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       Floors, p.2

           Patrick Carman
 
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  Leo threw open the wooden door to the duck elevator and a poof of feathers filled the air. He turned to watch the line of ducks follow after Betty as they crowded inside, filling nearly the entire space before Leo could cram himself inside and shut the door, trapped with six noisy quackers. He pulled the DOWN lever, knowing it would be a long, slow journey to the lobby, nothing like the Double Helix. But soon enough, he’d be walking the ducks, something he and Merganzer D. Whippet had done together before the maker of the hotel had vanished so unexpectedly.

  Leo sighed deeply and stared at his feet. There wasn’t much light in the duck elevator, and it felt even more cramped than usual.

  “You guys are eating too much pumpernickel. I can barely fit in here anymore.”

  He would have done well to pay closer attention to the inside of the little elevator, for something new was hidden inside.

  Leo’s life was about to change forever.

  On the fifteenth floor of a New York hotel, two men stared out a window. One wore an expensive-looking gray fedora with a soft black band around the middle. In fact, every thing Bernard Frescobaldi wore looked expensive: a three-piece suit, shiny cuff links, a silky gold tie — appropriate attire for an Italian land baron on the hunt for a bargain.

  “Let me see our most recent report once more,” Bernard demanded, squinting through a pair of high-power binoculars, trying with all his might to get a better look at the Whippet Hotel.

  “As you wish, sir.”

  Bernard Frescobaldi’s assistant, Milton, clicked open a silver metal briefcase and removed a manila envelope marked Private: Keep out!

  Inside were research documents, surveillance reports, dozens of photographs of the Whippet Hotel, and a collection of private papers. Milton removed the top sheet and handed it to Bernard for his inspection.

  Bernard reviewed the document before him for the hundredth time.

  Field Report, Whippet Hotel — June 21

  Upon his untimely death, the billionaire Walter E. Whippet left his entire fortune to his son, Merganzer. Years later, Merganzer D. Whippet purchased one entire square block, had every building torn down, and spent the next six years building the strangest hotel anyone has ever seen.

  From the beginning, deep mystery has shrouded the Whippet. It’s a shockingly small hotel on an enormous block in a city known for taking advantage of every square inch of space. There are only nine floors, or so it seems from the outside, and each floor has an unknown number of rooms. The roof houses a pond, for Merganzer D. Whippet is obsessed with ducks. Rumors abound of countless hidden passageways and secret rooms, known only to a few.

  The Whippet’s design is alarmingly off-kilter — it appears to wobble in the slightest gust of wind. Some say a child could spit on the Whippet and it would fall over, though this seems highly unlikely. And then there are the grounds, vast and useless, a colossal waste of space. Giant bushes carved into the shapes of ducks tower over the winding paths that surround the hotel, which only serve to make the Whippet look even smaller than it actually is. At the sidewalk’s edge runs a tall iron fence with a gate that opens only for deliveries and guests with special yellow or green key cards.

  If passersby on the outside of the Whippet think it’s strange, they’re in for an even bigger surprise should they ever choose to stay there. Not many people do. The Whippet is outlandishly exclusive and gossip flies all over town about the actual cost of a room and what might be found inside. Wanting to stay is one thing; being able to stay has much more to do with how fabulously wealthy a person is. There are those who say Merganzer planned it this way, because he didn’t really want anyone to come around. He’s busy tinkering, making things, playing with the ducks, and (as you well know by now) disappearing entirely.

  It would appear that Merganzer D. Whippet has left the city.

  Chances are he’s at the South Pole, honking at the moon.

  Bernard went back to staring out the window, a glimmer in his eye as he handed the report back to Milton.

  “It’s time we put our plan into action,” Bernard announced. He was a tall man, thin but sturdy, and his sharp nose crinkled with excitement.

  Milton was shorter, rounder, and more excitable. His fingers danced with anticipation as he jingled the keys to the black town car awaiting them downstairs.

  “As you wish, sir. As you wish!”

  CHAPTER 2

  THE PURPLE BOX

  Betty was staring at Leo, her bill only a few inches away, quacking softly in his face. Her breath smelled like daffodils.

  “You’ve been eating the flowers on the grounds again, haven’t you?” Leo asked. “Mr. Phipps will have a fit if he finds out. I’ve been blaming it on the crows, but now you’ll have to come clean.”

  Betty almost seemed to understand what Leo was saying. She drooped her head and let out what could only be described as a long sigh in the form of a dying quack.

  “I’m only kidding. I won’t tell.”

  Betty brightened and moved a step closer, digging her orange bill into the front pocket of Leo’s overalls.

  “You’re all going on a diet. Look how cramped I am in this little corner!”

  Betty glanced at Leo then, and if the boy hadn’t known better, he’d have said the duck was scowling at him. No duck likes a diet.

  But it was true that the duck elevator felt unusually cramped. The long ride down seemed to last forever, and the ducks were restless, wobbling back and forth on their webbed feet and climbing all over Leo, looking for pumpernickel.

  When the duck elevator opened into the lobby, Leo told Betty to wait, which she did. When Betty waited, they all waited, and this gave Leo time to crawl out and find Merganzer’s walking stick. It was formed from one long, gnarled limb, its handle smooth and round. Without it, the ducks wouldn’t follow. There seemed to be magic in the walking stick, and after taking it from its closet, Leo returned to the duck elevator, stood before the group of them, and moved the walking stick across the floor. The six ducks marched out, Betty at the front.

  It wasn’t until they were all out of the duck elevator that Leo saw the purple box.

  “What’s this?” he whispered, barely hearing his own words. The ducks hadn’t grown larger after all; there had simply been less space for them to stand in. Leo leaned inside for a closer look and saw that the purple box was six or seven inches tall and a foot wide, with a seal on top that could not be mistaken:

  “Merganzer!” said Leo, edging into the small space so he could touch the mysterious box.

  “Get these ducks out of the lobby this instant!” yelled Ms. Sparks. “Move it, move it, move it!”

  The ducks were alarmed by her voice, and Leo began to lose control of the situation. The new bellboy, having gathered his courage, was inching his way toward the duck elevator. Leo couldn’t let anyone see what he’d found, but Betty had a look on her face that said I am seconds away from biting someone’s ankle.

  Leo slammed the duck elevator door shut with a POW! before the purple box could be seen, then pushed the UP lever, sending the contraption on a five-minute journey back to the roof. That was the final straw for Betty and her pals. She flew up to Ms. Sparks’s desk and nearly crashed into her beehive hairdo. The rest of the ducks went into hysterics, flapping all over the room like dive-bombers.

  “Open the door!” Ms. Sparks screamed, waving her arms as if a thousand wild bats were on a crash course with her face. The bellboy bolted back to the lobby entrance and pushed his small frame against the big glass door.

  It was mayhem in the lobby when Leo’s father arrived from the basement, looked at Leo, then reached out his hand for the walking stick.

  Clarence Fillmore was a towering figure with a calming effect. He whistled three times fast, then tapped the stick on the marble floor and walked out the door. The ducks flew outside and landed in a birdbath way too small for so many large birds, where they huddled together, waiting for their promised walk through the grounds.

  “Rem
i, feathers, now!” said Ms. Sparks, which sent the bellboy tearing around the lobby, picking up all the feathers that had come loose. From this, and Ms. Sparks’s earlier command, Leo realized the new boy’s name had to be Remi, but there was no time for formal introductions as he skirted past and out onto the front steps.

  Mr. Fillmore got an earful from Ms. Sparks about the inadequate skills of his duck-walking son, but Leo didn’t seem to mind. All he could think about was the purple box, which was safe, at least for the moment.

  What did it mean? Where had it come from? And why did it have Merganzer D. Whippet’s head emblazoned on its top?

  Leo could think of little else besides the purple box as he walked the long and winding path on the hotel grounds. Betty and the rest of the ducks waddled contentedly behind him in a line, following Merganzer’s walking stick to the farthest reaches of the grounds. At the most distant corner was a small pond, where all the ducks went swimming and bobbing for who-knew-what. While they did, Leo sat on a stone bench wishing he could get out of all the work he’d have to do when he returned to the hotel.

  “Why so glum?”

  Leo jumped at the sound of the slow Texas drawl behind him. It was LillyAnn Pompadore, who’d been staying at the hotel for almost three months. She was fabulously rich, or so Leo had been told, hiding out from a Texas social scene she’d grown weary of.

  “Oh, I’m not glum,” said Leo. “I’m just walking the ducks.”

  LillyAnn Pompadore had an unidentifiable animal fur wrapped around her neck, wore lots of makeup, and carried a tiny dog under one arm. Leo could not help wondering how the dog must feel about the fur draped around its owner, but he kept silent, staring at the pond and hoping he could avoid a long conversation with the perpetually bored Ms. Pompadore. The dog’s name was Hiney, and he would sooner bite someone’s hand than allow the slightest bit of petting. He also had the annoying habit of pooping in the hotel hallways, which didn’t seem to bother Ms. Pompadore in the slightest. This would set off the alarm in the basement with a ticker tape from Pilar, with a message that usually said something along the lines of Hiney Alert. Cleanup on Floor 7.

  Hiney started barking. He wasn’t a fan of Betty and her clan, but they were safely in the water, so Leo didn’t mind when Ms. Pompadore set the little guy down and let him run around the pond as if he’d lost his mind.

  “I do hope Mr. Whippet will come back soon,” Ms. Pompadore drawled, fanning herself in the morning sun with a fashion magazine. “Where do you suppose he’s gone off to?”

  Leo shrugged, still hoping he could avoid a long encounter with a bored socialite.

  “Well, no matter,” she said. “Still, it’s a very odd thing the way he disappeared like that. Do you suppose he’s all right?”

  “Sure he is,” Leo answered without even thinking. But the thought had crossed his mind that Merganzer had almost never left the hotel grounds. How would he do out in the real world?

  “He built this place,” Ms. Pompadore said, looking back at the off-kilter hotel. “Like the Leaning Tower of Pisa … and that thing’s been standing for almost a thousand years. Maybe he knows something we don’t.”

  “I’m sure he does,” said Leo, always the first to come to Mr. Whippet’s defense.

  Ms. Pompadore called for Hiney and picked him up.

  “Hiney and the ducks don’t see eye to eye. I believe I’ll keep walking. Good luck with Betty.”

  Leo watched as LillyAnn Pompadore walked the winding path toward the hotel. Then his eye caught sight of Mr. Phipps out by the main gate. A black town car was pulling away, merging into a busy New York street.

  “This is an odd day,” said Leo, not talking to anyone in particular, though Betty honked from the pond as if she agreed.

  Leo watched as Ms. Sparks appeared at the gate as well, having come from the hotel. He couldn’t hear what was being said, but it was obvious from her gestures that she wanted Mr. Phipps away from the gate and back to work in the garden.

  Leo gathered the ducks, his heart racing, and walked back to the lobby. It was all he could do not to pull their waddling butts behind him, because ducks were very slow about their business. It could take quite a while to get them back into the duck elevator.

  Unfortunately, Ms. Sparks left the main gate and headed for the hotel at precisely the same moment Leo left the pond. She went by a different winding path, but emerged from behind a series of carved animal bushes right as Leo arrived at the hotel.

  “I hope you’ve got them under control this time,” she said. “A new guest arrives this afternoon — thanks to me, we’re actually booking some of these outrageously expensive rooms.”

  It was true that the Whippet usually had few guests besides the three long-stays, but things had indeed picked up a bit in Merganzer’s absence. Ms. Sparks seemed unable to help singing her own praises as she stared down at Betty with a sour look on her face.

  “Mr. Whippet didn’t know the first thing about Internet marketing. It’s the new frontier. Just keep Betty happy and we’ll be fine. The last thing we need is the daughter of an oil tycoon getting bitten by a duck.”

  Ms. Sparks brushed past Remi without a word, flicking a tiny feather off the shoulder of his red jacket as she passed by.

  Leo stopped short this time and put out his hand.

  “I’m Leo. I guess you’re Remi.”

  “Oh, I know who you are,” Remi replied. “My mom told me every thing about this place. You and your dad keep it running.”

  Remi shook Leo’s hand enthusiastically, like he’d stood too long at the door and had pent-up energy ready to burn.

  “Remi — that’s an odd name,” said Leo. “Short for Remington?”

  Remi shook his head and said, a little too loudly, “Short for Remilio. That was my mom’s dad, but only my mom calls me that now. I like Remi.”

  “Okay, Remi, well, I gotta go.” Leo was dying to get back to the box. “Have fun hanging out with Ms. Sparks.”

  Remi gave Leo a look that said Yeah, she’s a barrel of laughs, then leaned in close to his new friend and whispered.

  “Whatever it is, it’s got your name on it.”

  “What does?” asked Leo, but Remi wouldn’t answer as Ms. Sparks looked up and glared like she might glue their mouths shut.

  Leo didn’t want a repeat of what had happened an hour before in the lobby, so he kept marching with Merganzer’s walking stick until he reached the duck elevator, ignoring Remi’s strange comment.

  The miniature elevator wasn’t parked on the roof, as he’d expected. Someone had called it back down to the lobby. He turned back to Remi, who smiled knowingly.

  Uh-oh.

  Remi didn’t know much about the hotel. He was new and landlocked in the lobby. But he had managed to discover something secret in the duck elevator while Ms. Sparks was out at the gate and walking on the grounds.

  Leo opened the duck elevator and crawled inside, where he found that Remi was right.

  The purple box didn’t just have Merganzer’s head on it. There were two words on the box as well, words that had been covered by a feather before, but were now clear as day.

  For Leo

  Bernard sat in the backseat of the black town car as Milton raced through town, speeding past yellow cabs on an errand of the highest importance.

  “I think this will do just fine,” Bernard said as he watched the world race by. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

  “Oh yes,” said Milton, pulling to a stop at a red light and staring into the rearview mirror. “I think we’ve got the right person for the job.”

  “Let’s hope so.”

  Milton riffled through his silver briefcase and removed a file folder.

  “The files you were asking about? This is the first. It wasn’t easy to find, let me tell you.”

  “Thank you, Milton. I do believe this is going to turn out marvelously.”

  Bernard Frescobaldi took the folder as the car lurched forward. They would be driving for a while,
plenty of time to read more about Merganzer D. Whippet. Bernard knew he had to understand the man’s past in order to complete his plan. There were clues here, he was sure. He knew how rare these documents were, how hard they must have been to find. They could prove useless in the end, these old papers, but they could also reveal a clue that would help him get what he wanted.

  Merganzer D. Whippet,

  upon my father’s death

  I will not date these entries, for dates have only marked bad things in my life. I vow never to think of dates and days and times again. Here are some reasons why:

  My mother died when I was four, a very bad day. I have many memories of her, though I’ve never written any of them down. That must change.

  My father sent me to boarding school when I was a little bit bigger, also a bad day.

  There were all the days in between when I wished my father would notice me, but he never did. On one of those days I made stilts that bounced up and down on springs, my first good invention, which my father ignored. They poked holes in the ceiling of my room, but what did it matter? My father had thousands of ceilings all over the city in all of his fancy hotels. Couldn’t he do with one ceiling that had holes in it?

  And finally there is today, the day my father died.

  He leaves me with two things: a billion-dollar fortune, and a final verdict.

  I will make wacky things, and I will be good at it.

  A treasure and a curse, I suppose. But I am left with one thing more, something I don’t think my father meant to leave behind.

 
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