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       Floors, p.16

           Patrick Carman
 
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  “My husband has a lot of money, more than you, I’m sure!” she fired back. “He might just buy this hotel right out from under you!”

  Merganzer handed Ms. Pompadore her dog. She held him close and looked as if she might start crying.

  “Then why did you do it, Ms. Pompadore? Why did you agree to sabotage the hotel?”

  “Because you said — Bernard said — it would drive down the price. You said we could own it together!”

  “But LillyAnn,” said Merganzer, far too kindly for someone who had totally betrayed him, “you just said you could buy it out from under me.”

  “No, that’s not true. I said my husband could buy it,” said LillyAnn, and then she began to cry, holding Hiney close to her chest. “My ex-husband, if you want the truth.”

  But Merganzer already knew about that. It was why he knew LillyAnn might betray him, but he also knew the real reason why, and this softened his heart.

  “Where will I go?” asked LillyAnn. “The Whippet is the only home I’ve got, and I’m all out of money. It’s just me and Hiney now.”

  “You love the Whippet, don’t you, LillyAnn?” asked Merganzer.

  “I do, and I’m sorry. I’m very, very sorry.”

  Captain Rickenbacker put an arm around LillyAnn and patted her gently. He petted the dog, because the two of them were close friends.

  “I could use Hiney,” said Captain Rickenbacker. “He’s a good sniffer.”

  “And I see a marvelous story here,” said Theodore Bump. “It could be my biggest seller yet, but I’ll need to interview the young lady.”

  LillyAnn Pompadore brightened at the sound of the word young and stepped a little closer to Mr. Bump. She looked at Merganzer as if he held her whole life on a delicate string.

  Merganzer glanced once more at Leo, who nodded very slightly.

  “Of course you can stay,” said Merganzer D. Whippet. “But you’ll have to do some work around here. No one gets by for free.”

  LillyAnn beamed, but it was the last straw for Ms. Sparks, who had watched the proceedings with increasing discomfort.

  “You must evict her, Mr. Whippet. She can’t be trusted!” she yelled. “None of this lot can be trusted! This hotel has become a den of liars, scoundrels, and reckless, rude children. I will not stand for it!”

  Merganzer was a gentle soul, but every now and then, when duty called, he could be a lion. He walked up to Ms. Sparks, looking down his long, elegant nose as she leaned away from him. He stood so close, the beehive pointed toward the wall behind her.

  And then he spoke.

  “I don’t want to alarm the guests, but you, Ms. Sparks, are fired.”

  “You can’t fire me! I’m the hotel manager!” she shouted. Merganzer snuck his hand into her jacket pocket and pulled the long diamond necklace out slowly.

  “My necklace!” said Nancy Yancey, snatching it away from Merganzer almost before he could get it all the way out into the open.

  Everyone gasped at once, even Mr. Phipps, who was nearly unflappable.

  “Mr. Fillmore, would you please escort Ms. Sparks out of the hotel,” asked Merganzer. Clarence Fillmore was the biggest man in the room by a country mile, and before Ms. Sparks knew it, he was standing at her side.

  “You can’t fire me! You can’t!” cried Ms. Sparks.

  “Actually, you’re right about that,” said Merganzer. “I can’t fire you.”

  Ms. Sparks looked momentarily triumphant, holding her head high. She might prevail over this weakling after all.

  “Leo, have you the key card and the deed?” asked Merganzer.

  Leo came to the middle of the room and pulled out the rarest of the Whippet key cards — and Ms. Sparks nearly fell over backward. Mr. Fillmore knew about the card, too. They all did, and none of them could believe Leo was holding it.

  “But how …?” Ms. Sparks stammered.

  “You are all witnesses here, each and every one of you,” said Merganzer D. Whippet. “I hereby sell the Whippet Hotel and every thing in it to Leo Fillmore for the price of …” He glanced back and forth around the room until he saw the thing Leo held in his hand. “I sell the Whippet Hotel and every thing in it to Leo Fillmore for the price of one bottle of carpet cleaner!”

  It was all theatrics, but Leo handed Merganzer the bottle of carpet cleaner, which was then handed to George Powell for safekeeping. Leo held up the deed for everyone to see, and then he looked up at Ms. Sparks.

  “You’re fired,” he said.

  Ms. Sparks started taking things off the check-in desk, anything she could put her hands on — the appointment book, the pens, pads of paper. Mr. Fillmore took them all back, one by one, and ushered her to the door. Leo smiled from ear to ear. Could it get any better? He didn’t think so as Ms. Sparks screamed on her way out.

  “This won’t be the last you see of me, Leo Fillmore!”

  Merganzer D. Whippet looked at George. “How did I ever manage to hire that woman to begin with?”

  “You see the best in people,” said George. “But I’ll admit, you have to look awfully hard to find anything good in that one. She can be quite deceptive.”

  Merganzer leaned in close to Leo and gave him a piece of advice.

  “Know thy enemy.”

  Leo nodded, because he understood. Ms. Sparks would do almost anything to gain back control of the Whippet. Maybe it wasn’t really the last time he would see her.

  A stillness invaded the lobby, and Merganzer ushered everyone into the Puzzle Room, where he had one more surprise before his departure.

  “This one is for you, Mr. Phipps. And you, Captain Rickenbacker.”

  He took a black key card out of his pocket, swiped the surface back and forth and back again with his elegantly long finger, and the puzzle pieces began rising into the air. All eight hundred thousand of them. It was like a puzzle snowstorm over the long table, and everyone laughed.

  “How?” asked Mr. Phipps.

  “I could tell you how each piece has its own magnet,” said Merganzer. “And I could tell you about the complex system of magnets in the table and throughout the room. But let’s just say it’s a bit of magic, shall we?”

  “Works for me,” said Captain Rickenbacker.

  Merganzer swiped the black key card again and pieces started to fall into place. The room filled with the sound of snapping as thousands of puzzle pieces locked into place. Leo thought it was the most spectacular thing he’d ever seen.

  When it was done, there were indeed two hundred and twenty-three ducks, including Betty and the other resident ducks, all six of them waddling toward a bright green pond. There were trees and a blue sky, the grounds with their giant topiaries, and the Whippet Hotel right in the middle of it all.

  “Not bad,” said Leo. “Not bad at all.”

  It had been the most magical of mornings, but Leo still had a certain emptiness inside that he could not shake. He tapped George on the shoulder, hoping for one last favor.

  “I wonder if you might play the part of Milton one last time,” asked Leo. “There’s someone I need to go find.”

  “I was hoping you might ask,” said George. He donned his driving cap and bowed to the new owner of the Whippet Hotel. “After you, sir.”

  And they were off.

  CHAPTER 17

  GOOD-BYE, FOR NOW

  Leo stood in front of a door that reminded him of how thankful he was to be living at the Whippet Hotel. The building in which the door found its home was not cared for the way a building should be. Leo had spied hundreds of things he would have liked to have fixed on the way up, and he was sure there were thousands more.

  “If I owned this building, it would be in much better shape,” said Leo.

  “That’s the spirit,” said George. “Maybe you will own it one day.”

  Leo looked across at his companion and wondered how that would be possible.

  “Better knock; time’s a-wasting,” George encouraged. And so Leo did knock, softly at first, and then
louder because he was so excited.

  When Pilar saw him, her eyes brightened.

  “Leo! How did you …?” She seemed to let the question go as it trailed off, suddenly happy for her son. “Remilio is going to be so happy to see you. The hotel is all he talks about.”

  Pilar let them in and Leo’s heart sank a little. She had done her best to fix up the one-bedroom apartment, but there’s only so much a mom could do with cracked windows, ancient appliances, and holes in the walls.

  “You’ve really fixed it up nicely,” said George, holding out his hand. “I’m George Powell. I work for Mr. Whippet.”

  “Oh,” said Pilar, not sure what to make of the small man before her. “Are you here about the necklace?”

  “No, no, no,” said George, feeling terrible for having worried her so. “That mystery has been solved, and it has nothing to do with you. We came for a different reason.”

  Remi was in the postage stamp–size kitchen, slurping down a bowl of cereal, when they came around the corner.

  “Hi, Remi,” said Leo. Remi was so excited to hear Leo’s voice, he flipped around in his seat and knocked the cereal bowl over. But he didn’t care. None of them did, because Leo didn’t waste any time spilling the good news. He told them about Merganzer’s return, Ms. Pompadore, and Ms. Sparks.

  “I knew she set us up!” said Remi, so excited that he hugged his mother right there in front of everyone. When Leo told them he’d inherited the Whippet Hotel, Remi flipped on an old kitchen radio set to a Spanish station, got up on the kitchen table, and started dancing.

  “He does that sometimes,” said Pilar, equally excited but less showy.

  “Why am I not surprised?” asked Leo, and then he asked Pilar a very important question.

  “Pilar, will you please come work for me?” He was hiring his first employee, and it felt good. “And live at the Whippet Hotel, too? You can have Ms. Sparks’s old room.”

  Pilar started to breathe funny.

  “Stand back,” said Remi, still dancing, only even more excitedly now. “She’s going to lose it!”

  Pilar started to cry, then she started to dance, her hands over her head. Pretty soon they were all dancing, even George Powell, who was not known for letting his emotions get away from him.

  In the end, they decided to leave every thing behind, get in the black town car, and depart the old apartment without looking back. Leo promised to send a moving company to get each and every last thing so they could decorate Ms. Sparks’s old room and make it their own.

  Pilar sat in the front seat with George, talking about her plans to make the maid ser vice more efficient. George was immediately impressed with Leo’s first hire.

  Leo and Remi were in the backseat, whispering to each other.

  “Is there a thirteenth floor, like I thought?” asked Remi.

  “There is. I’ll show it to you.”

  “So that’s where you’ll stay, then, you and your dad, on thirteen?”

  Leo had thought a lot about this. “No, it’s not that kind of room. It’s all the secret rooms at once, and a library, too.”

  “You like libraries,” said Remi. “I’m happy for you. But where will you stay?”

  “We maintenance men like it in the basement, where we can see all the action,” said Leo, and it was true. For Leo, the basement was the heart of the Whippet. It was where he and his dad belonged.

  “Thanks, Leo. For every thing. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”

  Leo pulled out the silver key card and showed it to Remi.

  “Ditto every thing you just said, times ten.”

  Merganzer was making his final tour through the lobby level of the hotel when he met Remi for the first time. He took a good look at the boy, tapping him once on each shoulder, and declared him the Whippet Hotel’s temporary doorman, until school started again in September.

  “You’ll need someone to help you pass the time,” said Merganzer. “I know how boring it can get now and then.”

  Merganzer had changed into a more appropriate iridescent green jacket that was two sizes too large. He put his hand inside one of the great pockets, milling around as many objects clanged together, and pulled out a little robot.

  “This should do,” said Merganzer, holding it out to Remi.

  “Blop! I thought I’d never see you again!”

  “Take good care of him for me, won’t you?” asked Merganzer, a wisp of a tear in his eye. He was coming near the end, and it was proving harder than he’d thought it would be to say good-bye.

  “Of course I will. And I’ll take care of Leo, too. Don’t you worry about a thing.”

  That was it, then, the tears were falling, and Merganzer turned for the Double Helix and one last meeting with the new owner of his hotel. Leo was waiting for him there, as he expected, holding the small orange door open.

  “One last time, just for fun?” asked Leo.

  “One last time, just for fun.”

  Two people never laughed and screamed so loudly as Leo and Merganzer D. Whippet on the way up to the roof. It was too short, of course, but neither of them would forget it. The ride was always best when it was the two of them together.

  “I think Betty will need to stay with the eggs,” said Merganzer as they peeked around the tree and saw her nesting. “Shall we take the others on their walk?”

  “Yes, sir,” said Leo. “And don’t you worry about a thing. Betty is very responsible. She’ll be a good mom.”

  “I believe you’re right,” said Merganzer, but it was still hard for him to leave without seeing the ducklings hatch.

  Mr. Whippet smiled at Leo, thinking once again what a good choice he’d made. They hailed the duck elevator and shooed all the ducks but Betty inside, then crammed in with them. It was a very tight fit, especially for Merganzer, whose knees touched the ceiling of the elevator. All the ducks stared up at Merganzer inquisitively.

  “My, but I love a good duck. They will be missed.”

  “If you keep talking like that, I’m going to think you’re never coming back,” said Leo. If he was hoping for some reassurance, he got none.

  “I like Remi and his mom. George does, too,” said Merganzer. “Take good care of them, will you?”

  “Of course I will.”

  When they reached the lobby, Merganzer took his walking stick and hat and ushered the ducks out of the elevator. They waddled in a perfect line past Remi and Blop, and the robot began talking about webbed feet and ducks’ bills.

  “I’m going to miss our conversations,” Merganzer said as he passed by, and Blop turned at the sound of his voice, as if somehow he knew it would be the last time he’d hear it.

  Into the garden they went: the ducks, Mr. Whippet, and Leo Fillmore. Merganzer took the black card out of his pocket, the one that had sent puzzle pieces flying.

  “If you want to reset the puzzle, click here, here, and then here. It’s double sided.”

  “You mean there are two sides to the puzzle?”

  “Oh yes, of course there are. It’s quite a secret, the other side. I don’t suggest you see it for a while. You’ll know when the time is right.”

  They made a wide loop on the soft trails, drinking in the rolling hills of green grass. When they came to the pond, they saw Leo’s dad and Pilar, talking quietly.

  “I wonder where that will go, and how you will feel about it,” asked Merganzer.

  “I don’t know and I don’t know,” said Leo, “but I think it’s going to be okay.”

  “You’re right; it’s unwise to meddle in such things. Let nature take its course and all that.”

  “By the way,” said Leo, thinking back on the adventure he’d had. “Where did you find my mother’s ring?”

  Merganzer laughed quietly. “You remember last year, the trip you took?”

  How could Leo forget? Yankees versus Red Sox, three game stand, Fenway Park.

  “Your father wouldn’t take an extra penny unless he worked for it, but those
Fenway tickets …” Merganzer whistled through his teeth. “Expensive. And the train, the hotel, the hot dogs …”

  “He sold you the ring?”

  “Oh no, not sold. Just collateral. There was no use trying to talk him out of it.”

  Leo remembered the extra Saturdays his dad had been working ever since, all so they could take some time off and watch baseball together.

  They walked farther still, toward the great black gate, and passed by Mr. Phipps, trimming the green bushes into new and interesting shapes.

  “Could I request an elephant sometime?” asked Leo. “Remi likes them.”

  “Consider it done,” said Mr. Phipps. He smiled, the old black freckles on his dark skin crumpling up against his eyes. “And you, sir, what will it be?”

  Merganzer gazed over the grounds and found, at least for today, that it was just as it should be.

  “I think that one, there on the end, would make a good elephant. When the time is right.”

  “As you wish, Mr. Whippet.”

  “Keep Captain Rickenbacker occupied, will you?”

  Mr. Phipps held up his finger and wrote a check mark in the air, smiling wistfully.

  Somehow, without Leo really paying attention to how it had happened, they arrived at the gate to the hotel. It opened, slowly, and the black town car pulled up. George Powell rolled down the window.

  “It’s time for us to go,” he said, as if they were late for something they’d been waiting all their lives to do.

  Merganzer D. Whippet took in a deep breath and looked back at his hotel. Then he handed Leo the walking stick and took off his iridescent green jacket.

  “It’s ten sizes too big,” said Leo, swimming in the jacket as Merganzer draped it over his small shoulders.

  “I have a good feeling you’ll grow into it.”

  The ducks started to wander off toward the hotel, and Leo tapped the walking stick on the path.

  When he turned back to the gate, the car was pulling away.

  “If you need me,” Merganzer yelled from the backseat, “search the field of wacky inventions!”

  The car pulled away and the gate closed. Leo scratched his head, because he had no idea where the field of wacky inventions was. But he felt better, knowing he could search for his old friend if he needed him, which he was sure he would. He was ten and he owned a hotel. Not just any hotel, the Whippet, the strangest hotel in the world.

 
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