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Quite a few things happened that day after the clock struck three and each Wrong! echoed throughout the immense and perplexing world of the Hotel Denouement. On the ninth story, a woman was suddenly recognized by a chemist, and the two of them had a fit of giggles. In the basement, a strange sight was reported by an ambidextrous man who spoke into a walkie-talkie. On the sixth story, one of the housekeepers removed a disguise, and drilled a hole behind an ornamental vase in order to examine the cables that held one of the elevators in place, while listening to the faint sound of a very annoying song coming from a room just above her. In Room 296, a volunteer suddenly realized that the Hebrew language is read from right to left rather than left to right, which meant that it should be read from left to right rather than right to left in the mirror, and in the coffee shop, located in Room 178, a villain requested sugar in his coffee, was immediately thrown to the floor so a waitress could see if he had a tattoo on his ankle, and then received an apology and a free slice of rhubarb pie for all his trouble. In Room 174, a banker picked up the phone only to find no one on the line, and in Room 594, a family sat unnoticed among tanks of tropical fish, with only a suitcase of dirty laundry for company, unaware that underneath a cushion of a sofa in the lobby was the doily for which they had been searching for more than nine years. Just outside the hotel, a taxi driver gazed down at the funnel spouting steam into the sky, and wondered if a certain man with an unusually shaped back would ever return and claim the suitcases that still lay in the trunk, and on the other side of the hotel, a woman in a diving helmet and a shiny suit shone a flashlight through the water and tried to see to the murky bottom of the sea. At the opposite end of the city, a long, black automobile took a woman away from a man she loved, and in another city, miles and miles from the Baudelaires, four children played at the beach, unaware that they were about to receive some very dreadful news, and in yet another city, neither the one where the Baudelaires lived nor the one I just mentioned, someone else learned something and there was some sort of fuss, or so I have been led to believe. With each Wrong! of the clock, as the afternoon slipped into evening, countless things happened, not only in the immense and perplexing world of the Hotel Denouement, but also in the immense and perplexing world that lay outside its brick walls, but the Baudelaire orphans did not think of any of these things. Curiously, their errands as concierges kept them in the lobby for the rest of the afternoon, so they had no more occasion to venture into the small elevators and observe anything further as flaneurs, and spent the hours fetching things back and forth across the lobby, but the siblings did not think of the objects they were fetching, or the guests who were waiting for them, or even the tall, skinny figure of either Frank or Ernest, who would occasionally rush by them on errands of his own. As evening approached, and the bells behind their desk rang less and less frequently, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny thought only of the things that had happened to them. They thought only of what each of them had observed, and they wondered what in the world it all might mean.
Finally, just as either Frank or Ernest had predicted, night arrived and the hotel grew very quiet, and the three siblings gathered behind the large, wooden desk to talk, leaning their backs against the wall and stretching out their legs until their feet almost touched the bells. Violet told the story of Esmé Squalor, Carmelita Spats, and Geraldine Julienne in the rooftop sunbathing salon, and either Frank or Ernest in the lobby. Klaus told the story of Sir and Charles in Room 674, and either Frank or Ernest in the sauna. And Sunny told the story of Vice Principal Nero, Mr. Remora, and Mrs. Bass in Room 371, and either Frank or Ernest, and Hal in the Indian restaurant in Room 954. Klaus took careful note of everything in his commonplace book, giving the book to Violet when it was his turn to speak, and all three Baudelaires interrupted each other with questions and ideas, but when all the stories had been told, and the children looked at the countless details inked onto the paper, everything that happened to them was as mysterious as it had been that morning.
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Violet said. “Why is Esmé Squalor planning a party? Why did Carmelita Spats request a harpoon gun?”
“Why are Sir and Charles here?” Klaus asked. “Why is there birdpaper hanging out of the window of the sauna?”
“Why Nero?” Sunny asked. “Why Remora? Why Bass? Why Hal?”
“Who is J. S.?” Violet asked. “Is he a man lurking in the basement, or is she a woman watching the skies?”
“Where is Count Olaf?” Klaus asked. “Why has he invited so many of our former guardians here to the hotel?”
“Frankernest,” Sunny said, and this was perhaps the most mysterious question of all. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny had each encountered one of the managers just moments before the clock struck three. Kit Snicket had told them that if they observed everyone they saw, they could tell the villains from the volunteers, but the Baudelaires did not know which sibling had encountered which manager, and they simply could not imagine how two people could be in three places at once. The Baudelaires pondered their situation in a silence broken only by a strange, repetitive sound that seemed to be coming from outside. For a moment, this sound was yet another mystery, but the siblings soon realized it was the croaking of frogs. The pond must have had thousands of frogs living in its depths, and now that night had arrived, the frogs had come to the surface and were communicating with one another in the guttural sound of their species. It was an unfathomable sound, as if even the natural world were a code the Baudelaires could not decipher.
“Kit said that all would not go well,” Violet said. “She said our errands may be noble, but that we would not succeed.”
“That’s true,” agreed Klaus. “She said all our hopes would go up in smoke, and maybe she was right. We each observed a different story, but none of the stories makes any sense.”
“Elephant,” Sunny said.
Violet and Klaus looked at their sister curiously.
“Poem,” she said. “Father.”
Violet and Klaus looked at one another in puzzlement.
“Elephant,” Sunny insisted, but this was one of the rare occasions that Violet and Klaus did not understand what their sister was saying. The brow furrowed on Sunny’s little forehead as she struggled to remember something that might help make herself clear to her siblings. Finally, she looked up at Violet and Klaus. “John Godfrey Saxe,” she said, and all three Baudelaires smiled.
The name John Godfrey Saxe is not likely to mean anything to you, unless you are a fan of American humorist poets of the nineteenth century. There are not many such people in the world, but the Baudelaires’ father was one of them, and had several poems committed to memory. From time to time he would get into a whimsical mood—the word “whimsical,” as you probably know, means “odd and impulsive”—and would grab the nearest Baudelaire child, bounce him or her up and down on his lap, and recite a poem by John Godfrey Saxe about an elephant. In the poem, six blind men encountered an elephant for the first time and were unable to agree on what the animal was like. The first man felt the tall, smooth side of the elephant, and concluded that an elephant was like a wall. The second man felt the tusk of the elephant, and decided that an elephant resembled a spear. The third man felt the trunk of the elephant, and the fourth felt one of the elephant’s legs, and so on and so on, with all of the blind men bickering over what an elephant is like. As with many children, Violet and Klaus had grown old enough to find their father’s whimsical moods a little embarrassing, so Sunny had become the primary audience for Mr. Baudelaire’s poetry recital, and remembered the poem best.
“That poem could have been written about us,” Violet said. “We’ve each observed one tiny part of the puzzle, but none of us has seen the entire thing.”
“Nobody could see the entire thing,” Klaus said. “There’s a mystery behind every door at the Hotel Denouement, and nobody can be everywhere at once, observing all the volunteers and all the villains.”
“We’ve still got to try,” Violet said. “Kit said that the sugar bowl was on its way to this hotel. We have to stop it from falling into the hands of the impostor.”
“But the sugar bowl could be hidden anywhere,” Klaus said, “and the impostor could be anyone. Everyone we observed was talking about J. S., but we still don’t know who he or she is.”
“‘Each was partly in the right,’” Sunny recited, from the penultimate verse of the elephant poem.
Her siblings smiled, and chimed in to finish the line. “‘And all were in the wrong,’” they said together, but the last word was drowned out by another sound, or perhaps it would be more proper to say that the last “wrong” was drowned out by another. Wrong! called the clock of the Hotel Denouement. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
“It’s late,” Klaus said, as the twelfth Wrong! faded. “I hadn’t realized we’d been talking for so long.” He and his sisters stood up and stretched, and saw that the lobby had grown empty and silent. The lid of the grand piano was closed. The cascading fountain had been turned off. Even the reception desk was empty, as if the Hotel Denouement was not expecting any more guests until the morning. The light from the frog-shaped lamp, and of course the Baudelaires themselves, were the only signs of life underneath the enormous domed ceiling.
“I guess the guests are asleep,” Violet said, “or they’re staying up all night reading, like Frank said.”
“Or Ernest,” Sunny reminded her.
“Maybe we should try to sleep as well,” Klaus said. “We have one more day to solve these mysteries, and we should be well-rested when that day arrives.”
“I suppose there won’t be much to observe after dark,” Violet said.
“Tired,” Sunny yawned.
The siblings nodded, but all three orphans just stood there. It did not seem right to sleep when so many enemies were lurking around the hotel, hatching sinister plots. But such events go on every night, not just in the Hotel Denouement but all over the world, and even the noblest of volunteers needs to get a little shut-eye, a phrase which here means “lie down behind a large, wooden desk and hope that nobody rings for the concierge until morning.” The children would have preferred more comfortable sleeping circumstances, of course, but it had been a very long time since such circumstances were available, and so without any further discussion they bid one another good night, and Klaus reached up and turned off the frog-shaped lamp. For a moment the three children lay there in the darkness, listening to the croaking coming from the pond outside.
“It’s dark,” Sunny said. The youngest Baudelaire was not particularly afraid of the dark, but just felt like mentioning it, in case her siblings were nervous.
“It is dark,” Violet agreed, with a yawn. “With my sunglasses on, it’s as dark as—what did Kit Snicket say?—as dark as a crow flying through a pitch black night.”
“That’s it,” Klaus said suddenly. His sisters heard him stand up in the dark, and then he turned the frog lamp back on, making them both blink behind their sunglasses.
“What’s it?” Violet said. “I thought we were going to sleep.”
“How can we sleep,” Klaus asked, “when the sugar bowl is being delivered to the hotel this very night?”
“What?” Sunny asked. “How?”
Klaus pulled his commonplace book out of his pocket and flipped to the notes he had taken on what the Baudelaires had observed. “By crow,” he said.
“Crow?” Violet said.
“It wouldn’t be the first time crows have carried something important,” Klaus said, reminding his sisters of the crows in the Village of Fowl Devotees, who had brought the Baudelaires messages from the Quagmires. “That’s what Esmé Squalor has been watching for with her Vision Furthering Device.”
“J. S. too,” Sunny said, remembering what either Frank or Ernest had said about watching the skies.
“And that’s why Carmelita Spats had me fetch a harpoon gun,” Violet said thoughtfully. “To shoot down the crows, so V.F.D. can never get the sugar bowl.”
“And that’s why either Frank or Ernest had me hang birdpaper outside the window of the sauna,” Klaus said. “If the crows are hit with the harpoon gun, they’ll fall onto the birdpaper, and he’ll know that the delivery had been unsuccessful.”
“But was it Frank who had you lay out the birdpaper,” Violet asked, “or Ernest? If it was Frank, then the birdpaper will serve as a signal to volunteers that they have been defeated. And if it was Ernest, then the birdpaper will serve as a signal to villains that they have triumphed.”
“And what about the sugar bowl?” Klaus asked. “The crows will drop the sugar bowl if the harpoon hits them.” He frowned at a page of his commonplace book. “If the crows drop a heavy object like that,” he said, “it will fall straight down into the pond.”
“Maybe no,” Sunny said.
“Where else could it land?” Violet said.
“Spynsickle,” Sunny said, which was her way of saying “laundry room.”
“How would it get into the laundry room?” Klaus asked.
“The funnel,” Sunny said. “Frank said. Or Ernest.”
“So they had you place a lock on the laundry room door,” Violet said, “so that nobody could get to the sugar bowl.”
“But did Frank have Sunny activate the lock,” Klaus asked, “or Ernest? If it was Frank, then the sugar bowl is locked away from any villains who want to get their hands on it. But if it was Ernest, then the sugar bowl is locked away from any volunteers who ought to get their hands on it.”
“J. S.,” Sunny said.
“J. S. is the key to the entire mystery,” Violet agreed. “Esmé Squalor thinks J. S. is spoiling the party. Sir thinks J. S. is hosting the party. Hal thinks J. S. might be here to help. Kit thinks J. S. might be an enemy. And we still don’t even know if J. S. is a man or a woman!”
“Like blind men,” Sunny said, “with elephant.”
“We have to find J. S.,” Klaus agreed, “but how? Trying to locate one guest in an enormous hotel is like finding one book in a library.”
“A library without a catalog,” Violet said quietly, and the three Baudelaires exchanged sad glances by the light of the frog-shaped lamp. The children had uncovered countless secrets in libraries under the most desperate of circumstances. They had decoded a message in a library while a hurricane raged outside, and had found important information while a sinister person chased them around a library in wicked shoes. They had discovered crucial facts in a library that held only three books, and obtained a vital map in a library that was only a pile of papers hidden underneath a table. The Baudelaires had even found the answers they were looking for in a library that had burned down, leaving only a few scraps of paper and a motto etched on an iron archway. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny stood for a moment at the concierge desk and thought of all the libraries they had seen, and wondered if any of the secrets they had uncovered would help them find what they were looking for in the perplexing library of the Hotel Denouement.
“The world is quiet here,” Sunny said, reciting the motto her siblings had found, and as her words echoed in the lobby, they heard a noise above them, a quiet shuffling from the enormous dome, scarcely audible over the sound of the croaking frogs. The shuffling grew louder, but the Baudelaires could not see anything in the blackness over their heads, which was as dark as a crow flying through a pitch black night. Finally, Violet lifted the frog-shaped lamp as far as its cord would allow, and all three children removed their sunglasses. Faintly, they could see a shadowy shape lowering itself from the machinery of the clock using what looked like a thick rope. It was an eerie sight, like a spider lowering itself to the center of a web, but the Baudelaires could not help but admire the skill with which it was done. With only a slight shuffle, the shape drew closer and closer, until at last the children could see it was a man, tall and skinny, with his legs and arms sticking out at odd angles, as if he were made of drinking straws instead of flesh and bone. The man was climbing down a rope he was unraveling at the same time, which is an activity I do not recommend unless you’ve had the proper training, and unfortunately the best trainer has been forced to go into hiding ever since a certain mountain headquarters was destroyed by arson, and he now earns his living doing spider imitations in a traveling show. Finally, the man was quite close to the ground, and with an elegant flourish he let go of the rope and landed silently on the floor. Then he strode toward the Baudelaires, pausing only to brush a speck of dust off the word MANAGER which was printed in fancy script over one of the pockets of his coat.
“Good evening, Baudelaires,” the man said. “Forgive me for not revealing myself earlier, but I had to be sure that you were who I thought you were. It must have been very confusing to wander around this hotel without a catalog to help you.”
“So there is a catalog?” Klaus asked.
“Of course there’s a catalog,” the man said. “You don’t think I’d organize this entire building according to the Dewey Decimal System and then neglect to add a catalog, do you?”
“But where is the catalog?” Violet asked.
The man smiled. “Come outside,” he said, “and I’ll show you.”
“Trap,” Sunny murmured to her siblings, who nodded in agreement. “We’re not following you,” Violet said, “until we know that you’re someone we can trust.”
The man smiled. “I don’t blame you for being suspicious,” he said. “When I used to meet your father, Baudelaires, we would recite the work of an American humorist poet of the nineteenth century, so we could recognize one another in our disguises.” He stopped in the middle of the lobby, and with a gesture from one of his odd, skinny arms, he began to recite a poem:
“So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!”
The words of the American humorist poets of the nineteenth century are often confusing, as they are liable to use such terms as “oft,” which is a nineteenth-century abbreviation for “often”; “disputants,” which refers to people who are arguing; “ween,” which means “think”; and “rail on,” which means to bicker for hours on end, the way you might do with a family member who is particularly bossy. Such poets might use the word “prate,” which means “chatter,” and they might spend an entire stanza discussing “theologic wars,” a term which refers to arguing over what different people believe, the way you might also do with a family member who is particularly bossy. Even the Baudelaires, who’d had the works of American humorist poets of the nineteenth century recited to them many times over their childhood, had trouble understanding everything in the stanza, which simply made the point that all of the blind men in the poem were arguing pointlessly. But Violet, Klaus, and Sunny did not need to know exactly what the stanza meant. They only needed to know who wrote it.
“John Godfrey Saxe,” said Sunny with a smile.
“Very good,” the man said, and he walked across the shiny, silent floor of the lobby, pulling the rope down from the ceiling and tucking it into his belt.
“And who are you?” Violet called.
“Can’t you guess?” the man asked, pausing at the large, curved entrance. The Baudelaires hurried to catch up with him as he turned to exit the hotel.
“Frank?” Klaus said.
“No,” the man said, and began to walk down the stairs. The Baudelaires took a step outside, where the croaking of the frogs in the pond was considerably louder, although the children could not see the pond through the cloud of steam coming from the funnel. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny looked at one another cautiously, and then began to follow.
“Ernest?” Sunny asked.
The man smiled, and kept walking down the stairs, disappearing into the steam. “No,” he said, and the Baudelaire orphans stepped out of the hotel and disappeared along with him.
The word “denouement” is not only the name of a hotel or the family who manages it, particularly nowadays, when the hotel and all its secrets have almost been forgotten, and the surviving members of the family have changed their names and are working in smaller, less glamorous inns. “Denouement” comes from the French, who use the word to describe the act of untying a knot, and it refers to the unraveling of a confusing or mysterious story, such as the lives of the Baudelaire orphans, or anyone else you know whose life is filled with unanswered questions. The denouement is the moment when all of the knots of a story are untied, and all the threads are unraveled, and everything is laid out clearly for the world to see. But the denouement should not be confused with the end of a story. The denouement of “Snow White,” for instance, occurs at the moment when Ms. White wakes up from her enchanted sleep, and decides to leave the dwarves behind and marry the handsome prince, and the mysterious old woman who gave her an apple has been exposed as the treacherous queen, but the end of “Snow White” occurs many years later, when a horseback riding accident plunges Ms. White into a fever from which she never recovers. The denouement of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” occurs at the moment when the bears return home to find Goldilocks napping on their private property, and either chase her away from the premises, or eat her, depending on which version you have in your library, but the end of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” occurs when a troop of young scouts neglect to extinguish their campfire and even the efforts of a volunteer fire department cannot save most of the wildlife from certain death. There are some stories in which the denouement and the end occur simultaneously, such as La Forza del Destino, in which the characters recognize and destroy one another over the course of a single song, but usually the denouement of a story is not the last event in the heroes’ lives, or the last trouble that befalls them. It is often the second-to-last event, or the penultimate peril. As the Baudelaire orphans followed the mysterious man out of the hotel and through the cloud of steam to the edge of the reflective pond, the denouement of their story was fast approaching, but the end of their story still waited for them, like a secret still covered in fog, or a distant island in the midst of a troubled sea, whose waves raged against the shores of a city and the walls of a perplexing hotel.
“You must have thousands of questions, Baudelaires,” said the man. “And just think—right here is where they can be answered.”
“Who are you?” Violet asked.
“I’m Dewey Denouement,” Dewey Denouement replied. “The third triplet. Haven’t you heard of me?”
“No,” Klaus said. “We thought there were only Frank and Ernest.”
“Frank and Ernest get all the attention,” Dewey said. “They get to walk around the hotel managing everything, while I just hide in the shadows and wind the clock.” He gave the Baudelaires an enormous sigh, and scowled into the depths of the pond. “That’s what I don’t like about V.F.D.,” he said. “All the smoke and mirrors.”
“Smoke?” Sunny asked.
“‘Smoke and mirrors,’” Klaus explained, “means ‘trickery used to cover up the truth.’ But what does that have to do with V.F.D.?”
“Before the schism,” Dewey said, “V.F.D. was like a public library. Anyone could join us and have access to all of the information we’d acquired. Volunteers all over the globe were reading each other’s research, learning of each other’s observations, and borrowing each other’s books. For a while it seemed as if we might keep the whole world safe, secure, and smart.”
“It must have been a wonderful time,” Klaus said.
“I scarcely remember it,” Dewey said. “I was four years old when the schism began. I was scarcely tall enough to reach my favorite shelf in the family library—the books labeled 020. But one night, just as our parents were hanging balloons for our fifth birthday party, my brothers and I were taken.”
“Taken where?” Violet asked.
“Taken by whom?” Sunny asked.
“I admire your curiosity,” Dewey said. “The woman who took me said that one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways. And she took me to a place high in the mountains, where she said such things would be encouraged.”
Klaus opened his commonplace book and began to take furious notes. “The headquarters,” Klaus said, “in the Valley of Four Drafts.”
“Your parents must have missed you,” Violet said.
“They perished that very night,” Dewey said, “in a terrible fire. I don’t have to tell you how badly I felt when I learned the news.”
The Baudelaires sighed, and looked out at the pond. Here and there on its calm surface they could see the reflections of a few lights in the windows, but most of the hotel was dark, so most of the pond was dark, too. The triplet, of course, did not have to tell the Baudelaires how it felt to lose one’s parents so suddenly, or at such a young age. “It was not always this way, Baudelaires,” Dewey said. “Once there were safe places scattered across the globe, and so orphans like yourselves did not have to wander from place to place, trying to find noble people who could be of assistance. With each generation, the schism gets worse. If justice does not prevail, soon there will be no safe places left, and nobody left to remember how the world ought to be.”
“I don’t understand,” Violet said. “Why weren’t we taken, like you?”
“You were,” Dewey said. “You were taken into the custody of Count Olaf. And he tried to keep you in his custody, no matter how many noble people intervened.”
“But why didn’t anyone tell us what was going on?” Klaus asked. “Why did we have to figure things out all by ourselves?”
“I’m afraid that’s the wicked way of the world,” Dewey said, with a shake of his head. “Everything’s covered in smoke and mirrors, Baudelaires. Since the schism, all the research, all the observations, even all of the books have been scattered all over the globe. It’s like the elephant in the poem your father loved. Everyone has their hands on a tiny piece of the truth, but nobody can see the whole thing. Very soon, however, all that will change.”
“Thursday,” Sunny said.
“Exactly,” Dewey said, smiling down at the youngest Baudelaire. “At long last, all of the noble people will be gathered together, along with all the research they’ve done, all the observations they’ve made, all the evidence they’ve collected, and all the books they’ve read. Just as a library catalog can tell you where a certain book is located, this catalog can tell you the location and behavior of every volunteer and every villain.” He gestured to the hotel. “For years,” he said, “while noble people wandered the world observing treachery, my comrade and I have been right here gathering all the information together. We’ve copied every note from every commonplace book from every volunteer and compiled it all into a catalog. Occasionally, when volunteers have been lost or safe places destroyed, we’ve had to go ourselves to collect the information that has been left behind. We’ve retrieved Josephine Anwhistle’s files from Lake Lachrymose and carefully copied down their contents. We’ve pasted together the burnt scraps of Madame Lulu’s archival library and taken notes on what we’ve found. We’ve searched the childhood home of the man with a beard but no hair, and interviewed the math teacher of the woman with hair but no beard. We’ve memorized important articles within the stacks of newspaper in Paltryville, and we’ve thrown important items out of the windows of our destroyed headquarters, so they might wind up somewhere safe at sea. We’ve taken every crime, every theft, every wicked deed, and every incident of rudeness since the schism began, and cataloged them into an entire library of misfortune. Eventually, every crucial secret ends up in my catalog. It’s been my life’s work. It has not been an easy life, but it has been an informative one.”
“You’re more than a volunteer,” Violet said. “You’re a librarian.”
“I’m more of a sub-sub-librarian,” Dewey said modestly. “That’s what your parents used to call me, because my library work has been largely undercover and underground. Every villain in the world would want to destroy all this evidence, so it’s been necessary to hide my life’s work away.”
“But where could you hide something that enormous?” Klaus said. “It would be like hiding an elephant. A catalog that immense would have to be as big as the hotel itself.”
“It is,” Dewey said, with a sly expression on his face. “In fact, it’s exactly as big as the hotel.”
Violet and Klaus turned their gaze from Dewey to look at each other in confusion, but Sunny was gazing neither at the sub-sub-librarian nor at her siblings, but down at the dark surface of the pond. she said, pointing a small, gloved finger at the calm, still water.
“Exactly,” Dewey said. “The truth has been right under everyone’s noses, if anyone cared to look past the surface. Volunteers and villains alike know that the last safe place is the Hotel Denouement, but no one has ever questioned why the sign is written backward. They’re staying in the
while the reallast safe place—the catalog—is hidden safely at the bottom of the pond, in underwater rooms organized in a mirror image of the hotel itself. Our enemies could burn the entire building to the ground, but the most important secrets would be safe.”
“But if the location of the catalog is such an important secret,” Violet said, “why are you telling us?”
“Because you should know,” Dewey said. “You’ve wandered the world, observing more villainy and gathering more evidence than most people do in a lifetime. I’m sure the observations and evidence you’ve gathered in your commonplace book will be valuable contributions to the catalog. Who better than you to keep the world’s most important secrets?” He looked out at the pond, and then at each orphan in turn. “After Thursday,” he continued, “you won’t have to be at sea anymore, Baudelaires.” The children knew that by the expression “at sea” he meant “lost and confused,” and hearing those words brought tears to their eyes. “I hope you decide to make this your permanent home. I need someone with an inventive imagination who can improve on the aquatic design of the catalog. I need someone with the sort of research skills that can expand the catalog until it is the finest in the world. And, of course, we’ll need to eat, and I’ve heard wonderful things about Sunny’s cooking.”
“Efcharisto,” Sunny said modestly.
“Hal’s meals are atrocious, I’m afraid,” Dewey said with a rueful smile. “I don’t know why he insisted on opening his restaurant in Room 954, when so many other suitable rooms were available. Bad food of any style is unpleasant, but bad Indian food is possibly the worst.”
“Hal is a volunteer?” Klaus asked, remembering what Sunny had observed during her errands as a concierge.
“In a manner of speaking,” Dewey said, using an expression which here means “sort of.” “After the fire that destroyed Heimlich Hospital, my comrade arrived on the scene to catalog any information that might have survived. She found Hal in a very distraught condition. His Library of Records was in shambles, and he had nowhere to live. She offered him a position at the Hotel Denouement, where he might aid us in our research and learn to cook. Unfortunately he’s only been good at one of those things.”
“And what about Charles?” Violet asked, remembering what Klaus had observed during his errands.
“Charles has been searching for you since you left the lumbermill,” Dewey said. “He cares for you, Baudelaires, despite the selfish and dreadful behavior of his partner. You’ve seen your share of wicked people, Baudelaires, but you’ve seen your share of people as noble as you are.”
“I’m not sure we are noble,” Klaus said quietly, flipping the pages of his commonplace book. “We caused those accidents at the lumbermill. We’re responsible for the destruction of the hospital. We helped start the fire that destroyed Madame Lulu’s archival library. We—”
“Enough,” Dewey interrupted gently, putting a hand on Klaus’s shoulder. “You’re noble enough, Baudelaires. That’s all we can ask for in this world.”
The middle Baudelaire hung his head, so he was leaning against the sub-sub-librarian, and his sisters huddled against him, and all four volunteers stood for a moment silently in the dark. Tears fell from the eyes of the orphans—all four of them—and, as with many tears shed at night, they could not have said exactly why they were crying, although I know why I am crying as I type this, and it is not because of the onions that someone is slicing in the next room, or because of the wretched curry he is planning on making with them. I am crying because Dewey Denouement was wrong. He was not wrong when he said the Baudelaires were noble enough, although I suppose many people might argue about such a thing, if they were sitting around a room together without a deck of cards or something good to read. Dewey was wrong when he said that being noble enough is all we can ask for in this world, because we can ask for much more than that. We can ask for a second helping of pound cake, even though someone has made it quite clear that we will not get any. We can ask for a new watercolor set, even though it will be pointed out that we never used the old one, and that all of the paints dried into a crumbly mess. We can ask for Japanese fighting fish, to keep us company in our bedroom, and we can ask for a special camera that will allow us to take photographs even in the dark, for obvious reasons, and we can ask for an extra sugar cube in our coffees in the morning and an extra pillow in our beds at night. We can ask for justice, and we can ask for a handkerchief, and we can ask for cupcakes, and we can ask for all the soldiers in the world to lay down their weapons and join us in a rousing chorus of “Cry Me a River,” if that happens to be our favorite song. But we can also ask for something we are much more likely to get, and that is to find a person or two, somewhere in our travels, who will tell us that we are noble enough, whether it is true or not. We can ask for someone who will say, “You are noble enough,” and remind us of our good qualities when we have forgotten them, or cast them into doubt. Most of us, of course, have parents and friends who tell us such things, after we have lost a badminton tournament or failed to capture a notorious counterfeiter who we discovered aboard a certain motorboat. But the Baudelaire orphans, of course, had no living parents, and their closest friends were high in the sky, in a self-sustaining hot air mobile home, battling eagles and a terrible henchman who had hooks instead of hands, so the acquaintance of Dewey Denouement, and the comforting words he had uttered, were a blessing. The Baudelaires stood with the sub-sub-librarian, grateful for this blessing, and at the sound of an approaching automobile, they looked to see two more blessings arriving via taxi, and were grateful all over again.
“Baudelaires!” called a familiar voice.
“Baudelaires!” called another one.
The siblings peered through the dark at the two figures emerging from the taxi, scarcely able to believe their eyes. These people were wearing strange eyeglasses made of two large cones that were attached to their heads with a mass of tangled rope, which was coiled up on top of their heads. Such glasses might have concealed the identity of the people who were wearing them, but the Baudelaires had no trouble recognizing the people who were hurrying toward them, even though they had not seen either person for a very long time, and had thought they would never see them again.
“Justice Strauss!” Violet cried.
“Jerome Squalor!” Klaus cried.
“J. S.!” Sunny cried.
“I’m so happy to find you,” said the judge, taking off her Vision Furthering Device so she could dab at her eyes and embrace the children one by one. “I was afraid I’d never see you again. I’ll never forgive myself for letting that idiotic banker take you away from me.”
“And I’ll never forgive myself,” said Jerome, who had the misfortune of being married to Esmé Squalor, “for walking away from you children. I’m afraid I wasn’t a very good guardian.”
“And I’m afraid I wasn’t a guardian at all,” Justice Strauss said. “As soon as you were taken away in that automobile, I knew I had done the wrong thing, and when I heard the dreadful news about Dr. Montgomery I began searching for you. Eventually I found other people who were also trying to battle the wicked villains of this world, but I always hoped I would find you myself, if only to say how sorry I was.”
“I’m sorry, too,” Jerome said. “As soon as I heard about all the troubles that befell you in the Village of Fowl Devotees, I began my own Baudelaire search. Volunteers were leaving me messages everywhere—at least, I thought the messages were addressed to me.”
“And I thought they were addressed to me,” Justice Strauss said. “There are certainly plenty of people with the initials J. S.”
“I began to feel like an impostor,” Jerome said.
“You’re not impostors,” Dewey said. “You’re volunteers.” He turned to the Baudelaires. “Both these people have helped us immeasurably,” he said, using a word which here means “a whole lot.” “Justice Strauss has reported the details of your case to the other judges in the High Court. And Jerome Squalor has done some critical research on injustice.”
“I was inspired by my wife,” Jerome confessed, removing his Vision Furthering Device. “Wherever I looked for you, Baudelaires, I found selfish plots to steal your fortune. I read books on injustice in all the libraries you left behind and eventually wrote a book myself. Odious Lusting After Finance chronicles the history of greedy villains, treacherous girlfriends, bungling bankers, and all the other people responsible for injustice.”
“No matter what we do, however,” Justice Strauss said, “we can’t erase the wrongs we did you, Baudelaires.”
“She’s right,” Jerome Squalor said. “We should have been as noble as you are.”
“You’re noble enough,” Violet said, and her siblings nodded in agreement, as the judge and the injustice expert embraced them again. When someone has disappointed you, as Justice Strauss and Jerome Squalor disappointed the Baudelaires, it is often difficult to decide whether to continue their acquaintance, even if the disappointers have done noble things in the meantime. There are some who say that you should forgive everyone, even the people who have disappointed you immeasurably. There are others who say you should not forgive anyone, and should stomp off in a huff no matter how many times they apologize. Of these two philosophies, the second one is of course much more fun, but it can also grow exhausting to stomp off in a huff every time someone has disappointed you, as everyone disappoints everyone eventually, and one can’t stomp off in a huff every minute of the day. When the Baudelaires thought about the harm that each J. S. had done to them, it was as if they had gotten a bruise quite some time ago, one that had mostly faded but that still hurt when they touched it, and when they touched this bruise it made them want to stomp off in a huff. But on that evening—or, more properly, very early Wednesday morning—the siblings did not want to stomp off into the hotel, where so many wicked people were gathered, or into the pond, which was likely to be very cold and clammy at this time of night. They wanted to forgive these two adults, and to embrace them, despite their disappointment.
“I don’t mean to break up all this embracing,” Dewey said, “but we have work to do, volunteers. As one of the first volunteers said a very long time ago, ‘Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, the frogs do not die in sport, but in earnest.’”
“Speaking of frogs,” Justice Strauss said, “I’m afraid to report that we couldn’t see a thing from the other side of the pond. These Vision Furthering Devices work well in the daytime, but looking through special sunglasses after sunset makes everything look as dark as a crow flying through a pitch black night—which is precisely what we’re looking for.”
“Justice Strauss is correct,” Jerome said sadly. “We couldn’t verify the arrival of the crows, or whether their journey was interrupted.”
“We couldn’t see if even a single crow was trapped,” the judge said, “or if the sugar bowl fell into the funnel.”
“Funnel?” Dewey repeated.
“Yes,” Justice Strauss said. “You told us that if our enemies shot down the crows, they would have fallen onto the birdpaper.”
“And if the crows fell onto the birdpaper,” Jerome continued, “then the sugar bowl would drop into the laundry room, right?”
Dewey looked slyly at the steaming funnel, and then at the surface of the pond. “So it would appear,” he said. “Our enemies capturing the sugar bowl would be as troubling as their capture of the Medusoid Mycelium.”
“So you already know about the plan to shoot down the crows, and capture the sugar bowl?” Violet said incredulously.
“Yes,” Dewey said. “Justice Strauss learned that the harpoon gun had been taken up to the rooftop sunbathing salon. Jerome noticed that birdpaper was dangling out of the window of the sauna in Room 613. And I gave Sunny the lock myself, so she could lock up the laundry in Room 025.”
“You know about all the villainous people who are lurking in the hotel?” Klaus said, equally incredulously.
“Yes,” Justice Strauss said. “We observed rings on all the wooden furniture, from people refusing to use coasters. Obviously there are many villains staying in the hotel.”
“Mycelium?” Sunny asked, with perhaps just a touch more incredulousness than her siblings.
“Yes,” Jerome said. “We’ve learned that Olaf has managed to acquire a few spores locked tight in a diving helmet.”
The Baudelaires looked at the commonplace book in Klaus’s hands, and then back at the sub-sub-librarian. “I guess our observations and evidence aren’t such valuable contributions after all,” Violet said. “All the mysteries we encountered in the hotel had already been solved.”
“It doesn’t matter, Baudelaires,” Jerome said. “Olaf won’t dare unleash the Medusoid Mycelium unless he gets his hands on the sugar bowl, and he’ll never find it.”
“I’m the only one who knows which words will unlock the Vernacularly Fastened Door,” Dewey said, ushering the children back toward the entrance of the hotel, “and there’s not a villainous person on Earth who has done enough reading to guess them before Thursday. By then, all of the volunteers will present the research they’ve done on Count Olaf and his associates to the prosecution, and all their treachery will finally end.”
“Jerome Squalor will be an important witness,” Justice Strauss said. “His comprehensive history of injustice will help the High Court reach a verdict.”
“Prosecution?” Violet asked.
“Witness?” Klaus asked.
“Verdict?” Sunny said.
The three adults smiled at one another, and then at the Baudelaires. “That’s what we’ve been trying to tell you,” Dewey said gently. “V.F.D. has researched an entire catalog of Olaf’s treachery. On Thursday, Justice Strauss and the other judges of the High Court will hear from each and every one of our volunteers. Count Olaf, Esmé Squalor, and all of the other villainous people gathered here will finally be brought to justice.”
“You’ll never have to hide from Olaf again,” Jerome said, “or worry that anyone will steal your fortune.”
“We just have to wait for tomorrow, Baudelaires,” Justice Strauss said, “and your troubles will finally be over.”
“It’s like my comrade always says,” Dewey said. “Right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
Wrong! The clanging of the clock announced that it was one in the morning, and without another word, Dewey took Violet’s hand, and Justice Strauss took Klaus’s, and Jerome Squalor leaned down and took Sunny’s hand, and the three adults led the three orphans up the stairs toward the hotel’s entrance, walking past the taxi, which still sat there, engine purring, with the figure of the driver just a shadow in the window. The three adults smiled at the children, and the children smiled back, but of course the Baudelaires were not born yesterday, an expression which means “young or innocent enough to believe things certain people say about the world.” If the Baudelaires had been born yesterday, perhaps they would be innocent enough to believe that all of their troubles were truly about to end, and that Count Olaf and all of his treacherous associates would be judged by the High Court, and condemned to the proper punishment for all their ignoble deeds, and that the children would spend the rest of their days working with Dewey Denouement on his enormous underwater catalog, if they only waited for tomorrow. But the three siblings were not born yesterday. Violet was born more than fifteen years before this particular Wednesday, and Klaus was born approximately two years after that, and even Sunny, who had just passed out of babyhood, was not born yesterday. Neither were you, unless of course I am wrong, in which case welcome to the world, little baby, and congratulations on learning to read so early in life. But if you were not born yesterday, and you have read anything about the Baudelaire children’s lives, then you cannot be surprised that this happy moment was almost immediately cut short by the appearance of a most unwelcome person at the moment the children were led through the fog of steam coming from the laundry room funnel and through the entrance of the Hotel Denouement as the one loud Wrong! faded into nothing. This person was standing in the center of the lobby, his tall lean body bent into a theatrical pose as if he were waiting for a crowd to applaud, and you will not be surprised to know what was tattooed on his ankle, which the children could see poking out of a hole in his sock even in the dim light of the room. You were not born yesterday, probably, so you will not be surprised to find that this notorious villain had reappeared in the Baudelaires’ lives for the penultimate time, and the Baudelaires were also not born yesterday, and so they also were not surprised. They were not born yesterday, but when Count Olaf turned to face them, and gazed upon them with his shiny, shiny eyes, the Baudelaire orphans wished they had not been born at all.
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