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       Floors, p.5

           Patrick Carman
 
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  He tried to calm himself down, but could only imagine what would happen to him if he went through the wrong ring. Would he, too, be turned to dust, never to escape the Ring of Rooms or the Room of Rings?

  “At least now I know what the purple ball was for,” he said. “But it’s gone now.”

  Leo was aware of the time ticking away, and this only added to his anxiety. Checking his watch, he saw that he’d already been gone a full hour. Ms. Sparks would be furious about the ducks being left in the pond. Then she’d find that Betty was missing and go ballistic. And what about his father — what would he say if Leo couldn’t be found?

  Leo was looking at Betty like she might have the answer to all his problems, but it turned out she had the key to a different question. She was staring at one of the frosty glass walls again, watching a new message appear. Leo joined her as an unseen finger wrote out seven words before the shadow moved off again.

  Turn the handle back three times fast.

  Leo was beside himself with worry, but he couldn’t give up now. For starters, he didn’t know how to get the round door back open again. And even if he could get it open, there would be Captain Rickenbacker and his flying bowling balls to deal with.

  He turned the handle back once, a second time, then once more. A big blue ball, round and perfect, dropped out of the ceiling and was held on the wind in front of the two rings.

  “I wonder how many of these I get,” Leo said to Betty, excited to have another ball but realizing he had to be extremely careful. If he got too far into the maze and ran out of balls, he might never get out. He’d have to remember exactly which rings were capable of turning him into fairy dust.

  Leo twisted the handle forward and sent the blue ball safely through the opening on the left, then stepped through himself. Betty flew carefully through the ring as well, and they were safely into the second circular layer of the maze. Looking at the model in the box, Leo saw many openings that led to the next inner level, but only one had an arrow pointing inside. He was excited again, less nervous, realizing that no one else but he could complete the maze and live to tell about it.

  During the next twenty minutes, Leo blew up four more giant ping-pong balls on his way to the center of the Room of Rings. He began to anticipate seeing them explode and felt less anxious when they did. Watching the orange ball blast into dust was particularly enjoyable, because orange was his favorite color.

  He couldn’t have known, for there were no mirrors in the maze, but his hair was starting to look like a rainbow, dusted with purple, green, orange, yellow, and blue as he arrived in the inner circle of the maze.

  He’d exploded the green ball on the way into this chamber, and passing through the opening into the center of the maze, he felt as if he were standing in the middle of an igloo. The walls were frosty white and perfectly round, curved into a dome at the top. He stood there with his box and his duck and wondered what he should do, for the room was completely empty.

  The opening to the room, which he had just passed through, was suddenly gone, filled by a curved wall sliding down from above. Leo was trapped in a half circle of pure white, his heart beating faster as a terrible thought crossed his mind.

  No one knows I’m here.

  But that wasn’t entirely true. There was one person who knew, and whoever it was began writing a message on the ceiling, just like he’d written the other messages before.

  “Is that you, Merganzer?” asked Leo, setting the purple box and the handles on the floor and reaching up toward the ceiling. “Won’t you please come out?”

  He’d had his suspicions, but there was no way he could know for sure. It was a dangerous path he’d taken to the white room, and it would be unlike his old friend to place him in harm’s way. Then again, who else could it be, helping him along and pretending to be MR. M. all this time?

  It was a short message, only three words:

  Take the ring.

  At first the message made no sense, because there were no rings in the room to take. But then something small dropped through a hole in the ceiling. Quickly thrusting out his hand, Leo caught the object before it hit the floor.

  There was a deep silence then. Even Betty seemed to understand that something important had just happened. Leo knew it, too, but he didn’t say anything. There was something very special about the ring that had fallen into his hand. Something so special, it nearly made him cry, but not quite, as he placed it in his pocket next to his mother’s watch.

  “Thank you, whoever you are.”

  Without any warning at all, the hole in the ceiling got bigger and a blue box fell through. It was the exact same shape and size as the purple box sitting in the center of the room. Leo caught the blue box as it was falling, finding it heavier than the purple box, but not by much. On the lid was a message.

  Don’t turn me upside down. Don’t open me until morning.

  The emblem of Merganzer’s head was also on the box, right in the middle.

  “I got another box,” said Leo, very proud of himself for what he’d done. “What do you think of that, Betty?”

  Betty was growing very bored and extremely hungry. She honked irritably, staring up at Leo as if to say I’ve had it with rings and rooms and boxes. Get me to the roof or I’ll chew on your shoes.

  “We have been in here a while, haven’t we? But I don’t know how to get out.”

  Leo wanted desperately to open the blue box, but he’d been told not to, so instead he took the purple box off the handles and set them aside. He put the lid back on the purple box and set the boxes next to each other.

  And then he sat there for about a minute, unsure what to do, until a new message appeared on the ceiling.

  Connect the boxes.

  Pick them up.

  Like all the earlier messages, this one appeared, then slowly drifted away, the frost returning to the glass.

  It took only a moment for Leo to figure out that the blue box slid snugly on top of the purple box on little wooden rails he hadn’t paid any mind to before. The two were one now, inseparable unless they were intentionally slid apart.

  There was one last message being drawn with a finger on the glass, and this one worried Leo greatly.

  Hold on tight!

  He didn’t see any reason to hold on tight, so the message unnerved him. Should he hold the boxes tight, or pick up Betty and hold her tight, or was the floor about to fa —

  The third thing Leo thought — the thought about the floor falling away — was the reason he was supposed to hold on tight. He found himself on a twisting slide and wondered if he was inside one of the tubes of the Double Helix. Those were far too narrow, he knew, but things had gotten so terribly strange at the Whippet Hotel that he couldn’t tell up from down. Wherever he was, he was falling fast, turning sharply every few seconds, barely keeping hold of the two boxes that had become one. He came to a harrowing U-turn and was tossed from the tube, landing squarely on top of the duck elevator. He made the mistake of turning toward the echoing sound of Betty sliding down behind him, and she crashed into his face, feathers flying as she regained her webbed footing and quacked angrily.

  Leo threw open the trapdoor atop the duck elevator and jumped inside, landing with a bouncy thud. He grabbed the boxes first, then the duck, and shut himself inside.

  “It’s getting awfully crowded in here, wouldn’t you say?” he asked Betty. Two boxes, a boy, and a duck did take up some space when there wasn’t much to be had.

  There was plenty of good news, though, as the small elevator lurched to life and started its slow descent to the lobby. Leo was in possession of the second of four boxes. He was halfway to somewhere, though he had no idea where. He had a special ring in his pocket. And he was free of the Room of Rings or the Ring of Rooms, whichever it was called.

  The bad news?

  The walkie-talkie had started working again, and Ms. Sparks was screaming at him.

  Bernard Frescobaldi was back in the hotel across the stree
t, staring at the huge, nearly empty block that held the Whippet Hotel. Something was troubling him.

  “Milton, a cappuccino, if you please.”

  “Right away, sir. Right away.”

  Milton went to work at the rather elaborate coffee-making machine in the corner of the room. It had been brought over from Italy, along with Italian espresso beans, cups, saucers, spoons, and a grinder. The room filled with the smells and sounds of good, strong coffee.

  “Something’s not right over there,” said Bernard as Milton delivered the small red cup topped with foam.

  “How do you mean, sir?”

  Milton returned to the machine to make his own drink, for he knew his boss would take some time answering the question.

  “Someone is set against us, though I can’t see who,” Bernard continued, still staring out the window as Milton returned.

  “I think our plan is going to work,” Milton assured him, sipping carefully from his own cup. “How can we lose with you-know-who on the job?”

  “True enough. Still, I can’t help but want to stack the deck more in my favor. Read me that travel entry again, will you, Milton? I think it may be of some help.”

  Milton went to his silver briefcase, riffled through the contents, and found the entry in question. He sipped his strong coffee, cleared his throat, and began reading out loud.

  Merganzer D. Whippet, travelogue 3

  I’m traveling with George once more, on the train between New York and Washington DC. George keeps telling me how much money I’ve gotten hold of and how hard it will be to spend it all. I keep reminding him I have plans equal to the task.

  I’ve only ridden two train systems, the one that leads to the boarding school in Pittsburgh and the one I’m on now. I adore one train, loathe the other, a true love/hate relationship.

  No travel was ever so dreary as the train ride to and from the boarding school.

  But the second train — the one I’m riding now — was mine and my mother’s for a brief time. She’d been tired a lot for some reason, so I said we didn’t have to go, but she insisted. Being five, I was all too happy to agree. We should go!

  We took the train to the Smithsonian in Washington DC, and she pointed out all sorts of things along the way, which surprised me. When had she ever been out and about? I’d always imagined her folding my clothes and making my breakfast. Funny how I didn’t realize how remarkable she was, how much she’d accomplished.

  Dad had said of DC, “Take him to the mint to watch them make money. It might teach him a thing or two,” but my mother had other ideas. She liked rockets, history, art, music, and especially robots. Or could it be, she knew I loved those things best, and wanted me to see them?

  Either way, we never went back.

  One time on the better train of the two was all I ever got.

  After that, my mother was tired all the time. She hardly got out of bed, and I thought a terrible thought: Our one great adventure had worn her out. I’d exhausted her.

  M.D.W.

  PS. I have a plan for a hotel, and in the hotel will be a Railroad Room. I don’t think I’ll let anyone inside the Railroad Room. At least not for a while.

  Bernard shook his head.

  Milton scrunched his nose. “I’ve been all through the place, top to bottom. There is no Railroad Room. Right?”

  “Either way, our plan is in motion. Things will get interesting starting tomorrow.”

  Milton sipped the last of his coffee.

  “I can hardly wait.”

  CHAPTER 6

  THEODORE BUMP AND THE TROUBLESOME ROBOT

  By the time Leo reached the lobby, the hotel was ready for the night. Remi had fallen asleep in one of the big chairs while his mother quietly dusted the brass handrails. Ms. Sparks was nowhere to be seen, off on a rampage searching for Leo all over the hotel.

  Leo tucked the two boxes beneath the nearest sculpted green bush (it was in the shape of a rabbit) and turned to send the duck elevator back up to the roof. Betty was sitting down in it, nestled in a ball, which was very unlike her.

  “Are you okay? You must be hungry.”

  Leo felt terrible. He loved animals, and he’d put Betty through quite an adventure. The poor thing could barely keep her eyes open.

  “I’m sending you back to the roof now,” Leo whispered. “You’ll find some food in the pond.”

  He closed the duck elevator and pushed the button for the roof.

  “Where’ve you been? Everyone’s looking for you!”

  Remi had woken and tiptoed over in the dim light of the lobby, scaring Leo half to death.

  “Don’t sneak up on me like that!”

  “Sorry, it’s a habit of mine. I like to sneak.”

  Remi’s mop of dark hair was messy from sleep, and he’d loosened his kid-size bow tie.

  “Sneaking might come in handy,” said Leo. “Just don’t sneak up on me.”

  Remi smiled widely and stole a look back into the main lobby.

  “I’m going to leave in a minute,” he said, “but I’ll be back in the morning. Can I keep the two-way radio?”

  “Of course you can,” said Leo. “You are my partner after all, right?”

  Remi was growing on Leo, but more importantly, Leo was going to need his help in order to find all the boxes and get to the bottom of what was going on.

  “I could sneak away from the door if you want,” Remi offered.

  “How?” asked Leo, assuming Ms. Sparks’s evil eye was on the door all day long.

  “Ms. Sparks has errands tomorrow afternoon, so my mom will work the front desk. She said she’d watch the door so I could explore if I wanted to, as long as I didn’t go looking for cupcakes. Are there cupcakes up there?”

  Remi looked up at the ceiling curiously, licking his lips.

  “You’ve never been upstairs?” asked Leo. He had such free rein of the hotel, it hadn’t occurred to him that others might not share the same privilege.

  “Are you kidding? I’ve only been here one day, and I spend every waking moment standing at that dull front door. It’s torture.”

  Remi looked at the ceiling again.

  “How many cupcakes are up there?”

  “Forget about the cupcakes, Remi. We’ve got more important things to think about. Right now I have to get these boxes to the basement and avoid Ms. Sparks.”

  “Boxes?” said Remi, for he’d only seen the purple box.

  Leo cringed — he’d spilled the beans.

  “You found another box! That’s awesome!” Remi glanced around the lobby, searching for the hidden boxes. “They must be important, right? The first one’s got Merganzer’s head on it and every thing. Wait a second…. You said the purple box had duck food in it.”

  “I barely knew you way back then,” said Leo. “I had to come up with something. For all I knew, you were working for Ms. Sparks.”

  “Are you kidding? She won’t even give me a bathroom break!”

  But Remi wasn’t hurt. He understood that it took at least six or seven hours to cultivate a trusting friendship.

  “So what’s in the boxes?” he asked.

  Before Leo could answer, a voice, splashed with a rich Spanish accent, filled the lobby.

  “Remilio? Time to go, sweetie.”

  “Mom! Please don’t call me that. It’s embarrassing.”

  “Leo?” Pilar said, finding them at the duck elevator. “You’d better head for the basement before Ms. Sparks finds you. She needs some cooling-off time.”

  Leo couldn’t help thinking Remi’s mom was about to see the two boxes tucked beneath the rabbit bush, but it was Remi who spied them. Leo could see it in his round saucer eyes.

  “And you, little hombre,” said Pilar, putting an arm around her son. “We better get you home. You have a long day at the door tomorrow.”

  Remi groaned in agony at the thought of standing in the lobby with Ms. Sparks all day, but he brightened when he remembered what his mother had told him.

&nbs
p; “I’ll show him around the place tomorrow afternoon,” said Leo, reading Remi’s thoughts. “I know the Whippet inside and out.”

  Pilar was happy to see her son had made a friend in Leo, whom she had always adored. And Leo liked her, too. She’d covered for him with Ms. Sparks lots of times.

  “Skip the Cake Room, okay?” she said playfully, messing Remi’s hair.

  “You got it,” said Leo.

  “You guys can team up all you want.” Remi smiled. “But if there’s a Cake Room in this place, I’ll find it.”

  Remi left with his mom and Leo grabbed the boxes, heading for the basement. When he came to the bottom step and creaked the door open slowly, he peeked inside, hoping not to see his dad drinking iced tea and reading The New York Times, old copies of which stood in three towering piles next to his bed.

  “Dad, you in there?” Leo whispered. The basement wasn’t huge, but it was very cluttered. Pipes, boxes, the call center, the boiler, the washer, the clothesline, and a lot more.

  No one answered, so Leo crept inside, took the boxes apart, and hid them under his cot, sighing with relief. At least the boxes were safely hidden, even if he was in trouble for going missing for several hours.

  Leo heard the sound of the toilet flushing in the small bathroom off in the corner and realized he wasn’t alone after all. He had a few seconds, though, which was just enough time to leave something on his dad’s pillow.

  “I thought I heard you come in,” Leo’s dad said. It was true Clarence Fillmore was a big guy, but he was more of a teddy bear than a growler. He didn’t have it in him to scold Leo for disappearing.

  “You know,” he said as he sat down, “you’re getting older now. If you need time to yourself, it’s okay. Just let me know where you are, so I don’t worry that you’ve fallen down the elevator shaft.”

 
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