بخش 03

مجموعه: مجموعه بدبیاری ها / کتاب: آسانسور قلابی / فصل 3

بخش 03

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CHAPTER Eight

“I’m dreaming,” Duncan Quagmire said. His voice was a hoarse whisper of utter shock. “I must be dreaming.”

“But how can you be dreaming,” Isadora asked him, “if I’m having the same dream?”

“I once read about a journalist,” Duncan whispered, “who was reporting on a war and was imprisoned by the enemy for three years. Each morning, she looked out her cell window and thought she saw her grandparents coming to rescue her. But they weren’t really there. It was a hallucination.”

“I remember reading about a poet,” Isadora said, “who would see six lovely maidens in his kitchen on Tuesday nights, but his kitchen was really empty. It was a phantasm.”

“No,” Violet said, and reached her hand between the bars of the cage. The Quagmire triplets shrank back into the cage’s far corner, as if Violet were a poisonous spider instead of a long-lost friend. “It’s not a hallucination. It’s me, Violet Baudelaire.”

“And it’s really Klaus,” Klaus said. “I’m not a phantasm.”

“Sunny!” Sunny said.

The Baudelaire orphans blinked in the darkness, straining their eyes to see as much as possible. Now that they were no longer dangling from the end of a rope, they were able to get a good look at their gloomy surroundings. Their long climb ended in a tiny, filthy room with nothing in it but the rusty cage that the extension cord had clinked against, but the Baudelaires saw that the passageway continued with a long hallway, just as shadowy as the elevator shaft, that twisted and turned away into the dark. The children also got a good look at the Quagmires, and that view was no less gloomy. They were dressed in tattered rags, and their faces were so smeared with dirt that the Baudelaires might not have recognized them, if the two triplets had not been holding the notebooks they took with them wherever they went. But it was not just the dirt on their faces, or the clothes on their bodies, that made the Quagmires look so different. It was the look in their eyes. The Quagmire triplets looked exhausted, and they looked hungry, and they looked very, very frightened. But most of all, Isadora and Duncan looked haunted. The word “haunted,” I’m sure you know, usually applies to a house, graveyard, or supermarket that has ghosts living in it, but the word can also be used to describe people who have seen and heard such horrible things that they feel as if ghosts are living inside them, haunting their brains and hearts with misery and despair. The Quagmires looked this way, and it broke the Baudelaire hearts to see their friends look so desperately sad.

“Is it really you?” Duncan said, squinting at the Baudelaires from the far end of the cage. “Can it really, really be you?”

“Oh, yes,” Violet said, and found that her eyes were filling with tears.

“It’s really the Baudelaires,” Isadora said, stretching her hand out to meet Violet’s. “We’re not dreaming, Duncan. They’re really here.”

Klaus and Sunny reached into the cage as well, and Duncan left his corner to reach the Baudelaires as best he could from behind bars. The five children embraced as much as they could, half laughing and half crying because they were all together once more.

“How in the world did you know where we are?” Isadora said. “We don’t even know where we are.”

“You’re in a secret passageway inside 667 Dark Avenue,” Klaus said, “but we didn’t know you’d be here. We were just trying to find out what Gunther—that’s what Olaf is calling himself now—was up to, and our search led us all the way down here.”

“I know what he’s calling himself,” Duncan said, “and I know what he’s up to.” He shuddered, and opened his notebook, which the Baudelaires remembered was dark green but looked black in the gloom. “Every second we spend with him, all he does is brag about his horrible plans, and when he’s not looking, I write down everything he tells us so I don’t forget it. Even though I’m a kidnap victim, I’m still a journalist.”

“And I’m still a poet,” Isadora said, and opened her notebook, which the Baudelaires remembered was black, but now looked even blacker. “Listen to this:

“On Auction Day, when the sun goes down, Gunther will sneak us out of town.”

“How will he do that?” Violet asked. “The police have been informed of your kidnapping, and are on the lookout.”

“I know,” Duncan said. “Gunther wants to smuggle us out of the city, and hide us away on some island where the police won’t find us. He’ll keep us on the island until we come of age and he can steal the Quagmire sapphires. Once he has our fortune, he says, he’ll take us and—”

“Don’t say it,” Isadora cried, covering her ears. “He’s told us so many horrible things. I can’t stand to hear them again.”

“Don’t worry, Isadora,” Klaus said. “We’ll alert the authorities, and they’ll arrest him before he can do anything.”

“But it’s almost too late,” Duncan said. “The In Auction is tomorrow morning. He’s going to hide us inside one of the items and have one of his associates place the highest bid.”

“Which item?” Violet asked.

Duncan flipped the pages of his notebook, and his eyes widened as he reread some of the wretched things Gunther had said. “I don’t know,” he said. “He’s told us so many haunting secrets, Violet. So many awful schemes—all the treachery he has done in the past, and all he’s planning to do in the future. It’s all here in this notebook—from V.F.D. all the way to this terrible auction plan.”

“We’ll have plenty of time to discuss everything,” Klaus said, “but in the meantime, let’s get you out of this cage before Gunther comes back. Violet, do you think you can pick this lock?”

Violet took the lock in her hands and squinted at it in the gloom. “It’s pretty complicated,” she said. “He must have bought himself some extra-difficult locks, after I broke into that suitcase of his when we were living with Uncle Monty. If I had some tools, maybe I could invent something, but there’s absolutely nothing down here.”

“Aguen?” Sunny asked, which meant something like “Could you saw through the bars of the cage?”

“Not saw,” Violet said, so quietly that it was as if she was talking to herself. “I don’t have the time to manufacture a saw. But maybe…” Her voice trailed off, but the other children could see, in the gloom, that she was tying her hair up in a ribbon, to keep it out of her eyes.

“Look, Duncan,” Isadora said, “she’s thinking up an invention! We’ll be out of here in no time!”

“Every night since we’ve been kidnapped,” Duncan said, “we’ve been dreaming of the day when we would see Violet Baudelaire inventing something that could rescue us.”

“If we’re going to rescue you in time,” Violet said, thinking furiously, “then my siblings and I have to climb back up to the penthouse right away.”

Isadora looked nervously around the tiny, dark room. “You’re going to leave us alone?” she asked.

“If I’m going to invent something to get you out of that cage,” Violet replied, “I need all the help I can get, so Klaus and Sunny have to come with me. Sunny, start climbing. Klaus and I will be right behind you.”

“Onosew,” Sunny said, which meant “Yes ma’am,” and Klaus lifted her up to the end of the rope so she could begin the long, dark climb back up to the Squalors’ apartment. Klaus began climbing right behind her, and Violet clasped hands with her friends.

“We’ll be back as soon as we can,” she promised. “Don’t worry, Quagmires. You’ll be out of danger before you know it.”

“In case anything goes wrong,” Duncan said, flipping to a page in his notebook, “like it did the last time, let me tell you—”

Violet placed her finger on Duncan’s mouth. “Shush,” she said. “Nothing will go wrong this time. I swear it.”

“But if it does,” Duncan said, “you should know about V.F.D. before the auction begins.”

“Don’t tell me about it now,” Violet said. “We don’t have time. You can tell us when we’re all safe and sound.” The eldest Baudelaire grabbed the end of the extension cord and started to follow her siblings. “I’ll see you soon,” she called down to the Quagmires, who were already fading into the darkness as she began her climb. “I’ll see you soon,” she said again, just as she lost all sight of them.

The climb back up the secret passageway was much more tiring but a lot less terrifying, simply because they knew what they would find at the other end of their ersatz rope. On the way down the elevator shaft, the Baudelaires had no idea what would be waiting for them at the bottom of such a dark and cavernous journey, but Violet, Klaus, and Sunny knew that all seventy-one bedrooms of the Squalor penthouse would be at the top. And it was these bedrooms—along with the living rooms, dining rooms, breakfast rooms, snack rooms, sitting rooms, standing rooms, ballrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, and the assortment of rooms that seemed to have no purpose at all—that would be helpful in rescuing the Quagmires.

“Listen to me,” Violet said to her siblings, after they had been climbing for a few minutes. “When we get up to the top, I want the two of you to search the penthouse.”

“What?” Klaus said, peering down at his sister. “We already searched it yesterday, remember?”

“I don’t want you to search it for Gunther,” Violet replied. “I want you to search it for long, slender objects made of iron.”

“Agoula?” Sunny asked, which meant “What for?”

“I think the easiest way to get the Quagmires out of that cage will be by welding,” Violet said. “Welding is when you use something very hot to melt metal. If we melt through a few of the bars of the cage, we can make a door and get Duncan and Isadora out of there.”

“That’s a good idea,” Klaus agreed. “But I thought that welding required a lot of complicated equipment.”

“Usually it does,” Violet said. “In a normal welding situation, I’d use a welding torch, which is a device that makes a very small flame to melt the metal. But the Squalors won’t have a welding torch—that’s a tool, and tools are out. So I’m going to devise another method. When you two find the long, slender objects made of iron, meet me in the kitchen closest to the front door.”

“Selrep,” Sunny said, which meant something like “That’s the one with the bright blue oven.”

“Right,” Violet said, “and I’m going to use that bright blue oven to heat those iron objects as hot as they can get. When they are burning, burning hot, we will take them back down to the cage and use their heat to melt the bars.”

“Will they stay hot long enough to work, after such a long climb down?” Klaus asked.

“They’d better,” Violet replied grimly. “It’s our only hope.”

To hear the phrase “our only hope” always makes one anxious, because it means that if the only hope doesn’t work, there is nothing left, and that is never pleasant to think about, however true it might be. The three Baudelaires felt anxious about the fact that Violet’s invention was their only hope of rescuing the Quagmires, and they were quiet the rest of the way up the elevator shaft, not wanting to consider what would happen to Duncan and Isadora if this only hope didn’t work. Finally, they began to see the dim light from the open sliding doors, and at last they were once again at the front door of the Squalors’ apartment.

“Remember,” Violet whispered, “long, slender objects made of iron. We can’t use bronze or silver or even gold, because those metals will melt in the oven. I’ll see you in the kitchen.”

The younger Baudelaires nodded solemnly, and followed two different trails of bread crumbs in opposite directions, while Violet walked straight into the kitchen with the bright blue oven and looked around uncertainly. Cooking had never been her forte—a phrase which here means “something she couldn’t do very well, except for making toast, and sometimes she couldn’t even do that without burning it to a crisp”—and she was a bit nervous about using the oven without any adult supervision. But then she thought about all the things she had done recently without adult supervision—sprinkling crumbs on the floor, eating apple butter, climbing down an empty elevator shaft on a ersatz rope made of extension cords, curtain pulls, and neckties tied together with the Devil’s Tongue—and stiffened her resolve. She turned the oven’s bright blue temperature dial to the highest temperature—500 degrees Fahrenheit—and then, as the oven slowly heated up, began quietly opening and closing the kitchen drawers, looking for three sturdy oven mitts. Oven mitts, as you probably know, are kitchen accessories that serve as ersatz hands by enabling you to pick up objects that would burn your fingers if you touched them directly. The Baudelaires would have to use oven mitts, Violet realized, once the long, slender objects were hot enough to be used as welding torches. Just as her siblings entered the kitchen, Violet found three oven mitts emblazoned with the fancy, curly writing of the In Boutique stuffed into the bottom of the ninth drawer she had opened.

“We hit the jackpot,” Klaus whispered, and Sunny nodded in agreement. The two younger Baudelaires were using an expression which here means “Look at these fire tongs—they’re perfect!” and they were absolutely right. “Fireplaces must have been in at some point,” Klaus explained, holding up three long, slender pieces of iron, “because Sunny remembered that living room with six fireplaces between the ballroom with the green walls and the bathroom with that funny-looking sink. Next to the fireplaces are fire tongs—you know, these long pieces of iron that people use to move logs around to keep a fire going. I figured that if they can touch burning logs, they’ll be able to survive a hot oven.”

“You really did hit the jackpot,” Violet said. “Fire tongs are perfect. Now, when I open the door of the oven, you put them in, Klaus. Sunny, stand back. Babies shouldn’t be near a hot oven.”

“Prawottle,” Sunny said. She meant something like “Older children aren’t supposed to be near a hot oven either, especially without adult supervision,” but she understood that it was an emergency and crawled to the opposite end of the kitchen, where she could safely watch her older siblings put the long, slender tongs into the hot oven. Like most ovens, the Squalors’ bright blue oven was designed for baking cakes and casseroles, not fire tongs, and it was impossible to shut the door of the oven with the long pieces of iron inside. So, as the Baudelaire orphans waited for the pieces of iron to heat up into welding torches, the kitchen heated up as well, as some of the hot air from the oven escaped out the open door. By the time Klaus asked if the welding torches were ready, the kitchen felt as if it were an oven instead of merely containing one.

“Not yet,” Violet replied, peering carefully into the open oven door. “The tips of the tongs are just beginning to get yellow with heat. We need them to get white with heat, so it will still be a few minutes.”

“I’m nervous,” Klaus said, and then corrected himself. “I mean I’m anxious. I don’t like leaving the Quagmires down there all alone.”

“I’m anxious, too,” Violet said, “but the only thing we can do now is wait. If we take the iron out of the oven now, it won’t be of any use to us by the time we get all the way down to the cage.”

Klaus and Sunny sighed, but they nodded in agreement with their sister and settled down to wait for the welding torches to be ready, and as they waited, they felt as if this particular kitchen in the Squalor penthouse was being remodeled before their very eyes. When the Baudelaires had searched the apartment to see if Gunther was hiding in it, they had left crumbs in an assortment of bedrooms, living rooms, dining rooms, breakfast rooms, snack rooms, sitting rooms, standing rooms, bathrooms, ballrooms, and kitchens, as well as those rooms that seemed to have no purpose at all, but the one type of room that the Squalor penthouse lacked was a waiting room. Waiting rooms, as I’m sure you know, are small rooms with plenty of chairs for waiting, as well as piles of old, dull magazines to read and some vapid paintings—the word “vapid” here means “usually containing horses in a field or puppies in a basket”—while you endure the boredom that doctors and dentists inflict on their patients before bringing them in to poke them and prod them and do all the miserable things that such people are paid to do. It is very rare to have a waiting room in someone’s home, because even a home as enormous as the Squalors’ does not contain a doctor’s or dentist’s office, and also because waiting rooms are so uninteresting that you would never want one in the place where you live. The Baudelaires had certainly never wished that the Squalors had a waiting room in their penthouse, but as they sat and waited for Violet’s invention to be ready to use, they felt as if waiting rooms were suddenly in and Esmé had ordered one constructed right there in the kitchen. The kitchen cabinets were not painted with horses in a field or puppies in a basket, and there were no old, dull magazine articles printed on the bright blue stove, but as the three children waited for the iron objects to turn yellow and then orange and then red as they grew hotter and hotter and hotter, they felt the same itchy nervousness as they did when waiting for a trained medical professional.

But at last the fire tongs were white-hot, and were ready for their welding appointment with the thick iron bars of the cage. Violet passed out an oven mitt to each of her siblings and then put the third one on her own hand to carefully remove each tong from the oven. “Hold them very, very carefully,” she said, giving an ersatz welding torch to each of her siblings. “They’re hot enough to melt metal, so just imagine what they could do if they touched us. But I’m sure we can manage.”

“It’ll be tougher to go down this time,” Klaus said, as he followed his sisters to the front door of the penthouse. He held his fire tong straight up, as if it were a regular torch instead of a welding one, and he kept his eye on the white-hot part so that it wouldn’t brush up against anything or anybody. “We’ll each have to keep one hand free to hold the torch. But I’m sure we can manage.”

“Zelestin,” Sunny said, when the children reached the sliding doors of the ersatz elevator. She meant something along the lines of “It’ll be terrifying to climb down that horrible passageway again,” but after she said “Zelestin” she added the word “Enipy,” which meant “But I’m sure we can manage,” and the youngest Baudelaire was as sure as her siblings. The three children stood at the edge of the dark passageway, but they did not pause to gather their courage, as they had done before their first descent into the gaping shaft. Their welding torches were hot, as Violet had said, and going down would be tough, as Klaus had said, and the climb would be terrifying, as Sunny had said, but the siblings looked at one another and knew they could manage. The Quagmire triplets were counting on them, and the Baudelaire orphans were sure that this only hope would work after all.

CHAPTER Nine

One of the greatest myths in the world—and the phrase “greatest myths” is just a fancy way of saying “big fat lies”—is that troublesome things get less and less troublesome if you do them more and more. People say this myth when they are teaching children to ride bicycles, for instance, as though falling off a bicycle and skinning your knee is less troublesome the fourteenth time you do it than it is the first time. The truth is that troublesome things tend to remain troublesome no matter how many times you do them, and that you should avoid doing them unless they are absolutely urgent.

Obviously, it was absolutely urgent for the Baudelaire orphans to take another three-hour climb down into the terrible darkness of the elevator shaft. The children knew that the Quagmire triplets were in grave danger, and that using Violet’s invention to melt the bars of the cage was the only way that their friends could escape before Gunther hid them inside one of the items of the In Auction, and smuggled them out of the city. But I’m sorry to say that the absolute urgency of the Baudelaires’ second climb did not make it any less troublesome. The passageway was still as dark as a bar of extra-dark chocolate sitting in a planetarium covered in a thick, black blanket, even with the tiny glow from the white-hot tips of the fire tongs, and the sensation of lowering themselves down the elevator shaft still felt like a descent into the hungry mouth of some terrible creature. With only the clink! of the last extension cord hitting the lock of the cage to guide them, the three siblings pulled themselves down the ersatz rope with one hand, and held out their welding torches with the other, and the trek down to the tiny, filthy room where the triplets were trapped was still not even one twenty-seventh O.K.

But the dreadful repetition of the Baudelaires’ troublesome climb was dwarfed in comparison with the sinister surprise they found at the bottom, a surprise so terrible that the three children simply refused to believe it. Violet reached the end of the final extension cord and thought it was a hallucination. Klaus stood looking at the cage and thought that it must be a phantasm. And Sunny peered in through the bars and prayed that it was some combination of the two. The youngsters stared at the tiny, filthy room, and stared at the cage, but it took them several minutes before they believed that the Quagmires were no longer inside.

“They’re gone,” Violet said. “They’re gone, and it’s all my fault!” She threw her welding torch into the corner of the tiny room, where it sizzled against the floor. She turned to her siblings, and they could see, by the white glow of their tongs, that their older sister was beginning to cry. “My invention was supposed to save them,” she said mournfully, “and now Gunther has snatched them away. I’m a terrible inventor, and a horrible friend.”

Klaus threw his welding torch into the corner, and gave his sister a hug. “You’re the best inventor I know,” he said, “and your invention was a good one. Listen to those welding torches sizzle. The time just wasn’t ripe for your invention, that’s all.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Violet said miserably.

Sunny threw the last welding torch into the corner, and took off her oven mitt so she could pat her sister comfortingly on the ankle. “Noque, noque,” she said, which meant “There, there.”

“All it means,” Klaus said, “is that you invented something that wasn’t handy at this particular time. It’s not your fault that we didn’t rescue them—it’s Gunther’s.”

“I guess I know that,” Violet said, wiping her eyes. “I’m just sad that the time wasn’t ripe for my invention. Who knows if we will ever see our friends again?”

“We will,” Klaus said. “Just because the time isn’t right for your inventing skills, doesn’t mean it isn’t ripe for my researching skills.”

“Dwestall,” Sunny said sadly, which meant “All the research in the world can’t help Duncan and Isadora now.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Sunny,” Klaus replied. “Gunther might have snatched them, but we know where he’s taking them—to Veblen Hall. He’s going to hide them inside one of the items at the In Auction, remember?”

“Yes,” Violet said, “but which one?”

“If we climb back up to the penthouse,” Klaus said, “and go to the Squalor library, I think I can figure it out.”

“Meotze,” Sunny said, which meant “But the Squalor library has only those snooty books on what’s in and what’s out.”

“You’re forgetting the recent addition to the library,” Klaus said. “Esmé told us that Gunther had left a copy of the In Auction catalog, remember? Wherever he’s planning to hide the Quagmires, it’ll be listed in the catalog. If we can figure out which item he’s hiding them in—”

“We can get them out of there,” Violet finished, “before he auctions them off. That’s a brilliant idea, Klaus!”

“It’s no less brilliant than inventing welding torches,” Klaus said. “I just hope the time is ripe this time.”

“Me too,” Violet said. “After all, it’s our only—”

“Vinung,” Sunny said, which meant “Don’t say it,” and her sister nodded in agreement. There was no use in saying it was their only hope, and getting them as anxious as they were before, so without another word the Baudelaires hoisted themselves back up on their makeshift rope and began climbing back up to the Squalor penthouse. The darkness closed in on them again, and the children began to feel as if their whole lives had been spent in this deep and shadowy pit, instead of in a variety of locations ranging from a lumbermill in Paltryville to a cave on the shores of Lake Lachrymose to the Baudelaire mansion, which sat in charred remains just a few blocks away from Dark Avenue. But rather than think about all of the shadowy places in the Baudelaire past, or the shadowiest place that they were climbing through now, the three siblings tried to concentrate on the brighter places in the Baudelaire future. They thought of the penthouse apartment, which drew closer and closer to them as they climbed. They thought of the Squalor library, which could contain the proper information they needed to defeat Gunther’s plan. And they thought of some glorious time that was yet to come, when the Baudelaires and the Quagmires could enjoy their friendship without the ghastly shadow of evil and greed that hung over them now. The Baudelaire orphans tried to keep their minds on these bright thoughts of the future as they climbed up the shadowy elevator shaft, and by the time they reached the sliding doors they felt that perhaps this glorious time was not so far off.

“It must almost be morning,” Violet said, as she helped Sunny hoist herself out of the elevator doors. “We’d better untie our rope from the doorknob, and shut these doors, otherwise the Squalors will see what we’ve been up to.”

“Why shouldn’t they see?” Klaus asked. “Maybe then they’d believe us about Gunther.”

“No one ever believes us about Gunther, or any of Olaf’s other disguises,” Violet said, “unless we have some evidence. All we have now is an ersatz elevator, an empty cage, and three cooling fire tongs. That’s not evidence of anything.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Klaus said. “Well, why don’t you two untie the rope, and I’ll go straight to the library and start reading the catalog.”

“Good plan,” Violet said.

“Reauhop!” Sunny said, which meant “And good luck!” Klaus quietly opened the door of the penthouse and let himself in, and the Baudelaire sisters began pulling the rope back up the shaft. The end of the last extension cord clinked and clinked against the walls of the passageway as Sunny wound up the ersatz rope until it was a coil of extension cords, curtain pulls, and fancy neckties. Violet untied the last double knot to detach it from the doorknob, and turned to her sister.

“Let’s store this under my bed,” she said, “in case we need it later. It’s on the way to the library anyway.”

“Yallrel,” Sunny added, which meant “And let’s shut the sliding elevator doors, so the Squalors don’t see that we’ve been sneaking around an elevator shaft.”

“Good thinking,” Violet said, and pressed the Up button. The doors slid shut again, and after taking a good look around to make sure they hadn’t left anything behind, the two Baudelaires walked into the penthouse and followed their bread-crumb trail past a breakfast room, down a hallway, across a standing room, down a hallway, and finally to Violet’s room, where they stored the ersatz rope under the bed. They were about to head right to the library when Sunny noticed a note that had been left on Violet’s extra-fluffy pillow.

“‘Dear Violet,’” read Violet, “‘I couldn’t find you or your siblings this morning to say good-bye. I had to leave early to buy yellow paper clips before heading over to the In Auction. Esmé will take you to Veblen Hall at ten-thirty sharp, so be sure to be ready, or she’ll be very annoyed. See you then! Sincerely yours, Jerome Squalor.’”

“Yikes!” Sunny said, pointing to the nearest of the 612 clocks that the Squalors owned.

“Yikes is right,” Violet said. “It’s already ten o’clock. All that climbing up and down the elevator shaft took much longer than I thought.”

“Wrech,” Sunny added, which meant something like “Not to mention making those welding torches.”

“We’d better go to the library right away,” Violet said. “Maybe we can help Klaus speed up the research process in some way.”

Sunny nodded in agreement, and the two sisters walked down the hallway to the Squalor library. Since Jerome had first shown it to them, Violet and Sunny had scarcely been inside, and it looked like nobody else had used it much, either. A good library will never be too neat, or too dusty, because somebody will always be in it, taking books off the shelves and staying up late reading them. Even libraries that were not to the Baudelaires’ taste—Aunt Josephine’s library, for instance, only contained books on grammar—were comfortable places to be in, because the owners of the library used them so much. But the Squalor library was as neat and as dusty as could be. All of the dull books on what was in and what was out sat on the shelves in tidy rows, with layers of dust on top of them as if they hadn’t been disturbed since they’d first been placed there. It made the Baudelaire sisters a little sad to see all those books sitting in the library unread and unnoticed, like stray dogs or lost children that nobody wanted to take home. The only sign of life in the library was their brother, who was reading the catalog so closely that he didn’t look up until his sisters were standing at his side.

“I hate to disturb you when you’re researching,” Violet said, “but there was a note from Jerome on my pillow. Esmé is going to take us to Veblen Hall at ten-thirty sharp, and it’s just past ten o’clock now. Is there any way we can help you?”

“I don’t see how,” Klaus said, his eyes looking worried behind his glasses. “There’s only one copy of the catalog, and it’s pretty complicated. Each of the items for the auction is called a lot, and the catalog lists each lot with a description and a guess at what the highest bid may be. I’ve read up to Lot #49, which is a valuable postage stamp.”

“Well, Gunther can’t hide the Quagmires in a postage stamp,” Violet said. “You can skip that lot.”

“I’ve been skipping lots of lots,” Klaus said, “but I’m still no closer to figuring out where the triplets will be. Would Gunther hide them in Lot #14—an enormous globe? Would he hide them under the lid of Lot #25—a rare and valuable piano? Would he hide them in Lot #48—an enormous statue of a scarlet fish?” Klaus stopped and turned the page of a catalog. “Or would he hide them in Lot #50, which is—”

Klaus ended his sentence in a gasp, but his sisters knew immediately that he did not mean that the fiftieth item to be sold at the In Auction was a sharp intake of breath. He meant he’d discovered something remarkable in the catalog, and they leaned forward to read over his shoulder and see what it was.

“I can’t believe it,” Violet said. “I simply can’t believe it.”

“Toomsk,” Sunny said, which meant something like “This must be where the Quagmires will be hidden.”

“I agree with Sunny,” Klaus said, “even though there’s no description of the item. They don’t even write what the letters stand for.”

“We’ll find out what they stand for,” Violet said, “because we’re going to find Esmé right this minute, and tell her what’s going on. When she finds out, she’ll finally believe us about Gunther, and we’ll get the Quagmires out of Lot #50 before they leave the city. You were right, Klaus—the time was ripe for your researching skills.”

“I guess I was right,” Klaus said. “I can scarcely believe our luck.”

The Baudelaires looked again at the page of the catalog, making sure that it was neither a hallucination nor a phantasm. And it wasn’t. Right there, written in neat black type under the heading “Lot #50,” were three letters, and three punctuation marks, that seemed to spell out the solution to the Baudelaires’ problems. The children looked at one another and smiled. All three siblings could scarcely believe their luck. The Baudelaire orphans could scarcely believe that those three letters spelled out the hiding place of the Quagmires as clearly as it spelled out “V.F.D.”

CHAPTER Ten

“…and one of the items in the catalog is listed as ‘V.F.D.,’ which is the secret that the Quagmires tried to tell us about right before they were kidnapped,” Klaus finished.

“This is terrible,” Esmé said, and took a sip of the parsley soda she had insisted on pouring for herself before the Baudelaire orphans could tell her everything they had discovered. Then she had insisted on settling herself on the innest couch in her favorite sitting room, and that the three children sit in three chairs grouped around her in a semicircle, before they could relate the story of Gunther’s true identity, the secret passageway behind the sliding elevator doors, the scheme to smuggle the Quagmires out of the city, and the surprising appearance of those three mysterious initials as the description of Lot #50. The three siblings were pleased that their guardian had not dismissed their findings, or argued with them about Gunther or the Quagmires or anything else, but instead had quietly and calmly listened to every detail. In fact, Esmé was so quiet and calm that it was disconcerting, a word which here means “a warning that the Baudelaire children did not heed in time.”

“This is the least smashing thing I have ever heard,” Esmé said, taking another sip of her in beverage. “Let me see if I have understood everything you have said. Gunther is in fact Count Olaf in disguise.”

“Yes,” Violet said. “His boots are covering up his tattoo, and his monocle makes him scrunch his face up to hide his one eyebrow.”

“And he has hidden away the Quagmires in a cage at the bottom of my elevator shaft,” Esmé said, putting her soda glass down on a nearby table.

“Yes,” Klaus said. “There’s no elevator behind those doors. Somehow Gunther removed it so he could use the shaft as a secret passageway.”

“And now he’s taken the Quagmires out of the cage,” Esmé continued, “and is going to smuggle them out of the city by hiding them inside Lot #50 of the In Auction.”

“Kaxret,” Sunny said, which meant “You got it, Esmé.”

“This is certainly a complicated plot,” Esmé said. “I’m surprised that young children such as yourself were able to figure it out, but I’m glad you did.” She paused for a moment and removed a speck of dust from one of her fingernails. “And now there’s only one thing to do. We’ll rush right to Veblen Hall and put a stop to this terrible scheme. We’ll have Gunther arrested and the Quagmires set free. We’d better leave right this minute.”

Esmé stood up, and beckoned to the children with a faint smile. The children followed her out of the sitting room and past twelve kitchens to the front door, exchanging puzzled glances. Their guardian was right, of course, that they should go to Veblen Hall and expose Gunther and his treachery, but they couldn’t help wondering why the city’s sixth most important financial advisor was so calm when she said it. The children were so anxious about the Quagmires that they felt as if they were jumping out of their skin, but Esmé led the Baudelaires out of the penthouse as if they were going to the grocery store to purchase whole wheat flour instead of rushing to an auction to stop a horrible crime. As she shut the door of the apartment and turned to smile at the children again, the three siblings could see no sign of anxiousness on her face, and it was disconcerting.

“Klaus and I will take turns carrying you, Sunny,” Violet said, lifting her sister up. “That way the trip down the stairs will be easier for you.”

“Oh, we don’t have to walk down all those stairs,” Esmé said.

“That’s true,” Klaus said. “Sliding down the banisters will be much quicker.”

Esmé put one arm around the children and began walking them away from the front door. It was nice to receive an affectionate gesture from their guardian, but her arm was wrapped around them so tightly that they could scarcely move, which was also disconcerting. “We won’t have to slide down the banisters, either,” she said.

“Then how will we get down from the penthouse?” Violet asked.

Esmé stretched out her other arm, and used one of her long fingernails to press the Up button next to the sliding doors. This was the most disconcerting thing of all, but by now, I’m sorry to say, it was too late. “We’ll take the elevator,” she said, as the doors slid open, and then with one last smile she swept her arm forward and pushed the Baudelaire orphans into the darkness of the elevator shaft.

Sometimes words are not enough. There are some circumstances so utterly wretched that I cannot describe them in sentences or paragraphs or even a whole series of books, and the terror and woe that the Baudelaire orphans felt after Esmé pushed them into the elevator shaft is one of those most dreadful circumstances that can be represented only with two pages of utter blackness. I have no words for the profound horror the children felt as they tumbled down into the darkness. I can think of no sentence that can convey how loudly they screamed, or how cold the air was as it whooshed around them while they fell. And there is no paragraph I could possibly type that would enable you to imagine how frightened the Baudelaires were as they plunged toward certain doom.

But I can tell you that they did not die. Not one hair on their heads had been harmed by the time the children finally stopped tumbling through the darkness. They survived the fall from the top of the shaft for the simple reason that they did not reach the bottom. Something broke their fall, a phrase which here means that the Baudelaires’ plunge was stopped halfway between the sliding elevator doors and the metal cage where the Quagmires had been locked up. Something broke their fall without even injuring them, and though it at first felt like a miracle, when the children understood that they were alive, and no longer falling, they reached out their hands and soon realized that it felt a lot more like a net. While the Baudelaires were reading the catalog of the In Auction, and telling Esmé what they had learned, someone had stretched a rope net across the entire passageway, and it was this net that had stopped the children from plunging to their doom. Far, far above the orphans was the Squalor penthouse, and far, far below them was the cage in the tiny, filthy room with the hallway leading out of it. The Baudelaire orphans were trapped.

But it is far better to be trapped than to be dead, and the three children hugged each other in relief that something had broken their fall. “Spenset,” Sunny said, in a voice hoarse from screaming.

“Yes, Sunny,” Violet said, holding her close. “We’re alive.” She sounded as if she were talking as much to herself as to her sister.

“We’re alive,” Klaus said, hugging them both. “We’re alive, and we’re O.K.”

“I wouldn’t say you were O.K.” Esmé’s voice called down to them from the top of the passageway. Her voice echoed off the walls of the passageway, but the children could still hear every cruel word. “You’re alive, but you’re definitely not O.K. As soon as the auction is over and the Quagmires are on their way out of the city, Gunther will come and get you, and I can guarantee that you three orphans will never be O.K. again. What a wonderful and profitable day! My former acting teacher will finally get his hands on not one but two enormous fortunes!”

“Your former acting teacher?” Violet asked in horror. “You mean you’ve known Gunther’s true identity the entire time?”

“Of course I did,” Esmé said. “I just had to fool you kids and my dim-witted husband into thinking he was really an auctioneer. Luckily, I am a smashing actress, so it was easy to trick you.”

“So you’ve been working together with that terrible villain?” Klaus called up to her. “How could you do that to us?”

“He’s not a terrible villain,” Esmé said. “He’s a genius! I instructed the doorman not to let you out of the penthouse until Gunther came and retrieved you, but Gunther convinced me that throwing you down there was a better idea, and he was right! Now there’s no way you’ll make it to the auction and mess up our plans!”

“Zisalem!” Sunny shrieked.

“My sister is right!” Violet cried. “You’re our guardian! You’re supposed to be keeping us safe, not throwing us down elevator shafts and stealing our fortune!”

“But I want to steal from you,” Esmé said. “I want to steal from you the way Beatrice stole from me.”

“What are you talking about?” Klaus asked. “You’re already unbelievably wealthy. Why do you want even more money?”

“Because it’s in, of course,” Esmé said. “Well, toodle-oo, children. ‘Toodle-oo’ is the in way of saying good-bye to three bratty orphans you’re never going to see again.”

“Why?” Violet cried. “Why are you treating us so terribly?”

Esmé’s answer to this question was the cruelest of all, and like a fall down an elevator shaft, there were no words for her reply. She merely laughed, a loud rude cackle that bounced off the walls of the passageway and then faded into silence as their guardian walked away. The Baudelaire orphans looked at one another—or tried to look at one another, in the darkness—and trembled in disgust and fear, shaking the net that had trapped them and saved them at the same time.

“Dielee?” Sunny said miserably, and her siblings knew that she meant “What are we going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Klaus said, “but we’ve got to do something.”

“And we’ve got to do it quickly,” Violet added, “but this is a very difficult situation. There’s no use climbing up or down—the walls feel too smooth.”

“And there’s no use making a lot of noise to try and get someone’s attention,” Klaus said. “Even if anybody hears, they’ll just think someone is yelling in one of the apartments.”

Violet closed her eyes in thought, although it was so dark that it didn’t really make a difference if her eyes were closed or open. “Klaus, maybe the time is right for your researching skills,” she said after a moment. “Can you think of some moment in history when people got out of a trap like this one?”

“I don’t think so,” Klaus replied sadly. “In the myth of Hercules, he’s trapped between two monsters named Scylla and Charybdis, just like we’re trapped between the sliding doors and the floor. But he got out of the trap by turning them into whirlpools.”

“Glaucus,” Sunny said, which meant something like “But we can’t do that.”

“I know,” Klaus said glumly. “Myths are often entertaining, but they’re never very helpful. Maybe the time is ripe for one of Violet’s inventions.”

“But I don’t have any materials to work with,” Violet said, reaching out her hand to feel the edges of the net. “I can’t use this net for an invention, because if I start to tear it up, we’ll fall. The net seems to be attached to the walls with little metal pegs that stick into the walls, but I can’t pull those out and use them, either.”

“Gyzan?” Sunny asked.

“Yes,” Violet replied, “pegs. Feel right here, Sunny. Gunther probably stood on a long ladder to drive these pegs into the walls of the passageway, and then strung the net across the pegs. I guess the walls of the elevator shaft are soft enough that small sharp objects can be stuck into them.”

“Tholc?” Sunny asked, which meant “Like teeth?” and instantly her siblings knew what she was thinking.

“No, Sunny,” Violet said. “You can’t climb up the elevator shaft by using your teeth. It’s too dangerous.”

“Yoigt,” Sunny pointed out, which meant something like “But if I fall, I’ll just fall back into the net.”

“But what if you get stuck halfway up?” Klaus asked. “Or what if you lose a tooth?”

“Vasta,” Sunny said, which meant “I’ll just have to risk it—it’s our only hope,” and her siblings reluctantly agreed. They did not like the idea of their baby sister climbing up to the sliding doors of the ersatz elevator, using only her teeth, but they could think of no other way to escape in time to foil Gunther’s plan. The time wasn’t ripe for Violet’s inventing skills, or for the knowledge Klaus had from his reading, but the time was ripe for Sunny’s sharp teeth, and the youngest Baudelaire tilted her head back and then swung forward, sticking one of her teeth into the wall with a rough sound that would make any dentist weep for hours. But the Baudelaires were not dentists, and the three children listened closely in the darkness to hear if Sunny’s tooth would stick as firmly as the net pegs. To their delight they heard nothing—no scraping or sliding or cracking or anything that would indicate that Sunny’s teeth wouldn’t hold. Sunny even shook her head a little bit to see if that would easily dislodge her tooth from the wall, but it remained a firm toothhold. Sunny swung her head slightly, and embedded another tooth, slightly above the first one. The second tooth stuck, so Sunny carefully eased out the first tooth and inserted it once more in the wall, slightly above the second tooth. By spacing her teeth slightly apart, Sunny had moved a few inches up the wall, and by the time she stuck her first tooth above the second one again, her little body was no longer touching the net.

“Good luck, Sunny,” Violet said.

“We’re rooting for you, Sunny,” Klaus said.

Sunny did not reply, but her siblings were not alarmed because they imagined it was difficult to say much when you had a mouthful of wall. So Violet and Klaus merely sat on their net and continued to call up encouragement to their baby sister. Had Sunny been able to climb and speak at the same time, she might have said “Soried,” which meant something like “So far so good,” or “Yaff,” which meant “I think I’ve reached the halfway point,” but the two older Baudelaires heard nothing but the sound of her teeth inserting and detaching themselves in the dark until Sunny triumphantly called down the word “Top!”

“Oh, Sunny!” Klaus cried. “You did it!”

“Way to go!” Violet called up. “Now, go get our makeshift rope from under the bed, and we’ll climb up and join you.”

“Ganba,” Sunny called back, and crawled off. The two older siblings sat and waited in the darkness for a while, marveling at their sister’s skills.

“I couldn’t have climbed all the way up this passageway,” Violet said, “not when I was Sunny’s age.”

“Me neither,” Klaus said, “although we both have regular-sized teeth.”

“It’s not just the size of her teeth,” Violet said, “it’s the size of her courage, and the size of her concern for her siblings.”

“And the size of the trouble we’re in,” Klaus added, “and the size of our guardian’s treachery. I can’t believe Esmé was scheming together with Gunther the entire time. She’s as ersatz as her elevator.”

“Esmé’s a pretty good actress,” Violet said comfortingly, “even though she’s a terrible person. She had us completely fooled that Gunther had her completely fooled. But what was she talking about when she said—”

“Tada!” Sunny called down from the sliding doors.

“She has the rope,” Violet said excitedly. “Tie it to the doorknob, Sunny, using the Devil’s Tongue.”

“No,” Klaus said, “I have a better idea.”

“A better idea than climbing out of here?” Violet asked.

“I want to climb out of here,” Klaus said, “but I don’t think we should climb up. Then we’ll just be at the penthouse.”

“But from the penthouse,” Violet said, “we can get to Veblen Hall. We can even slide down the banisters to save time.”

“But at the end of the banisters,” Klaus said, “is the lobby of the building, and in the lobby is a doorman with strict instructions not to let us leave.”

“I hadn’t thought about him,” Violet said. “He always follows instructions.”

“That’s why we’ve got to leave 667 Dark Avenue another way,” Klaus said.

“Ditemu,” Sunny called down, which meant something like “What other way is there?”

“Down,” Klaus said. “That tiny room at the bottom of the elevator shaft has a hallway leading out of it, remember? It’s right next to the cage.”

“That’s true,” Violet said. “That must be how Gunther snatched the Quagmires away before we could rescue them. But who knows where it leads?”

“Well, if Gunther took the Quagmires down that hallway,” Klaus said, “it must lead to somewhere near Veblen Hall. And that’s precisely where we want to go.”

“You’re right,” Violet said. “Sunny, forget about tying the rope to the doorknob. Someone might see it, anyway, and realize we’ve escaped. Just bring it down here. Do you think you can bite your way back down?”

“Geronimo!” Sunny cried, which meant something like “I don’t need to bite my way back down,” and the youngest Baudelaire was right. She took a deep breath, and threw herself down the dark passageway, the coil of ersatz rope trailing behind her. This time, the plunge does not need to be represented by pages of darkness, because the terror of the long, dark fall was alleviated—the word “alleviated” here means “not particularly on Sunny’s mind”—because the youngest Baudelaire knew that a net, and her siblings, were waiting for her at the bottom. With a thump! Sunny landed on the net, and with a slightly smaller thump! the coil of rope landed next to her. After making sure her sister was unharmed by the fall, Violet began tying one end of their rope to one of the pegs holding the net in place.

“I’ll make sure this end of the rope is secured,” Violet said. “Sunny, if your teeth aren’t too sore from the climb, use them to cut a hole in the net, so we can climb through it.”

“What can I do?” Klaus asked.

“You can pray this works,” Violet said, but the Baudelaire sisters were so quick with their tasks that there was no time for even the shortest of religious ceremonies. In a matter of moments, Violet had attached the rope to the peg with some complicated and powerful knots, and Sunny had cut a child-sized hole in the middle of the net. Violet dangled the rope down the hole, and the three children listened until they heard the familiar clink! of their ersatz rope against the metal cage. The Baudelaire orphans paused for a moment at the hole in the net, and stared down into the blackness.

“I can’t believe we’re climbing down this passageway again,” Violet said.

“I know what you mean,” Klaus said. “If someone had asked me, that day at the beach, if I ever thought we’d be climbing up and down an empty elevator shaft in an attempt to rescue a pair of triplets, I would have said never in a million years. And now we’re doing it for the fifth time in twenty-four hours. What happened to us? What led us to this awful place we’re staring at now?”

“Misfortune,” Violet said quietly.

“A terrible fire,” Klaus said.

“Olaf,” Sunny said decisively, and began crawling down the rope. Klaus followed his sister down through the hole in the net, and Violet followed Klaus, and the three Baudelaires made the long trek down the bottom half of the passageway until they reached the tiny, filthy room, the empty cage, and the hallway that they hoped would lead them to the In Auction. Sunny squinted up at their rope, making sure that her siblings had safely reached the bottom. Klaus squinted at the hallway, trying to see how long it was, or if there was anybody or anything lurking in it. And Violet squinted in the corner, at the welding torches the children had thrown in the corner when the time had not been ripe to use them.

“We should take these with us,” she said.

“But why?” Klaus asked. “They’ve certainly cooled off long ago.”

“They have,” Violet said, picking one up. “And the tips are all bent from throwing them in the corner. But they still might come in handy for something. We don’t know what we’ll encounter in that hallway, and I don’t want to come up shorthanded. Here, Klaus. Here’s yours, and here’s Sunny’s.”

The younger Baudelaires took the bent, cooled fire tongs, and then, sticking close to one another, all three children took their first few steps down the hallway. In the utter darkness of this terrible place, the fire tongs seemed like long, slender extensions of the Baudelaires’ hands, instead of inventions they were each holding, but this was not what Violet had meant when she said she didn’t want them to be shorthanded. “Shorthanded” is a word which here means “unprepared,” and Violet was thinking that three children alone in a dark hallway holding fire tongs were perhaps a bit more prepared than three children alone in a dark hallway holding nothing at all. And I’m sorry to tell you that the eldest Baudelaire was absolutely right. The three children couldn’t afford to be shorthanded at all, not with the unfair advantage that was lurking at the end of their walk. As they took one cautious step after another, the Baudelaire orphans needed to be as longhanded as possible for the element of surprise that was waiting for them when the dark hallway came to an end.

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