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       Floors, p.4

           Patrick Carman
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  There were two ways into Captain Rickenbacker’s room on the third floor — one in the hallway and one in the maintenance tunnel. Not all the rooms were designed this way, but there had been some problems over the past two years in that room, so Mr. Whippet had shown Leo a secret way in. Captain Rickenbacker had a habit of pushing large pieces of furniture in front of the door and refusing to come out, which was usually because his archnemesis, MR. M., had entered the hotel. MR. M. was, as far as the hotel staff could tell, a figment of Captain Rickenbacker’s imagination. It was usually Leo’s dad who was sent in to reassure the Captain and move the furniture away from the door so that Pilar could clean the room.

  Leo looked down at Betty. “Be careful in here, okay? It’s really no place for a duck.”

  Betty didn’t seem to be paying attention as Leo spun the combination lock on the secret door from the maintenance tunnel. On the room side, it looked as if part of the wall were swinging open, and when the door was closed again, it would look like there was no door at all. Betty waddled through the opening, and Leo, holding the purple box under one arm, followed her. He was careful not to let the door shut all the way, marveling at one of the most dangerous rooms in the hotel.

  “It looks like fun, but really, it’s a duck killer. Be super careful, Betty.”

  She honked, nodded her head, and waddled forward.

  Captain Rickenbacker stayed in a large and colorful room known as the Pinball Machine. The Pinball Machine had windows high up on the walls, from which the setting sun cast a golden glow over all the parts and pieces.

  “I’ve always liked this room,” said Leo. He was tempted to set the purple box down and play one of the twenty-three pinball machines that lined the bedroom wall, but he knew his time was limited. It would require some luck getting into the Ring of Rooms as it was, so there was no time for goofing off. The last thing he needed was for Captain Rickenbacker to return, thinking this little kid in his room was a manifestation of his made-up archenemy, MR. M. If that happened, Captain Rickenbacker might go bananas and start throwing things. And there were some dangerous, heavy things to throw in the Pinball Machine.

  Leo walked into the main room, which was long and narrow in the same way that a pinball machine was. This was the centerpiece of the Pinball Machine, with giant molded pinball bumpers that doubled as couches and chairs, all of them lit up with bright lights and springs. The slanted floor was covered in lights and arrows and circled numbers, just like a real pinball machine. At the far end of the room was a hole as big as a tire, which had a flipper on each side. Behind that was the doorway that led to the third-floor landing.

  Betty waddled down the room and honked into the hole, listening to the echo as Leo looked around. While he’d eaten dinner next to the glugging boiler in the basement, he’d reread Merganzer’s message, searching for clues.

  Floor and three and one half!

  This, he was sure, meant to say there were hidden rooms in the hotel, and one of them was above the third floor and below the fourth. He was now standing in the Pinball Machine, which was on the third floor, staring at the ceiling and wondering what was up there.

  Strike the purple ball in the kitchen by the hall.

  Leo walked down the slick, slanted floor, careful not to slip, and arrived at the control booth. He set the box down, and found himself feeling happy about the fact that the purple ball was stuck under a blue ball. They were big, like bowling balls, and just about as heavy. The blue ball would have to be played in order to retrieve the purple one from the track. In fact, the purple ball would need to be played as well, because the balls were stacked under a sheet of thick Plexiglas. They were only dangerous after they were shot into play. After that, a person could really get hurt in the Pinball Machine, which was definitely why Ms. Sparks was so happy Captain Rickenbacker had stayed in the room so long. No one else would rent it.

  “Betty,” said Leo, “we’ll need to play a couple of balls. Stay in here with me, okay?”

  Betty didn’t mind being picked up — in fact, she loved it. When Leo put one hand on each side and lifted her up so she could stand near the controls, she sighed happily.

  Leo pulled back on the giant spring-loaded ball whacker and let go, sending the blue ball up the silver rails and into play. It bounced off spring-loaded couches and chairs, spun through a whirligig, and headed for one of the two giant flippers. The room was alive with bells and zingers, lights blinking every where. Betty was mesmerized, concentrating on every move the ball made. Leo had planned to simply let the ball bounce off the flipper and land in the gutter, but he couldn’t help himself. He simply had to slap the flipper buttons with the palms of his hands (the buttons were big, like dinner plates) and send the blue ball sailing back up toward the kitchen, where it knocked down several letters that spelled out MERGANZER. The back wall spun the score on white tiles with black numbers as the ball came flying back toward the control booth. It slammed into a bumper and took flight, crashing into thick Plexiglas in front of Leo’s face. Leo laughed nervously, thinking to himself, If not for the Plexiglas, that ball would have knocked my block off.

  Betty honked nervously, flapping her wings in the small space.

  “Just stay put and you’ll be fine.”

  He let the blue ball drop into the tire-size hole, then shot the purple ball into play. This was where it would get dangerous, because he needed that ball. He’d have to go out and get it.

  Okay, Leo, you can do this. Just take it slow.

  “You wait here,” he told Betty, giving her a stern look that she returned with equal vigor. Betty didn’t like to be bossed.

  The ball was bouncing wildly back and forth between two chairs as Leo jumped out from behind the safety of the control room. He was standing in the middle of a live pinball machine, wondering what it would feel like to catch a bowling ball going fifty miles per hour. The ball came free from the back-and-forth of the bumpers and down the floor at lightning speed. Leo dove out of the way, sliding into a bumper of his own and feeling it fling him back like a rag doll. As he got his bearings, Leo saw that the ball had bounced back up in an arc. He turned and jumped, catching the ball in the gut as it knocked him to the slippery floor. The weight of the ball pulled Leo down toward a round hole that would try to swallow him up. But Leo was a fast thinker, even inside a giant pinball machine. He held the ball in his arms, spread his legs, and caught hold of one flipper with each foot. If Betty were to walk onto one of the flipper buttons in the control booth, he might not live to tell about it, and he watched the duck carefully.

  Betty quacked. She stared at Leo, then at the big white buttons.

  “Betty, no. Please, don’t —”

  She held one webbed foot over the right flipper button, paused, then slammed it down.

  Leo leaned over to the left flipper just in time, but Betty was laughing now, waddling back and forth between the flippers as if it were the most fun she’d ever had in her life.

  It took four or five jumps back and forth before Leo dove past the gutter and landed against the door with a thud.

  “That wasn’t nice,” he chided the duck, standing up with the bowling ball in his arms.

  His secret two-way radio squawked to life.

  “Remi here. Leo, you there?”

  Remi was whispering. Not a good sign. Leo pulled out the tiny watch on the string — twenty minutes gone already!

  “I’m here. What’s up?”

  “Nothing much. I’m bored. What are you doing?”

  Leo thought about what he should say. Remi was still brand-new and he barely knew him. What if he told him a crazy duck was trying to kill him inside a giant pinball machine?

  He settled for something slightly less weird.

  “I can’t talk now — I’m dodging bowling balls. Don’t call unless Rickenbacker is coming up here. Got it?”

  “Do you have any idea how lame it is standing at this door? You’re dodging bowling balls and my brain cells are melting from bo
redom. You’ve gotta get me in the game!”

  “Not now, Remi! Stay focused. We’ll talk about this later.”

  Leo put his plan into high gear, setting Betty on the pinball floor and running up to the kitchen with the purple ball under one arm and the box under the other. He could barely hold on to both and nearly dropped the ball twice, which would have meant playing the whole thing out again and probably getting flipped around the room by an unreliable duck.

  He got to the kitchen and saw the spot he was looking for: a wall of lights in the shapes of bowling balls. One of them was purple, and Leo felt sure he knew what to do.

  Strike the purple ball in the kitchen by the hall.

  Three times fast. Duck!

  He set the box down on the counter, careful not to let it touch a bumper. Then he held the heavy purple ball in front of the round light and shoved. When the ball hit the light it kept right on going, right through the wall, and dropped out of sight. Then the light was back.

  “Uh-oh,” said Leo. “I don’t think that was supposed to happen.”

  Betty quacked from the floor and Leo looked down. The ball was back, rolling out of a different hole by his feet.

  “I guess I should do it three times, right?” he asked Betty.

  Betty just stared at the refrigerator, which was shaped like a huge flipper standing on end.

  When Leo picked up the ball, it was half as heavy.

  “Different ball. Interesting.”

  He shoved it at the light again, and again it melted into the wall, dropped out of sight, and appeared at his feet. This time it was a lot lighter, like an oversize golf ball.

  “Is it just me, or is this getting more confusing by the minute?”

  The one-way conversation with Betty was surprisingly calming, and Leo began to think maybe he was more like Merganzer than he’d even thought. Merganzer loved talking but didn’t often want anyone talking back. Leo was like that, too. Speaking helped him think clearly, and ducks were awfully good listeners.

  “One more time and I bet this thing will float away.”

  Leo passed the ball through the hole one last time, and when he did, Betty honked louder than Leo had ever heard her honk before.

  He was reminded in that split second of one very important word in Merganzer’s note.


  In this particular case, his mind flashed a message: Merganzer probably wasn’t talking about a real duck. He probably meant you’re supposed to duck.

  Not one to take chances, Leo ducked, and when he did, the original purple ball (the one that felt like a bowling ball) flew out of the hole in the wall and back into the pinball machine where it belonged. It careened through a flipping turnstile near the ceiling, an impossible shot from any other angle, and all the lights in the room went dark. The ball bounced loudly down into the gutter, and when it was gone, the lights came up a dark purple. A deep hum filled the room as a hole slid open in the ceiling and a white light shone down on the dark surface of the floor.

  A ladder descended.

  Leo had popped back up when the ball flew past his head and had watched the pinball machine change. Now he was back on the floor, crouching down as another purple ball rolled out and bumped lazily against his foot. Leo took a moment to thank Betty for saving his life, then picked up the fourth ball. It felt like a ping-pong ball. Leo dropped it and it bounced right back up with a hollow sound.

  Leo thought of the other words Merganzer had written on the box.

  And bring the ball. You’ll need it.

  “All right, I will,” said Leo.

  He started walking toward the ladder, worried and nervous, as Remi’s voice blasted out of the two-way radio.

  “Captain Rickenbacker is on the move! He’s headed your way!”

  Leo had turned the room a deep shade of neon purple and opened a hole in the ceiling in the space of half an hour. He had no idea how to make every thing go back the way it was.

  So he did what any kid would do: He threw the ball and the duck up into the hole, grabbed the purple box, and climbed up the ladder.



  When Captain Rickenbacker placed his yellow key card into the slot for his room, he heard an unexpected sequence of sounds: a swoosh, a slam, and a charge of electric energy. He jumped back from the door as if it were covered in Kryptonite (he considered himself distantly related to Superman).

  “MR. M., I presume,” he whispered, for he was sure his enemy was inside rigging all sorts of traps in his beloved Pinball Machine.

  If Captain Rickenbacker could have seen what was happening on the other side of the door, it would have almost surely confirmed his suspicions.

  The ladder shot back from where it had come with stunning speed. The round door in the ceiling slammed shut. The lights in the Pinball Machine went back to the way they had been before.

  The Captain’s key card had activated a fail-safe to the Ring of Rooms.

  Stealth was not one of Captain Rickenbacker’s strong suits. He was more inclined to bold attacks and ninja moves. And so it was that he burst open the door and started shooting bowling balls into the room one right after the other, yelling all the while: “Take that! And that! And that!”

  Leo was alone on floor three and one half in an airtight room. There was no noise from above or below. Both the secret two-way radio and his walkie-talkie had lost their signals. He could not hear Captain Rickenbacker trying with all his superhero might to flush out MR. M. The only noise Leo could hear was Betty’s soft breathing, which was very soft indeed.

  “I think it’s time I opened the box again,” Leo said. Betty didn’t quack, but she seemed to approve of the idea, and Leo slid the cover off, staring inside. Over dinner he had figured out that the lid would slide onto the back of the box as well, and this he did so as not to leave it behind if he got lost in the maze.

  “I think I’m standing right here,” he said, setting the box and the very large purple ping-pong ball on the floor next to him. He was pointing to a small, round mark on the floor of the model while Betty waddled off behind him.

  The box was full of colored rings of different sizes, and so was the room. All the walls in the real room were bright white, lit from behind frosty glass. And all the rings were positioned exactly where they were in the box. The advantage to having the box, it seemed to Leo, was that he knew how to navigate the complex maze before him.

  Betty quacked from farther away than Leo was comfortable with. She was a mischievous companion, known to wander off on her own, and he felt sure she was about to somehow open the door and send the ladder back into the room below. But when he looked over his shoulder, he saw that she was simply staring at a white wall of frosty glass, where a message had started to appear. Leo took three steps toward her through the only ringless space in the whole maze and watched as the words appeared. It was as if someone were behind the glass, writing on a foggy window with his finger.

  Did you bring the ball?

  Make it fly, make it fall.

  MR. M.

  Something fell out of the ceiling, missing Betty by a hair, and a dark shadow moved behind the glass. Leo jumped back, afraid of something in the Whippet Hotel for the first time in his life.

  He wasn’t alone in the Room of Rings, as he’d supposed. And what was more frightening still: MR. M. wasn’t a figment of someone’s imagination. He was real.

  Maybe Captain Rickenbacker wasn’t totally off his rocker after all.

  Leo gathered his nerves and picked up what had fallen out of the ceiling. It looked like it had been designed to work with the box. It had a metal platform and two handles sticking out, like the handles of a motorcycle. He took up the box and placed it carefully on top of the square platform between the handles. A perfect fit, if ever there was one. A new sound rose from behind him — the sound of wind. When Leo turned, the giant purple ping-pong ball had floated up into the air.

  “I know what I
m supposed to do!” he said excitedly. “I understand!”

  Leo told Betty to stay right behind him and to do exactly as he did, and somehow he knew she’d understood. She fell in line as Leo held the handles on the box and stared into the model.

  “I know the way out of here, but there must be some trick to it, and the trick must involve the ball.”

  As he neared the floating ball, he felt what he’d expected: A strong channel of air was coming out of the floor, holding up the ball. Leo twisted the right handle as if he were actually riding a motorcycle and watched as the ball moved slowly forward. Twisting it the other way brought the ball right back. He tilted the front edge of the box down and the ball descended, the flow of air from the floor growing weaker. Then he tilted the front of the box up faster than he should have and the ball bounced off the ceiling. He leveled the box, and the ball was back, holding steady in front of his eyes.

  “Well, Betty, I know how to get this ball through the maze. I just don’t know why I’m doing it.”

  Leo shrugged. There was nothing to be done but guide the ball and follow it through, and so he began. Everything started out fine, twisting and turning through one green, then one yellow, then two red rings, Betty hopping through the rings behind him. But then he came to a place in the round maze where there were two rings to choose from. They were in the opening that would send him deeper into the maze, closer to the middle and the very end. Would it matter which one he chose? He thought not, and sent the ball through the blue ring on the right. When he did, the ring filled with spires of electricity and the ball exploded into dust.

  Leo lurched back, nearly falling into one of the rings, and stared in shock at the purple dust particles flying every where. If there were such a thing as fairy dust, Leo thought, it would look like this. The electric charge had turned the ball into sparkling purple mist that stuck in Leo’s round tuft of hair and danced on the wind.

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