بخش 01

مجموعه: مجموعه بدبیاری ها / کتاب: خطر ماقبل آخر / فصل 1

بخش 01

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CHAPTER One

Certain people have said that the world is like a calm pond, and that anytime a person does even the smallest thing, it is as if a stone has dropped into the pond, spreading circles of ripples further and further out, until the entire world has been changed by one tiny action. If this is true, then the book you are reading now is the perfect thing to drop into a pond. The ripples will spread across the surface of the pond and the world will change for the better, with one less dreadful story for people to read and one more secret hidden at the bottom of a pond, where most people never think of looking. The miserable tale of the Baudelaire orphans will be safe in the pond’s murky depths, and you will be happier not to read the grim story I have written, but instead to gaze at the rippling scum that rises to the top of the world.

The Baudelaires themselves, as they rode in the back of a taxi driven by a woman they scarcely knew, might have been happy to jump into a pond themselves, had they known what sort of story lay ahead of them as the automobile made its way among the twisting streets of the city where the orphans had once lived. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire gazed out of the windows of the car, marveling at how little the city had changed since a fire destroyed their home, took the lives of their parents, and created ripples in the Baudelaires’ lives that would probably never become calm. As the taxi turned a corner, Violet saw the market where she and her siblings had shopped for ingredients to make dinner for Count Olaf, the notorious villain who had become their guardian after the fire. Even after all this time, with Olaf trying scheme after scheme to get his hands on the enormous fortune the Baudelaire parents had left behind, the market looked the same as the day Justice Strauss, a kindly neighbor and a judge in the High Court, had first taken them there. Towering over the market was an enormous, shiny building that Klaus recognized as 667 Dark Avenue, where the Baudelaires had spent some time under the care of Jerome and Esmé Squalor in an enormous penthouse apartment. It seemed to the middle Baudelaire that the building had not changed one bit since the siblings had first discovered Esmé’s treacherous and romantic attachment to Count Olaf. And Sunny Baudelaire, who was still small enough that her view out the window was somewhat restricted, heard the rattle of a manhole cover as the taxi drove over it, and remembered the underground passageway she and her siblings had discovered, which led from the basement of 667 Dark Avenue to the ashen remains of their own home. Like the market and the penthouse, the mystery of this passageway had not changed, even though the Baudelaires had discovered a secret organization known as V.F.D. that the children believed had constructed many such passageways. Each mystery the Baudelaires discovered only revealed another mystery, and another, and another, and several more, and another, as if the three siblings were diving deeper and deeper into a pond, and all the while the city lay calm on the surface, unaware of all the unfortunate events in the orphans’ lives. Even now, returning to the city that was once their home, the Baudelaire orphans had solved few of the mysteries overshadowing them. They didn’t know where they were headed, for instance, and they scarcely knew anything about the woman driving the automobile except her name.

“You must have thousands of questions, Baudelaires,” said Kit Snicket, spinning the steering wheel with her white-gloved hands. Violet, who had adroit technical faculties—a phrase which here means “a knack for inventing mechanical devices”—admired the automobile’s purring machinery as the taxi made a sharp turn through a large metal gate and proceeded down a curvy, narrow street lined with shrubbery. “I wish we had more time to talk, but it’s already Tuesday. As it is you scarcely have time to eat your important brunch before getting into your concierge disguises and beginning your observations as flaneurs.”

“Concierge?” Violet asked.

“Flaneurs?” Klaus asked.

“Brunch?” Sunny asked.

Kit smiled, and maneuvered the taxi through another sharp turn. Two books of poetry skittered off the passenger seat to the floor of the automobile—The Walrus and the Carpenter, and Other Poems by Lewis Carroll, and The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. The Baudelaires had recently received a message in code, and had used the poetry of Mr. Carroll and Mr. Eliot in order to decode the message and meet Kit Snicket on Briny Beach, and now it seemed that perhaps Kit was still talking in riddles. “A great man once said that right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant. Do you understand what that means?”

Violet and Sunny turned to their brother, who was the literary expert in the family. Klaus Baudelaire had read so many books he was practically a walking library, and had recently taken to writing important and interesting facts in a dark blue commonplace book. “I think so,” the middle Baudelaire said. “He thinks that good people are more powerful than evil people, even if evil people appear to be winning. Is he a member of V.F.D.?”

“You might say that,” Kit said. “Certainly his message applies to our current situation. As you know, our organization split apart some time ago, with much bitterness on both sides.”

“The schism,” Violet said.

“Yes,” Kit agreed with a sigh. “The schism. V.F.D. was once a united group of volunteers, trying to extinguish fires—both literally and figuratively. But now there are two groups of bitter enemies. Some of us continue to extinguish fires, but others have turned to much less noble schemes.”

“Olaf,” Sunny said. The language skills of the youngest Baudelaire were still developing, but everyone in the taxi knew what Sunny meant when she uttered the name of the notorious villain.

“Count Olaf is one of our enemies,” Kit agreed, peering into her rearview mirror and frowning, “but there are many, many more who are equally wicked, or perhaps even more so. If I’m not mistaken, you met two of them in the mountains—a man with a beard, but no hair, and a woman with hair, but no beard. There are plenty more, with all sorts of hairstyles and facial ornaments. A long time ago, of course, you could spot members of V.F.D. by the tattoos on their ankles. But now there are so many wicked people it is impossible to keep track of all our enemies—and all the while they are keeping track of us. In fact, we may have some enemies behind us at this very moment.”

The Baudelaires turned to look out of the rear window, and saw another taxi driving behind them at quite a distance. Like Kit Snicket’s automobile, the windows of this taxi were tinted, and so the children could not see anything through the darkened glass.

“Why do you think there are enemies in that taxi?” Violet asked.

“A taxi will pick up anyone who signals for one,” Kit said. “There are countless wicked people in the world, so it follows that sooner or later a taxi will pick up a wicked person.”

“Or a noble one,” Klaus pointed out. “Our parents took a taxi to the opera one evening when their car wouldn’t start.”

“I remember that evening well,” Kit replied with a faint smile. “It was a performance of La Forza del Destino. Your mother was wearing a red shawl, with long feathers along the edges. During intermission I followed them to the snack bar and slipped them a box of poison darts before Esmé Squalor could catch me. It was difficult, but as one of my comrades likes to say, ‘To be daunted by no difficulty; to keep heart when all have lost it; to go through intrigue spotless; to forgo even ambition when the end is gained—who can say this is not greatness?’ And speaking of greatness, please hold on. We can’t allow a potential enemy to follow us to our important brunch.”

When someone says that their head is spinning, they are usually using an expression which means that they are very confused. Certainly the Baudelaires had occasion to use the expression in this way, after listening to a person hurriedly summarizing the troubles of a splintered secret organization and quoting various historical figures on the subject of wickedness while driving a taxi hurriedly toward some mysterious, unexplained errands. But there are rare moments when the expression “My head is spinning” refers to a time when one’s head is actually spinning, and when Kit uttered the word “brunch,” one of these moments arrived. The steering wheel clasped firmly in her gloves, Kit turned the taxi so sharply that it spun off the road. The children’s heads—along with the rest of their bodies—spun along with the automobile as it veered into the dense, green shrubbery on the side of the road. When the taxi hit the shrubbery it kept spinning, and for a few seconds the siblings saw nothing but a green blur as the car spun through the shrubbery, and heard nothing but the crackle of branches as they scraped along the sides of the car, and felt nothing but relief that they had remembered to wear their seat belts, and then all of a sudden the Baudelaire heads stopped spinning, and they found themselves shaky but safe in a sloping lawn on the other side of the shrubbery, where the taxi had come to a stop. Kit turned off the engine and sighed deeply, leaning her head against the steering wheel.

“I probably shouldn’t do that,” she said, “in my condition.”

“Condition?” Sunny asked.

Kit lifted her head, and turned to fully face the Baudelaires for the first time since they had entered the car. She had a kind face, but there were lines of worry across her brow, and it looked like she hadn’t slept properly for quite some time. Her hair was long and messy, and she had two pencils stuck into it at odd angles. She was wearing a very elegant black coat, buttoned up all the way to her chin, but tucked into the lapel was a flower that had seen better days, a phrase which here means “had lost most of its petals and wilted considerably.” If the Baudelaires had been asked to guess Kit’s condition, they would have said she looked like a woman who had been through much hardship, and the Baudelaires wondered if their own hardships were equally clear in their faces and clothes. “I’m distraught,” Kit said, using a word which here means “sad and upset.” She opened the door of the taxi and sighed once more. “That’s my condition. I’m distraught, and I’m pregnant.”

She unhooked her seat belt and stepped out of the car, and the Baudelaires saw she had spoken the truth. Beneath her coat, her belly had a slight but definite curve, as happens when women are expecting children. When a woman is in such a condition, it is best to avoid strain, a word which here means “physical activity that might endanger either the woman or her future offspring.” Violet and Klaus could remember when their mother was pregnant with Sunny, and spent her free time lounging on the largest sofa in the Baudelaire library, with their father fetching lemonade and pumpernickel toast, or adjusting the pillows beneath her so she was comfortable. Occasionally, he would play one of their mother’s favorite pieces of music on the phonograph, and she would rise from the sofa and dance awkwardly, holding her growing belly and making funny faces at Violet and Klaus as they watched from the doorway, but for the most part the third Baudelaire pregnancy was spent in quiet relaxation. The Baudelaires felt certain their mother had never spun a taxicab through shrubbery during her pregnancy, and were sorry that Kit Snicket’s condition did not allow her to avoid the strain of such activities.

“Gather all of your things, Baudelaires,” Kit said, “and if you don’t mind, I’m going to ask you to carry my things, too—just some books and papers in the front seat. One should never leave any belongings in a taxi, because you can never be sure if you’ll see them again. Please be quick about it. Our enemies are likely to turn their taxi around and find us.”

Kit turned away from the Baudelaires and began to walk quickly down the sloping lawn, while the Baudelaires looked at one another in bewilderment.

“When we arrived at Briny Beach,” Violet said, “and saw the taxi waiting for us, just like the message said, I thought we were finally going to find answers to all of our questions. But I have more questions now than I ever did.”

“Me too,” Klaus said. “What does Kit Snicket want with us?”

“What did she mean by concierge disguises?” Violet said.

“What did she mean by observations as flaneurs?” Klaus asked.

“What’s so important about brunch?” Violet asked.

“How did she know we met those villains in the mountains?” Klaus asked.

“Where is Quigley Quagmire?” Violet asked, referring to a young man of whom the eldest Baudelaire was particularly fond, who had sent the coded message to the three children.

“Trust?” Sunny said quietly, and this was the most important question of all. By “trust,” the youngest Baudelaire meant something along the lines of, “Does Kit Snicket seem like a reliable person, and should we follow her?” and this is often a tricky question to ask about someone. Deciding whether or not to trust a person is like deciding whether or not to climb a tree, because you might get a wonderful view from the highest branch, or you might simply get covered in sap, and for this reason many people choose to spend their time alone and indoors, where it is harder to get a splinter. The Baudelaires did not know very much about Kit Snicket, and so it was difficult to know what their future would be if they followed her down the sloping lawn toward the mysterious errands she had mentioned.

“In the few minutes we’ve known her,” Violet said, “Kit Snicket has driven a taxicab into a mass of shrubbery. Normally I would be unwilling to trust such a person, but…”

“The poster,” Klaus said, as his sister’s voice trailed off. “I remember it, too. Mother said she purchased it during intermission, as a souvenir. She said it was the most interesting time she’d ever had at the opera, and she never wanted to forget it.”

“The poster had a picture of a gun,” Violet remembered, “with a trail of smoke forming the words of the title.”

Sunny nodded her head. “La Forza del Destino,” she said.

The three children gazed out at the sloping lawn. Kit Snicket had already walked quite some distance, without looking back to see if the children were following her. Without another word, the siblings reached into the passenger seat and gathered up Kit’s things—the two books of poetry they had spotted earlier, and a cardboard folder brimming with papers. Then they turned and began walking across the lawn. From behind the hedges came a faint sound, but the children could not tell if it was a taxicab turning around, or just the wind rustling in the shrubbery.

“La forza del destino” is an Italian phrase meaning “the force of destiny,” and “destiny” is a word that tends to cause arguments among the people who use it. Some people think destiny is something you cannot escape, such as death, or a cheesecake that has curdled, both of which always turn up sooner or later. Other people think destiny is a time in one’s life, such as the moment one becomes an adult, or the instant it becomes necessary to construct a hiding place out of sofa cushions. And still other people think that destiny is an invisible force, like gravity, or a fear of paper cuts, that guides everyone throughout their lives, whether they are embarking on a mysterious errand, doing a treacherous deed, or deciding that a book they have begun reading is too dreadful to finish. In the opera La Forza del Destino, various characters argue, fall in love, get married in secret, run away to monasteries, go to war, announce that they will get revenge, engage in duels, and drop a gun on the floor, where it goes off accidentally and kills someone in an incident eerily similar to one that happens in chapter nine of this very book, and all the while they are trying to figure out if any of these troubles are the result of destiny. They wonder and wonder at all the perils in their lives, and when the final curtain is brought down even the audience cannot be sure what all these unfortunate events may mean. The Baudelaire orphans did not know what perils lay ahead of them, as they followed Kit Snicket down the lawn, but they wondered—just as I wondered, on that fateful evening long ago, as I hurried out of the opera house before a certain woman could spot me—if it was the force of destiny that was guiding their story, or something even more mysterious, even more dangerous, and even more unfortunate.

CHAPTER Two

If you were to hold this book up to a mirror, you would see at once how confusing it is to read In fact, the entire world looks confusing in a mirror, almost as if except backward. Life is perplexing enough without thinking about other worlds staring back at you from the mirror, which is why people who spend a great deal of time looking in the mirror tend to have trouble thinking about anything except

The Baudelaire orphans, of course, had not spent very much time looking in mirrors recently, as they’d been quite preoccupied, a word which here means “in desperate and mysterious circumstances brought about by Count Olaf.” But even if they had spent every waking moment staring at their own reflections, they would not have been prepared for the perplexing sight waiting for them at the end of the sloping lawn. When Violet, Klaus, and Sunny at last caught up with Kit Snicket, it felt as if they had stepped into the world on the opposite side of the mirror without even knowing it.

Impossible as it seemed, the lawn deposited the children at the roof of a building, but a building that lay flat on the ground instead of rising up toward the sky. The Baudelaires’ shoes were inches from the roof’s glittering shingles, where a large sign read HOTEL DENOUEMENT. Below the sign, farther from the orphans, was a row of windows with the number 9 emblazoned on each of their shutters. The row was very long, stretching out to the left and right of the Baudelaires, so far that they couldn’t see the end of it. Below this row of windows was another with the number 8 emblazoned on the shutters, and then another row with 7, and so on and so on, the numbers getting farther and farther away from the Baudelaires, all the way down to 0. Protruding from one of the 0 windows was a strange funnel, which was spewing a thick, white fog toward the siblings, covering a set of stairs leading to a large, curved archway one story above, marked ENTRANCE. The building was constructed from strange, shimmering bricks, and here and there on the building were large, strange flowers and patches of dark green moss, which all lay out on the ground in front of the children.

After a moment, one of the shutters opened, and in an instant the Baudelaires realized why the Hotel Denouement seemed so perplexing. They had not been staring at the building at all, but at its reflection in an enormous pond. The actual hotel stood at the far end of the pond, and was reflected onto the pond’s surface. Normally, of course, it is easy to tell a building from its reflection in a body of water, but whoever had designed the Hotel Denouement had added several features to confuse passersby. For one thing, the building did not stand up straight, but tilted toward the ground at a precise angle, so that the pond only reflected the hotel, and none of the surrounding landscape and sky. Also, all of the hotel’s signage—which is simply a fancy word meaning “signs”—was written backward, so the numbers on the windows could only be read correctly in the pond, and the words on the roof of the actual hotel read . Finally, some hardworking gardener had managed to grow lilies and moss on the bricks of the hotel—the same sort of lilies and moss that grow on the surface of ponds. The three siblings looked down at the pond, and then up at the hotel, back and forth several times, before they were able to get their bearings, a phrase which here means “stop staring at this perplexing sight and direct their attention to Kit Snicket.”

“Over here, Baudelaires!” the pregnant woman called, and the children saw that Kit had taken a seat on an enormous blanket laid out on the lawn. The blanket was heaped with enough food to feed an army, had an army decided that morning to invade a pond. There were three loaves of bread, each baked into a different shape, lined up in front of little bowls of butter, jam, and what looked like melted chocolate. Alongside the bread was an enormous basket containing all sorts of pastries, from muffins to donuts to custard eclairs, which happened to be a favorite of Klaus’s. There were two round tins containing quiche, which is a sort of pie made of eggs, cheese, and vegetables, and a large platter of smoked fish, and a wooden tray piled high with a pyramid of fruit. Three glass pitchers held three different kinds of juice, and there were silver pots containing coffee and tea, and laid out in a sort of fan was silverware with which to eat it all, and three napkins that were monogrammed, a word which here means “had the initials V. B., K. B., and S. B. embroidered on them.”

“Sit down, sit down,” Kit said, taking a bite of a pastry covered in powdered sugar. “As I said, we don’t have much time, but that’s no excuse for not eating well. Help yourselves to anything you like.”

“Where did all this food come from?” Klaus asked.

“One of our associates laid it out for us,” Kit said. “It is a policy of our organization that all picnics travel separately from the volunteers. If our enemies capture the picnic, they won’t get their clutches on us, and if our enemies capture us, they won’t get the picnic. That’s something to remember during the next couple of days, as you participate in what one of our enemies calls the ‘perpetual struggle for room and food.’ Please try the marmalade. It’s delicious.”

The Baudelaires felt dizzy, as if their heads were still spinning from the ride through the shrubbery, and Violet reached into her pocket to find a ribbon. The conversation was so bewildering that the eldest Baudelaire wanted to concentrate as hard as she did when she was dreaming up an invention. Tying her hair up helped Violet focus her inventing mind, but before she could find a ribbon, Kit smiled kindly at her, and produced a ribbon of her own. She gestured for the eldest Baudelaire to sit down, and with a gentle look in her eyes, the distraught and pregnant woman tied Violet’s hair up herself.

“You look just like your father.” Kit sighed. “He wore the same frown whenever he was confused, although he almost never tied his hair up in a ribbon when he solved a problem. Please, Baudelaires, eat your brunch, and I’ll try to catch you up on our current predicament. By the time you’re eating your second pastry I hope your questions will be answered.”

The Baudelaires sat down, spread their monogrammed napkins on their laps, and began to eat, surprised to find that they were just as hungry for brunch as they were curious for information. Violet took two slices of dark wheat bread and made herself a sandwich of smoked fish, deciding to try the chocolate spread afterward if she still had room. Klaus served himself some quiche and took a custard eclair, and Sunny rooted through the tray of fruit until she found a grapefruit, which she began to peel with her unusually sharp teeth. Kit smiled at the children, dabbed at her own mouth with a napkin embroidered with K. S., and began to speak.

“The building at the other end of the pond is the Hotel Denouement,” she began. “Have you ever stayed there?”

“No,” Violet said. “Our parents took us to the Hotel Preludio once for the weekend.”

“That’s right,” Klaus said. “I’d almost forgotten.”

“Carrots for breakfast,” Sunny said, remembering the weekend with a smile.

“Well, the Hotel Preludio is a lovely place,” Kit said, “but the Hotel Denouement is more than that. For years, it’s been a place where our volunteers can gather to exchange information, discuss plans to defeat our enemies, and return books we’ve borrowed from one another. Before the schism, there were countless places that served such purposes. Bookstores and banks, restaurants and stationery stores, cafés and laundromats, opium dens and geodesic domes—people of nobility and integrity could gather nearly everywhere.”

“Those must have been wonderful times,” Violet said.

“So I’m told,” Kit said. “I was four years old when everything changed. Our organization shattered, and it was as if the world shattered, too, and one by one the safe places were destroyed. There was a large scientific laboratory, but the volunteer who owned the place was murdered. There was an enormous cavern, but a treacherous team of realtors claimed it for themselves. And there was an immense headquarters high in the Mortmain Mountains, but—”

“It was destroyed,” Klaus said quietly. “We were there shortly after the fire.”

“Of course you were,” Kit said. “I’d forgotten. Well, the headquarters was the penultimate safe place.”

“Penulhoo?” Sunny asked.

“‘Penultimate’ means ‘next-to-last,’” Kit explained. “When the mountain headquarters was destroyed, only the Hotel Denouement was left. In every other place on Earth, nobility and integrity are vanishing quickly.” She sighed, and gazed out at the still, flat surface of the pond. “If we’re not careful, they’ll vanish completely. Can you imagine a world in which wickedness and deception were running rampant?”

“Yes,” Violet said quietly, and her siblings nodded in agreement. They knew that the word “rampant” meant “without anyone to stop it,” and they could imagine such a world very easily, because they had been living in one. Since their first encounter with Count Olaf, the villain’s wickedness and deception had run rampant all over the Baudelaires’ lives, and it had been very difficult for the children to keep from becoming villains themselves. In fact, when they considered all of their recent actions, they weren’t entirely sure they hadn’t performed a few acts of villainy, even if they’d had very good reasons for doing so.

“When we were in the mountains,” Klaus said, “we found a message one of the volunteers had written. It said that V.F.D. would be gathering at the Hotel Denouement on Thursday.”

Kit nodded, and reached to pour herself some more coffee. “Was the message addressed to J. S.?” she asked.

“Yes,” Violet said. “We assumed the initials stood for Jacques Snicket.”

“Brother?” Sunny asked.

Kit looked sadly down at her pastry. “Yes, Jacques was my brother. Because of the schism, I haven’t seen either of my brothers for years, and it was only recently that I learned of his murder.”

“We met Jacques very briefly,” Violet said, referring to the time the Baudelaires had spent in the care of an entire village. “You must have been shocked to receive the news.”

“Saddened,” Kit said, “but not shocked. So many good people have been slain by our enemies.” She reached across the blanket and patted the hands of all three Baudelaires in turn. “I know I don’t have to tell you how terrible it feels to lose a family member. I felt so terrible that I vowed I would never leave my bed.”

“What happened?” Klaus said.

Kit smiled. “I got hungry,” she said, “and when I opened the refrigerator, I found another message waiting for me.”

“Verbal Fridge Dialogue,” Violet said, “the same code as the message we found in the mountains.”

“Yes,” Kit said. “You three had been spotted by another volunteer. We knew, of course, that you children had nothing to do with my brother’s death, no matter what that ridiculous reporter wrote in The Daily Punctilio.”

The Baudelaires looked at one another. They had almost forgotten about Geraldine Julienne, a journalist who had caused them much inadvertent trouble, a phrase which here means “published in the newspaper that the Baudelaire orphans had murdered Jacques Snicket, whom she mistakenly identified as Count Olaf.” The siblings had found it necessary to disguise themselves several times so as not to be captured by the authorities. “Who spotted us?” Klaus asked.

“Quigley Quagmire, of course,” she said. “He found you in the Mortmain Mountains, and then managed to contact me when you were separated from him. He and I managed to meet each other in an abandoned bathrobe emporium, where we disguised ourselves as mannequins while we figured out what to do next. Finally, we managed to send a Volunteer Factual Dispatch to Captain Widdershins’s submarine.”

“Queequeg,” Sunny said, naming the underwater vehicle where she and her siblings had recently spent a dreadful few days.

“Our plan was to meet up with you at Briny Beach,” Kit said, “and proceed to the Hotel Denouement for the V.F.D. gathering.”

“But where is Quigley?” Violet asked.

Kit sighed, and took a sip of her coffee. “He was very eager to see you,” she said, “but he received word from his siblings.”

“Duncan and Isadora!” Klaus cried. “We haven’t seen them for quite some time. Are they safe?”

“I hope so,” Kit answered. “The message they sent was incomplete, but it sounded as if they were being attacked in midair while flying over the sea. Quigley went to help them immediately in a helicopter we stole from a nearby botanist. If all goes well, you’ll see all three Quagmire triplets on Thursday. That is, unless you cancel the gathering.”

“Cancel it?” Violet asked. “Why would we do a thing like that?”

“The last safe place may not be safe after all,” Kit said sadly. “If that’s the case, you Baudelaires will need to send V.F.D. a signal that Thursday’s gathering is canceled.”

“Why not safe?” Sunny asked.

Kit smiled at the youngest Baudelaire, opened the cardboard folder that the Baudelaires had retrieved from the taxicab, and began to page through the papers inside. “I’m sorry this is so disorganized,” she said. “I haven’t had time to update my commonplace book. My brother used to say that if only one had a little more time to do some important reading, all the secrets in the world would become clear. I’ve scarcely looked at these maps, poems, and blueprints that Charles sent me, or chosen wallpaper for the baby’s room. Wait one moment, Baudelaires. I’ll find it.”

The children helped themselves to more brunch, trying to be patient as Kit looked through her folder, pausing from time to time to smooth out the particularly crumpled papers. At last she held up a tiny piece of paper, no bigger than a caterpillar, which was rolled into a tiny scroll. “Here it is,” she said. “A waiter slipped this to me last night by hiding it inside a cookie.”

She handed it to Klaus, who unrolled the paper and squinted at it behind his glasses. “‘J. S. has checked in,’” he read out loud, “‘and requested tea with sugar. My brother sends his regards. Sincerely, Frank.’”

“Usually the messages inside the cookies are just superstitious nonsense,” Kit said, “but recently the restaurant has changed management. You can understand why this message made me so distraught, Baudelaires. Someone is posing as my brother, and has checked into the hotel shortly before our entire organization is scheduled to arrive.”

“Count Olaf,” Violet said.

“It could be Olaf,” Kit agreed, “but there are plenty of villains who are all too eager to be impostors. Those two villains in the mountains, for example.”

“Or Hugo, Colette, or Kevin,” Klaus said, naming three people the children had met at Caligari Carnival, who had since joined Olaf’s troupe and had agreed to meet him at the hotel.

“But this J. S. isn’t necessarily a wicked person,” Kit said. “Plenty of noble people would check into the Hotel Denoument and order sugar in their tea. Not to sweeten it, of course—tea should be as bitter as wormwood, my brother used to say, and as sharp as a two-edged sword—but as a signal. Our comrades and our enemies are all after the same thing—the Vessel For Disaccharides.”

“Sugar bowl,” Sunny said, sharing a look of dismay with her siblings. The Baudelaires knew that Kit was referring to a sugar bowl that was of great importance to V.F.D. and to Count Olaf, who was desperate to get his hands on it. The children had searched for this sugar bowl from the highest peak of the Mortmain Mountains to the underwater depths of the Gorgonian Grotto, but had neither found this sugar bowl nor learned why it was so important.

“Exactly,” Kit said. “The sugar bowl is on its way to the hotel even as we speak, and I’d hate to think what would happen if our enemies got ahold of it. I can’t imagine anything worse, except perhaps if our enemies somehow got ahold of the Medusoid Mycelium.”

The Baudelaires’ look of dismay augmented, a word which here means “increased dramatically as they realized they had some bad news for Kit Snicket.” “I’m afraid that Count Olaf has a small sample of the Medusoid Mycelium,” Violet said, referring to a deadly fungus the children had encountered while exploring the ocean. Its sinister spores had infected poor Sunny, who might not have survived had her siblings not managed to dilute the poison in the nick of time. “We had a few spores locked tight in a diving helmet, but Olaf managed to steal it.”

Kit gasped. “Then we most certainly have no time to lose. The three of you must infiltrate the Hotel Denouement and observe J. S. If J. S. is a noble person, then you must make sure that the sugar bowl falls into his or her hands, but if J. S. is a villainous person, you must make sure it does not. And I’m sad to say that this won’t be as easy as it sounds.”

“It doesn’t sound easy at all,” Klaus said.

“That’s the spirit,” Kit said, popping a grape into her mouth. “Of course, you won’t be alone. Showing up early is one of the signs of a noble person, so there are other volunteers already at the hotel. You may even recognize some volunteers who have been observing you during your travels. But you also may recognize some of your enemies, as they will be posing as noble people by showing up early as well. While you try to observe the impostor, various impostors will undoubtedly be observing you.”

“But how can we tell the volunteers from the enemies?” Violet asked.

“The same way you always do,” Kit said. “When you first met Count Olaf, did you have any doubt he was a treacherous person? When you first met the Quagmire triplets, did you have any doubt that they were charming and resourceful? You’ll have to observe everyone you see, and make such judgements yourselves. You Baudelaires will become flaneurs.”

“Expound,” Sunny said, which meant something along the lines of, “I’m afraid I don’t know what that word means.”

“Flaneurs,” Kit explained, “are people who quietly observe their surroundings, intruding only when it is absolutely necessary. Children make excellent flaneurs, as so few people notice them. You’ll be able to pass unnoticed in the hotel.”

“We can’t pass unnoticed,” Klaus said. “The Daily Punctilio has published our photographs in the paper. Someone is sure to recognize us and report our presence to the authorities.”

“My brother’s right,” Violet said. “Three children just can’t go wandering around a hotel observing things.”

Kit smiled, and lifted one corner of the picnic blanket. Underneath were three parcels wrapped in paper. “The man who sent me the message about the impostor,” she said, “is a member of V.F.D. He suggested that he hire the three of you as concierges. Your uniforms are in these packets.”

“Expound again,” Sunny said.

Klaus had taken out his commonplace book and was taking notes on what Kit was saying. The opportunity to define a word, however, was enough to interrupt his research. “A concierge,” he said to his sister, “is someone who performs various tasks for guests in the hotel.”

“It’s the perfect disguise,” Kit said. “You’ll be doing everything from fetching packages to recommending restaurants. You’ll be allowed in every corner of the hotel, from the rooftop sunbathing salon to the laundry room in the basement, and no one will suspect you’re there to spy on them. Frank will help you as best he can, but be very careful. The schism has turned many brothers into enemies. Under no circumstances should you reveal your true selves to Frank’s treacherous identical brother Ernest.”

“Identical?” Violet repeated. “If they’re identical, how can we tell them apart?”

Kit took one last sip of her coffee. “Please try to pay attention,” she said. “You’ll have to observe everyone you see, and make such judgements yourselves. That’s the only way to tell a villain from a volunteer. Now, is everything perfectly clear?”

The Baudelaires looked at one another. They could not remember a time in their lives when everything had been less clear than at this very moment, when every sentence Kit uttered seemed to be more mysterious than the last. Klaus looked at the notes he had made in his commonplace book, and tried to summarize the errand Kit had outlined for them. “We’re going to disguise ourselves as concierges,” he said carefully, “in order to become flaneurs and observe an impostor who is either a volunteer or an enemy.”

“A man named Frank is going to help us,” Violet said, “but his brother Ernest will try to stop us.”

“There are several other volunteers in the hotel,” Klaus said, “but several other enemies as well.”

“Sugar bowl,” Sunny said.

“Very good,” Kit said approvingly. “When you’re done with your brunch, you can change into your uniforms behind that tree, and signal to Frank that you’re on your way. Do you have something you can throw into the pond?”

Violet reached into her pocket and drew out a stone she had picked up on Briny Beach. “I imagine this will do,” she said.

“That’s perfect,” Kit said. “Frank should be watching from one of the windows of the hotel, unless of course Ernest has intercepted my message and is watching instead. In any case, when you’re ready to meet him, you can throw the rock into the pond, and he’ll see the ripples and know you’re on your way.”

“Aren’t you coming with us?” Klaus asked.

“I’m afraid not,” Kit said. “I have other errands to perform. While Quigley tries to resolve the situation in the sky, I will try to resolve the situation in the sea, and you’ll have to resolve the situation here on land.”

“Us alone?” Sunny asked. She meant something along the lines of, “Do you really think three children can accomplish all this by themselves?” and her siblings were quick to translate.

“Look at yourselves,” Kit said, and gestured toward the pond. The Baudelaires stood up and stepped close to the water’s edge, and leaned over the pond so their reflections appeared in front of the roof of the hotel. “When your parents died,” Kit said, “you were just a young girl, Violet. But you’ve matured. Those aren’t the eyes of a young girl. They’re the eyes of someone who has faced endless hardship. And look at you, Klaus. You have the look of an experienced researcher—not just the young reader who lost his parents in a fire. And Sunny, you’re standing on your own two feet, and so many of your teeth are growing in that they don’t appear to be of such unusual size, as they were when you were a baby. You’re not children anymore, Baudelaires. You’re volunteers, ready to face the challenges of a desperate and perplexing world. You must go to the Hotel Denouement, and Quigley must go to the self-sustaining hot air mobile home, and I must go to a coral formation of dubious quality where an inflatable raft should be waiting. But if Quigley manages to construct a net big enough to capture all those eagles, and I manage to contact Captain Widdershins and have him meet me at a certain clump of seaweed, we’ll be here on Thursday. Hector should manage to land his self-sustaining hot air mobile home on the roof, even with all of us aboard.”

“Hector?” Violet said, remembering the man who had been so kind to them in the Village of Fowl Devotees, and his enormous invention that had carried him away from the Baudelaires. “He’s safe?”

“I hope so,” Kit said quietly, and stood up. She turned her face from the Baudelaires, and her voice seemed to tremble as she talked. “Don’t worry about the brunch things, Baudelaires. One of my comrades has volunteered to clean up after our picnic. He’s a wonderful gentleman. You’ll meet him on Thursday, if all goes well. If all goes well—”

But she could not finish her sentence. Instead, she gave a little whimper, and her shoulders began to shake as the Baudelaires looked at one another. When someone is crying, of course, the noble thing to do is to comfort them. But if someone is trying to hide their tears, it may also be noble to pretend you do not notice them, so they will not be embarrassed. For a moment, the children could not choose between the noble activity of comforting a crying person and the noble activity of not embarrassing a crying person, but as Kit Snicket began to cry harder and harder they decided to comfort her. Violet clasped one of her hands. Klaus put an arm around her shoulder. Sunny hugged Kit above the knees, which was as high as she could reach.

“Why are you crying?” Violet asked. “Why are you so distraught?”

“Because all will not go well,” Kit said finally. “You may as well know that now, Baudelaires. These are dark days, as dark as a crow flying through a pitch black night. Our errands may be noble, but we will not succeed. I suspect that before Thursday, I’ll see your signal and know that all our hopes have gone up in smoke.”

“But how will we signal?” Klaus asked. “Which code should we use?”

“Any code you devise,” Kit said. “We’ll be watching the skies.”

With that, she shook herself out of the children’s comforting arms, and hurried away from the pond without another word to the siblings. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny watched her figure get smaller and smaller as she ran up the lawn, perhaps on her way back to the taxicab, or to join up with another mysterious volunteer, until at last she disappeared over the slope. For a moment none of the children said a word, and then Sunny reached down and picked up the parcels.

“Change?” she asked.

“I guess so,” Violet said with a sigh. “It seems a shame to waste all this food, but I can’t eat any more brunch.”

“Perhaps the volunteer who is cleaning it up will bring it to someone else,” Klaus said.

“Perhaps,” Violet agreed. “There’s so much about V.F.D. that remains a mystery.”

“Perhaps we’ll learn more when we’re flaneurs,” Klaus said. “If we observe everything around us, perhaps some of these mysteries will become clear. I hope so.”

“I hope so, too,” Violet said.

“Also hope so,” Sunny said, and the Baudelaires said no more. Leaving their brunch behind, they ducked behind the tree Kit had suggested, and held up the picnic blanket as a sort of curtain, so each child could change into a concierge disguise in relative privacy. Violet buckled a shiny silver belt with the words HOTEL DENOUEMENT printed in large, black letters all the way around it, and hoped that she would be able to tell the difference between Frank and his treacherous brother Ernest. Klaus adjusted his stiff, round hat, which had a firm elastic band that tucked under the chin, and hoped he would know which of the guests were volunteers and which were villains. And Sunny slipped her fingers into the clean white gloves, surprised that Frank had managed to find them in such a small size, and hoped that she would be able to investigate the impostor posing as Jacques Snicket.

When the three children were all wearing their uniforms, they walked back to the edge of the pond and put on the last part of their disguises: three enormous pairs of sunglasses, reminding them of a disguise Count Olaf had worn when pretending to be a detective. The sunglasses were so large that they covered not only their eyes but a great portion of their faces—Klaus could even wear his regular glasses underneath them without anyone noticing. As they gazed through the sunglasses at their own reflections, they wondered if the disguises were enough to keep them out of the hands of the authorities long enough to solve all the mysteries that surrounded them, and they wondered if it was true what Kit Snicket had said, that they weren’t children anymore, but volunteers ready to face the challenges of a desperate and perplexing world. The Baudelaires hoped so. But when Violet took the stone in her gloved hand, and threw it out into the middle of the pond, they wondered if their hopes would sink in the same way. They watched as the surface of the pond rippled, disrupting the reflection of the hotel. The children watched the shingles of the roof turn into a blur, and they watched the word “Denouement” disappear as if it were written on a piece of paper someone was crumpling in their hand. They watched each row of windows melt together, and they watched all the flowers and moss dissolve into nothing as the stone sank deeper and deeper into the pond, and the circular ripples spread further and further across the reflection. The Baudelaire orphans watched this reflected world disappear, and wondered if their hopes would also disappear, into the strange, rippling world of the Hotel Denouement and

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