بخش 05

مجموعه: مجموعه بدبیاری ها / کتاب: خطر ماقبل آخر / فصل 5

بخش 05

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CHAPTER Nine

“Ha!” Count Olaf shrieked, pointing at the Baudelaire orphans with a bony finger, and the children were thankful for small mercies. A small mercy is simply a tiny thing that has gone right in a world gone wrong, like a sprig of delicious parsley next to a spoiled tuna sandwich, or a lovely dandelion in a garden that is being devoured by vicious goats. A small mercy, like a small flyswatter, is unlikely to be of any real help, but nevertheless the three siblings, even in their horror and disgust at seeing Olaf again, were thankful for the small mercy that the villain had apparently lost interest in his new laugh. The last time the Baudelaires had seen the villain, he’d been aboard a strange submarine shaped like an octopus, and he’d developed a laugh that was equally strange, full of snorts and squeaks and words that happened to begin with the letter H. But as the villain strode toward the children and the adults who were clutching their hands, it was clear he had since adopted a style of laughter that was succinct, a word which here means “only the word ‘ha.’” “Ha!” he cried. “I knew I’d find you orphans again! Ha! And now you’re in my clutches! Ha!”

“We’re not in your clutches,” Violet said. “We just happen to be standing in the same room.”

“That’s what you think, orphan,” Olaf sneered. “I’m afraid the man who’s holding your hand is one of my associates. Hand her over, Ernest. Ha!”

“Ha yourself, Olaf,” said Dewey Denouement. His voice was firm and confident, but Violet felt his hand trembling in hers. “I’m not Ernest, and I’m not handing her over!”

“Well, then hand her over, Frank!” Olaf said. “You might consider doing your hair differently so I can tell you apart.”

“I’m not Frank, either,” Dewey said.

“You can’t fool me!” Count Olaf growled. “I wasn’t born yesterday, you know! You’re one of those idiotic twins! I should know! Thanks to me, you two are the only survivors of the entire family!”

“Triplets run in my family,” Dewey said, “not twins. I’m Dewey Denouement.”

At this, Count Olaf’s one eyebrow raised in astonishment. “Dewey Denouement,” he murmured. “So you’re a real person! I always thought you were a legendary figure, like unicorns or Giuseppe Verdi.”

“Giuseppe Verdi is not a legendary figure,” Klaus said indignantly. “He’s an operatic composer!”

“Silence, bookworm!” Olaf ordered. “Children should not speak while adults are arguing! Hand over the orphans, adults!”

“Nobody’s handing over the Baudelaires!” Justice Strauss said, clutching Klaus’s hand. “You have no legal right to them or their fortune!”

“You can’t just grab children as if they were pieces of fruit in a bowl!” Jerome Squalor cried. “It’s injustice, and we won’t have it!”

“You’d better watch yourselves,” Count Olaf said, narrowing his shiny eyes. “I have associates lurking everywhere in this hotel.”

“So do we,” Dewey said. “Many volunteers have arrived early, and within hours the streets will be flooded with taxis carrying noble people here to this hotel.”

“How can you be sure they’re noble people?” Count Olaf asked. “A taxi will pick up anyone who signals for one.”

“These people are associates of ours,” Dewey said fiercely. “They won’t fail us.”

“Ha!” Count Olaf said. “You can’t rely on associates. More comrades have failed me than I can count. Why, Hooky and Fiona double-crossed me just yesterday, and let you brats escape! Then they double-crossed me again and stole my submarine!”

“We can rely on our friends,” Violet said quietly, “more than you can rely on yours.”

“Is that so?” Count Olaf asked, and leaned toward the children with a ravenous smile. “Have you learned nothing after all your adventures?” he asked. “Every noble person has failed you, Baudelaires. Why, look at the idiots standing next to you! A judge who let me marry you, a man who gave up on you altogether, and a sub-sub-librarian who spends his life sneaking around taking notes. They’re hardly a noble bunch.”

“Charles is here, from Lucky Smells Lumbermill,” Klaus said. “He cares about us.”

“Sir is here,” Olaf retorted. “He doesn’t. Ha!”

“Hal,” Sunny said.

“Vice Principal Nero and Mr. Remora,” Olaf replied, counting each nasty person on his filthy fingers. “And that pesky little reporter from The Daily Punctilio, who’s here to write silly articles praising my cocktail party. And ridiculous Mr. Poe, who arrived just hours ago to investigate a bank robbery. Ha!”

“Those people don’t count,” Klaus said. “They’re not associates of yours.”

“They might as well be,” Count Olaf replied. “They’ve been an enormous help. And every second, more associates of mine get closer and closer.”

“So do our friends,” Violet said. “They’re flying across the sea as we speak, and by tomorrow, their self-sustaining hot air mobile home will land on the roof.”

“Only if they’ve managed to survive my eagles,” Count Olaf said with a growl.

“They will,” Klaus said. “Just like we’ve survived you.”

“And how did you survive me?” Olaf asked. “The Daily Punctilio is full of your crimes. You lied to people. You stole. You abandoned people in danger. You set fires. Time after time you’ve relied on treachery to survive, just like everyone else. There are no truly noble people in this world.”

“Our parents,” Sunny said fiercely.

Count Olaf looked surprised that Sunny had spoken, and then gave all three Baudelaires a smile that made them shudder. “I guess the sub-sub-librarian hasn’t told you the story about your parents,” he said, “and a box of poison darts. Why don’t you ask him, orphans? Why don’t you ask this legendary librarian about that fateful evening at the opera?”

The Baudelaires turned to look at Dewey, who had begun to blush. But before they could ask him anything, they were interrupted by a voice coming from a pair of sliding doors that had quietly opened.

“Don’t ask him that,” Esmé Squalor said. “I have a much more important question.”

With a mocking laugh, the treacherous girlfriend emerged from the elevator, her silver sandals clumping on the floor and her lettuce leaves rustling against her skin. Behind her was Carmelita Spats, who was still wearing her ballplaying cowboy superhero soldier pirate outfit and carrying the harpoon gun Violet had delivered, and behind her three more people emerged from the elevator. First came the attendant from the rooftop sunbathing salon, still wearing green sunglasses and a long, baggy robe. Following the attendant was the mysterious chemist from outside the sauna, dressed in a long, white coat and a surgical mask, and last out of the elevator was the washerwoman from the laundry room, with long, blond hair and rumpled clothing. The Baudelaires recognized these people from their observations as flaneurs, but then the attendant removed his robe to reveal his back, which had a small hump on the shoulder, and the chemist removed her surgical mask, not with one of her hands but with one of her feet, and the washerwoman removed a long, blond wig with both hands at the exact same time, and the three siblings recognized the three henchfolk all over again.

“Hugo!” cried Violet.

“Colette!” cried Klaus.

“Kevin!” cried Sunny.

“Esmé!” cried Jerome.

“Why isn’t anybody calling out my name?” demanded Carmelita, stomping one of her bright blue boots. She pranced toward Violet, who observed that two of the four long, sharp hooks were missing from the weapon. This sort of observation may be important for a flaneur, but it is dreadful for any reader of this book, who probably does not want to know where the remaining harpoons will end up. “I’m a ballplaying cowboy superhero soldier pirate,” she crowed to the oldest Baudelaire, “and you’re nothing but a cakesniffer. Call my name or I’ll shoot you with this harpoon gun!”

“Carmelita!” Esmé said, her silver mouth twisting into an expression of shock. “Don’t point that gun at Violet!”

“Esmé’s right,” Count Olaf said. “Don’t waste the harpoons. We may need them.”

“Yes!” Esmé cried. “There’s always important work to do before a cocktail party, particularly if you want it to be the innest in the world! We need to put slipcovers on the couches, and hide our associates beneath them! We need to put vases of flowers on the piano and electric eels in the fountain! We need to hang streamers and volunteers from the ceiling! We need to play music, so people can dance, and block the exits, so they can’t leave! And most of all, we have to cook in food and prepare in cocktails! Food and drink are the most important aspect of every social occasion, and our in recipes—”

“The most important aspect of every social occasion isn’t food and drink!” Dewey interrupted indignantly. “It’s conversation!”

“You’re the one who should flee!” Justice Strauss said. “Your cocktail party will be canceled, due to the host and hostess being brought to justice by the High Court!”

“You’re as foolish as you were when we were neighbors,” Count Olaf said. “The High Court can’t stop us. V.F.D. can’t stop us. Hidden somewhere in this hotel is one of the most deadly fungi in the entire world. When Thursday comes, the fungus will come out of hiding and destroy everyone it touches! At last I’ll be free to steal the Baudelaire fortune and perform any other act of treachery that springs to mind!”

“You won’t dare unleash the Medusoid Mycelium,” Dewey said. “Not while I have the sugar bowl.”

“Funny you should mention the sugar bowl,” Esmé Squalor said, although the Baudelaires could see she didn’t think it was funny at all. “That’s just what we want to ask you about.”

“The sugar bowl?” Count Olaf asked, his eyes shining bright. “Where is it?”

“The freaks will tell you,” Esmé said.

“It’s true, boss,” said Hugo. “I may be a mere hunchback, but I saw Carmelita shoot down the crows using the harpoon gun Violet brought her.”

Justice Strauss turned to Violet in astonishment. “You gave Carmelita the harpoon gun?” she gasped.

“Well, yes,” Violet said. “I had to perform concierge errands as part of my disguise.”

“The harpoon gun was supposed to be kept away from villains,” the judge said, “not given to them. Why didn’t Frank stop you?”

Violet thought back to her unfathomable conversation with Frank. “I think he tried,” she said quietly, “but I had to take the harpoon gun up to the roof. What else could I do?”

“I hit two crows!” bragged Carmelita Spats. “That means Countie has to teach me how to spit like a real ballplaying cowboy superhero soldier pirate!”

“Don’t worry, darling,” Esmé said. “He’ll teach you. Won’t you, Olaf?”

Count Olaf sighed, as if he had better things to do than teach a little girl how to propel saliva out of her mouth. “Yes, Carmelita,” he said, “I’ll teach you how to spit.”

Colette took center stage, a phrase which here means “stepped forward, and twisted her body into an unusual shape.” “Even a contortionist like me,” she said, her mouth moving beneath her elbow, “could see what happened after Carmelita shot the crows. They fell right onto the birdpaper that Klaus dangled out the window.”

“You dangled the birdpaper out the window?” Jerome asked the middle Baudelaire.

“Ernest told me to,” Klaus said, finally realizing which manager had spoken to him in the sauna. “I had to obey him as part of my disguise.”

“You can’t just do what everyone tells you to do,” Jerome said.

“What else could I do?” Klaus said.

“When the crows hit the birdpaper,” Kevin said, gesturing with one hand and then the other, “they dropped the sugar bowl. I didn’t see where it went with either my right eye or my left one, which I’m sad to say are equally strong. But I did see Sunny turn the door of the laundry room into a Vernacularly Fastened Door.”

“Aha!” Count Olaf cried. “The sugar bowl must have fallen down the funnel!”

“I still don’t see why I had to disguise myself as a washerwoman,” Kevin said timidly. “I could have just been a washerperson, and not worn this humiliating wig.”

“Or you could have been a noble person,” Violet could not help adding, “instead of spying on a brave volunteer.”

“What else could I do?” Kevin asked, shrugging both shoulders equally high.

“You could be a volunteer yourself,” Klaus said, looking at all of his former carnival coworkers. “All of you could stand with us now, instead of helping Count Olaf with his schemes.”

“I could never be a noble person,” Hugo said sadly. “I have a hump on my back.”

“And I’m a contortionist,” Colette said. “Someone who can bend their body into unusual shapes could never be a volunteer.”

“V.F.D. would never accept an ambidextrous person,” Kevin said. “It’s my destiny to be a treacherous person.”

“Galimatias!” Sunny cried.

“Nonsense!” Dewey said, who understood at once what Sunny had said. “I’m ambidextrous myself, and I’ve managed to do something worthwhile with my life. Being treacherous isn’t your destiny! It’s your choice!”

“I’m glad you feel that way,” Esmé Squalor said. “You have a choice this very moment, Frank. Tell me where the sugar bowl is, or else!”

“That’s not a choice,” Dewey said, “and I’m not Frank.”

Esmé frowned. “Then you have a choice this very moment, Ernest. Tell me where the sugar bowl is, or—”

“Dewey,” Sunny said.

Esmé blinked at the youngest Baudelaire, who noticed that the villainous woman’s eyelashes had also been painted silver. “What?” she asked.

“It’s true,” Olaf said. “He’s the real sub-sub. It turns out he’s not legendary, like Verdi.”

“Is that so?” Esmé Squalor said. “So someone has really been cataloging everything that has happened between us?”

“It’s been my life’s work,” Dewey said. “Eventually, every crucial secret ends up in my catalog.”

“Then you know all about the sugar bowl,” Esmé said, “and what’s inside. You know how important that thing was, and how many lives were lost in the quest to find it. You know how difficult it was to find a container that could hold it safely, securely, and attractively. You know what it means to the Baudelaires and what it means to the Snickets.” She took one sandaled step closer to Dewey, and stretched out one silver fingernail—the one shaped like an S—until it was almost poking him in the eye. “And you know,” she said in a terrible voice, “that it is mine.”

“Not anymore,” Dewey said.

“Beatrice stole it from me!” Esmé cried.

“There are worse things,” Dewey said, “than theft.”

At this, the girlfriend gave the sub-sub-librarian a chuckle that made the Baudelaires’ blood run cold. “There certainly are,” she said, and strode toward Carmelita Spats. With one spiky fingernail—the one shaped like an M—she moved the harpoon gun so it was pointing at the triplet. “Tell me how to open that door,” she said, “or this little girl will harpoon you.”

“I’m not a little girl!” Carmelita reminded Esmé nastily. “I’m a ballplaying cowboy superhero soldier pirate! And I’m not going to shoot any more harpoons until Countie teaches me how to spit.”

“You’ll do what we say, Carmelita,” Olaf growled. “I already purchased that ridiculous outfit for you, and that boat for you to prowl the swimming pool. Point that weapon at Dewey this instant!”

“Teach me to spit!” Carmelita said.

“Point the weapon!”

“Teach me to spit!”

“Point the weapon!”

“Teach me to spit!”

“Weapon!”

“Spit!”

“Weapon!”

“Spit!”

With a raspy roar, Count Olaf roughly yanked the harpoon gun out of Carmelita’s hands, knocking her to the floor. “I’ll never teach you how to spit as long as I live!” he shouted. “Ha!”

“Darling!” Esmé gasped. “You can’t break your promise to our darling little girl!”

“I’m not a darling little girl!” Carmelita screamed. “I’m a ballplaying cowboy superhero soldier pirate!”

“You’re a spoiled baby!” Olaf corrected. “I never wanted a brat like you around anyway! It’s about time you were shown some discipline!”

“But discipline is out!” Esmé said.

“I don’t care what’s out and what’s in!” Count Olaf cried. “I’m tired of having a girlfriend obsessed with fashion! All you do is sit around rooftop sunbathing salons while I run around doing all the work!”

“If I hadn’t been on the roof,” Esmé retorted, “the sugar bowl would have been delivered to V.F.D.! Besides, I was guarding—”

“Never mind what you were doing,” Olaf said. “You’re fired!”

“You can’t fire me!” Esmé growled. “I quit!”

“Well, you can leave by mutual agreement,” Olaf grumbled, and then, with another succinct “Ha!” he lifted the harpoon gun and pointed it at Dewey Denouement. “Tell us the three phrases we need to type into the lock in order to open the Vernacularly Fastened Door and search the laundry room!”

“You won’t find anything in the laundry room,” Dewey said, “except piles of dirty sheets, a few washing and drying machines, and some extremely flammable chemicals.”

“I may have a handsome, youthful glow,” Olaf snarled, “but I wasn’t born yesterday! Ha! If there’s nothing in the laundry room, why did you put a V.F.D. lock on the door?”

“Perhaps it’s just a decoy,” Dewey said, his hand still trembling in Violet’s.

“Decoy?” Olaf said.

“‘Decoy’ is a word with several meanings,” the triplet explained. “It can refer to a corner of a pond where ducks can be captured, or to an imitation of a duck or other animal used to attract a real specimen. Or, it can mean something used to distract people, such as a lock on a door that does not contain a certain sugar bowl.”

“If the lock is a decoy, sub-sub,” Count Olaf sneered, “then you won’t mind telling me how to open it.”

“Very well,” Dewey said, still struggling to sound calm. “The first phrase is a description of a medical condition that all three Baudelaire children share.”

The Baudelaires shared a smile.

“The second phrase is the weapon that left you an orphan, Olaf,” Dewey said.

The Baudelaires shared a frown.

“And the third,” Dewey said, “is the famous unfathomable question in the best-known novel by Richard Wright.”

The Baudelaire sisters shared a look of confusion, and then looked hopefully at Klaus, who slowly shook his head.

“I don’t have time to medically examine the Baudelaires,” Olaf said, “or shove my face into any best-known novels!”

“Wicked people never have time for reading,” Dewey said. “It’s one of the reasons for their wickedness.”

“I’ve had enough of your games!” Count Olaf roared. “Ha! If I don’t hear the exact phrases used to open the lock by the time Esmé counts to ten, I’ll fire the harpoon gun and tear you to shreds! Esmé, count to ten!”

“I’m not counting to ten,” Esmé pouted. “I’m not going to do anything for you ever again!”

“I knew it!” Jerome said. “I knew you could be a noble person again, Esmé! You don’t have to parade around in an indecent bikini in the middle of the night threatening sub-sub-librarians! You can stand with us, in the name of justice.”

“Let’s not go overboard,” Esmé said. “Just because I’m dumping my boyfriend doesn’t mean I’m going to be a goody-goody like you. Justice is out. Injustice is in. That’s why it’s called injustice.”

“You should do what’s right in this world,” Justice Strauss said, “not just what’s fashionable. I understand your situation, Esmé. When I was your age, I spent years as a horse thief before realizing—”

“I don’t want to hear your boring stories,” Count Olaf snarled. “The only thing I want to hear are three exact phrases from Dewey’s mouth, or his destiny will be death by harpoon, as soon as I say the number ten. One!”

“Stop!” Justice Strauss cried. “In the name of the law!”

“Two!”

“Stop!” Jerome Squalor pleaded. “In the name of injustice!”

“Three!”

“Stop!” Violet ordered, and her siblings nodded in fierce agreement. The Baudelaires realized, as I’m sure you have realized, that the adults standing with them were going to do nothing that would stop Count Olaf from reaching ten and pulling the trigger of the harpoon gun, and that Justice Strauss and Jerome Squalor would fail them, as so many noble people had failed them before. But the siblings also knew that this failure would not hurt them—at least, not right away. It would hurt Dewey Denouement, and without another word the three children dropped the hands of the adults and stood in front of the sub-sub-librarian, shielding him from harm.

“You can’t harpoon this man,” Klaus said to Count Olaf, scarcely believing what he was saying. “You’ll have to harpoon us first.”

“Or,” Sunny said, “put down gun.”

Dewey Denoument looked too amazed to speak, but Count Olaf merely turned his disdainful gaze from the sub-sub-librarian to the three children. “I wouldn’t mind harpooning you either, orphans,” he said, his eyes shining bright. “When it comes to slaughtering people, I’m very flexible! Ha! Four!”

Violet took a step toward the count, who was holding the harpoon gun so it pointed at her chest. “Lay down your weapon, Olaf,” the eldest Baudelaire said. “You don’t want to do this wicked thing.”

Count Olaf blinked, but did not move the gun. “Of course I do,” he said. “If the sub-sub doesn’t tell me how to get the sugar bowl, I’ll pull the trigger no matter who’s standing in front of me! Ha! Five!”

Klaus took a step forward, joining his sister. “You have a choice,” he said. “You can choose not to pull that trigger!”

“And you can choose death by harpoon!” Count Olaf cried. “Six!”

“Please,” Sunny said, joining her sisters. The villain did not move, but standing together, the three Baudelaires walked closer and closer to the harpoon gun, shielding Dewey all the while.

“Seven!”

“Please,” the youngest Baudelaire said again. The Baudelaires walked slowly but steadily toward the harpoon gun, their echoing footsteps the only sound in the silent lobby except for Olaf’s shrieking of higher and higher numbers.

“Eight!”

They walked closer.

“Nine!”

The children took one last step, and silently put their hands on the harpoon gun, which felt ice cold, even through their white gloves. They tried to pull the weapon out of Olaf’s hands, but their first guardian did not let go, and for a long moment the youngsters and the adult were gathered around the terrible weapon in silence. Violet stared at the hooked tip of one harpoon that was pressed against her chest. Klaus stared straight ahead at the bright red trigger that could press at any moment, and Sunny stared into Olaf’s shiny, shiny eyes for even the smallest sign of nobility.

“What else can I do?” the villain asked, so quietly the children could not be sure they had heard him correctly.

“Give us the gun,” Violet said. “It’s not your destiny to do this treacherous deed.”

“Give us the gun,” Klaus said. “It’s not your destiny to be a wicked person.”

“La Forza del Destino,” Sunny said, and then nobody said anything more. It was so quiet in the lobby that the Baudelaires could hear Olaf draw breath as he got ready to shout the word “ten.”

But then, in an instant, they heard another sound, specifically a very loud cough, and in an instant everything changed, which is the wicked way of the world. In an instant, you can light a match and start a fire that can destroy the lives of countless people. In an instant, you can remove a cake from the oven and provide dessert for countless others, assuming that the cake is very large, and the others are not very hungry. In an instant, you can change a few words in a poem by Robert Frost and communicate with your associates through a code known as Verse Fluctuation Declaration, and in an instant, you can realize where something is hidden and decide whether you are going to retrieve it or let it stay hidden, where it might never be found and eventually be forgotten by all but a few very well-read and very distraught figures, who are themselves forgotten by all but a few very well-read and very distraught figures, who in turn are forgotten, and so on, and so on, and so on, and a few more so ons besides. All this can happen in an instant, as if a single instant is an enormous container, capable of holding countless secrets safely, securely, and attractively, such as the countless secrets held in the Hotel Denouement, or in the hidden underwater catalog in its rippling reflection. But in this instant, in the hotel’s enormous lobby, the Baudelaire orphans heard a cough, as loud as it was familiar, and in this instant Count Olaf turned to see who was walking into the lobby, and hurriedly pushed the harpoon gun into the Baudelaires’ hands when he saw a figure wearing pajamas with drawings of money all over them and a bewildered expression on his face. In this instant, the three siblings grasped the weapon, feeling its heavy, dark weight in their hands, and in this instant the gun slipped from their hands and clattered to the green wooden floor, and in this instant they heard the red trigger click!, and in this instant the penultimate harpoon was fired with a swoosh! and sailed through the enormous, domed room and struck someone a fatal blow, a phrase which here means “killed one of the people in the room.”

“What’s going on?” Mr. Poe demanded, for it was not his destiny to be slain by a harpoon, at least not on this particular evening. “I could hear people arguing all the way from Room 174. What in the world—” and in that instant he stopped, and gazed in horror at the three siblings. “Baudelaires!” he gasped, but he was not the only person gasping. Violet gasped, and Klaus gasped, and Sunny gasped, and Justice Strauss and Jerome Squalor gasped, and Hugo, Colette, and Kevin—who were accustomed to violence from their days as carnival employees and as henchmen to a villain—gasped, and Carmelita Spats gasped, and Esmé Squalor gasped, and even Count Olaf gasped, although it is unusual for a villain to gasp unless he is discovering a crucial secret, or suffering very great pain. But it was Dewey Denouement who gasped loudest of all, louder even than the Wrong!s that thundered through the hotel as the clock struck two. Wrong! Wrong! the clock thundered, but all the Baudelaires heard was Dewey’s pained, choking gasp, as he stumbled backward through the lobby, one hand on his chest, and the other clutching the tail end of the harpoon, which stuck out from his body at an odd angle, like a drinking straw, or a reflection of one of Dewey’s skinny arms.

“Dewey!” Violet cried.

“Dewey!” Klaus cried.

“Denouement!” Sunny cried, but the sub-sub-librarian did not answer, and stumbled backward out of the hotel in silence. For a moment, the children were too shocked to move as they watched him disappear into the cloud of steam rising from the laundry room funnel, but then they ran after him, hurrying down the stairs as they heard a splash! from the edge of the pond. By the time the Baudelaires reached him, he was already beginning to sink, his trembling body making ripples in the water. There are those who say 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, but the Baudelaires could not bear to think of the tiny action of the trigger of the harpoon gun, or how the world had changed in just one instant. Instead, they frantically rushed to the edge of the pond as the sub-sub-librarian began to sink. Klaus grabbed one hand, and Sunny grabbed the other, and Violet reached for his face, as if she were comforting someone who had begun to cry.

“You’ll be O.K.,” Violet cried. “Let us get you out of the water.”

Dewey shook his head, and then gave the children a terrible frown, as if he were trying to speak but unable to find the words.

“You’ll survive,” Klaus said, although he knew, both from reading about dreadful events and from dreadful events in his own life, that this simply was not true.

Dewey shook his head again. By now, only his head was above the surface of the water, and his two trembling hands. The children could not see his body, or the harpoon, which was a small mercy.

“We failed you,” Sunny said.

Dewey shook his head one more time, this time very wildly in violent disagreement. He opened his mouth, and reached one hand out of the water, pointing past the Baudelaires toward the dark, dark sky as he struggled to utter the word he most wanted to say. “Kit,” he whispered finally, and then, slipping from the grasp of the children, he disappeared into the dark water, and the Baudelaire orphans wept alone for the mercies denied them, and for the wicked, wicked way of the world.

CHAPTER Ten

“What was that?” a voice called out.

“It sounded like a harpoon gun being fired!” cried another voice.

“A harpoon gun?” asked a third voice. “This is supposed to be a hotel, not a shooting gallery!”

“I heard a splash!” cried someone.

“Me too!” agreed someone else. “It sounded like somebody fell into the pond!”

The Baudelaire orphans gazed at the settling surface of the pond and saw the reflections of shutters and windows opening on every story of the Hotel Denouement. Lights went on, and the silhouettes of people appeared, leaning out of the windows and pointing down at the weeping children, who were too upset to pay much attention to all the shouting.

“What’s all this shouting about?” asked another voice. “I was fast asleep!”

“It’s the middle of the night!” complained someone else. “Why is everybody yelling?”

“I’ll tell you why there’s yelling!” yelled someone. “Someone was shot with a harpoon gun and then fell into the pond!”

“Come back to bed, Bruce,” said someone else.

“I can’t sleep if there’s murderers on the loose!” cried another guest.

“Amen, brother!” said another person. “If a crime has been committed, then it’s our duty to stand around in our pajamas in the name of justice!”

“I can’t sleep anyway!” said somebody. “That lousy Indian food has kept me up all night!”

“Somebody tell me what’s going on!” called a voice. “The readers of The Daily Punctilio will want to know what’s happened.”

The sound of the voice of Geraldine Julienne, and the mention of her inaccurate publication, forced the children to stop crying, if only for a moment. They knew it would be wise to postpone their grief—a phrase which here means “mourn the death of Dewey Denouement at a later time”—and make sure that the newspaper printed the truth.

“There’s been an accident,” Violet called, not turning her eyes from the surface of the pond. “A terrible accident.”

“One of the hotel managers has died,” Klaus said.

“Which one?” asked a voice from a high window. “Frank or Ernest?”

“Dewey,” Sunny said.

“There’s no Dewey,” said another voice. “That’s a legendary figure.”

“He’s not a legendary figure!” Violet said indignantly. “He’s a sub—”

Klaus put his hand on his sister’s, and the eldest Baudelaire stopped talking. “Dewey’s catalog is a secret,” he whispered. “We can’t have it announced in The Daily Punctilio.”

“But truth,” Sunny murmured.

“Klaus is right,” Violet said. “Dewey asked us to keep his secret, and we can’t fail him.” She looked sadly out at the pond, and wiped the tears from her eyes. “It’s the least we can do,” she said.

“I didn’t realize this was a sad occasion,” said another hotel guest. “We should observe everything carefully, and intrude only if absolutely necessary.”

“I disagree!” said someone in a raspy shout. “We should intrude right now, and observe only if absolutely necessary!”

“We should call the authorities!” said someone else.

“We should call the manager!”

“We should call the concierge!”

“We should call my mother!”

“We should look for clues!”

“We should look for weapons!”

“We should look for my mother!”

“We should look for suspicious people!”

“Suspicious people?” repeated another voice. “But this is supposed to be a nice hotel!”

“Nice hotels are crawling with suspicious people,” someone else remarked. “I saw a washerwoman who was wearing a suspicious wig!”

“I saw a concierge carrying a suspicious item!”

“I saw a taxi carrying a suspicious passenger!”

“I saw a cook preparing suspicious food!”

“I saw an attendant holding a suspicious spatula!”

“I saw a man with a suspicious cloud of smoke!”

“I saw a baby with a suspicious lock!”

“I saw a manager wearing a suspicious uniform!”

“I saw a woman wearing suspicious lettuce!”

“I saw my mother!”

“I can’t see anything!” someone yelled. “It’s as dark as a crow flying through a pitch black night!”

“I see something right now!” cried a voice. “There are three suspicious people standing at the edge of the pond!”

“They’re the people who were talking to the reporter!” cried somebody else. “They’re refusing to show their faces!”

“They must be murderers!” cried yet another person. “Nobody else would act as suspiciously as that!”

“We’d better hurry downstairs,” said one more guest, “before they escape!”

“Wow!” squealed another voice. “Wait until the readers of The Daily Punctilio read the headline: ‘VICIOUS MURDER AT HOTEL DENOUEMENT!’ That’s much more exciting than an accident!”

“Mob psychology,” Sunny said, remembering a term Klaus had taught her shortly before she took her first steps.

“Sunny’s right,” said Klaus, wiping his eyes. “This crowd is getting angrier and angrier. In a moment, they’ll all believe we’re murderers.”

“Maybe we are,” Violet said quietly.

“Poppycock!” Sunny said firmly, which meant something like, “Nonsense.” “Accident!”

“It was an accident,” Klaus said, “but it was our fault.”

“Partially,” Sunny said.

“It’s not for us to decide,” Violet said. “We should go inside and talk to Justice Strauss and the others. They’ll know what to do.”

“Maybe,” Klaus said. “Or maybe we should run.”

“Run?” Sunny asked.

“We can’t run,” Violet said. “If we run, everyone will think we’re murderers.”

“Maybe we are,” Klaus pointed out. “All the noble people in that lobby have failed us. We can’t be sure they’ll help us now.”

Violet heaved a great sigh, her breath still shaky from her tears. “Where would we go?” she whispered.

“Anywhere,” Klaus said simply. “We could go somewhere where no one has ever heard of Count Olaf, or V.F.D. There must be other noble people in the world, and we could find them.”

“There are other noble people,” Violet said. “They’re on their way here. Dewey told us to wait until tomorrow. I think we should stay.”

“Tomorrow might be too late,” Klaus said. “I think we should run.”

“Torn,” Sunny said, which meant something along the lines of, “I see the advantages and disadvantages of both plans of action,” but before her siblings could answer, the children felt a shadow over them, and looked up to see a tall, skinny figure standing over them. In the darkness the children could not see any of his features, only the glowing tip of a skinny cigarette in his mouth.

“Do you three need a taxi?” he asked, and gestured to the automobile that had brought Justice Strauss and Jerome Squalor to the entrance of the hotel.

The siblings looked at one another, and then squinted up at the man. The children thought perhaps his voice was familiar, but it might just have been his unfathomable tone, which they’d heard so many times since their arrival at the hotel that it made everything seem familiar and mysterious at the same time.

“We’re not sure,” Violet said, after a moment.

“You’re not sure?” the man asked. “Whenever you see someone in a taxi, they are probably being driven to do some errand. Surely there must be something you need to do, or somewhere you need to go. A great American novelist wrote that people travel faster now, but she wasn’t sure if they do better things. Maybe you would do better things if you traveled at this very moment.”

“We haven’t any money,” Klaus said.

“You needn’t worry about money,” the man said, “not if you’re who I think you are.” He leaned in toward the Baudelaires. “Are you?” he asked. “Are you who I think you are?”

The children looked at each other again. They had no way of knowing, of course, if this man was a volunteer or an enemy, a noble man or a treacherous person. In general, of course, a stranger who tries to get you into an automobile is anything but noble, and in general a person who quotes great American novelists is anything but treacherous, and in general a man who says you needn’t worry about money, or a man who smokes cigarettes, is somewhere in between. But the Baudelaire orphans were not standing in general. They were standing outside the Hotel Denouement, at the edge of a pond where a great secret was hidden, while a crowd of guests grew more and more suspicious about the terrible thing that had just occurred. The children thought of Dewey, and remembered the terrible, terrible sight of him sinking into the pond, and they realized they had no way of knowing if they themselves were good or evil, let alone the mysterious man towering over them.

“We don’t know,” Sunny said finally.

“Baudelaires!” came a sharp voice at the top of the stairs, followed by a fit of coughing, and the siblings turned to see Mr. Poe, who was staring at the children and covering his mouth with a white handkerchief. “What has happened?” he asked. “Where is that man you shot with the harpoon?”

The Baudelaires were too weary and unhappy to argue with Mr. Poe’s description of what happened. “He’s dead,” Violet said, and found that tears were in her eyes once more.

Mr. Poe coughed once more in astonishment, and then stepped down the stairs and stood in front of the children whose welfare had been his responsibility. “Dead!” he said. “How did that happen?”

“It’s difficult to say,” Klaus said.

“Difficult to say?” Mr. Poe frowned. “But I saw you, Baudelaires. You were holding the weapon. Surely you can tell me what happened.”

“Henribergson,” Sunny said, which meant “It’s more complicated than that,” but Mr. Poe only shook his head as if he’d heard enough.

“You’d better come inside,” he said, with a weary sigh. “I must say I’m very disappointed in you children. When I was in charge of your affairs, no matter how many homes I found for you, terrible things occurred. Then, when you decided to handle your own affairs, The Daily Punctilio brought more and more news of your treachery with each passing day. And now that I’ve found you again, I see that once more an unfortunate event has occurred, and another guardian is dead. You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

The Baudelaires did not answer. Dewey Denouement, of course, had not been their official guardian at the Hotel Denouement, but he had looked after them, even when they did not know it, and he had done his best to protect them from the villainous people lurking around their home. Even though he wasn’t a proper guardian, he was a good guardian, and the children were ashamed of themselves for their participation in his unfortunate death. In silence, they waited while Mr. Poe had another fit of coughing, and then the banker put his hands on the Baudelaires’ shoulders, pushing them toward the entrance to the hotel. “There are people who say that criminal behavior is the destiny of children from a broken home,” he said. “Perhaps such people are right.”

“This isn’t our destiny,” Klaus said, but he did not sound very sure, and Mr. Poe merely gave him a sad, stern look, and kept pushing. If someone taller than you has ever reached down to push you by the shoulder, then you know this is not a pleasant way to travel, but the Baudelaires were too upset and confused to care. Up the stairs they went, the banker plodding behind them in his ugly pajamas, and only when they reached the cloud of steam that still wafted across the entrance did they think to look back at the mysterious man who had offered them a ride. By then the man was already back inside the taxi and was driving slowly away from the Hotel Denouement, and just as the children had no way of knowing if he was a good person or not, they had no way of knowing if they were sad or relieved to see him go, and even after months of research, and many sleepless nights, and many dreary afternoons spent in front of an enormous pond, throwing stones in the hopes that someone would notice the ripples I was making, I have no way of knowing if the Baudelaires should have been sad or relieved to see him go either. I do know who the man was, and I do know where he went afterward, and I do know the name of the woman who was hiding in the trunk, and the type of musical instrument that was laid carefully in the back seat, and the ingredients of the sandwich tucked into the glove compartment, and even the small item that sat on the passenger seat, still damp from its hiding place, but I cannot tell you if the Baudelaires would have been happier in this man’s company, or if it was better that he drove away from the three siblings, looking back at them through the rearview mirror and clutching a monogrammed napkin in his trembling hand. I do know that if they had gotten into his taxi, their troubles at the Hotel Denouement would not have been their penultimate peril, and they would have had quite a few more woeful events in their lives that would likely take thirteen more books to describe, but I have no way of knowing if it would have been better for the orphans, any more than I know if it would have been better for me had I decided to continue my life’s work rather than researching the Baudelaires’ story, or if it would have been better for my sister had she decided to join the children at the Hotel Denouement instead of waterskiing toward Captain Widdershins, and, later, waterskiing away from him, or if it would have been better for you to step into that taxicab you saw not so long ago and embark on your own series of events, rather than continuing with the life you have for yourself. There is no way of knowing. When there is no way of knowing, one can only imagine, and I imagine that the Baudelaire orphans were quite frightened indeed when they walked through the entrance to the hotel and saw the crowd of people waiting for them in the lobby.

“There they are!” roared someone from the back of the room. The children could not see who it was, because the lobby was as crowded as it had been when they first set foot in the perplexing hotel. It had been strange to walk through the enormous, domed room that morning, passing unnoticed in their concierge disguises, but this time every person in the lobby was looking directly at them. The children were amazed to see countless familiar faces from every chapter of their lives, and saw many, many people they could not be sure if they recognized or not. Everyone was wearing pajamas, nightgowns, or other sleepwear, and was glaring at the Baudelaires through eyes squinty from being awakened in the middle of the night. It is always interesting to observe what people are wearing in the middle of the night, although there are more pleasant ways to make such observations without being accused of murder. “Those are the murderers!”

“They’re no ordinary murderers!” cried Geraldine Julienne, who was wearing a bright yellow nightshirt and had a shower cap over her hair. “They’re the Baudelaire orphans!”

A ripple of astonishment went through the pajamaed crowd, and the children wished they had thought to put their sunglasses back on. “The Baudelaire orphans?” cried Sir, whose pajamas had the initials L. S. stenciled over the pocket, presumably for “Lucky Smells.” “I remember them! They caused accidents in my lumbermill!”

“The accidents weren’t their fault!” Charles said, whose pajamas matched his partner’s. “They were the fault of Count Olaf!”

“Count Olaf is another one of their victims!” cried a woman dressed in a bright pink bathrobe. The Baudelaires recognized her as Mrs. Morrow, one of the citizens of the Village of Fowl Devotees. “He was murdered right in my hometown!”

“That was Count Omar,” said another citizen of the town, a man named Mr. Lesko who apparently slept in the same plaid pants he wore during the day.

“I’m sure the Baudelaires aren’t murderers,” said Jerome Squalor. “I was their guardian, and I always found them to be polite and kind.”

“They were pretty good students, if I remember correctly,” said Mr. Remora, who was wearing a nightcap shaped like a banana.

“They were pretty good students, if I remember correctly,” Vice Principal Nero mimicked. “They were nothing of the sort. Violet and Klaus flunked all sorts of tests, and Sunny was the worst administrative assistant I’ve ever seen!”

“I say they’re criminals,” Mrs. Bass said, adjusting her wig, “and criminals ought to be punished.”

“Yes!” said Hugo. “Criminals are too freakish to be running around loose!”

“They’re not criminals,” Hal said firmly, “and I should know.”

“So should I,” retorted Esmé Squalor, “and I say they’re guilty as sin.” Her long, silver fingernails rested on the shoulder of Carmelita Spats, who was glaring at the siblings as Mr. Poe pushed them past.

“I think they’re guiltier than that!” said one of the hotel bellboys.

“I think they’re even guiltier than you think they are!” cried another.

“I think they look like nice kids!” said someone the children did not recognize.

“I think they look like vicious criminals!” said another person.

“I think they look like noble volunteers!” said another.

“I think they look like treacherous villains!”

“I think they look like concierges!”

“One of them looks a bit like my mother!”

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! The lobby seemed to shake as the clock struck three in the morning. By now, Mr. Poe had escorted the Baudelaires to a far corner of the lobby, where either Frank or Ernest was waiting next to the door marked 121 with a grim expression on his face as the last Wrong! echoed in the enormous room.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” The children turned to see Justice Strauss, who was standing on one of the wooden benches so she could be seen and clapping her hands for attention. “Please settle down! The matter of the Baudelaires’ guilt or innocence is not for you to decide.”

“That doesn’t seem fair,” remarked a man in pajamas with a pattern of salmon swimming upstream. “After all, they woke us up in the middle of the night.”

“The case is a matter for the High Court,” Justice Strauss said. “The authorities have been notified, and the other judges of the court are on their way. We will be able to begin the trial in a matter of hours.”

“I thought the trial was on Thursday,” said a woman in a nightgown emblazoned with dancing clowns.

“Showing up early is one of the signs of a noble person,” Justice Strauss said. “Once the other noble judges have arrived, we will decide on this matter—and other equally important matters—once and for all.”

There was a murmur of discussion in the crowd. “I suppose that’s all right,” grumbled someone.

“All right?” Geraldine Julienne said. “It’s wonderful! I can see the headline now: ‘HIGH COURT FINDS BAUDELAIRES GUILTY!’”

“No one is guilty until the trial is over,” Justice Strauss said, and for the first time the judge gazed down at the children and gave them a gentle smile. It was a small mercy, that smile, and the frightened Baudelaires smiled back. Justice Strauss stepped off the bench and walked through the murmuring crowd, followed by Jerome Squalor.

“Don’t worry, children,” Jerome said. “It looks like you won’t have to wait until tomorrow for justice to be served.”

“I hope so,” Violet said.

“I thought judges weren’t allowed to reach verdicts on people they know,” Klaus said.

“Normally that’s true,” Justice Strauss said. “The law should be impartial and fair. But I think I can be fair where Count Olaf is concerned.”

“Besides,” Jerome said, “there are two other judges on the High Court. Justice Strauss’s opinion is not the only one that matters.”

“I trust my fellow judges,” Justice Strauss said. “I’ve known them for years, and they’ve always been concerned whenever I’ve reported on your case. While we wait for them to arrive, however, I’ve asked the managers of the hotel to put you in Room 121, to keep you away from this angry crowd.”

Without a word, Frank or Ernest unlocked the door and revealed the small, bare closet where Violet had found the harpoon gun. “We’ll be locked up?” Klaus said nervously.

“Just to keep you safe,” Justice Strauss said, “until the trial begins.”

“Yes!” cried a voice the children would never forget. The crowd parted to reveal Count Olaf, who walked toward the Baudelaires with a triumphant gleam in his eyes. “Lock them up!” he said. “We can’t have treacherous people running around the hotel! There are noble, decent people here.”

“Really?” asked Colette.

“Ha!” Count Olaf said. “I mean, of course! The High Court will decide who’s noble and who’s wicked. In the meantime, the orphans should be locked in a closet.”

“Hear hear!” Kevin said, raising one arm and then the other in an ambidextrous salute.

“They’re not the only ones,” Justice Strauss said sternly. “You, sir, have also been accused of a great deal of treachery, and the High Court is very interested in your case as well. You will be locked in Room 165 until the trial begins.”

The man who was not Frank but Ernest, or vice versa, stepped sternly out of the crowd and took Olaf’s arm.

“Fair enough,” said Olaf. “I’m happy to wait for the verdict of the High Court. Ha!”

The three siblings looked at one another, and then around the lobby, where the crowd was looking fiercely back at them. They did not want to be locked in a small room, no matter what the reason, and they could not understand why the idea of the High Court reaching a verdict on Count Olaf made him laugh. However, they knew that arguing with the crowd would be bootless, a word which here means “likely to get the siblings in even more trouble,” and so without another word, the three Baudelaires stepped inside the closet. Jerome and Justice Strauss gave them a little wave, and Mr. Poe gave them a little cough, and either Frank or Ernest stepped forward to shut the door. At the sight of the manager, the children suddenly thought not of Dewey, but of the family left behind, just as Violet, Klaus, and Sunny were all left behind after that first day at Briny Beach, and the dreadful news they received there.

“We’re sorry,” Sunny said, and the manager looked down at the youngest Baudelaire and blinked. Perhaps he was Frank, and thought the Baudelaires had done something wicked, or perhaps he was Ernest, and thought the Baudelaires had done something noble, but in either case the manager looked surprised that the children were sorry. For a moment, he paused, and gave them a tiny nod, but then he shut the door and the Baudelaire children were alone. The door of Room 121 was surprisingly thick, and although the light of the lobby shone clearly through the gap at the bottom of the door, the noise of the crowd was nothing but a faint buzzing, like a swarm of bees or the workings of a machine. The orphans sank to the floor, exhausted from their busy day and their terrible, terrible night. They took off their shoes and leaned against one another in the cramped surroundings, trying to find a comfortable position and listening to the buzz of the arguing crowd in the lobby.

“What will happen to us?” Violet asked.

“I don’t know,” Klaus said.

“Perhaps we should have run,” Violet said, “like you suggested, Klaus.”

“Perhaps at a trial,” the middle Baudelaire said, “the villains at last will be brought to justice.”

“Olaf,” Sunny asked, “or us?”

What Sunny asked, of course, was whether Count Olaf was the villain who would be brought to justice, or if it would be the three Baudelaires, but her siblings had no answer for her. Instead, the eldest Baudelaire leaned down and kissed the top of her sister’s head, and Klaus leaned up to kiss Violet’s, and Sunny moved her head first to the right and then to the left, to kiss both of them. If you had been in the lobby of the Hotel Denouement, you would not have heard anything from behind the thick door of Room 121, as the Baudelaires ended their conversation with a great, shuddering sigh, and nestled close to one another in the small space. You would have had to be on the other side of the door, leaning against the children yourself, to hear the tiny, quiet sounds as the Baudelaire orphans cried themselves to sleep, unable to answer Sunny’s question.

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