بخش 01

مجموعه: مجموعه بدبیاری ها / کتاب: بیمارستان خطرناک / فصل 1

بخش 01

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CHAPTER One

There are two reasons why a writer would end a sentence with the word “stop” written entirely in capital letters STOP. The first is if the writer were writing a telegram, which is a coded message sent through an electrical wire STOP. In a telegram, the word “stop” in all capital letters is the code for the end of a sentence STOP. But there is another reason why a writer would end a sentence with “stop” written entirely in capital letters, and that is to warn readers that the book they are reading is so utterly wretched that if they have begun reading it, the best thing to do would be to stop STOP. This particular book, for instance, describes an especially unhappy time in the dreadful lives of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, and if you have any sense at all you will shut this book immediately, drag it up a tall mountain, and throw it off the very top STOP. There is no earthly reason why you should read even one more word about the misfortune, treachery, and woe that are in store for the three Baudelaire children, any more than you should run into the street and throw yourself under the wheels of a bus STOP. This “stop”-ended sentence is your very last chance to pretend the “STOP” warning is a stop sign, and to stop the flood of despair that awaits you in this book, the heart-stopping horror that begins in the very next sentence, by obeying the “STOP” and stopping STOP.

The Baudelaire orphans stopped. It was early in the morning, and the three children had been walking for hours across the flat and unfamiliar landscape. They were thirsty, lost, and exhausted, which are three good reasons to end a long walk, but they were also frightened, desperate, and not far from people who wanted to hurt them, which are three good reasons to continue. The siblings had abandoned all conversation hours ago, saving every last bit of their energy to put one foot in front of the other, but now they knew they had to stop, if only for a moment, and talk about what to do next.

The children were standing in front of the Last Chance General Store—the only building they had encountered since they began their long and frantic nighttime walk. The outside of the store was covered with faded posters advertising what was sold, and by the eerie light of the half-moon, the Baudelaires could see that fresh limes, plastic knives, canned meat, white envelopes, mango-flavored candy, red wine, leather wallets, fashion magazines, goldfish bowls, sleeping bags, roasted figs, cardboard boxes, controversial vitamins, and many other things were available inside the store. Nowhere on the building, however, was there a poster advertising help, which is really what the Baudelaires needed.

“I think we should go inside,” said Violet, taking a ribbon out of her pocket to tie up her hair. Violet, the eldest Baudelaire, was probably the finest fourteen-year-old inventor in the world, and she always tied her hair up in a ribbon when she had to solve a problem, and right now she was trying to invent a solution for the biggest problem she and her siblings had ever faced. “Perhaps there’s somebody in there who can help us in some way.”

“But perhaps there’s somebody in there who has seen our pictures in the newspaper,” said Klaus, the middle Baudelaire, who had recently spent his thirteenth birthday in a filthy jail cell. Klaus had a real knack for remembering nearly every word of nearly all of the thousands of books he had read, and he frowned as he remembered something untrue he had recently read about himself in the newspaper. “If they read The Daily Punctilio,” he continued, “perhaps they believe all those terrible things about us. Then they won’t help us at all.”

“Agery!” Sunny said. Sunny was a baby, and as with most babies, different parts of her were growing at different rates. She had only four teeth, for example, but each of them was as sharp as that of an adult lion, and although she had recently learned to walk, Sunny was still getting the hang of speaking in a way that all adults could understand. Her siblings, however, knew at once that she meant “Well, we can’t keep on walking forever,” and the two older Baudelaires nodded in agreement.

“Sunny’s right,” Violet said. “It’s called the Last Chance General Store. That sounds like it’s the only building for miles and miles. It might be our only opportunity to get some help.”

“And look,” Klaus said, pointing to a poster taped in a high corner of the building. “We can send a telegram inside. Maybe we can get some help that way.”

“Who would we send a telegram to?” Violet asked, and once again the Baudelaires had to stop and think. If you are like most people, you have an assortment of friends and family you can call upon in times of trouble. For instance, if you woke up in the middle of the night and saw a masked woman trying to crawl through your bedroom window, you might call your mother or father to help you push her back out. If you found yourself hopelessly lost in the middle of a strange city, you might ask the police to give you a ride home. And if you were an author locked in an Italian restaurant that was slowly filling up with water, you might call upon your acquaintances in the locksmith, pasta, and sponge businesses to come and rescue you. But the Baudelaire children’s trouble had begun with the news that their parents had been killed in a terrible fire, so they could not call upon their mother or father. The siblings could not call upon the police for assistance, because the police were among the people who had been chasing them all night long. And they could not call upon their acquaintances, because so many of the children’s acquaintances were unable to help them. After the death of the Baudelaire parents, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny had found themselves under the care of a variety of guardians. Some of them had been cruel. Some of them had been murdered. And one of them had been Count Olaf, a greedy and treacherous villain who was the real reason they were all by themselves in the middle of the night, standing in front of the Last Chance General Store, wondering who in the world they could call upon for help.

“Poe,” Sunny said finally. She was talking about Mr. Poe, a banker with a nasty cough, who was in charge of taking care of the children following their parents’ death. Mr. Poe had never been particularly helpful, but he was not cruel, murdered, or Count Olaf, and those seemed to be reasons enough to contact him.

“I guess we could try Mr. Poe,” Klaus agreed. “The worst he could do would be to say no.”

“Or cough,” Violet said with a small smile. Her siblings smiled back, and the three children pushed open the rusty door and walked inside.

“Lou, is that you?” called out a voice, but the children could not see who it belonged to. The inside of the Last Chance General Store was as crowded as its outside, with every inch of space crammed full of things for sale. There were shelves of canned asparagus and racks of fountain pens, next to barrels of onions and crates full of peacock feathers. There were cooking utensils nailed to the walls and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and the floor was made out of thousands of different kinds of tiles, each one stamped with a price tag. “Are you delivering the morning paper?” the voice asked.

“No,” Violet replied, as the Baudelaires tried to make their way toward the person who was talking. With difficulty they stepped over a carton of cat food and rounded a corner, only to find rows and rows of fishnets blocking their way.

“I’m not surprised, Lou,” the voice continued, as the siblings doubled back past a stack of mirrors and a pile of socks and headed down an aisle filled with pots of ivy and books of matches. “I usually don’t expect The Daily Punctilio until after the Volunteers Fighting Disease arrive.”

The children stopped looking for the source of the voice for a moment, and looked at one another, thinking of their friends Duncan and Isadora Quagmire. Duncan and Isadora were two triplets who, like the Baudelaires, had lost their parents, along with their brother, Quigley, in a terrible fire. The Quagmires had fallen into Olaf’s hands a couple of times and had only recently escaped, but the Baudelaires did not know if they would see their friends ever again or learn a secret that the triplets had discovered and written down in their notebooks. The secret concerned the initials V.F.D., but the only other clues that the Baudelaires had were a few pages from Duncan’s and Isadora’s notebooks, and the three siblings had scarcely found the time to look them over. Could Volunteers Fighting Disease finally be the answer the children were searching for?

“No, we’re not Lou,” Violet called out. “We’re three children, and we need to send a telegram.”

“A telegram?” called the voice, and as the children rounded another corner they almost ran right into the man who was talking to them. He was very short, shorter than both Violet and Klaus, and looked like he hadn’t slept or shaved in quite a long time. He was wearing two different shoes, each with a price tag, and several shirts and hats at once. He was so covered in merchandise that he almost looked like part of the store, except for his friendly smile and dirty fingernails.

“You’re certainly not Lou,” he said. “Lou is one chubby man, and you are three skinny children. What are you doing around here so early? It’s dangerous around here, you know. I’ve heard that this morning’s Daily Punctilio has a story about three murderers who are lurking around this very neighborhood, but I haven’t read it yet.”

“Newspaper stories aren’t always accurate,” Klaus said nervously.

The shopkeeper frowned. “Nonsense,” he said. “The Daily Punctilio wouldn’t print things that aren’t true. If the newspaper says somebody is a murderer, then they are a murderer and that’s the end of it. Now, you say you wanted to send a telegram?”

“Yes,” Violet said. “To Mr. Poe at Mulctuary Money Management, in the city.”

“It will cost quite a bit of money to send a telegram all the way to the city,” the shopkeeper said, and the Baudelaires looked at one another in dismay.

“We don’t have any money with us,” Klaus admitted. “We’re three orphans, and the only money we have is being looked after by Mr. Poe. Please, sir.”

“Sos!” Sunny said.

“My sister means ‘It’s an emergency situation,’” Violet explained, “and it is.”

The shopkeeper looked at them for a moment, and then shrugged. “If it’s really an emergency situation,” he said, “then I won’t charge you. I never charge anything for things if they’re really important. Volunteers Fighting Disease, for instance. Whenever they stop by, I give them gasoline for free because they do such wonderful work.”

“What exactly do they do?” Violet asked.

“They fight disease, of course,” the shopkeeper replied. “V.F.D. stop by here early each morning on their way to the hospital. Every day they devote themselves to cheering up patients, and I don’t have the heart to charge them for anything.”

“You’re a very kind man,” Klaus replied.

“Well, it’s very kind of you to say so,” the shopkeeper replied. “Now, the device for sending telegrams is over there, next to all those porcelain kittens. I’ll help you.”

“We can do it ourselves,” Violet said. “I built one of those devices myself when I was seven, so I know how to connect the electronic circuit.”

“And I’ve read two books about Morse code,” Klaus said. “So I can translate our message into electronic signals.”

“Help!” Sunny said.

“What a talented group of children,” the shopkeeper said with a smile. “Well, I’ll leave you three alone. I hope that this Mr. Poe person can help you with your emergency situation.”

“Thank you very much, sir,” Violet said. “I hope so, too.”

The shopkeeper gave the children a little wave and disappeared behind a display of potato peelers, and the Baudelaires looked at one another in excitement.

“Volunteers Fighting Disease?” Klaus whispered to Violet. “Do you think we’ve finally found the real meaning of V.F.D.?”

“Jacques!” Sunny said.

“Jacques did say something about working as a volunteer,” Klaus agreed. “If only we had a few moments to look over the pages from the Quagmire notebooks. They’re still in my pocket.”

“First things first,” Violet said. “Let’s send the telegram to Mr. Poe. If Lou delivers this morning’s Daily Punctilio, the shopkeeper is going to stop thinking we’re a group of talented children and start thinking we’re murderers.”

“You’re right,” Klaus said. “After Mr. Poe gets us out of this mess, we’ll have time to think about these other things.”

“Trosslik,” Sunny said. She meant something along the lines of, “You mean if Mr. Poe gets us out of this mess,” and her siblings nodded grimly and went over to take a look at the telegram device. It was an arrangement of dials, wires, and strange metal implements that I would have been too scared to even touch, but the Baudelaires approached it with confidence.

“I’m pretty sure we can operate this,” Violet said. “It looks fairly simple. See, Klaus, you use these two metal strips to tap out the message in Morse code, and I will connect the circuit over here. Sunny, you stand here and put on these earphones to make sure you can hear the signal being transmitted. Let’s step to it.”

The children stepped to it, a phrase which here means “took their positions around the telegram device.” Violet turned a dial, Sunny put on her earphones, and Klaus wiped the lenses of his glasses so he could be sure to see what he was doing. The siblings nodded at one another, and Klaus began to speak out loud as he tapped out the message in code.

“To: Mr. Poe at Mulctuary Money Management,” Klaus said. “From: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire. Please do not believe the story about us printed in The Daily Punctilio STOP. Count Olaf is not really dead, and we did not really murder him STOP.”

“Arrete?” Sunny asked.

“‘STOP’ is the code for the end of a sentence,” Klaus explained. “Now, what should I say next?”

“Soon after our arrival in the town of V.F.D. we were informed that Count Olaf had been captured STOP,” Violet dictated. “Although the arrested man had an eye tattooed on his ankle and one eyebrow instead of two, he was not Count Olaf STOP. His name was Jacques Snicket STOP.”

“The next day he was found murdered, and Count Olaf arrived in town along with his girlfriend, Esmé Squalor STOP,” Klaus continued, tapping away. “As part of his plan to steal the fortune our parents left behind, Count Olaf disguised himself as a detective and convinced the town of V.F.D. that we were the murderers STOP.”

“Uckner,” Sunny suggested, and Klaus translated what she said into English, and then into Morse code: “Meanwhile we discovered where the Quagmire triplets were being hidden, and helped them escape STOP. The Quagmires managed to give us a few scraps of their notebooks so we could try to learn the real meaning of V.F.D. STOP.”

“We have managed to flee from the citizens of the town, who want to burn us at the stake for a murder that we did not commit STOP,” Violet said, and Klaus quickly tapped the sentence out into code before adding two last sentences of his own.

“Please reply at once STOP. We are in grave danger STOP.”

Klaus tapped out the last P in “STOP” and then looked at his sisters. “We are in grave danger,” he said again, although his hand did not move on the device.

“You already sent that sentence,” Violet said.

“I know,” Klaus said quietly. “I wasn’t putting it into the telegram again. I was just saying it. We are in grave danger. It’s almost as if I didn’t realize how grave the danger was until I tapped it out into a telegram.”

“Ilimi,” Sunny said, and took off her earphones so she could lay her head on Klaus’s shoulder.

“I’m scared, too,” Violet admitted, patting her sister’s shoulder. “But I’m sure Mr. Poe will help us. We can’t be expected to solve this problem all by ourselves.”

“But that’s how we’ve solved every other problem,” Klaus said, “ever since the fire. Mr. Poe has never done anything except send us to one disastrous home after another.”

“He’ll help us this time,” Violet insisted, although she did not sound very sure. “Just watch the device. He’ll send back a telegram any moment now.”

“But what if he doesn’t?” Klaus asked.

“Chonex,” Sunny murmured, and wriggled closer to her siblings. She meant something along the lines of “Then we’re all alone,” which is a curious thing to say when you are with your two siblings, in the middle of a store so stuffed with merchandise you can hardly move. But as they sat closely together, looking at the telegram device, it did not seem curious to the Baudelaires. They were surrounded by nylon rope, floor wax, soup bowls, window curtains, wooden rocking horses, top hats, fiber-optic cable, pink lipstick, dried apricots, magnifying glasses, black umbrellas, slender paintbrushes, French horns, and each other, but as the Baudelaire orphans sat and waited for a reply to their telegram, they only felt more and more alone.

CHAPTER Two

Of all the ridiculous expressions people use—and people use a great many ridiculous expressions—one of the most ridiculous is “No news is good news.” “No news is good news” simply means that if you don’t hear from someone, everything is probably fine, and you can see at once why this expression makes such little sense, because everything being fine is only one of many, many reasons why someone may not contact you. Perhaps they are tied up. Maybe they are surrounded by fierce weasels, or perhaps they are wedged tightly between two refrigerators and cannot get themselves out. The expression might well be changed to “No news is bad news,” except that people may not be able to contact you because they have just been crowned king or are competing in a gymnastics tournament. The point is that there is no way to know why someone has not contacted you, until they contact you and explain themselves. For this reason, the sensible expression would be “No news is no news,” except that it is so obvious it is hardly an expression at all.

Obvious or not, however, it is the proper way to describe what happened to the Baudelaires after they sent the desperate telegram to Mr. Poe. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny sat and stared at the telegram device for hours, waiting for some sign of the banker’s reply. As the hour grew later and later, they took turns dozing against the merchandise of the Last Chance General Store, hoping for any response from the man who was in charge of the orphans’ affairs. And as the first few rays of dawn shone through the window, illuminating all of the price tags in the store, the only news the children had received was that the shopkeeper had made some fresh cranberry muffins.

“I’ve made some fresh cranberry muffins,” the shopkeeper said, peeking around a tower of flour sifters. He was wearing at least two pot holders on each hand and was carrying the muffins on a stack of different-colored trays. “Normally I would put them up for sale, between the phonograph records and the garden rakes, but I hate to think of you three children going without breakfast when there are vicious murderers on the loose, so have some for yourself, free of charge.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Violet said, as she and her siblings each took a muffin from the shopkeeper’s top tray. The Baudelaires, who had not eaten since they left the village, soon made short work—a phrase which here means “ate every warm, sweet crumb”—of the pastries.

“Goodness, you’re hungry,” the shopkeeper said. “Did everything go all right with the telegram? Have you received a reply?”

“Not yet,” Klaus said.

“Well, don’t worry your tiny heads about it,” the shopkeeper replied. “Remember, no news is good news.”

“No news is good news?” called out a voice from somewhere in the store. “I have some news for you, Milt. All about those murderers.”

“Lou!” the shopkeeper called in delight, and then turned to the children. “Excuse me, please,” he said. “Lou’s here with The Daily Punctilio.”

The shopkeeper walked through a bunch of rugs hanging from the ceiling, and the Baudelaires looked at one another in dismay.

“What’ll we do?” Klaus whispered to his sisters. “If the newspaper has arrived, the shopkeeper will read that we’re murderers. We’d better run away.”

“But if we run away,” Violet said, “Mr. Poe won’t be able to contact us.”

“Gykree!” Sunny cried, which meant “He’s had all night to contact us, and we haven’t heard from him.”

“Lou?” they heard the shopkeeper call out. “Where are you, Lou?”

“I’m over by the pepper grinders,” the deliveryperson called out in return. “And wait till you read this story about the three murderers of that Count. It’s got pictures and everything. I saw the police on the way here, and they said they were closing in. The only people they allowed in the area were me and those volunteer people. They’re going to capture those kids and send them right to jail.”

“Kids?” the shopkeeper said. “The murderers are kids?”

“Yep,” the deliveryperson replied. “See for yourself.”

The children looked at one another, and Sunny gave a little whimper of fear. Across the store they could hear the rustling of paper and then the excited voice of the shopkeeper.

“I know those kids!” he cried. “They’re in my store right now! I just gave them some muffins!”

“You gave muffins to murderers?” Lou said. “That’s not right, Milt. Criminals should be punished, not fed pastries.”

“I didn’t know they were murderers then,” the shopkeeper explained, “but I sure know now. It says so right here in The Daily Punctilio. Call the police, Lou! I’ll grab these murderers and make sure they don’t escape.”

The Baudelaires wasted no more time, and began to run in the opposite direction from the men’s voices, down an aisle of safety pins and candy canes. “Let’s head toward those ceramic ashtrays,” Violet whispered. “I think we can exit that way.”

“But what happens when we exit?” Klaus whispered back. “The deliveryperson said that the police were closing in.”

“Mulick!” Sunny cried, which meant “Let’s discuss that at a later time!”

“Egad!” The children could hear the shopkeeper’s surprised voice from several aisles over. “Lou, the kids aren’t here! Keep an eye out for them.”

“What do they look like?” the delivery-person called back.

“They look like three innocent children,” the shopkeeper said, “but they’re really vicious criminals. Be careful.”

The children ran around a corner and ducked into the next aisle, pressing themselves against a rack of construction paper and canned peas as they listened to the hurrying footsteps of the deliveryperson. “Wherever you murderers are,” he called, “you’d better give up!”

“We’re not murderers!” Violet cried in frustration.

“Of course you’re murderers!” the shopkeeper answered. “It says so in the newspaper!”

“Plus,” the deliveryperson said in a sneering voice, “if you’re not murderers, why are you hiding and running?”

Violet started to answer, but Klaus covered her mouth before she could say anything more. “They’ll be able to tell where we are by our voices,” he whispered. “Just let them talk, and maybe we can escape.”

“Lou, do you see them?” called the shopkeeper.

“No, but they can’t hide forever,” the deliveryperson said. “I’m going to look over by the undershirts!”

The Baudelaires looked ahead of them and saw a pile of white undershirts that happened to be on sale. Gasping, the children doubled back, and ran down an aisle covered in ticking clocks.

“I’m going to try the clock aisle!” the shopkeeper cried. “They can’t hide forever!”

The children hurried down the aisle, sprinted past a rack of towel racks and piggy banks, and scurried around a display of sensible plaid skirts. Finally, over the top shelf of an aisle containing nothing but different kinds of bedroom slippers, Violet spotted a glimpse of the exit, and silently pointed the way to her siblings.

“I bet they’re in the sausage aisle!” the shopkeeper said.

“I bet they’re near the bathtub display!” the deliveryperson called.

“They can’t hide forever!” the shopkeeper cried.

The Baudelaires took a deep breath, and then bolted toward the exit of the Last Chance General Store, but as soon as they got outside they realized the shopkeeper was right. The sun was rising, revealing the flat and desolate landscape the children had walked across all night. In a few hours the entire countryside would be covered in sunlight, and the land was so flat that the children would be seen from far, far away. They couldn’t hide forever, and as Violet, Klaus, and Sunny stood outside the Last Chance General Store, it seemed that they couldn’t hide for even one more instant.

“Look!” Klaus said, and pointed in the direction of the rising sun. Parked a ways from the store was a square, gray van with the letters V.F.D. printed on its side.

“That must be the Volunteers Fighting Disease,” Violet said. “The deliveryperson said only he and the volunteers were allowed in the area.”

“Then they’re the only way we can hide,” Klaus said. “If we can sneak aboard that van, we can escape from the police, at least for now.”

“But this might be the right V.F.D.,” Violet said. “If these volunteers are part of the sinister secret the Quagmire triplets tried to tell us about, we might be going from a bad situation to a worse one.”

“Or,” Klaus said, “it might get us closer to solving the mystery of Jacques Snicket. Remember, he said he worked as a volunteer, right before he was murdered.”

“It won’t do us any good to solve the mystery of Jacques Snicket,” Violet said, “if we’re in jail.”

“Blusin,” Sunny said. She meant something along the lines of, “We don’t have much choice,” and in small, tottering steps she led her siblings toward the V.F.D. van.

“But how will we get on the van?” Violet asked, walking alongside her sister.

“What will we say to the volunteers?” Klaus asked, hurrying to catch up.

“Impro,” Sunny said, which meant “We’ll think of something,” but for once the three children didn’t have to think of something. As the youngsters reached the van, a friendly-looking man with a guitar in his hands and a beard on his face leaned out of one of the windows and called to them.

“We almost left you behind, brother and sisters!” he said. “We filled the van up with free gas, and now we’re all set to head off to the hospital.” With a smile, the man unlatched the door of the van and opened it, beckoning to the three children. “Climb aboard,” he said. “We don’t want our volunteers to get lost before we even sing the first verse. I heard something about murderers lurking around this area.”

“Did you read it in the newspaper?” Klaus asked nervously.

The bearded man laughed, and strummed a cheerful chord on his guitar. “Oh, no,” he said. “We don’t read the newspaper. It’s too depressing. Our motto is ‘No news is good news.’ You must be new volunteers, not to know that. Well, hop in.”

The Baudelaires hesitated. As I’m sure you know, it is rarely a good idea to get into an automobile with somebody you haven’t met before, particularly if the person believes in such nonsense as “No news is good news.” But it is never a good idea to stand around a flat and empty landscape while the police are closing in to arrest you for a crime you have not committed, and the three children paused for a moment to decide between doing something which is rarely a good idea, and something that is never a good idea. They looked at the bearded man with the guitar. They looked at each other. And then they looked back at the Last Chance General Store, where they saw the shopkeeper, rushing out of the front door and toward the van.

“O.K.,” Violet said finally. “We’ll hop in.”

The bearded man smiled, and the children stepped into the V.F.D. van and shut the door behind them. They did not hop, even though the man had asked them to “hop in,” because hopping is something done in the cheerful moments of one’s life. A plumber might hop, for instance, if she finally fixed a particularly difficult leak in someone’s shower. A sculptor would hop if his sculpture of four basset hounds playing cards was finally finished. And I would hop like nobody has ever hopped before, if I could somehow go back to that terrible Thursday, and stop Beatrice from attending that afternoon tea where she met Esmé Squalor for the first time.

But Violet, Klaus, and Sunny did not hop, because they were not plumbers fixing leaks, or sculptors finishing works of art, or authors magically erasing a series of unfortunate events. They were three desperate children, falsely accused of murder, forced to run out of a store into a stranger’s automobile to avoid capture by the police. The Baudelaires were not hopping, even as the van started its engine and began to drive away from the Last Chance General Store, ignoring the desperate signals of the shopkeeper as he ran to try to stop them. As the V.F.D. van began to drive across the lonely landscape, the Baudelaire orphans were not sure they would ever hop again.

CHAPTER Three

We are Volunteers Fighting Disease, And we’re cheerful all day long. If someone said that we were sad, That person would be wrong.

We visit people who are sick, And try to make them smile, Even if their noses bleed, Or if they cough up bile.

Tra la la, Fiddle dee dee,

Hope you get well soon.

Ho ho ho, hee hee hee,

Have a heart-shaped balloon.

We visit people who are ill, And try to make them laugh, Even when the doctor says He must saw them in half.

We sing and sing all night and day, And then we sing some more. We sing to boys with broken bones And girls whose throats are sore.

Tra la la, Fiddle dee dee,

Hope you get well soon.

Ho ho ho, hee hee hee,

Have a heart-shaped balloon.

We sing to men with measles, And to women with the flu, And if you breathe in deadly germs, We’ll probably sing to you.

Tra la la, Fiddle dee dee,

Hope you get well soon.

Ho ho ho, hee hee hee,

Have a heart-shaped balloon.

An associate of mine named William Congreve once wrote a very sad play that begins with the line “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast,” a sentence which here means that if you are nervous or upset, you might listen to some music to calm you down or cheer you up. For instance, as I crouch here behind the altar of the Cathedral of the Alleged Virgin, a friend of mine is playing a sonata on the pipe organ, to calm me down and so the sounds of my typewriter will not be heard by the worshipers sitting in the pews. The mournful melody of the sonata reminds me of a tune my father used to sing when he did the dishes, and as I listen to it I can temporarily forget six or seven of my troubles.

But the soothing effect of music on a savage breast obviously depends on what kind of music is being played, and I’m sorry to say that as the Baudelaire orphans listened to the song of V.F.D., they did not feel even one bit less nervous or upset. When Violet, Klaus, and Sunny first boarded the V.F.D. van, they were so worried about avoiding capture that they scarcely took a look around them until they were quite far away from the Last Chance General Store. But when the shopkeeper was merely a speck on the flat and empty landscape, the children turned their attention to their new hiding place. There were about twenty people in the van, and every single one of them was exceedingly cheerful. There were cheerful men, cheerful women, a handful of cheerful children, and a very cheerful driver who occasionally took his eyes off the road to grin cheerfully at all his passengers. When the Baudelaires took a long trip in an automobile, they liked to pass the time reading or looking at the scenery and thinking their own private thoughts, but as soon as the van pulled away from the general store, the bearded man began playing his guitar and led all of the Volunteers Fighting Disease in a cheerful song, and each “tra la la” only made the Baudelaires more anxious than before. When the volunteers began to sing the verse about people’s noses bleeding, the siblings were sure someone would stop singing and say, “Wait a minute! These three children weren’t on the van before! They don’t belong here!” When the singers reached the verse about the doctor sawing someone in half, the children were certain someone would stop singing and say, “Wait a minute! Those three people don’t know the lyrics to the song! They don’t belong here!” And when the cheerful passengers sung the section of the song discussing deadly germs, the siblings were unequivocally positive that someone would stop singing and say, “Wait a minute! Those three children are the murderers described in The Daily Punctilio! They don’t belong here!”

But the Volunteers Fighting Disease were too cheerful to wait a minute. They believed so strongly that no news is good news that none of them had even glanced at The Daily Punctilio. And they were too busy singing to notice that the Baudelaires didn’t belong on the van.

“Boy, do I love that song!” the bearded man said, when the last chorus had ended. “I could sing it all the way to Heimlich Hospital. But I guess we’d better save our voices for the day’s work. So why don’t we settle down and have cheerful conversations until we arrive?”

“That sounds super-duper!” said one of the volunteers, and everyone nodded in agreement. The bearded man put away his guitar and sat down next to the Baudelaires.

“We’d better make up false names,” Violet whispered to Klaus, “so no one will learn who we are.”

“But The Daily Punctilio got our names wrong,” Klaus whispered back, “so maybe we should use our real names.”

“Well, let’s get to know each other,” the bearded man said cheerfully. “I like to get to know each and every one of our volunteers.”

“Well, my name is Sally,” Violet began, “and—”

“No, no,” the bearded man said. “We don’t use names in V.F.D. We just call everybody ‘sister’ and ‘brother,’ because we believe all people are sisters and brothers.”

“I’m confused,” Klaus said. “I always thought that brothers and sisters are people who share the same parents.”

“Not always, brother,” the bearded man said. “Sometimes brothers and sisters are just people who are united for a common cause.”

“Does that mean, brother,” Violet said, trying this new use of the word “brother” and not liking it much, “that you don’t know the names of anyone in this van?”

“That’s right, sister,” the bearded man said.

“And so you’ve never known the name of anyone who’s been a Volunteer Fighting Disease?” Klaus asked.

“Not a single one,” the bearded man said. “Why do you ask?”

“There’s a person we know,” Violet said carefully, “who we think might have been in V.F.D. He had one eyebrow instead of two, and a tattoo of an eye on his ankle.”

The bearded man frowned. “I don’t know anyone of that description,” he said, “and I’ve been with the Volunteers Fighting Disease since the organization first started.”

“Rats!” Sunny said.

“What my sister means,” Klaus said, “is that we’re disappointed. We were hoping to learn more about this person.”

“Are you sure he was in Volunteers Fighting Disease?” the bearded man asked.

“No,” Klaus admitted. “We just know he worked in the volunteer something.”

“Well, there are lots of volunteer somethings,” the bearded man replied. “What you kids need is some sort of Library of Records.”

“A Library of Records?” Violet said.

“A Library of Records is a place where official information is stored,” the bearded man said. “In a Library of Records, you could find a list of every single volunteer organization in the world. Or you could look up this person and see if there’s a file on him. Perhaps that would tell you where he worked.”

“Or how he knew our parents,” Klaus said, speaking out loud without thinking.

“Your parents?” the bearded man said, looking around the van. “Are they here, too?”

The Baudelaires looked at one another, wishing that their parents were there on the van, even though it would be awkward to call their father “brother” and their mother “sister.” Sometimes it seemed to the children that it had been hundreds and hundreds of years since that terrible day at the beach when Mr. Poe brought them the dreadful news, but just as often it seemed as if it had been only minutes. Violet could picture her father, sitting next to her, perhaps pointing out something interesting he had seen through the window. Klaus could picture his mother, smiling and shaking her head in amusement at the ridiculous lyrics of the V.F.D. song. And Sunny could picture all five Baudelaires, together again, with nobody fleeing from the police, or accused of murder, or trying desperately to solve mysteries, or worst of all, gone forever in a terrible fire. But just because you can picture something does not make it so. The Baudelaire parents were not in the van, and the children looked at the bearded man and shook their heads sadly.

“My, you look glum,” the bearded man said. “Well, don’t worry. I’m sure wherever your parents are, they’re having a good time, so let’s not see any frowny faces. Being cheerful is the whole point of Volunteers Fighting Disease.”

“What exactly will we be doing at the hospital?” Violet asked, eager to change the subject.

“Just what V.F.D. says,” the bearded man replied. “We’re volunteers, and we’ll be fighting diseases.”

“I hope we won’t be giving shots,” Klaus said. “Needles make me a bit nervous.”

“Of course we won’t be giving shots,” the bearded man said. “We only do cheerful things. Mostly we wander the halls singing to sick people, and giving them heart-shaped balloons, like the song says.”

“But how does that fight disease?” Violet said.

“Because getting a cheerful balloon helps people picture getting better, and if you picture something, it makes it so,” the bearded man explained. “After all, a cheerful attitude is the most effective tool against sickness.”

“I thought antibiotics were,” Klaus said.

“Echinacea!” Sunny said. She meant “Or well-tested herbal remedies,” but the bearded man had stopped paying attention to the children and was looking out the window.

“We’ve arrived, volunteers!” he called out. “We’re at Heimlich Hospital!” He turned to the Baudelaires and pointed out at the horizon. “Isn’t it a beautiful building?”

The children looked out the windows of the van and found that they could only half agree with the bearded man, for the simple reason that Heimlich Hospital was only half a building, or at best two thirds. The left side of the hospital was a shiny white structure, with a row of tall pillars and small carved portraits of famous doctors over each window. In front of the building was a neatly mowed lawn, with occasional patches of brightly colored wildflowers. But the right side of the hospital was scarcely a structure at all, let alone a beautiful one. There were a few boards nailed together into rectangles, and a few planks nailed down for floors, but there were no walls or windows, so it looked like a drawing of a hospital rather than a hospital itself. There was no sign of any pillars and not even one carved doctor portrait on this half-finished side, just a few sheets of plastic fluttering in the wind, and instead of a lawn there was just an empty field of dirt. It was as if the architect in charge of constructing the building had decided halfway through that he’d rather go on a picnic, and had never returned. The driver parked the van underneath a sign that was half finished, too: the word “Heimlich” was in fancy gold letters on a clean white square of wood, but the word “Hospital” was scrawled in ballpoint pen on a piece of cardboard ripped from an old box.

“I’m sure they’ll finish it someday,” the bearded man continued. “But in the meantime, we can picture the other half, and picturing something makes it so. Now, let’s picture ourselves getting out of the van.”

The three Baudelaires did not have to picture it, but they followed the bearded man and the rest of the volunteers out of the van and onto the lawn in front of the prettier half of the hospital. The members of V.F.D. were stretching their arms and legs after the long drive, and helping the bearded man remove a big bunch of heart-shaped balloons from the back of the van, but the children merely stood around anxiously and tried to figure out what to do next.

“Where should we go?” Violet asked. “If we walk around the hallways of the hospital singing to people, someone will recognize us.”

“That’s true,” Klaus said. “The doctors, nurses, administrators, and patients can’t all believe that no news is good news. I’m sure some of them have read this morning’s Daily Punctilio.”

“Aronec,” Sunny said, which meant “And we’re not getting any closer to learning anything about V.F.D., or Jacques Snicket.”

“That’s true,” Violet agreed. “Maybe we need to find a Library of Records, like the bearded man said.”

“But where can we find one?” Klaus asked. “We’re in the middle of nowhere.”

“No walk!” Sunny said.

“I don’t want to start all that walking again either,” Violet said, “but I don’t see what else we can do.”

“O.K., volunteers!” the bearded man said. He took his guitar out of the van and began playing some cheerful and familiar chords. “Everyone take a heart-shaped balloon and start singing!

“We are Volunteers Fighting Disease, And we’re cheerful all day long, If someone said that we were sad, That person would be—”

“Attention!” interrupted a voice that seemed to come from the sky. The voice was female but very scratchy and faint, as if the voice were that of a woman talking with a piece of aluminum foil over her mouth. “Your attention please!”

“Shh, everybody!” the bearded man said, stopping the song. “That’s Babs, the Head of Human Resources at the hospital. She must have an important announcement.”

“Attention!” the voice said. “This is Babs, Head of Human Resources. I have an important announcement.”

“Where is she?” Klaus asked him, worried that she might recognize the three accused murderers hiding in V.F.D.

“In the hospital someplace,” the bearded man replied. “She prefers communicating over the intercom.”

The word “intercom” here refers to someone talking into a microphone someplace and having their voice come out of speakers someplace else, and sure enough the children noticed a small row of square speakers placed on the finished half of the building, just above the doctor portraits. “Attention!” the voice said again, and it became even scratchier and fainter, as if the woman with the piece of aluminum foil over her mouth had fallen into a swimming pool filled with fizzy soda. This is not a pleasant way to hear someone talk, and yet as soon as Babs made her announcement, the savage breasts of the Baudelaire orphans were instantly soothed, as if the scratchy and faint voice were a calming piece of music. But the Baudelaires did not feel better because of the way Babs’s voice sounded. The announcement soothed the children’s savage breasts because of what it said.

“I need three members of the Volunteers Fighting Disease who are willing to be given a new assignment,” said the voice. “Those three volunteers should report immediately to my office, which is the seventeenth door on the left as you enter the finished half of the building. Instead of walking around the hallways of the hospital singing to people, these three volunteers will be working in the Library of Records here at Heimlich Hospital.”

CHAPTER Four

Whether you have been sent to see the principal of your school for throwing wet paper towels at the ceiling to see if they stick, or taken to the dentist to plead with him to hollow out one of your teeth so you can smuggle a single page of your latest book past the guards at the airport, it is never a pleasant feeling to stand outside the door of an office, and as the Baudelaire orphans stood at the door reading “Office of the Head of Human Resources” they were reminded of all the unpleasant offices they had recently visited. On their very first day at Prufrock Preparatory School, before they had even met Isadora and Duncan Quagmire, the Baudelaires had visited the office of Vice Principal Nero and learned about all of the academy’s strict and unfair rules. When they worked at Lucky Smells Lumbermill, the siblings had been summoned to the office of the owner, who made clear just how dreadful their situation really was. And, of course, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny had been many, many times to Mr. Poe’s office at the bank, where he coughed and talked on the phone and made decisions about the Baudelaires’ future that had not proved to be good ones. But even if the children had not had all these unfortunate experiences in offices, it was perfectly understandable that the Baudelaire children had to stand for a few moments in front of the seventeenth door on the left, and gather their courage to knock.

“I’m not sure we should take this risk,” Violet said. “If Babs has read this morning’s edition of The Daily Punctilio, she’ll recognize us as soon as we walk through the door. We might as well be knocking on the door of our jail cell.”

“But the Library of Records might be our only hope,” Klaus said. “We need to find out who Jacques Snicket really was—where he worked, and how he knew us. If we get some evidence, we can convince people that Count Olaf is still alive and that we’re not murderers.”

“Curoy,” Sunny added, which meant “Besides, the Quagmire triplets are far, far away, and we have only a few pages of their notebooks. We need to find the real meaning of V.F.D.”

“Sunny’s right,” Klaus said. “In the Library of Records, we might even solve the mystery of that underground passageway that led from Jerome and Esmé Squalor’s apartment to the ashy remains of the Baudelaire mansion.”

“Afficu,” Sunny said. She meant something like “And the only way we’ll get into the Library of Records is if we talk to Babs, so it’s a risk we have to take.”

“All right,” Violet said, looking down at her sister and smiling. “You’ve convinced me. But if Babs begins looking at us suspiciously, we’ll leave, agreed?”

“Agreed,” Klaus said.

“Yep,” Sunny said, and knocked on the door.

“Who is it?” Babs’s voice called out.

“It’s three members of Volunteers Fighting Disease,” Violet replied. “We’re here to volunteer at the Library of Records.”

“Come in,” Babs commanded, and the children opened the door and walked into the office. “I was wondering when someone would show up,” the Head of Human Resources continued. “I was just finishing up reading this morning’s paper. These three terrible children are running around killing people.”

The Baudelaires looked at one another and were about to run back out the door when they saw something in the office that changed their minds. The office of the Head of Human Resources at Heimlich Hospital was a small one, with a small desk, two small chairs, and a small window decorated with two small curtains. On the windowsill was a small vase of yellow flowers and on the wall was a small tasteful portrait of a man leading a horse to a small pond of fresh water. But it was not the furnishings, the flower arrangement, or the tasteful artwork that made the three orphans stop.

Babs’s voice had come from the direction of the desk, which the Baudelaires had expected, but what they hadn’t expected was that Babs was not sitting behind the desk, or on the desk or even beneath it. Instead, a small square intercom speaker—just like the ones on the outside of the hospital—had been placed in the middle of the desk, and it was from this speaker that the speaking had been spoken. It was strange to hear speaking from a speaker instead of from the person who was speaking, but the children realized they could not be recognized if Babs could not see them, so they did not run out of the room.

“We’re three children, too,” Violet said to the speaker, trying to be as honest as she could, “but we’d much rather volunteer in the hospital than embark on a life of crime.”

“If you’re children, then be silent!” Babs’s voice said rudely. “In my opinion, children should be seen and not heard. I’m an adult, so it follows that I should be heard and not seen. That’s why I work exclusively over the intercom. You will be working exclusively with the most important thing we do in this hospital. Can you guess what it is?”

“Healing sick people?” Klaus guessed.

“Be silent!” the speaker commanded. “Children should be seen and not heard, remember? Just because I can’t see you doesn’t mean you should start babbling about sick people. You’re wrong, anyway. The most important thing we do at the hospital is paperwork, and you will be working at the Library of Records, filing paperwork. I’m sure this will be difficult for you, because children never have any administrative experience.”

“Hend,” said Sunny in disagreement. Violet was about to explain that her sister meant something along the lines of “Actually, I worked as an administrative assistant at Prufrock Preparatory School,” but the intercom speaker was too busy reproving the Baudelaires, a phrase which here means “shouting ‘Be silent!’” at every opportunity.

“Be silent!” the speaker shouted. “Instead of chattering away, report to the Library of Records at once. The Library of Records is located in the basement, at the very bottom of the staircase next to this office. You’ll go straight there every morning when the van arrives at Heimlich Hospital, and you’ll return straight to the van at the end of each day. The van will take you back home. Are there any questions?”

The Baudelaires had plenty of questions, of course, but they did not ask them. They knew that if they said even one word, the intercom speaker would command them to be silent, and besides, they were eager to get to the Library of Records, where they hoped to answer the most important questions of their lives.

“Excellent!” the speaker said. “You’re learning to be seen instead of heard. Now, get out of this office.”

The children got out of that office and quickly found the staircase the speaker had mentioned. The Baudelaires were glad that the route to the Library of Records was so easy to remember, because Heimlich Hospital seemed like a place where it would be very easy to get lost. The staircase curved this way and that, leading to many doors and corridors, and every ten feet or so, nailed to the wall just below an intercom speaker there was a complicated map of the hospital, filled with arrows, stars, and other symbols the Baudelaires did not recognize. Every so often, the children would see someone from the hospital walking toward them. Although neither the Volunteers Fighting Disease nor the Head of Human Resources had recognized the three children, it was certain that someone in the hospital must have read The Daily Punctilio, and the Baudelaires did not want to be seen or heard, and they would have to turn and face the wall, pretending to consult the map so anyone walking by would not see their faces.

“That was close,” Violet sighed in relief, when a group of chatting doctors had gone by without even glancing at the youngsters.

“It was close,” Klaus agreed, “and we don’t want it to get any closer. I don’t think we should get back on the van at the end of the day—or any other day. Sooner or later we’re bound to be recognized.”

“You’re right,” Violet said. “We’d have to walk back through the hospital every day, just to get to the van. But where will we go at night? People will think it is odd if three children are sleeping in the Library of Records.”

“Half,” Sunny suggested.

“That’s a pretty good idea,” Violet replied. “We could sleep in the unfinished half of the hospital. Nobody will go there at night.”

“Sleep all by ourselves, in a half-finished room?” Klaus asked. “It’ll be cold and dark.”

“It can’t be much worse than the Orphans Shack at Prufrock Prep,” Violet said.

“Danya,” Sunny said, which meant “Or the bedroom at Count Olaf’s house.”

Klaus shuddered, remembering how terrible it was when Count Olaf had been their guardian. “You’re right,” he said, stopping at a door which read “Library of Records.” “The unfinished wing of the hospital can’t be that bad.”

The Baudelaires knocked on the door, which opened almost immediately to reveal one of the oldest men they had ever met, wearing one of the tiniest pairs of glasses they had ever seen. Each lens was scarcely bigger than a green pea, and the man had to squint in order to look at them.

“My eyesight isn’t what it used to be,” he said, “but you appear to be children. And you’re very familiar children, too. I’m certain I’ve seen your faces somewhere before.”

The Baudelaires looked at one another in panic, not knowing whether to dash out of the room or to try to convince the man he was mistaken.

“We’re new volunteers,” Violet said. “I don’t think we’ve ever met before.”

“Babs assigned us to work in the Library of Records,” Klaus said.

“Well, you’ve come to the right place,” the old man said with a wrinkled smile. “My name is Hal, and I’ve worked here in the Library of Records for more years than I’d like to count. I’m afraid my eyesight isn’t what it used to be, so I asked Babs if some volunteers could help me.”

“Wolick,” Sunny said.

“My sister says we’re very happy to be of assistance,” Violet said, “and we are.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear that,” Hal said. “Because there’s a lot of work to be done. Come on in and I’ll explain what you have to do.”

The Baudelaires walked through the door and found themselves in a small room with nothing much in it but a small table that held a bowl of fresh fruit. “This is the library?” Klaus said.

“Oh no,” the man said. “This is just an antechamber, a small room I’m using to store my fruit. If you get hungry during the day, you may help yourself to something out of that bowl. Also, this is where the intercom is, so we’ll have to report here whenever Babs makes an announcement.” He led them across the room to a small door and took a loop of string out of the pocket of his coat. On the loop of string were hundreds of keys, which made tiny clanging noises as they jostled one another. Hal quickly found the right key to unlock the door. “This,” he said with a small smile, “is the Library of Records.”

Hal ushered the children inside a dim room with very low ceilings—so low that Hal’s gray hair almost brushed against the top. But although the room was not very tall, it was enormous. The Library of Records stretched out so far in front of the Baudelaires that they could scarcely see the opposite wall, or, as the children looked from side to side, the right and left walls. All they could see were big metal file cabinets, with neatly labeled drawers describing the files contained inside. The file cabinets were placed in row after row, as far as the eye could see. The rows were placed very close together, so that the siblings had to walk behind Hal in single file as he gave them the tour of the room.

“I’ve organized everything myself,” he explained. “The Library of Records contains information not only from Heimlich Hospital, but from all over the area. There’s information about everything from poetry to pills, from picture frames to pyramids, and from pudding to psychology—and that’s just in the P aisle, which we’re walking down right now.”

“What an amazing place,” Klaus said. “Just think of everything we can learn from reading all these files.”

“No, no, no,” Hal said, shaking his head sternly. “We’re supposed to file this information, not read it. I don’t want to see you touching any of these files except when you’re working with them. That’s why I keep all these file cabinets locked up tight. Now, let me show you exactly where you’ll be working.”

Hal led them to the far wall and pointed out a small rectangular hole, just wide enough for Sunny or maybe Klaus to crawl through. Beside the hole was a basket with a large stack of paper in it, and a bowl filled with paper clips. “Authorities deposit information into the information chute, which begins outside the hospital and ends right here,” he explained, “and I need two people to help me file these deposits in the right place. Here’s what you do. First, you remove the paper clips and put them in this bowl. Then you glance at the information and figure out where it goes. Remember, try to read as little as possible.” He paused, unclipped a small stack of paper, and squinted at the top page. “For instance,” he continued. “You only have to read a few words to see that these paragraphs are about the weather last week at Damocles Dock, which is on the shore of some lake someplace. So you would ask me to unlock cabinets in aisle D, for Damocles, or W, for weather, or even P, for paragraphs. It’s your choice.”

“But won’t it be difficult for people to find that information again?” Klaus asked. “They won’t know whether to look under D, W, or P.”

“Then they’ll have to look under all three letters,” Hal said. “Sometimes the information you need is not in the most obvious place. Remember, paperwork is the most important thing we do at this hospital, so your job is very important. Do you think you can file these papers correctly? I’d like you to start right away.”

“I think we can,” Violet said. “But what will the third volunteer do?”

Hal looked embarrassed and held up the loop of string with all the keys on it. “I lost some of the keys to the file cabinets,” he admitted, “and I need someone to use some sort of sharp object to open them up.”

“Me!” Sunny said.

“My sister means that she’d be perfect for that job, because she has very sharp teeth,” Violet explained.

“Your sister?” Hal said, and scratched his head. “Somehow, I knew you three children were from the same family. I’m certain I was just reading some information about you.”

The children looked at one another again, and felt a nervous flutter in their stomachs. “Do you read The Daily Punctilio?” Klaus asked carefully.

“Of course not,” Hal said with a frown. “That newspaper is the worst I’ve ever seen. Nearly every story they print is an absolute lie.”

The Baudelaires smiled in relief. “We can’t tell you how happy we are to hear that,” Violet said. “Well, I guess we’d better get to work.”

“Yes, yes,” Hal said. “Come on, little one, I’ll show you where the locked cabinets are, and you two start filing. I just wish I could remember….” The old man’s voice trailed off, andthen he snapped his fingers and grinned.

There are many reasons, of course, why someone might snap their fingers and grin. If you heard some pleasing music, for instance, you might snap your fingers and grin to demonstrate that the music had charms that could soothe your savage breast. If you were employed as a spy, you might snap your fingers and grin in order to deliver a message in secret snapping-and-grinning code. But you might also snap your fingers and grin if you had been trying hard to remember something, and had suddenly succeeded. Hal was not listening to music in the Library of Records, and after nine months, six days, and fourteen hours of research, I can say with reasonable certainty that Hal was not employed as a spy, so it would be sensible to conclude he had just remembered something.

“I just remembered something,” he said. “I know why you three seem so familiar.” Hal continued to lead Sunny down another aisle of file cabinets to show her where her teeth could be handy, so his voice floated over to the two older Baudelaires as if he were speaking on an intercom. “I didn’t read it, of course, but there was some information about you in the file about the Snicket fires.”

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