بخش 07

مجموعه: مجموعه بدبیاری ها / کتاب: خطر ماقبل آخر / فصل 7

بخش 07

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CHAPTER Thirteen

“Ha!” Count Olaf crowed. “This takes the cake!” He was using an expression which here means “I find this especially amusing and outrageous!” although Dewey Denouement’s underwater catalog contains a list of twenty-seven cakes that Olaf has stolen. With a look of treacherous glee he reached down and patted Sunny Baudelaire on the head, using the hand that wasn’t clutching the harpoon gun. “After all this time, the littlest orphan wants to follow in my footsteps!” he cried. “I knew I was a good guardian after all!”

“You’re not a good guardian,” Violet said, “and Sunny’s not an arsonist. My sister doesn’t know what she’s saying.”

“Burn down hotel,” Sunny insisted.

“Are you feeling all right, Sunny?” Klaus asked, peering into his sister’s eyes. He was worried that the Medusoid Mycelium, which had threatened the life of the youngest Baudelaire just days ago, was affecting her in some sinister way. Klaus had researched a way to dilute the treacherous fungus, but he wondered now if dilution was not enough.

“I feel fine,” Sunny said. “Burn down hotel.”

“That’s my girl!” Count Olaf cried. “I only wish Carmelita had your spunk! With all the errands I had to do, burning down this hotel hadn’t even occurred to me. But even when you’re very busy, you should always take time for your hobbies.”

“Your hobbies,” Justice Strauss said, “are nothing but villainy, Count Olaf. The Baudelaires may want to join you in wickedness, but I’ll do anything in my power to stop you.”

“There’s nothing in your power,” Olaf sneered. “Your fellow judges are comrades of mine, your fellow volunteers are running around the lobby of this hotel wearing blindfolds, and I have the harpoon gun.”

“I have a comprehensive history of injustice!” Justice Strauss cried. “This book should be good for something!”

The villain did not continue his argument, but merely pointed the weapon at the judge. “You orphans will start the fire here in the laundry room,” he said, “while I make sure Justice Strauss doesn’t stop us.”

“Yes, sir,” Sunny said, and reached for her siblings’ hands.

“No!” Justice Strauss cried.

“Why are you doing this, Sunny?” Violet asked her sister. “You’re going to hurt innocent people!”

“Why are you helping Count Olaf burn down this building?” Klaus cried.

Sunny looked at the laundry room, and then up at her siblings. In silence, she shook her head, as if this were not the time to discuss such matters. “Help me,” she said, and she did not have to say anything more. Although Violet and Klaus found their sister’s actions unfathomable, they followed her into the laundry room as Olaf uttered a succinct laugh of triumph.

“Ha!” Count Olaf cried. “Pay attention, orphans, and I’ll teach you some of my best tricks. First, spread those dirty sheets all over the floor. Then, take those jugs of extremely flammable chemicals and pour them all over the sheets.”

In silence, Violet spread the rest of the sheets over the laundry room’s wooden floor, while Klaus and Sunny walked over to the plastic jugs, opened them, and spilled them all over the sheets. A strong, bitter smell wafted from the laundry room as the children turned to Olaf and asked what was next.

“What is next?” Sunny asked.

“Next is a match and some kindling,” Olaf replied, and reached into his pocket with the hand that wasn’t holding the gun. “I always carry matches on my person,” he said, “just as my enemies always carry kindling.” He leaned forward and snatched Odious Lusting After Finance out of Justice Strauss’s hands. “This book is good for something,” he said, and tossed it into the center of the dirty sheets, narrowly missing the siblings as they walked into the hallway. Jerome Squalor’s book opened as it landed, and the children saw what looked like a carefully drawn diagram, with arrows and dotted lines and a paragraph of notation underneath. The Baudelaires leaned forward to see if they could read what the injustice expert had written, and caught only the word “passageway” before Olaf lit a match and tossed it expertly onto the page. The paper caught on fire at once, and the book began to burn.

“Oh,” Sunny said quietly, and leaned against her siblings. All three Baudelaires, and the adults standing with them, stared into the laundry room in silence.

The burning of a book is a sad, sad sight, for even though a book is nothing but ink and paper, it feels as if the ideas contained in the book are disappearing as the pages turn to ashes and the cover and binding—which is the term for the stitching and glue that holds the pages together—blacken and curl as the flames do their wicked work. When someone is burning a book, they are showing utter contempt for all of the thinking that produced its ideas, all of the labor that went into its words and sentences, and all of the trouble that befell the author, from the swarm of termites that tried to destroy his notes, to the large boulder that someone rolled onto the illustrator as he sat by the edge of the pond waiting for the delivery of the manuscript. Justice Strauss gazed at the book with a shocked frown, perhaps thinking of Jerome Squalor’s research and all the villains it might have brought to justice. Count Olaf stared at the book with a smug smile, perhaps thinking of all of the other libraries he had destroyed. But you and I know there is no “perhaps” about what the Baudelaire orphans were thinking as they stared at the flames devouring the comprehensive history of injustice. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny were thinking of the fire that took their parents and their home and dropped them into the world to fend for themselves, a phrase which here means “go first from guardian to guardian, and then from desperate situation to desperate situation, trying to survive and solve the mysteries that hung over their heads like smoke.” The Baudelaire orphans were thinking of the first fire that had come into their lives, and wondering if this one would be the last.

“We’d best get away from here,” Count Olaf said, breaking the silence. “In my experience, once the flames reach the chemicals, the fire will spread very quickly. I’m afraid the cocktail party will be canceled, but if we hurry, there’s still time to infect the guests of his hotel with the Medusoid Mycelium before we escape. Ha! To the elevators!”

Twirling the harpoon gun in his hands, the villain strode down the hallway, dragging the judge as he went, and the Baudelaires hurried to follow. When they reached the elevator, the children looked at a sign posted near one of the ornamental vases. The sign was identical to one posted in the lobby, and it is a sign you have probably seen yourself. IN CASE OF FIRE, it said, in fancy script, USE STAIRS. DO NOT USE ELEVATOR.

“Stairs,” Sunny said, pointing at the sign.

“Ignore that,” Olaf said scornfully, punching the button to summon an elevator.

“Dangerous,” Sunny pointed out. “Take the stairs.”

“You may have had the idea to burn down the hotel,” Count Olaf said, “but I’m still the boss, baby! We won’t get to the fungus in time if we take the stairs! We’re taking the elevator!”

“Drat,” Sunny said quietly, and frowned in thought. Violet and Klaus looked at their sister curiously, wondering why a child who didn’t mind setting a hotel on fire would be upset over something like an elevator. But then Sunny gazed up at her siblings with a sly smile, and uttered one word that made everything clear.

“Preludio,” she said, and after a moment her siblings grinned.

“What?” Olaf asked sharply, and punched the button over and over again, which never helps.

“What my sister means,” Violet said, “is that she appreciates the lesson on setting fires,” but that is not what the youngest Baudelaire meant at all. By “Preludio,” her siblings knew, Sunny was referring to the Hotel Preludio, and the weekend vacation the entire Baudelaire family had spent there. As Kit Snicket had mentioned, the Hotel Preludio was a lovely place, and I am happy to report that it is still standing, like a small mercy, and that its ballroom still has its famous chandeliers, which are shaped like enormous jellyfish and move up and down in time to the music that the orchestra plays, and that the bookstore in the lobby still specializes in the work of American novelists of the realist school, and the outdoor swimming pool is still as beautiful as it ever was, its reflection of the hotel windows shimmering whenever anyone dives in to swim laps. But the Baudelaire orphans were not remembering the chandeliers, or the bookstore, or even the swimming pool, where Sunny first learned to blow bubbles. They were remembering a prank their father had taught them, when he was in one of his whimsical moods, that can be played in any elevator. The prank, a word which here means “joke played on someone with whom you are sharing an elevator,” is best played at the moment when you are about to get off the elevator, and your fellow passengers are heading to a higher story. The Baudelaires’ mother had objected to their father teaching them such a prank, as she said it was undignified, but their father had pointed out it was no more undignified than doing magic tricks with dinner rolls, which their mother had done that very morning in the hotel restaurant, and she reluctantly agreed to participate in the prank. This particular moment in the Baudelaires’ lives, of course, was not the best one for a prank, but Violet and Klaus saw immediately what their sister had in mind, and when the sliding doors opened and Count Olaf stomped inside the elevator, the three Baudelaires followed him and immediately pressed every single button. When the Baudelaires’ father had done this after exiting the elevator, it meant that the remaining passenger, a tiresome woman named Eleanora, had been forced to visit every story on the way up to her room, but here in the Hotel Denouement, the prank served a dual purpose, a phrase which here means “enabled the Baudelaires to do two things at once.”

“What are you doing?” Olaf shrieked. “I’ll never reach the Medusoid Mycelium in time to poison everyone!”

“We’ll be able to warn as many people as possible that the building is on fire!” cried Justice Strauss.

“Dual purpose,” Sunny said, and shared a small smile with her siblings as the elevator reached the lobby and opened its doors. The enormous, domed room was nearly empty, and the Baudelaires could see that everyone had followed the advice of the two wicked judges of the High Court, and were wandering blindfolded around the hotel.

“Fire!” cried Violet immediately, knowing the doors would slide shut in an instant. “Attention everyone! There’s a fire in the hotel! Please leave at once!”

The man with a beard but no hair was standing nearby, with his hand on Jerome Squalor’s shoulder so he could push the injustice expert around. “Fire?” he said, in his strange, hoarse voice. “Good work, Olaf!”

“What do you mean, good work?” demanded Jerome, a frown appearing below his blindfold.

“I meant to say, ‘there’s Olaf!’” the man said hurriedly, pushing Jerome in the direction of the elevator. “Capture him! He needs to be brought to the authorities!”

“Olaf is here?” asked probably Frank, who was feeling his way along the wall along with his brother. “I’m going to capture him!”

“Where are the Baudelaires?” demanded probably Ernest. “I’m going to capture them!”

“In the elevator!” shouted the woman with hair but no beard from across the lobby, but the sliding doors were already closing.

“Call the fire department!” Violet cried desperately.

“Which one?” was the reply, but the children could not tell if it came from Frank or Ernest, and the doors slid shut on this one last glimpse of the villains and volunteers before elevator began its rise to the second story.

“Those judges promised that if I waited until tomorrow I’d see all my enemies destroyed,” Count Olaf grumbled, “and now they’re trying to capture me. I knew they’d fail me some day.”

The Baudelaires did not have time to point out that Olaf had also failed the judges, by planning to poison them, along with everyone else in the lobby, with the Medusoid Mycelium, because the elevator immediately stopped on the second story and opened its doors.

“There’s a fire in the hotel!” Klaus called into the hallway. “Everyone leave at once!”

“A fire?” said Esmé Squalor. The Baudelaires were surprised to see that this treacherous woman was still wearing her blindfold, but perhaps she had decided that pieces of black cloth were in. “Who said that?”

“It’s Klaus Baudelaire,” Klaus Baudelaire said. “You need to get out of the hotel!”

“Don’t listen to that cakesniffer!” cried Carmelita Spats, who was running a hand over an ornamental vase. “He’s just trying to escape from us! Let’s take off our blindfolds and peek!”

“Don’t take off your blindfolds!” cried Count Olaf. “Those Baudelaires are guilty of contempt of court, and they’re trying to trick you into joining them! There’s no fire! Whatever you do, don’t leave the hotel!”

“We’re not tricking you!” Klaus said. “Olaf is tricking you! Please believe us!”

“I don’t know who to believe,” Esmé said scornfully. “You orphans are as dishonest as my ex-boyfriend.”

“Leave us alone!” Carmelita ordered, bumping into a wall. “We can find our own way!”

The doors slid shut before the Baudelaires could argue any further, and indeed the children never argued with either unpleasant female again. In a moment, the elevator arrived at the third story, and Sunny raised her voice so that she could be heard by anyone, treacherous or noble, in the hallway.

“Fire!” she cried. “Use stairs. Do not use elevator!”

“Sunny Baudelaire?” Mr. Poe called, recognizing the child’s voice. The banker was facing the entirely wrong direction, and holding a white handkerchief up to his black blindfold. “Don’t add the false reporting of fire to your list of crimes! You’re already guilty of contempt of court, and perhaps murder!”

“It’s not false!” Justice Strauss exclaimed. “There really is a fire, Mr. Poe! Leave this hotel!”

“I can’t leave,” Mr. Poe replied, coughing into his handkerchief. “I’m still in charge of the Baudelaires’ affairs, and their parents’ fort—”

The elevator doors closed before Mr. Poe could finish his word, and the Baudelaires were taken away from the banker one last time, and with each stop of the elevator, I’m sorry to say, it was more or less the same. The Baudelaires saw Mrs. Bass on the third story, still wearing her small blond wig like a snowcap on the top of a mountain peak, and her blindfold, stretched over her small, narrow mask, and they saw Mr. Remora, who was wandering around the seventh story with Vice Principal Nero. They saw Geraldine Julienne, who was using her microphone the way some blind people use a cane, and they saw Charles and Sir, who were holding hands so as not to lose one another, and they saw Hugo and Colette and Kevin, who were holding the birdpaper Klaus had hung outside the window of the sauna, and they saw Mr. Lesko arguing with Mrs. Morrow, and they saw a man with a guitar making friends with a woman in a crow-shaped hat, and they saw many people they did not recognize, either as volunteers or as villains, who were wandering the hallways of the hotel to capture anyone they might find suspicious. Some of these people believed the Baudelaires when they told them the news of the fire, and some of these people believed Count Olaf when he told them that the Baudelaires were lying, and some of these people believed Justice Strauss when she told them that Count Olaf was lying when he said the Baudelaires were lying when they told them the news of the fire. But the elevator’s stop on each story of the hotel was very brief, and the children had only a glimpse of each of these people. They heard Mrs. Bass mutter something about a getaway car, and they heard Mr. Remora wonder something about fried bananas. They heard Nero worry about his violin case, and Geraldine squeal about headlines, and they heard Charles and Sir bicker over whether or not fires were good for the lumber industry. They heard Hugo ask if the plan for the hors d’ouvres was still in operation, and they heard Colette ask about plucking the feathers off crows, and they heard Kevin complain that he didn’t know whether to hold the birdpaper in his right hand or his left hand, and they heard Mr. Lesko insult Mrs. Morrow, and the bearded man sing a song to the woman with the crow-shaped hat, and they heard a man call for Bruce and a woman call for her mother and dozens of people whisper to and shout at, argue with and agree upon, angrily accuse and meekly defend, furiously compliment and kindly insult dozens of other people, both inside and outside the Hotel Denouement, whose names the Baudelaires recognized, forgot, and had never heard before. Each story had its story, and each story’s story was unfathomable in the Baudelaire orphans’ short journey, and many of the stories’ stories are unfathomable to me, even after all these lonely years and all this lonely research. Perhaps some of these stories are clearer to you, because you have spied upon the people involved. Perhaps Mrs. Bass has changed her name and lives near you, or perhaps Mr. Remora’s name is the same, and he lives far away. Perhaps Nero now works as a grocery store clerk, or Geraldine Julienne now teaches arts and crafts. Perhaps Charles and Sir are no longer partners, and you have had the occasion to study one of them as he sat across from you on a bus, or perhaps Hugo, Colette, and Kevin are still comrades, and you have followed these unfathomable people after noticing that one of them used both hands equally. Perhaps Mr. Lesko is now your neighbor, or Mrs. Morrow is now your sister, or your mother, or your aunt or wife or even your husband. Perhaps the noise you hear outside your door is a bearded man trying to climb into your window, or perhaps it is a woman in a crow-shaped hat hailing a taxi. Perhaps you have spotted the managers of the Hotel Denouement, or the judges of the High Court, or the waiters of Café Salmonella or the Anxious Clown, or perhaps you have met an expert on injustice or become one yourself. Perhaps the people in your unfathomable life, and their unfathomable stories, are clear to you as you make your way in the world, but when the elevator stopped for the last time, and the doors slid open to reveal the tilted roof of the Hotel Denouement, the Baudelaires felt as if they were balancing very delicately on a mysterious and perplexing heap of unfathomable mysteries. They did not know who would survive the fire they had helped set, and who would perish. They did not know who thought they were volunteers and who thought they were villains, or who believed they were innocent and who believed they were guilty. And they did not know if their own observations, errands, and deeds meant that they were noble, or wicked, or somewhere in between. As they stepped out of the elevator and walked across the rooftop sunbathing salon, the Baudelaire orphans felt as if their entire lives were like a book, filled with crucial information, that had been set aflame, like the comprehensive history of injustice that was now just ashes in a fire growing more enormous by the second.

“Look!” cried Count Olaf, leaning over the edge of the hotel and pointing down. The Baudelaires looked, expecting to see the enormous, calm surface of the pond reflecting the Hotel Denouement back at them like an enormous mirror. But the air was stained with patches of thick, black smoke that poured out of the basement windows as the fire began to spread, and the surface of the pond looked like a series of tiny mirrors, each broken into strange, unfathomable shapes. Here and there, among the smoke and mirrors, the children could see the tiny figures running this way and that, but could not tell if they were the authorities on the ground, or people in the hotel running to escape from the blaze.

Olaf continued to gaze downward, and the Baudelaires could not tell if he looked pleased or disappointed. “Thanks to you orphans,” he said, “it’s too late to destroy everyone with the Medusoid Mycelium, but at least we got to start a fire.”

Justice Strauss was still gazing at the smoke pouring from the windows and rising into the sky, and her expression was equally unfathomable. “Thanks to you orphans,” she said quietly to the Baudelaires, “this hotel will be destroyed by fire, but at least we stopped Olaf from releasing the fungus.”

“The fire isn’t burning very quickly,” Olaf said. “Many people will escape.”

“The fire isn’t burning slowly, either,” Justice Strauss said. “Some people won’t.”

The Baudelaire orphans looked at one another, but before anyone could say anything further, the entire building trembled, and the children had to struggle to keep their balance on the tilted roof. The shiny sunbathing mats tumbled across the salon, and the water in the swimming pool splashed against the side of the large, wooden boat, dampening the figurehead of the octopus attacking a man in a diving suit.

“The fire is weakening the structural foundations of the building,” Violet said.

“We have to get out of here,” Klaus said.

“Pronto,” Sunny said.

Without another word the Baudelaires turned from the adults and strode quickly toward the boat. Shifting the pile of sheets into one hand, Violet took off her concierge hat, reached into her pocket, and found the ribbon Kit Snicket had given her, which she used to tie up her hair. Klaus reached into his pocket and found his commonplace book, which he began to flip through. Sunny did not reach into her pocket, but she scraped her sharp teeth together thoughtfully, as she suspected they might be needed.

Violet stared critically at the boat. “I’ll attach the drag chute to the figurehead,” she said. “I should be able to tie a Devil’s Tongue knot around the helmet of the diver.” She paused for a moment. “That’s where the Medusoid Mycelium is hidden,” she said. “Count Olaf kept it there, where no one would think of looking.”

Klaus stared critically at his notes. “I’ll angle the sail to catch the wind,” he said. “Otherwise, a heavy object like this would fall straight down into the water.” He paused for a moment, too. “That’s what happened to the sugar bowl,” he said. “Dewey Denouement let everyone think it had fallen into the laundry room, so no one would find it in the pond.”

“Spatulas as oars,” Sunny said, pointing to the implements that Hugo had used to flip over the sunbathers.

“Good idea,” Violet agreed and gazed out to the gray, troubled waters of the sea. “Maybe our friends will find us. Hector should be flying this way, with Kit Snicket and the Quagmires.”

“And Fiona,” Klaus added.

“No,” Sunny said.

“What do you mean?” Violet asked, stepping carefully from the edge of the pool onto the side of the boat, where she began to climb a rope ladder up to the figurehead.

“They said they would arrive by Thursday,” Klaus said, helping Sunny climb aboard and then stepping onto the boat himself. The deck was about the size of a large mattress, big enough to hold the Baudelaires and perhaps one or two more passengers. “It’s Wednesday afternoon.”

“The fire,” Sunny said, and pointed at the smoke as it rose toward the sky.

The two older Baudelaires gasped. They had almost forgotten that Kit had told them she would be watching the skies, looking for a signal that would cancel Thursday’s gathering.

“That’s why you thought of lighting the fire,” Violet said, hurriedly tying the sheets around the figurehead. “It’s a signal.”

“V.F.D. will see it,” Klaus said, “and know that all their hopes have gone up in smoke.”

Sunny nodded. “The last safe place,” she said, “is safe no more.”

It was an impressive sentence for the youngest Baudelaire, but a sad one.

“Maybe our friends will find us anyway,” Violet said. “They might be the last noble people we know.”

“If they’re truly noble,” Klaus said, “they might not want to be our friends.”

Violet nodded, and her eyes filled with tears. “You’re right,” she admitted. “We killed a man.”

“Accident,” Sunny said firmly.

“And burned down a hotel,” Klaus said.

“Signal,” Sunny said.

“We had good reasons,” Violet said, “but we still did bad things.”

“We want to be noble,” Klaus said, “but we’ve had to be treacherous.”

“Noble enough,” Sunny said, but the building trembled again, as if shaking its head in disagreement. Violet hung on to the figurehead and Klaus and Sunny hung on to each other as the boat bumped against the sides of the swimming pool.

“Help us!” Violet cried to the adults, who were still staring at the rising smoke. “Grab those spatulas, and push the boat to the edge of the roof!”

“Don’t boss me around!” Olaf growled, but he followed the judge to a corner of the roof where the spatulas lay, their mirrors reflecting the afternoon sun and the sky as it darkened with smoke. Each adult grabbed one spatula, and poked at the boat the way you might poke at a spider you were trying to get out of your bathtub. Bump! Bump! The sailboat bumped against the edge of the pool, and then jostled its way out of the pool, where it slowly slid, with a loud scraping sound, to the far edge of the roof. The Baudelaires hung on tightly as the front half of the boat kept sliding across the mirrors of the salon, until it was hanging over nothing but the smoky air. The boat tipped this way and that, in a delicate balance between the roof of the hotel and the sea below.

“Climb aboard!” Violet cried, giving her knots one last tug.

“Of course I’ll climb aboard!” Olaf announced, narrowing his eyes at the helmet of the figurehead. “I’m the captain of this boat!” He threw his spatula onto the deck, narrowly missing Klaus and Sunny, and then bounded onto the ship, making it teeter wildly on the edge of the building.

“You too, Justice Strauss!’ Klaus called, but the judge just put down her spatula and looked sadly at the children.

“No,” she said, and the children could see she was crying. “I won’t go. It’s not right.”

“What else can we do?” Sunny said, but Justice Strauss just shook her head.

“I won’t run from the scene of a crime,” she said. “You children should come with me, and we’ll explain everything to the authorities.”

“They might not believe us,” Violet said, readying the drag chute, “or there might be enemies lurking in their ranks, like the villains in the High Court.”

“Perhaps,” the judge said, “but that’s no excuse for running away.”

Count Olaf gave his former neighbor a scornful look, and then turned to the Baudelaires. “Let her burn to a crisp if she wants,” he said, “but it’s time for us to go.”

Justice Strauss took a deep breath, and then stepped forward and put her hand on the hideous wooden carving, as if she meant to drag the whole boat back onto the hotel. “There are people who say that criminal behavior is the destiny of children from a broken home,” she said, through her tears. “Don’t make this your destiny, Baudelaires.”

Klaus stood at the mast, adjusting the controls of the sail. “This boat,” he said, “is the only home we have.”

“I’ve been following you all this time,” she said, her grip tightening on the figurehead. “You’ve always been just out of my grasp, from the moment Mr. Poe took you away from the theater in his car to the moment Kit Snicket took you through the hedges in her taxi. I won’t let you go, Baudelaires!”

Sunny stepped toward the judge, and for one moment her siblings thought she was going to step off the boat. But then she merely looked into the judge’s weeping eyes, and gave her a very sad smile.

“Good-bye,” she said, and the Baudelaire opened her mouth and bit the hand of justice. With a cry of pain and frustration, Justice Strauss let go of the figurehead, and the building trembled again, sending the judge tumbling to the ground, and the boat tumbling off the roof, just as the clock of the Hotel Denouement announced the hour for the very last time.

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! The clock struck three times, and the three Baudelaires screamed as they hurtled toward the sea, and even Count Olaf cried “Mommy!” as it seemed for a terrible moment that their luck had run out at last, and that the boat would not survive the fall, due to the force of gravity. But then Violet let go of the dirty sheets, and the drag chute billowed into the air, looking almost like another patch of smoke against the sky, and Klaus moved the sail to catch the wind, and the boat stopped falling and started to glide, the way a bird will catch the wind, and rest its wings for a few moments, particularly if it is tired from carrying something heavy and important. For a moment, the boat floated down through the air, like something in a magical story, and even in their panic and fear the Baudelaires could not help marveling at the way they were escaping. Finally, with a mighty splash! the boat landed in the ocean, quite a distance from the burning hotel. For another terrible moment, it felt like the boat was going to sink into the water, just as Dewey Denouement had sunk into the pond, guarding his underwater catalog and all its secrets, and leaving the woman he loved pregnant and distraught. But the sail caught the wind, and the figurehead righted itself, and Olaf picked up his spatula and handed it to Sunny.

“Start rowing,” he ordered, and then began to cackle, his eyes shining bright. “You’re in my clutches at last, orphans,” he said. “We’re all in the same boat.”

The Baudelaires looked at the villain, and then at the shore. For a moment they were tempted to jump overboard and swim back toward the city and away from Olaf. But when they looked at the smoke, pouring from the windows of the hotel, and the flames, curling around the lilies and moss that someone had grown with such care on the walls, they knew it would be just as dangerous on land. They could see the tiny figures of people standing outside the hotel, fiercely pointing toward the sea, and they saw the building tremble. It seemed that the Hotel Denouement would soon be sent toppling, and the children wanted to be far away. Dewey had promised them that they wouldn’t be at sea anymore, but at this moment the sea, for the Baudelaires, was the last safe place.

Richard Wright, an American novelist of the realist school, asks a famous unfathomable question in his best-known novel, Native Son. “Who knows when some slight shock,” he asks, “disturbing the delicate balance between social order and thirsty aspiration, shall send the skyscrapers in our cities toppling?” It is a difficult question to read, almost as if it is in some sort of code, but after much research I have been able to make some sense of its mysterious words. “Social order,” for instance, is a phrase which may refer to the systems people use to organize their lives, such as the Dewey Decimal System, or the blindfolded procedures of the High Court. And “thirsty aspiration” is a phrase which may refer to things people want, such as the Baudelaire fortune, or the sugar bowl, or a safe place that lonely and exhausted orphans can call home. So when Mr. Wright asks his question, he might be wondering if a small event, such as a stone dropping into a pond, can cause ripples in the systems of the world, and tremble the things that people want, until all this rippling and trembling brings down something enormous, such as a building.

The Baudelaires, of course, did not have a copy of Native Son on the wooden boat that served as their new home, but as they gazed across the water at the Hotel Denouement, they were asking themselves a question not unlike Mr. Wright’s. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny wondered about all the things, large and small, that they had done. They wondered about their observations as flaneurs, which left so many mysteries unsolved. They wondered about all their errands as concierges, which brought about so much trouble. And they wondered if they were still the noble volunteers they wanted to be, or if, as the fire made its wicked way through the hotel, and the building threatened to topple, it was their destiny to become something else. The Baudelaire orphans stood in the same boat as Count Olaf, the notorious villain, and looked out at the sea, where they hoped they could find their noble friends, and wondered what else they could do, and who they might become.

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