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       Floors, p.7

           Patrick Carman
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  When he entered the basement, Leo thought the police, the fire department, and the county health inspector had all showed up at one time. Every color of light was spinning and flashing on the wall, the siren was going off, and streams of red ticker tape were pouring out of Daisy’s mouth like an endless grocery store receipt.

  “Leo!” yelled Clarence Fillmore. “The hotel is sick!”

  At first this struck Leo as an odd thing to say, but the more he looked at the call center, the more he had to agree: The Whippet Hotel had come down with something really bad.

  “What do we do?” Leo yelled over the blaring siren.

  “We have to convince everyone to stop pulling rip cords,” said Clarence Fillmore, shaking his head in disbelief. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

  Every guest room had a red ball hanging from a red rope. On the wall near the ball was a red button. To send a distress signal, a guest had to grab the ball and pull the cord while simultaneously pressing the red button. The rope and the button were too far apart (and the rope too high) for a child to make trouble. Apparently, from the looks of the call center, all the guests in the hotel were pulling their rip cords and pressing the buttons in their rooms at the same time, over and over again.

  All Leo could think about was how Ms. Sparks would use this to try to fire his dad. She’d say it was his fault the hotel was falling apart.

  “You take Ms. Pompadore — you’re good with her — and I’ll take Captain Rickenbacker. Let’s start there.”

  The first thing they had to do was get the siren to stop wailing, which would mean getting at least one guest to stop pulling on his rip cord.

  The call center had an old-fashioned-looking bank of buzzer buttons across the middle under Daisy’s head. Clarence pushed the button for LillyAnn Pompadore’s room and Leo for Captain Rickenbacker’s, hoping they’d let go of their rip cords long enough to answer the calls.

  Mercifully, the siren stopped wailing in the basement boiler room as both guests picked up at once, their voices distant and crackly.

  “The Pinball Machine has gone berserk!” yelled Captain Rickenbacker. “It’s trying to kill me!”

  “WET FLOOR, HINEY CAN’T SWIM!” was all Ms. Pompadore would say, although she said it so loudly that both Fill mores leaned back as if a strong wind had blown into the basement.

  “At least the siren stopped,” said Leo, and the moment he said so, the siren began sounding again.

  “You’ve jinxed us,” said Leo’s father, looking at the call center lights flashing like mad.

  Fifteen minutes later, Leo and Clarence Fillmore had everyone calmed down. The call center was still blinking red, but at least they could quietly assess the damage.

  Water leaks in at least three rooms, which Leo rightly blamed on a leak in the pond pump on the roof.

  Air-conditioning out in four rooms. It was only midmorning and already the temperature was pushing eighty. If it got over ninety in the Cake Room, they’d be looking at a frosting disaster, very hard to clean up.

  Electrical shorts in the Pinball Machine and the Robot Room. Klink, Klank, and Klunk were in a battle royal that threatened to drive Mr. Bump out of the hotel and into a café with his laptop.

  Hot water was a complete no-show in the hotel, which meant the boiler was on the fritz.

  “Leaks first, then every thing else,” said Leo’s dad, staring at the strips of ticker tape and wondering how they were ever going to get it all fixed.

  Leo was just about to encourage his father — they’d figure it out, he was sure — when the door to the basement opened and the shadow of Ms. Sparks’s towering beehive leaned into the room.

  “You’re on thin ice, Mr. Fillmore. I hope, for your sake, you can get things under control around here.”

  “Absolutely, Ms. Sparks. Leo and I have it handled. No need to worry.”

  “Why am I not consoled?” she said, looking at the Fill mores’ bunks as if she couldn’t imagine having to live in such primitive quarters. She slammed the door shut and Leo listened as her high-heeled shoes clanked up the concrete steps to the lobby.

  “I’ll fix the water pump, you mop up the rooms,” said Clarence.

  “Then I’ll take the duck elevator to the maintenance tunnel on four and fix the electrical panel. It’s the same panel for the robots and the Pinball Machine.”

  “Perfect! We’ll meet back here in an hour to wrestle the boiler into shape.”

  Leo and Clarence loaded their tool belts and bags with every thing they could imagine needing, and then Leo called Pilar on the maintenance line and asked her to switch on the wet / dry vac system on all floors and break out the mops.

  The siren started wailing again as voices blared into the basement.

  “Let’s get out of here before she blows!” Clarence joked, and he and Leo were off, fixing things on every floor.

  In all the excitement, Leo wasn’t able to get his hands on the blue box, which just about drove him half crazy with anticipation. He knew it would lead him somewhere secret in the hotel, but he couldn’t rightly go exploring while the Whippet was in the fight of its life. He’d never known the hotel to suffer so many calamities, but then again, Merganzer D. Whippet was forever tinkering with every part of the building. A hundred and one days without him at work might have finally caught up to the quirkiest hotel in New York.

  “Yo, Leo.”

  Remi was calling on the two-way radio as Leo entered the maintenance tunnel and started up one of the ladders toward the wet rooms.

  “I’m kind of busy at the moment, Remi,” Leo said, trying to climb the ladder with one hand as he held the radio.

  “Blop caught wind of the water leaks and he’s worried about the other robots,” Remi reported. “He keeps banging his head against the cardboard box.”

  Leo rolled his eyes. “He’s a tricky robot; don’t let him fool you. He’s just trying to get back to the room so he can bother Mr. Bump. Try talking about race cars. He likes that.”

  “If you say so,” said Remi. “He also taught me about hot-water heaters and hotel boiler rooms. He must have heard Ms. Sparks talking about how nobody had hot water. This little dude is smart.”

  Leo wished Remi would leave him alone so he could concentrate on getting his work done.

  “He said when the boiler stops sending hot water, it usually means it’s about to blow a gasket. Wouldn’t that be cool?”

  A light went off in Leo’s brain as he realized Blop might be right. The boiler might start to leak, a lot. The boiler was in the basement, and so was the blue box.

  “Remi, listen carefully,” said Leo, jumping off the ladder into the tunnel on seven. “I need you to do something for me, but it’s going to mean leaving the front door. Can you do that?”

  Leo walked down the tunnel to a hidden door that opened into the hotel hallway and headed for the maintenance closet, where Pilar would be waiting with the wet / dry vac.

  “Sure I can help! Ms. Sparks cancelled her errands, but now she’s running around all over the place, so I’m sure I can sneak off. Apparently the hotel is falling apart. I’m the least of her problems.”

  “There are two boxes under my cot in the basement.”

  “The secret boxes,” Remi said, with great emphasis on the word secret.

  “Yeah, those.” Leo couldn’t help shaking his head. “Take the blue one and put it in the duck elevator for safekeeping. No one else goes in there.”

  “Me and the Blopster are on the prowl,” said Remi. “Consider it done!”

  Pilar was already pushing her maid’s cart away from the closet when Leo rounded the corner.

  “What’s happening to the Whippet?” she asked with concern in her dark brown eyes.

  “I don’t know. I guess it’s sick,” Leo answered.

  “Or sad,” said Pilar. “I think it misses Mr. Whippet.”

  Leo didn’t know about that, but there was no getting around the fact that the hotel was in real trouble.

  Leo headed for Ms. Pompadore’s room as the two-way radio flared to life again.

  “She’s gonna blow!” he heard Remi’s voice scream, followed by Blop describing water survival techniques. “The giant black boiler is shaking and steaming — I think it might start blowing bolts and shooting water all over the basement at any moment! I have to get Blop out of here — it’ll fry his circuits if he gets wet!”

  Blop began to disagree, saying he was a fine swimmer, which was utter nonsense.

  “Did you get the box?” Leo asked.

  “Who are you talking to?” Ms. Pompadore questioned, and Leo quickly turned the radio off, stuffing it in the pocket of his overalls. She looked at him as if he were hiding something.

  “Just boring maintenance talk, Ms. Pompadore. I should have this cleaned up in no time,” he said, trying to change the subject as Hiney growled and begged to be put on the floor. There was only an inch of water confined to the main bathroom, but Ms. Pompadore wouldn’t let the poor thing down. “It’s a little funny, don’t you think?” asked Leo, trying to lighten the mood under Ms. Pompadore’s steady gaze. “I mean, this being the Room of Ponds and Caves and all.”

  “I fail to see the humor,” she answered. “Water belongs in the sink, the toilet, and the ponds. Not on my bathroom floor.”

  “Yes, ma’am,” said Leo.

  “I suppose next you’ll be telling me I ought to have bats landing in my hair because there are caves in my room.”

  “No, ma’am,” Leo said, although he did think that sounded kind of logical.

  Ms. Pompadore moved away and Hiney barked about a thousand times while Leo worked the wet / dry vac. He knew he should call his father and send him to the basement in case the boiler was pouring water all over their room, but Leo wanted to make sure Remi had safely moved the blue box first. He finished mopping up, put the wet / dry vac away, checked the fourth floor electrical panel, and practically dove down the stairs on his way to the basement. Before he could get there, his dad radioed him.

  “Better get back to the basement,” Clarence Fillmore said. “There’s something weird down here I need to talk with you about.”

  Uh-oh. Leo was sure his father had found Remi and the boxes, and his amazing adventure in the secret rooms of the hotel would be over for good. He tried calling Remi a bunch of times but he got no answer. When he reached the door to the basement, he listened carefully, hoping not to hear the siren or flowing water.

  “Hey, Dad,” he said, entering the room. The boiler was in the darkest corner of the basement, set on a huge slab of concrete. There was a drain valve that let water flow out under the garden and into the sewer system, and Mr. Fillmore was crouched down over the hole, watching water flow out.

  There was no sign of the blue box. Only the purple one was there. Maybe his father hadn’t found them after all.

  “Come here,” Leo’s dad said. “You’ve gotta see this.”

  Leo slowly moved across the room, leaning down when he passed his cot in order to look underneath. It was too dark in the basement to tell for sure, but if he had to guess, he’d have said the blue box was gone.

  “What is it, Dad?”

  Mr. Fillmore pointed a flashlight toward the flowing water, steam rising up from the heat. He pulled a foot-long magnetic tube out of his tool belt, which he used for picking up nuts and bolts that had fallen into out-of-the-way places, and held it down in the water.

  “Are those …?” asked Leo, but he didn’t finish.

  “Yup, paper clips. Tons of ‘em.”

  The magnet was filling up with globs of metal paper clips as they poured out of the boiler.

  “I bet there’s ten thousand,” said Mr. Fillmore as they both listened to the paper clips grinding their way through the giant boiler.

  “But how?” asked Leo.

  Neither of them spoke for a long moment, because they both knew the truth. There was only one reason something like this would happen. And there was plenty of other evidence to support what they were both pretty sure of.

  Someone was trying to sabotage the Whippet Hotel.

  “That was our contact,” said Milton, hanging up his phone. “They’ve set things in motion.”

  “And the competition? What of them?” asked Bernard. He seemed troubled. He’d been so sure of his control over the Whippet, but he was less sure with each passing day. His plans were moving along precisely as he’d hoped, and yet he doubted.

  Milton looked gravely through the gate into the Whippet’s sprawling grounds.

  “We’ll have to choose carefully if we hope to best our enemies.”

  “True,” said Bernard Frescobaldi. “Take me back to the park. I want to take one last look around.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  Bernard had just read another highly confidential diary entry by Merganzer D. Whippet, this one about Central Park, and he thought it best to go there at once to search for something he might have missed. So many clues, so much to remember. And so much at stake. He couldn’t let the slightest clue slip through his fingers.

  “Isn’t the Central Park Room at the Whippet a wonder?” he asked, scanning the words once more. “Magnificent.”

  “Agreed,” Milton said.

  When they pulled to a stop on Central Park West, Bernard got out of the black town car and began walking alone. He brought the diary entry with him, and, after a while, sat down on a bench and read it once more.

  Merganzer D. Whippet, entry the nineteenth

  Mother had an unexpected burst of energy one day. She took me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art because, she said, an artist was having a rare show. She was convinced I would be captivated. She could not have been more right.

  Joseph Cornell made the most fantastic picture boxes I’d ever seen. I had loved art before, but this was different. My mind worked in 3-D, and seeing the picture boxes filled with trinkets and words and colors left me breathless. I knew then that I would make intricate boxes of my own someday.

  She grew tired, but I wouldn’t leave until I’d seen every one.

  Afterward she wanted fresh air, so we walked in Central Park, talking about Cornell and trains and robots and so much more. We stopped and sat beneath the spire of Belvedere Castle, eating from a bag of crispy donuts.

  “Do you really love all these things?” I asked her, because I still held a deep suspicion that she talked about what I loved, not what she loved.

  “I love you, Merganzer, and that’s all that really matters.”

  I thought then, as I do now, that it was the most perfect answer of them all.

  It was the last time we walked together, there in the park. After that she never left the apartment on Fifth Avenue.




  After Remi put the blue box in the duck elevator, he returned to the lobby just in time to open the door for Ms. Sparks.

  “PHIPPS!” she screamed, and Mr. Phipps, a slow mover at best, began walking toward the lobby. He had a wobbly gait, which Blop began talking about in cryptic medical terms only a back surgeon could understand.

  Ms. Sparks gave the little robot an icy stare, though she knew it was hopeless. Shy of throwing Blop across the lawn, there wasn’t much she could do to shut him up.

  “… and so you see, walking is far more complex than one might imagine at first glance. Wouldn’t you agree?” asked Blop, looking at Ms. Sparks hopefully, as if his only wish in the world were that she would answer him.

  Instead she turned to the gardener as he arrived at the step.

  “I need you to watch the front desk until I return,” she demanded. “Something’s come up.”

  It was a hot day, and Mr. Phipps pulled out a handkerchief, mopping his brow. “If you insist.”

  Ms. Sparks was not fond of sweat and made a sour face, but she needed to go and Pilar wouldn’t be available until two o’clock. She looked at her wristwatch — noon — and scurried down the path toward the gate.

>   “I’ll be back before the dinner bell at six. Pray the building doesn’t fall over before I return!”

  Remi and Mr. Phipps watched her disappear down the winding path without a word. As soon as she was out of earshot, Mr. Phipps turned to Remi.

  “I’ll be working on the puzzle. Don’t get into any trouble.”

  “I can’t get into trouble here at the door,” said Remi. “Unless you count DYING of BOREDOM.”

  “Who said anything about standing by the door?” said Mr. Phipps. He was already inside, heading for the Puzzle Room without the slightest care about who might enter the building in the absence of a boy at the door or a gardener at the front desk.

  Remi looked at Blop, who was staring up at him hopefully, and broke into a wide grin.

  “Let’s go see what’s in the blue box.”

  “What do you mean, you’re on the fifth floor? I thought you were glued to the front door?”

  Leo was standing before a jumble of wires at the electrical panel on six. The pipes were all painted different colors and they twisted and turned around one another, creating a spaghetti rainbow effect that made Leo’s head spin. Add to that what looked like a thousand miles of wires dangling from the ceiling and it was a miracle the whole place didn’t self-destruct from an overload of chaos. It was one of the more confusing places in the maintenance tunnel, and it required Leo’s full attention to get anything done.

  His concentration blown, Leo stepped back from the electrical panel and listened as Remi told him about Ms. Sparks’s early departure and his exploration of the blue box. When Leo understood what Remi had done, he felt angry. It was his box, not Remi’s, and now Remi had opened it without him.

  “I checked the registry and no one has stayed in the Central Park Room since Mr. Whippet disappeared,” Remi reported. “What’s in there?”

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