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       Floors, p.3

           Patrick Carman
 
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  I have a feeling it will matter most.

  M.D.W.

  Notation about my mother: She loved rings. I must make an effort to find all the rings I can.

  Bernard searched the sky with his dancing eyes, nodding his head with assurance as he closed the folder. He had big plans for the hotel and the vast land it sat on, and more information than anyone else who might be trying to bring these things under their control.

  “What are you hiding, Mr. Whippet?” he asked.

  CHAPTER 3

  MR. POWELL EXPLAINS THE RULES

  The elevator had been so crammed with ducks on the way up to the roof that Leo couldn’t properly examine the purple box. He’d counted the minutes while the elevator rose ever so slowly. Betty had held a sideways gaze on Leo, like she was sure he was hiding more snacks, and now he felt glad to be going back down, alone at last with a box that had his name on it.

  There were many ways into the maintenance tunnels of the Whippet Hotel, one of which required stopping between floors in the duck elevator. This Leo did, pulling the lever to the middle position just two minutes into the ride. The duck elevator stopped and Leo turned a latch on the roof, popping it open to the shaft above. The opening wasn’t very big, but it was large enough for Leo to slide the wooden box through and set it carefully to the side. Leo climbed through the opening as well and realized he’d stopped late. The round hole to the maintenance tunnel was almost out of reach, but not quite. Leo stretched up and pushed the purple box into the darkness of the tunnel.

  His walkie-talkie squawked to life.

  “Leo, come in. You there?”

  It was his father. Leo’s heart sank. He pulled the walkie-talkie from its latch and clicked the red button.

  “Yeah, I’m here. Coming down from the roof.”

  He stared up at the large hole and wished he hadn’t once again let the box out of his sight.

  “New short-stays on six say the AC is out,” his father reported. “Can you double back?”

  Leo rolled his eyes. The air-conditioning on the sixth floor worked fine; it just had an unusual way of turning on that Ms. Sparks never wanted to explain.

  “I’m on it. Give me five.”

  “Perfect. After that, head over to that water leak in tunnel number eight. I’ll be there working on the pipes.”

  “See you when I get there,” said Leo. He was between floors four and five, but there were ladders he could use in the tunnel system to get where he needed to go. Best to stay with the box if he could, so he didn’t lose it.

  Leo reached down into the elevator and pulled up on the lever, feeling himself move slowly upward. When the opening to the maintenance tunnel was a foot away, he jumped in. Turning back, Leo flipped the top shut on the elevator and heard it snap closed, then watched it go by on its way back to the roof.

  Finally, he had a chance to sit in the light of the twisting tunnels and get a look inside the box. It took only a moment for Leo to discover he could slide off the top, which he did. What he saw made him gasp with delight.

  “Where in the world is this place?” he whispered to himself. Looking inside the box was sort of like staring into a house with the roof torn off. There were walls and rooms and curves, and he could peer inside and see it all. From the top, the walls made a rat’s maze of five circles, each circle smaller than the last. There were round rooms inside, too, growing smaller as they neared the center. Closer and closer to the center the circles went, but that wasn’t all. All the pathways were filled with brightly colored hoops of different shapes and sizes, turned at different angles. It was a marvel of ingenuity — intricate and perfect — and yet totally wacky.

  Is it a ring of rooms or a room of rings? Leo wondered. I think it must be both at once. How odd.

  Leo was leaning in for a closer inspection, pointing his standard-issue flashlight into the purple box, when his walkie-talkie came to life again. This time it was Ms. Sparks.

  She was cranky.

  “Leo Fillmore, if you’re in the building, pick up. NOW.”

  He wanted desperately to turn off the walkie-talkie and figure out what the Room of Rings or the Ring of Rooms was supposed to mean. Why on earth had it shown up in a box with his name on it?

  Leo pushed the button on the walkie-talkie.

  “I’m heading to six now. Just need a few minutes more.”

  “You haven’t fixed that AC problem yet?” yelled Ms. Sparks, her voice bouncing off the tunnel walls. “Do you realize who’s in there? He’s worth about a zillion dollars and his daughter gets very cranky in the heat. If she’s cranky, HE’S cranky. Get on it, Fillmore!”

  “Almost there,” Leo said.

  “And get back to the lobby the moment you’re done. Remi needs a bathroom break and YOU need to watch the door. There’s been too much mischief around here lately.”

  What did she mean by mischief? Was it the black town car or the ducks in the lobby, or something else? Whatever the reason, Ms. Sparks was on the alert, and Leo took that as a bad sign.

  He couldn’t believe how busy his day was getting. AC units, water pipes, door duty, duck walking — his head was spinning as he grabbed the purple lid and saw what he hadn’t seen before. On the underside was taped a fancy envelope. A message had been written above the envelope, on the wood of the box itself, in Merganzer’s big and round writing, which Leo recognized instantly.

  Floor and three and one half!

  Strike the purple ball in the kitchen by the hall.

  Three times fast. Duck!

  And bring the ball. You’ll need it.

  Leo felt an immediate sense of goodwill and comfort. Merganzer D. Whippet only spoke in such strange turns of phrase when he was at his happiest, like when they were flying up the Double Helix and he would scream, “Dancing sharks go jumping Bob!” Mr. Whippet was the smartest man Leo had ever met most of the time, but his happiness brought out a wild glee that tumbled out of his mouth like candy.

  Floor and three and one half had an authentic Whippet ring to it.

  “LEOOOOOOOOOO!” Ms. Sparks screamed into the walkie-talkie.

  Leo turned the volume dial down, her voice growing quieter, as if she were falling down an elevator shaft.

  He turned his attention to the fancy envelope, carefully pulling it free from the lid of the purple box. Time stood still for Leo as he opened and read the note. No thoughts of a zillionaire with a cranky daughter. No Ms. Sparks or leaky pipes.

  There was only the letter and the box.

  Young Mr. Fillmore,

  If you are in receipt of this letter, then Mr. Whippet has been gone for exactly one hundred days. As his longtime personal friend and attorney, I have been instructed to set things in motion.

  I am only allowed to tell you four things:

  — There are four boxes, all of which must be found.

  — There are two days, including this one. That is all the time you have.

  — You may enlist the help of only one other, preferably a child.

  — Always bring a duck if you can. They are more useful than you know. If you can’t find a duck, bring a friend. Never go it alone.

  Don’t fail, young Mr. Fillmore, for if you do, the Whippet Hotel and all it stands for will come to an end.

  Only you can save the Whippet now. He’s counting on you to set things right.

  Thoughtfully yours,

  George Powell

  Attorney at Law

  1 Park Avenue West, 44th floor, door number four

  New York, NY

  Leo felt the weight of the entire hotel resting on his shoulders. Was it really up to him, a ten-year-old boy, to save the hotel? And what did four weird boxes have to do with saving a hotel, anyway?

  He looked at the walkie-talkie, the red light blinking on and off: Ms. Sparks or his father, no doubt. He’d stayed too long exploring the purple box of rings. Leo put the fancy envelope and the letter in the front pocket of his overalls and started to put the lid back on the box. As
he did, he heard his father’s voice echoing down the maintenance tunnel.

  “Leo? You in there?”

  Leo slid the cover of the box quietly until it was firmly back in place. Then he picked it up, searching for a place to hide it before his father came lumbering around a corner. The tunnel was narrow but tall, filled with all sorts of pipes and meters, and it snaked all the way around the building in a complete circle. This was one of the oddities of the Whippet Hotel: It was true that there were nine floors, but there was a lot of space between each floor. The tunnels ran all through many of those sections, with ladder tubes here and there between the floors the guests stayed on. Leo had long since memorized every nook and cranny of the tunnel system, and one thing was abundantly clear: There was no place to hide a purple box where his father wouldn’t see it.

  Leo looked in every direction and realized he had only one choice if he wanted to keep the secret safe.

  By the time Clarence Fillmore arrived at the small round opening that led to the duck elevator, his son was gone.

  And so was the box.

  Carrying a box down a ladder is easier said than done, and Leo nearly dropped it more than once as he descended from the fifth floor to the fourth. He wound his way through the fourth floor tunnel lined with pipes, some of them shooting steam with a loud hissing sound as he passed by. Another hole with a ladder appeared, and down he went again, arriving in the maintenance tunnel on the third floor. Five minutes later, he arrived back in the basement boiler room, where he tucked the purple box under his cot for safekeeping. He was already out of breath, but he climbed all the way back up to six in order to set the AC that Ms. Sparks couldn’t figure out.

  “Don’t tell me you didn’t have a signal,” Ms. Sparks screamed when he finally returned to the lobby, her beehive cone of hair dancing back and forth over his head. “Remi nearly peed his pants!”

  Leo couldn’t understand why she hadn’t let Remi leave for what would amount to a two-minute break, but he wasn’t about to ask her in the mood she was in.

  “And you took forever fixing the air-conditioning on six,” Ms. Sparks continued as Remi hopped off in the direction of the bathroom. “What if the Yanceys decide they don’t want to stay here after all? What then? How do you think Mr. Whippet will feel about that when he gets back? Well? Say something!”

  Leo cleared his throat. He hadn’t caught the name of the girl or her parents as he’d flipped the AC switch up, down, and up again, then turned the temperature dial all the way to zero and back to sixty-six. Once it had turned on, the girl plunked down in front of the cold air and stared at Leo like he was a pile of stinky dirt.

  “You know, Ms. Sparks, the AC unit in that room isn’t so complicated. Should I explain it to you one more time?”

  Ms. Sparks’s face looked like she was trying to make fireworks shoot out of her ears. She hated it when she couldn’t figure out how the hotel worked, which was practically all the time.

  “I’m writing you up, Leo Fillmore. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

  Being written up by Ms. Sparks had an uncertain meaning. Leo had been written up dozens of times, but where these write-ups went was a mystery. He had a feeling they went into her desk as evidence for a future trial of his skills and character at a time of her choosing.

  When Remi zipped back through the lobby looking relieved, Ms. Sparks was on the phone having a long conversation with Ms. Pompadore about where to get the best hats in Manhattan.

  “Thanks, Leo, I needed that.” Remi sighed. “Did you meet the zillionaire’s daughter? She’s a real charmer.”

  “I fixed the air-conditioning, which seemed to make her happy.” Leo kept his voice to a whisper, and signaled Remi to do the same. The smaller boy adjusted the red pants and bow tie of his uniform and tried to play it cool. “But I think that little kid is going to give us some trouble. She’s a cranky six-year-old and she’s bored. Bad combo.”

  “I hear you, man.” The zillionaire’s kid was named Jane Yancey, and Remi ticked off her attributes on his fingers. “Jane Yancey: six years old, bored, spoiled. Super-size bad combo.”

  “Listen, Remi, I might need your help on a few things this week. Can I count on you?”

  Remi’s face lit up. He was dying to escape the company of Ms. Sparks and explore the Whippet Hotel.

  “Does it have anything to do with that box? The purple one?”

  Remi was curious, but he was also new to the hotel. Leo could use this to his advantage.

  “Nah, it’s just something I use to work with the ducks.”

  “Ooooh, right. Like duck food and stuff.”

  “Right, duck food.”

  Remi was all smiles.

  “Anything I can do that gets me away from this door, I’m in. Just say the word.”

  Leo was starting to think this might work out okay. Having a go-to guy to cover for him in a pinch could really come in handy. He’d brought his knapsack full of hotel tools with him and opened it up just as Ms. Sparks covered the receiver and yelled across the lobby.

  “Don’t you have some pipes to fix?”

  “Yes, ma’am. I’m on my way.”

  “Good. Stop on floor three on the way. Hiney did a hoo-hoo.”

  “Who calls a dog poop a hoo-hoo?” Remi whispered, shaking his head.

  “Take this,” Leo said, handing Remi one of two small radios he’d picked up weeks ago from a street vendor. “I’ve got one, too, and both are set to frequency number four. If you hear a little beep, it’s me.”

  Remi’s eyes grew big and he smiled at Leo.

  “Partners?” he dared to ask.

  “Partners,” said Leo.

  CHAPTER 4

  INTO THE PINBALL MACHINE

  It was a beautiful summer night on the grounds, where Mr. Phipps had surrounded the carved hedges and giant bushes around the pond with tiny lights that shone like stars. The ducks had been brought down and swam lazily in the water, quacking softly at the setting sun, although Betty was not among them.

  “Dinner is served,” said Ms. Sparks, playing hostess to the guests who’d chosen to attend the party. This included a smattering of short-stays, including Jane Yancey, the ornery little daughter of the zillionaire, and her mother, Nancy Yancey. The father, presumably, had business to attend to on Wall Street. Ms. Pompadore was there with Hiney, who sat by the pond barking at the ducks. Meanwhile, Captain Rickenbacker was deep in conversation with Mr. Phipps about the shapes of the bushes.

  “I want a duck,” said little Jane Yancey, who wouldn’t leave the edge of the pond to come to the table.

  “Ask your father,” replied her mother.

  “Do you want to cook the duck or put it on a leash?” asked Ms. Pompadore, who had no patience whatsoever for spoiled children.

  Jane ran to the table and sat by her mother, complaining about the rude woman and her barking dog, and dinner was served.

  There was no main kitchen in the hotel, but it didn’t matter. Dinner, along with every other meal at the Whippet, was catered by one of the finest restaurants in New York, one block off the property. The restaurant was owned by the Whippet estate, and it only served the hotel. If you had a yellow or green key card, you could dine there any time of the day or night and never pay a dime. (Tips were also discouraged.) Or guests could ring the restaurant by inserting a key card into a dining slot in their rooms, and food would be delivered to their doors under silver domes on piping hot plates. The staff was not invited to dine with guests, unless you were Ms. Sparks.

  And so it was that Leo had eaten dinner in the basement — a bowl of ramen noodles and a banana — while he’d stared into the purple box. His father was off in the expanse of the maintenance tunnels, working on something or other, when Leo made the call.

  “Remi, are you there?”

  A split second later Remi answered, like he’d been holding the two-way radio next to his face, waiting for it to go off.

  “I’m here! Where are you?”

 
That’s not important now. Who’s in the lobby?”

  “Me and my mom. Your dad came through on his way up a while ago, but otherwise, it’s been quiet.”

  “Do you know where Captain Rickenbacker is?”

  “I do. He’s at the dinner party by the pond on the grounds.”

  “Good! He went as I’d hoped.”

  There was a leather string tied to his belt notch, and Leo pulled it out, staring at a tiny watch that was attached to the end. Betty was busy gobbling up half of Leo’s dinner while he talked, a stray noodle hanging from her bill.

  “I’ve got Betty with me, and I’ll need to return her and the rest of the ducks to the roof in just under an hour. In the meantime, I’ve got an errand to run. Call me if Captain Rickenbacker comes back, will you?”

  “Sure I will!”

  Remi had let himself grow too enthusiastic, and his mother looked up from behind the desk, where she was filing her nails.

  “You must be hungry, no?” she asked.

  She smiled and called Remi to the desk, where she gave him a cold tamale wrapped in wax paper.

  “You make me proud, my little doorman. Keep working hard and you’ll make your way in the world.”

  Remi went back to the door with one hand in his pocket, secretly holding the two-way radio in case Leo needed him. In his other hand he held his dinner, which was a repeat of what he’d had for lunch.

  Hearing the distant sound of ducks quacking on the pond, he gazed out over the grounds and wondered what Leo and Betty were doing.

 
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