t find the words to say. He’d spent years training the bushes and he loved the garden at the Whippet. It was probably the cruelest thing a person could do to a gardener.

  Ms. Sparks seemed satisfied to have tongue-tied Mr. Phipps, so she moved on, pointing her long finger at Remi’s mom.

  “And you, responsible for keeping this place clean and tidy. What were you doing at a party when you’re being paid to clean rooms?”

  “I … well …” Pilar looked at Mr. Fillmore, but there was nothing he could do. “I’d already cleaned all the rooms, and —”

  “Save your excuses!” said Ms. Sparks. “Maybe if you’d been attending to the hotel instead of dancing the night away, we wouldn’t have a theft to deal with.”

  “A what?” asked Leo’s dad, the first two words out of his mouth since they’d arrived in the room. There had never, ever been a theft of any kind in the five years he’d been the maintenance man. This was bad. Very bad. They always blamed the help.

  “A theft,” Ms. Sparks repeated, like she was talking to a room full of schoolchildren. “Someone has stolen Mrs. Yancey’s diamond necklace.”

  Pilar gasped, for she had seen the necklace in the Cake Room, lying unattended on a black velvet cloth in the bedroom. She’d been dusting the pink cupcake chairs and there it was.

  “I see from your expression you know the necklace of which I speak,” said Ms. Sparks, leaning over the shaking Pilar. Remi couldn’t help but notice the spider was gone, but oh, how he wished he had it back again. What he wouldn’t give to drop it down Ms. Sparks’s pants right about now.

  “That necklace,” said Ms. Sparks, “is worth more than all your salaries put together for the rest of your lives. She’s convinced one of you took it. So am I.”

  “Well, of course she is,” said Clarence Fillmore. “Who else is she going to blame?”

  “Not that spoiled kid of theirs, that’s for sure,” said Leo, which earned him an evil eye of his own from Ms. Sparks.

  “Quiet! All of you!” shouted Ms. Sparks, turning her attention to Pilar. “I examined the contents of your pushcart, and I think you know what I found.”

  Ms. Sparks pulled the long diamond necklace slowly out of her pocket.

  “I don’t believe you,” said Clarence Fillmore. “None of us do.”

  But Ms. Sparks had already moved on, happy to have Clarence take center stage as she put the necklace back in her pocket.

  “And finally, you, Mr. Fillmore; you with the tools and the belt and the overalls. You look like a maintenance man. What I can’t figure out is why you don’t act like one.”

  “We can’t help it if someone is sabotaging the hotel,” said Leo. “Things are breaking faster than we can fix them, and you know it.”

  “All I know is that you were at a party, and while you were, the hotel fell into ruin. I couldn’t find the maintenance crew, so I went searching. And do you know what I found?”

  “Uh-oh,” said Remi.

  “Yes, uh-oh indeed, Remilio. I found you.”

  Ms. Sparks pointed at both Leo and Remi.

  “You were not at the party after all, were you?”

  “We were at the party,” Leo protested. “We just left for a minute.”

  “Oh, come now. You know that’s not true. You were missing a long time. Long enough to cause all sorts of new problems, right? I mean, really, who would know better than you, Leo Fillmore, how to break things in this hotel?”

  Leo and Remi and Mr. Fillmore all protested, but Ms. Sparks had the loudest voice of them all, and she silenced them. “Here’s what I think. I think you’re all in this together. I think it’s all an elaborate setup. And do you know what else?”

  Everyone sat silently, because they knew what was coming. She was the hotel manager. She could do it in Mr. Whippet’s absence if she chose to. If he ever returned, she would simply say they’d stolen from one of the guests. She had always known how to get what she wanted from Merganzer D. Whippet.

  “Here we go,” Remi whispered to Leo. “Nice knowing you.”

  “You are all, each and every one of you,” said Ms. Sparks, drawing in a great breath of air and pausing for effect, “FIRED!”

  Mr. Phipps seemed not to care in the slightest, and the moment she said the word, he left the room to inspect the damage in the garden he’d put so much work into. He cared an awful lot about the Whippet. If he really were to leave, the grounds would never be the same.

  Pilar looked at Leo’s father, and Leo had the feeling that something might have bloomed, if only they’d had more time. He wasn’t sure how he felt about the idea, but he wanted more than anything for his dad to be happy again. He’d been thinking that maybe the Fillmore men were finally ready to move on.

  “Thanks for every thing,” Remi said, pulling Leo aside where they could talk one last time without being overheard. “It was the best day of my life, and I’m not just saying that. If you find Blop, tell him I said hello.”

  The two boys might as well have lived on different planets. Staten Island and Manhattan were worlds apart.

  “I don’t know what to say,” Leo offered. “It feels like we were close to … something. We just can’t figure out what.”

  “You’ve got a date with destiny in the morning, remember? Who knows, maybe our luck will change.”

  In all the chaos, Leo had totally forgotten: Six A.M. tomorrow, duck elevator. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.

  Remi rejoined his mom, and Ms. Sparks escorted them through the lobby and out the front doors, where they stood staring through the glass. The doors were locked and
the two started down the path for the subway.

  “I know you didn’t take the necklace, Mom,” said Remi.

  “I know you do,” said Pilar, putting an arm around him.

  They walked in silence then, both of them dreaming of what might have been.

  Ms. Sparks was back in the Puzzle Room in no time flat with final instructions for the maintenance man and his son.

  “Pack your things in the morning,” she commanded. “I’ll be bringing in a new crew by the afternoon. Enjoy your last night at the Whippet.”

  She patted her pocket and started for the stairs. “I’ve got some good news to deliver, wouldn’t you say?”

  And then, just like that, she was gone. Leo looked around the room and suddenly realized something terrible. It wasn’t just Ms. Sparks who had left.

  Everyone was gone.

  Leo and his dad walked to the basement, maybe for the last time.

  “We’ve really come to the end, I guess,” said Clarence Fillmore. “I had hoped we’d see him again, but I think it’s really true.”

  “What’s true?”

  Leo’s big, lumbering father took a deep breath as he opened the door to the basement. “Merganzer D. Whippet isn’t coming back.”

  Bernard Frescobaldi was waiting in his black town car when Pilar and Remi unlocked the small walking gate and started down the wide, empty sidewalk. He noticed how unhappy they were, but made no effort to help them as they started their long night journey to Staten Island.

  Milton smiled knowingly from the front seat.

  “This is going better than I could have hoped,” said Bernard, pulling his fedora down low over his eyes in case they searched the street. It wouldn’t have mattered behind the dark windows, but Bernard was an exceptionally secretive man. He took no chances, especially when he was this close to the prize he’d worked so hard for.

  Twenty minutes later, still sitting in the car, Bernard glanced at his very expensive watch.

  “What’s taking so long?” he asked. “I thought for sure the gate would open by now.”

  Five more minutes passed with Milton calming his wealthy boss, and then the driving gate opened up. Someone from the inside had opened it, letting the black town car in.

  “Time to prepare for the meeting,” said Bernard Frescobaldi. “Tomorrow, the Whippet Hotel will finally get the new owner it deserves.”

  The call center in the basement had one giant plug, the head of which was bigger than a basketball with a four-inch-wide cord to match. It took both Leo and his dad to pull it out of the wall, but when they did, Daisy stopped printing ticker tape. The shark, for the first time all day, was silent. All the lights on the wall went out, and for a split second, Leo imagined the Whippet Hotel as it once was: full of laughter and smiles, mystery and intrigue, not a care from the world outside.

  Both Fillmore men got into their pajamas and brushed their teeth. They went about their business rather slowly, savoring every bittersweet moment in the cozy basement that had been their home for a good long time.

  “Mom would have wanted a flower on a night like this,” said Leo, risking the possibility of turning a very bad night into a sad one to boot. But he had a feeling, even with every thing that had gone wrong, that something had changed. “Do you think about her?” Leo asked as they both lay down on their cots, the washing machine sitting quiet and cold between them.

  Mr. Fillmore stood up, looked about the room, then grabbed his cot by the edge and pulled the old frame out from the wall. He took hold of Leo’s next, pulling his cot away from the wall as well, then he got back into bed and lay on his side, where he could see his boy’s face.

  “I should have done that years ago,” said Leo’s dad.

  “Actually, the washer blocks your snoring, especially when it’s running.”

  “Leo, listen to me now. We’re going to be fine, and none of this is your fault.”

  Leo held back tears, because he was pretty sure it was his fault.

  “And yes, I think about your mom all the time. I hope you do, too.”

  “I do, Dad.”

  There was a long silence in which Leo thought maybe a tear had fallen from his dad’s eye, but it was dark and he couldn’t be sure.

  “I think she would have liked this place,” Leo’s dad said. “But more than that, I think she would have wanted us to keep living. You think?”

  “I do, Dad.”

  Mr. Fillmore held the ring on the chain, rubbing it like it was a good luck charm. He’d had a hard time forgiving himself for letting it slip away during the move to the Whippet.

  “I felt bad for losing your mother’s ring. You know that, don’t you?”

  “Of course I know,” Leo said. “It just happened, and anyway, it’s back now.”

  Clarence Fillmore smiled. “It’s different now. I still miss her, but I’m not so sad anymore.”

  Leo leaned over and pulled the white box out from its hiding spot. He opened the lid and white light filled the room. The ghost orchid bloomed to life.

  “I found this for us,” said Leo. “I thought maybe Ms. Sparks had killed it, but I guess not.”

  The two of them couldn’t help it then; maintenance men being notoriously emotional, they both shed a tear or two.

  “Fresh start tomorrow?” asked Mr. Fillmore, his voice filled with every thing the moment demanded: sadness for what had been lost, unease about the future, but above all, something new — a readiness to start living again.

  “Fresh start tomorrow,” said Leo, sinking into his cot one last time.

  They watched the ghost orchid for a time, and then Leo drifted off to sleep and Mr. Fillmore closed the white box and silently carried it out of the basement.

  He knew a certain gardener who needed a ghost orchid even more than he did.

  CHAPTER 15

  THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR

  The alarm on Leo’s watch went off at five thirty in the morning, but it didn’t matter. He had awoken with the first light of day to find the note stuck to his bedpost.

  I Thought Mr. Phipps could use a Look at the Ghost Orchid. Hope you don’t mind. Dad

  The box was gone, and for a moment Leo worried he might need it for something. But barring that, he didn’t plan to ask for the flower back. Mr. Phipps would know how to care for it, and Leo’s dad was right: It was the perfect gift for a displaced gardener who’d had his garden ransacked.

  Leo turned off the alarm on his watch and adjusted his position in the duck elevator. He knew he had to be there at six, as the message had said, but there was no reason to wait. He might get sidetracked by some other duty or Ms. Sparks might try to kick them out of the building on sight. Better to hide in the duck elevator and make sure he didn’t miss the appointment altogether. It was an appointment, he was sure, that would not be offered twice.

  At 5:47, Leo heard Ms. Sparks come into the lobby and make some keys, for what, he did not know or care. A period of silence followed, and then, precisely at six o’clock, the duck elevator moved. Leo did not pull the lever or press the button for the roof, but either way, those things would never have made the elevator move as it did now. No, this was something new. The duck elevator was moving sideways, not up or down. It was, in fact, moving parallel to the lobby, under the grand staircase Leo had climbed many times.

  The duck elevator stopped, and when it did, a section of the back wall slid slowly down, revealing four buttons and a frosted sheet of glass.

  “Here we go,” said Leo.

  The finger was back, writing a message on the cold, frosted glass.

  These buttons you only push once. Push

  them wrong at your own peril.

  Leo felt supremely excited as he read the message, because he knew then that his journey with Remi had given them the knowledge only they could possibly have. The only way a person could know the order in which to push purple, blue, green, and white buttons would be if they had four boxes to match. Leo had gotten the boxes in a certain order. He knew
which button to push first, and so he did.

  Purple.

  The elevator moved abruptly sideways once more, this time in a different direction.

  Leo pushed the next button.

  Blue.

  The elevator moved again, lurching to a stop.

  Green was pushed and the elevator moved once more.

  “Only one button left,” said Leo. He wished Remi were with him, or at least Betty, Blop, or Merle the flying goat. He felt suddenly very alone in the world as his finger hovered over the white button.

  And then he pushed it.

  The duck elevator began spinning in a circle, then it shot up through the Whippet Hotel as fast as the Double Helix had ever gone. Leo put his hands on the low ceiling and braced himself. Either the duck elevator was about to stop, or they were going right through the roof and into the air.

  The duck elevator did stop, almost as suddenly as it had started.

  The number 13 appeared above the four buttons with the sound of a bell.

  “But there is no floor thirteen,” Leo said. But even as he said it, he knew there had always been thirteen floors. He’d simply never been invited to any of the secret floors or the very secret floor at the top.

  Leo took a deep breath to calm himself, threw open the duck elevator door, and crawled out into the room.

  He stood up, but did not speak. Overhead he saw the bottom of the pond, which he now realized was made of glass. He could see the duck feet flapping and the fish swimming. Light poured in through the pond, filling the thirteenth floor with a dreamy, golden hue. There were books every where, on tables and endless shelves winding this way and that. There were long, lazy-looking couches and overstuffed chairs. There were huge beanbags, some pink like a pig and others black-and-white like dairy cows. Colored rings of every size drifted near the ceiling, held by some unknowable magnetic force, and flying holographic farm animals swooped high and low. But mostly there were books. Lots and lots of books.

 
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