بخش 01

مجموعه: مجموعه بدبیاری ها / کتاب: دهکده شوم / فصل 1

بخش 01

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CHAPTER One

No matter who you are, no matter where you live, and no matter how many people are chasing you, what you don’t read is often as important as what you do read. For instance, if you are walking in the mountains, and you don’t read the sign that says “Beware of Cliff” because you are busy reading a joke book instead, you may suddenly find yourself walking on air rather than on a sturdy bed of rocks. If you are baking a pie for your friends, and you read an article entitled “How to Build a Chair” instead of a cookbook, your pie will probably end up tasting like wood and nails instead of like crust and fruity filling. And if you insist on reading this book instead of something more cheerful, you will most certainly find yourself moaning in despair instead of wriggling in delight, so if you have any sense at all you will put this book down and pick up another one. I know of a book, for instance, called The Littlest Elf, which tells the story of a teensy-weensy little man who scurries around Fairyland having all sorts of adorable adventures, and you can see at once that you should probably read The Littlest Elf and wriggle over the lovely things that happened to this imaginary creature in a made-up place, instead of reading this book and moaning over the terrible things that happened to the three Baudelaire orphans in the village where I am now typing these very words. The misery, woe, and treachery contained in the pages of this book are so dreadful that it is important that you don’t read any more of it than you already have.

The Baudelaire orphans, at the time this story begins, were certainly wishing that they weren’t reading the newspaper that was in front of their eyes. A newspaper, as I’m sure you know, is a collection of supposedly true stories written down by writers who either saw them happen or talked to people who did. These writers are called journalists, and like telephone operators, butchers, ballerinas, and people who clean up after horses, journalists can sometimes make mistakes. This was certainly the case with the front page of the morning edition of The Daily Punctilio, which the Baudelaire children were reading in the office of Mr. Poe. “TWINS CAPTURED BY COUNT OMAR,” the headline read, and the three siblings looked at one another in amazement over the mistakes that The Daily Punctilio’s journalists had made.

“‘Duncan and Isadora Quagmire,’” Violet read out loud, “‘twin children who are the only known surviving members of the Quagmire family, have been kidnapped by the notorious Count Omar. Omar is wanted by the police for a variety of dreadful crimes, and is easily recognized by his one long eyebrow, and the tattoo of an eye on his left ankle. Omar has also kidnapped Esmé Squalor, the city’s sixth most important financial advisor, for reasons unknown.’ Ugh!” The word “Ugh!” was not in the newspaper, of course, but was something Violet uttered herself as a way of saying she was too disgusted to read any further. “If I invented something as sloppily as this newspaper writes its stories,” she said, “it would fall apart immediately.” Violet, who at fourteen was the eldest Baudelaire child, was an excellent inventor, and spent a great deal of time with her hair tied up in a ribbon to keep it out of her eyes as she thought of new mechanical devices.

“And if I read books as sloppily,” Klaus said, “I wouldn’t remember one single fact.” Klaus, the middle Baudelaire, had read more books than just about anyone his own age, which was almost thirteen. At many crucial moments, his sisters had relied on him to remember a helpful fact from a book he had read years before.

“Krechin!” Sunny said. Sunny, the youngest Baudelaire, was a baby scarcely larger than a watermelon. Like many infants, Sunny often said words that were difficult to understand, like “Krechin!” which meant something along the lines of “And if I used my four big teeth to bite something as sloppily, I wouldn’t even leave one toothmark!”

Violet moved the paper closer to one of the reading lamps Mr. Poe had in his office, and began to count the errors that had appeared in the few sentences she had read. “For one thing,” she said, “the Quagmires aren’t twins. They’re triplets. The fact that their brother perished in the fire that killed their parents doesn’t change their birth identity.”

“Of course it doesn’t,” Klaus agreed. “And they were kidnapped by Count Olaf, not Omar. It’s difficult enough that Olaf is always in disguise, but now the newspaper has disguised his name, too.”

“Esmé!” Sunny added, and her siblings nodded. The youngest Baudelaire was talking about the part of the article that mentioned Esmé Squalor. Esmé and her husband, Jerome, had recently been the Baudelaires’ guardians, and the children had seen with their own eyes that Esmé had not been kidnapped by Count Olaf. Esmé had secretly helped Olaf with his evil scheme, and had escaped with him at the last minute.

“And ‘for reasons unknown’ is the biggest mistake of all,” Violet said glumly. “The reasons aren’t unknown. We know them. We know the reasons Esmé, Count Olaf, and all of Olaf’s associates have done so many terrible things. It’s because they’re terrible people.” Violet put down The Daily Punctilio, looked around Mr. Poe’s office, and joined her siblings in a sad, deep sigh. The Baudelaire orphans were sighing not only for the things they had read, but for the things they hadn’t read. The article had not mentioned that both the Quagmires and the Baudelaires had lost their parents in terrible fires, and that both sets of parents had left enormous fortunes behind, and that Count Olaf had cooked up all of his evil plans just to get ahold of these fortunes for himself. The newspaper had failed to note that the Quagmire triplets had been kidnapped while trying to help the Baudelaires escape from Count Olaf’s clutches, and that the Baudelaires had almost managed to rescue the Quagmires, only to find them snatched away once more. The journalists who wrote the story had not included the fact that Duncan Quagmire, who was a journalist himself, and Isadora Quagmire, who was a poet, each kept a notebook with them wherever they went, and that in their notebooks they had written down a terrible secret they had discovered about Count Olaf, but that all the Baudelaire orphans knew of this secret were the initials V.F.D., and that Violet, Klaus, and Sunny were always thinking of these three letters and what ghastly thing they could stand for. But most of all, the Baudelaire orphans had read no word about the fact that the Quagmire triplets were good friends of theirs, and that the three siblings were very worried about the Quagmires, and that every night when they tried to go to sleep, their heads were filled with terrible images of what could be happening to their friends, who were practically the only happy thing in the Baudelaires’ lives since they received the news of the fire that killed their parents and began the series of unfortunate events that seemed to follow them wherever they went. The article in The Daily Punctilio probably did not mention these details because the journalist who wrote the story did not know about them, or did not think they were important, but the Baudelaires knew about them, and the three children sat together for a few moments and thought quietly about these very, very important details.

A fit of coughing, coming from the doorway of the office, brought them out of their thoughts, and the Baudelaires turned to see Mr. Poe coughing into a white handkerchief. Mr. Poe was a banker who had been placed in charge of the orphans’ care after the fire, and I’m sorry to say that he was extremely prone to error, a phrase which here means “always had a cough, and had placed the three Baudelaire children in an assortment of dangerous positions.” The first guardian Mr. Poe found for the youngsters was Count Olaf himself, and the most recent guardian he had found for them was Esmé Squalor, and in between he had placed the children in a variety of circumstances that turned out to be just as unpleasant. This morning they were supposed to learn about their new home, but so far all Mr. Poe had done was have several coughing fits and leave them alone with a poorly written newspaper.

“Good morning, children,” Mr. Poe said. “I’m sorry I kept you waiting, but ever since I was promoted to Vice President in Charge of Orphan Affairs I’ve been very, very busy. Besides, finding you a new home has been something of a chore.” He walked over to his desk, which was covered in piles of papers, and sat down in a large chair. “I’ve put calls in to a variety of distant relatives, but they’ve heard all about the terrible things that tend to happen wherever you go. Understandably, they’re too skittish about Count Olaf to agree to take care of you. ‘Skittish’ means ‘nervous,’ by the way. There’s one more—”

One of the three telephones on Mr. Poe’s desk interrupted him with a loud, ugly ring. “Excuse me,” the banker said to the children, and began to speak into the receiver. “Poe here. O.K. O.K. O.K. I thought so. O.K. O.K. Thank you, Mr. Fagin.” Mr. Poe hung up the phone and made a mark on one of the papers on his desk. “That was a nineteenth cousin of yours,” Mr. Poe said, “and a last hope of mine. I thought I could persuade him to take you in, just for a couple of months, but he refused. I can’t say I blame him. I’m concerned that your reputation as troublemakers is even ruining the reputation of my bank.”

“But we’re not troublemakers,” Klaus said. “Count Olaf is the troublemaker.”

Mr. Poe took the newspaper from the children and looked at it carefully. “Well, I’m sure the story in The Daily Punctilio will help the authorities finally capture Olaf, and then your relatives will be less skittish.”

“But the story is full of mistakes,” Violet said. “The authorities won’t even know his real name. The newspaper calls him Omar.”

“The story was a disappointment to me, too,” Mr. Poe said. “The journalist said that the paper would put a photograph of me next to the article, with a caption about my promotion. I had my hair cut for it especially. It would have made my wife and sons very proud to see my name in the papers, so I understand why you’re disappointed that the article is about the Quagmire twins, instead of being about you.”

“We don’t care about having our names in the papers,” Klaus said, “and besides, the Quagmires are triplets, not twins.”

“The death of their brother changes their birth identity,” Mr. Poe explained sternly, “but I don’t have time to talk about this. We need to find—”

Another one of his phones rang, and Mr.Poe excused himself again. “Poe here,” he said into the receiver. “No. No. No. Yes. Yes. Yes. I don’t care. Good-bye.” He hung up the phone and coughed into his white handkerchief before wiping his mouth and turning once more to the children. “Well, that phone call solved all of your problems,” he said simply.

The Baudelaires looked at one another. Had Count Olaf been arrested? Had the Quagmires been saved? Had someone invented a way to go back in time and rescue their parents from the terrible fire? How could all of their problems have been solved with one phone call to a banker?

“Plinn?” Sunny asked.

Mr.Poe smiled. “Have you ever heard the aphorism,” he said, “‘It takes a village to raise a child’?”

The children looked at one another again, a little less hopefully this time. The quoting of an aphorism, like the angry barking of a dog or the smell of overcooked broccoli, rarely indicates that something helpful is about to happen. An aphorism is merely a small group of words arranged in a certain order because they sound good that way, but oftentimes people tend to say them as if they were saying something very mysterious and wise.

“I know it probably sounds mysterious to you,” Mr. Poe continued, “but the aphorism is actually very wise. ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ means that the responsibility for taking care of youngsters belongs to everyone in the community.”

“I think I read something about this aphorism in a book about the Mbuti pygmies,” Klaus said. “Are you sending us to live in Africa?”

“Don’t be silly,” Mr. Poe said, as if the millions of people who lived in Africa were all ridiculous. “That was the city government on the telephone. A number of villages just outside the city have signed up for a new guardian program based on the aphorism ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Orphans are sent to these villages, and everyone who lives there raises them together. Normally, I approve of more traditional family structures, but this is really quite convenient, and your parents’ will instructs that you be raised in the most convenient way possible.”

“Do you mean that the entire town would be in charge of us?” Violet asked. “That’s a lot of people.”

“Well, I imagine they would take turns,” Mr. Poe said, stroking his chin. “It’s not as if you would be tucked into bed by three thousand people at once.”

“Snoita!” Sunny shrieked. She meant something like “I prefer to be tucked into bed by my siblings, not by strangers!” but Mr. Poe was busy looking through his papers on his desk and didn’t answer her.

“Apparently I was mailed a brochure about this program several weeks ago,” he said, “but I guess it got lost somewhere on my desk. Oh, here it is. Take a look for yourselves.”

Mr. Poe reached across his desk to hand them a colorful brochure, and the Baudelaire orphans took a look for themselves. On the front was the aphorism ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ written in flowery letters, and inside the brochure were photographs of children with such huge smiles that the Baudelaires’ mouths ached just to look at them. A few paragraphs explained that 99 percent of the orphans participating in this program were overjoyed to have whole villages taking care of them, and that all the towns listed on the back page were eager to serve as guardians for any interested children who had lost their parents. The three Baudelaires looked at the grinning photographs and read the flowery aphorism and felt a little flutter in their stomachs. They felt more than a little nervous about having a whole town for a guardian. It was strange enough when they were in the care of various relatives. How strange would it feel if hundreds of people were trying to act as substitute Baudelaires?

“Do you think we would be safe from Count Olaf,” Violet asked hesitantly, “if we lived with an entire village?”

“I should think so,” Mr. Poe said, and coughed into his handkerchief. “With a whole village looking after you, you’ll probably be the safest you’ve ever been. Plus, thanks to the story in The Daily Punctilio, I’m sure Omar will be captured in no time.”

“Olaf,” Klaus corrected.

“Yes, yes,” Mr. Poe said. “I meant to say ‘Omar.’ Now, what villages are listed in the brochure? You children can choose your new hometown, if you like.”

Klaus turned the brochure over and read from the list of towns. “Paltryville,” he said. “That’s where the Lucky Smells Lumbermill was. We had a terrible time there.”

“Calten!” Sunny cried, which meant something like “I wouldn’t return there for all the tea in China!”

“The next village on the list is Tedia,” Klaus said. “That name is familiar to me.”

“That’s near where Uncle Monty lived,” Violet said. “Let’s not live there—it’ll make us miss Uncle Monty even more than we already do.”

Klaus nodded in agreement. “Besides,” he said, “the town is near Lousy Lane, so it probably smells like horseradish. Here’s a village I’ve never heard of—Ophelia.”

“No, no,” Mr. Poe said. “I won’t have you living in the same town as the Ophelia Bank. It’s one of my least favorite banks, and I don’t want to have to walk by it when I visit you.”

“Zounce!” Sunny said, which meant “That’s ridiculous!” but Klaus nudged her with his elbow and pointed to the next village listed on the brochure, and Sunny quickly changed her tune, a phrase which here means “immediately said ‘Gounce!’ instead, which meant something along the lines of ‘Let’s live there!’”

“Gounce indeed,” Klaus agreed, and showed Violet what he and Sunny were talking about. Violet gasped, and the three siblings looked at one another and felt a little flutter in their stomachs again. But this was less of a nervous flutter and more of a hopeful one—a hope that maybe Mr. Poe’s last phone call really had solved all their problems, and that maybe what they read right here in the brochure would turn out to be more important than what they didn’t read in the newspaper. For at the bottom of the list of villages, below Paltryville and Tedia and Ophelia, was the most important thing they had read all morning. Printed in the flowery script, on the back page of the brochure Mr. Poe had given them, were the letters V.F.D.

CHAPTER Two

When you are traveling by bus, it is always difficult to decide whether you should sit in a seat by the window, a seat on the aisle, or a seat in the middle. If you take an aisle seat, you have the advantage of being able to stretch your legs whenever you like, but you have the disadvantage of people walking by you, and they can accidentally step on your toes or spill something on your clothing. If you take a window seat, you have the advantage of getting a clear view of the scenery, but you have the disadvantage of watching insects die as they hit the glass. If you take a middle seat, you have neither of these advantages, and you have the added disadvantage of people leaning all over you when they fall asleep. You can see at once why you should always arrange to hire a limousine or rent a mule rather than take the bus to your destination.

The Baudelaire orphans, however, did not have the money to hire a limousine, and it would have taken them several weeks to reach V.F.D. by mule, so they were traveling to their new home by bus. The children had thought that it might take a lot of effort to convince Mr. Poe to choose V.F.D. as their new village guardian, but right when they saw the three initials on the brochure, one of Mr. Poe’s telephones rang, and by the time he was off the phone he was too busy to argue. All he had time to do was make arrangements with the city government and take them to the bus station. As he saw them off—a phrase which here means “put the Baudelaires on a bus, rather than doing the polite thing and taking them to their new home personally”—he instructed them to report to the Town Hall of V.F.D., and made them promise not to do anything that would ruin his bank’s reputation. Before they knew it, Violet was sitting in an aisle seat, brushing dirt off her coat and rubbing her sore toes, and Klaus was sitting in a window seat gazing at the scenery through a layer of dead bugs. Sunny sat between them, gnawing on the armrest.

“No lean!” she said sternly, and her brother smiled.

“Don’t worry, Sunny,” he said. “We’ll make sure not to lean on you if we fall asleep. We don’t have much time for napping, anyway—we should be at V.F.D. any minute now.”

“What do you think it could stand for?” Violet asked. “Neither the brochure nor the map at the bus station showed anything more than the three initials.”

“I don’t know,” Klaus said. “Do you think we should have told Mr. Poe about the V.F.D. secret? Maybe he could have helped us.”

“I doubt it,” Violet said. “He hasn’t been very helpful before. I wish the Quagmires were here. I bet they could help us.”

“I wish the Quagmires were here even if they couldn’t help us,” Klaus said, and his sisters nodded in agreement. No Baudelaire had to say anything more about how worried they were about the triplets, and they sat in silence for the rest of the ride, hoping that their arrival at V.F.D. would bring them closer to saving their friends.

“V.F.D.!” the bus driver finally called out. “Next stop V.F.D.! If you look out the window, you can see the town coming up, folks!”

“What does it look like?” Violet asked Klaus.

Klaus peered out the window past the layer of dead bugs. “Flat,” he said.

Violet and Sunny leaned over to look and saw that their brother had spoken the truth. The countryside looked as if someone had drawn the line of the horizon—the word “horizon” here means “the boundary where the sky ends and the world begins”—and then forgot to draw in anything else. The land stretched out as far as the eye could see, but there was nothing for the eye to look at but flat, dry land and the occasional sheet of newspaper stirred up by the passing of the bus.

“I don’t see any town at all,” Klaus said. “Do you suppose it’s underground?”

“Novedri!” Sunny said, which meant “Living underground would be no fun at all!”

“Maybe that’s the town over there,” Violet said, squinting to try and see as far as she could. “You see? Way out by the horizon line, there’s a hazy black blur. It looks like smoke, but maybe it’s just some buildings seen from far away.”

“I can’t see it,” Klaus said. “That smushed moth is blocking it, I think. But a hazy blur could just be fata morgana.”

“Fata?” Sunny asked.

“Fata morgana is when your eyes play tricks on you, particularly in hot weather,” Klaus explained. “It’s caused by the distortion of light through alternate layers of hot and cool air. It’s also called a mirage, but I like the name ‘fata morgana’ better.”

“Me too,” Violet agreed, “but let’s hope it’s not a mirage or fata morgana. Let’s hope it’s V.F.D.”

“V.F.D.!” the bus driver called, as the bus came to a stop. “V.F.D.! Everyone off for V.F.D.!”

The Baudelaires stood up, gathered their belongings, and walked down the aisle, but when they reached the open door of the bus they stopped and stared doubtfully out at the flat and empty landscape.

“Is this really the stop for V.F.D.?” Violet asked the driver. “I thought V.F.D. was a town.”

“It is,” the driver replied. “Just walk toward that hazy black blur out there on the horizon. I know it looks like—well, I can’t remember the phrase for when your eyes play tricks on you—but it’s really the town.”

“Couldn’t you take us a little closer?” Violet asked shyly. “We have a baby with us, and it looks like a long way to walk.”

“I wish I could help you,” the bus driver said kindly, looking down at Sunny, “but the Council of Elders has very strict rules. I have to let off all passengers for V.F.D. right here; otherwise I could be severely punished.”

“Who are the Council of Elders?” Klaus asked.

“Hey!” a voice called from the back of the bus. “Tell those kids to hurry up and get off the bus! The open door is letting bugs in!”

“Off you go, kids,” the bus driver said, and the Baudelaires stepped out of the bus onto the flat land of V.F.D. The doors shut, and with a little wave the bus driver drove off and left the children alone on the empty landscape. The siblings watched the bus get smaller and smaller as it drove away, and then turned toward the hazy black blur of their new home.

“Well, now I can see it,” Klaus said, squinting behind his glasses, “but I can’t believe it. It’s going to take the rest of the afternoon to walk all that way.”

“Then we’d better get started,” Violet said, hoisting Sunny up on top of her suitcase. “This piece of luggage has wheels,” she said to her sister, “so you can sit on top of it and I can pull you along.”

“Sanks!” Sunny said, which meant “That’s very considerate of you!” and the Baudelaires began their long walk toward the hazy black blur on the horizon. After even the first few steps, the disadvantages of the bus ride seemed like small potatoes. “Small potatoes” is a phrase which has nothing to do with root vegetables that happen to be tiny in size. Instead, it refers to the change in one’s feelings for something when it is compared with something else. If you were walking in the rain, for instance, you might be worried about getting wet, but if you turned the corner and saw a pack of vicious dogs, getting wet would suddenly become small potatoes next to getting chased down an alley and barked at, or possibly eaten. As the Baudelaires began their long journey toward V.F.D., dead bugs, stepped-on toes, and the possibility of someone leaning on them became small potatoes next to the far more unpleasant things they were encountering. Without anything else on the flat land to blow up against, the wind concentrated its efforts on Violet, a phrase which here means that before long her hair was so wildly tangled that it looked like it had never seen a comb. Because Klaus was standing behind Violet, the wind didn’t blow on him much, but without anything else in the empty landscape to cling to, the dust on the ground concentrated its efforts on the middle Baudelaire, and soon he was dusty from head to toe, as if it had been years since he’d had a shower. Perched on top of Violet’s luggage, Sunny was out of the way of the dust, but without anything else in the desolate terrain to shine on, the sun concentrated its efforts on her, which meant that she was soon as sunburned as a baby who had spent six months at the seashore, instead of a few hours on top of a suitcase.

But even as they approached the town, V.F.D. still looked as hazy as it did from far away. As the children drew closer and closer to their new home, they could see a number of buildings of different heights and widths, separated by streets both narrow and wide, and the Baudelaires could even see the tall skinny shapes of lampposts and flagpoles stretching out toward the sky. But everything they saw—from the tip of the highest building to the curve of the narrowest street—was pitch black, and seemed to be shaking slightly, as if the entire town were painted on a piece of cloth that was trembling in the wind. The buildings were trembling, and the lampposts were trembling, and even the very streets were shaking ever so slightly, and it was like no town the three Baudelaires had ever seen. It was a mystery, but unlike most mysteries, once the children reached the outskirts of V.F.D. and learned what was causing the trembling effect, they did not feel any better to have the mystery solved.

The town was covered in crows. Nearly every inch of nearly every object had a large black bird roosting on it and casting a suspicious eye on the children as they stood at the very edge of the village. There were crows sitting on the roofs of all the buildings, perching on the windowsills, and squatting on the steps and on the sidewalks. Crows were covering all of the trees, from the very top branches to the roots poking out of the crow-covered ground, and were gathered in large groups on the streets for crow conversations. Crows were covering the lampposts and flagpoles, and there were crows lying down in the gutters and resting between fence posts. There were even six crows crowded together on the sign that read “Town Hall,” with an arrow leading down a crow-covered street. The crows weren’t squawking or cawing, which is what crows often do, or playing the trumpet, which crows practically never do, but the town was far from silent. The air was filled with the sounds the crows made as they moved around. Sometimes one crow would fly from one perch to another, as if it had suddenly become bored roosting on the mailbox and thought it might be more fun to perch on the doorknob of a building. Occasionally, several crows would flutter their wings, as if they were stiff from sitting together on a bench and wanted to stretch a little bit. And almost constantly, the crows would shift in their places, trying to make themselves as comfortable as they could in such cramped quarters. All this motion explained why the town had looked so shivery in the distance, but it certainly didn’t make the Baudelaires feel any better, and they stood together in silence for quite some time, trying to find the courage to walk among all the fluttering black birds.

“I’ve read three books on crows,” Klaus said. “They’re perfectly harmless.”

“Yes, I know,” Violet said. “It’s unusual to see so many crows in one place, but they’re nothing to worry about. It’s small potatoes.”

“Zimuster,” Sunny agreed, but the three children still did not take a step closer to the crow-covered town. Despite what they had said to one another—that the crows were harmless birds, that they had nothing to worry about, and “Zimuster,” which meant something along the lines of “It would be silly to be afraid of a bunch of birds”—the Baudelaires felt they were encountering some very large potatoes indeed.

If I had been one of the Baudelaires myself, I would have stood at the edge of town for the rest of my life, whimpering with fear, rather than take even one step into the crow-covered streets, but it only took the Baudelaires a few minutes to work up the courage to walk through all of the muttering, scuffling birds to Town Hall.

“This isn’t as difficult as I thought it might be,” Violet said, in a quiet voice so as not to disturb the crows closest to her. “It’s not exactly small potatoes, but there’s enough space between the groups of crows to step.”

“That’s true,” Klaus said, his eyes on the sidewalk to avoid stepping on any crow tails. “And they tend to move aside, just a little bit, as we walk by.”

“Racah,” Sunny said, crawling as carefully as she could. She meant something along the lines of “It’s almost like walking through a quiet, but polite, crowd of very short people,” and her siblings smiled in agreement. Before too long, they had walked the entire block of the crow-lined street, and there at the far corner was a tall, impressive building that appeared to be made of white marble—at least, as far as the Baudelaires could tell, because it was as covered with crows as the rest of the neighborhood. Even the sign reading “Town Hall” looked like it read “wn Ha,” because three enormous crows were perched on it, gazing at the Baudelaires with their tiny beady eyes. Violet raised her hand as if to knock on the door, but then paused.

“What’s the matter?” Klaus said.

“Nothing,” Violet replied, but her hand still hung in the air. “I guess I’m just a little skittish. After all, this is the Town Hall of V.F.D. For all we know, behind this door may be the secret we’ve been looking for since the Quagmires were first kidnapped.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t get our hopes up,” Klaus said. “Remember, when we lived with the Squalors, we thought we had solved the V.F.D. mystery, but we were wrong. We could be wrong this time, too.”

“But we could be right,” Violet said, “and if we’re right, we should be prepared for whatever terrible thing is behind this door.”

“Unless we’re wrong,” Klaus pointed out. “Then we have nothing to be prepared for.”

“Gaksoo!” Sunny said. She meant something along the lines of “There’s no point in arguing, because we’ll never know whether we’re right or wrong until we knock on the door,” and before her siblings could answer her she crawled around Klaus’s legs and took the plunge, a phrase which here means “knocked firmly on the door with her tiny knuckles.”

“Come in!” called a very grand voice, and the Baudelaires opened the door and found themselves in a large room with a very high ceiling, a very shiny floor, and a very long bench, with very detailed portraits of crows hanging on the walls. In front of the bench was a small platform where a woman in a motorcycle helmet was standing, and behind the platform were perhaps one hundred folding chairs, most of which had a person sitting on them who was staring at the Baudelaire orphans. But the Baudelaire orphans were not staring back. The three children were staring so hard at the people sitting on the bench that they scarcely glanced at the folding chairs at all.

On the bench, sitting stiffly side by side, were twenty-five people who had two things in common. The first thing was that they were all quite old—the youngest person on the bench, a woman sitting on the far end, looked about eighty-one years of age, and everyone else looked quite a bit older. But the second thing they had in common was far more interesting. At first glance it looked like a few crows had flown in from the streets and roosted on the bench-sitters’ heads, but as the Baudelaires looked more closely, they saw that the crows did not blink their eyes, or flutter their wings or move at all in any way, and the children realized that they were nothing more than black hats, made in such a way as to resemble actual crows. It was such a strange kind of hat to be wearing that the children found themselves staring for quite a few minutes without noticing anything else.

“Are you the Baudelaire orphans?” asked one of the old men who was sitting on the bench, in a gravelly voice. As he talked, his crow head flapped slightly, which only made it look more ridiculous. “We’ve been expecting you, although I wasn’t told you would look so terrible. You three are the most windswept, dusty, and sunburned children I have ever seen. Are you sure you’re the children we’ve been waiting for?”

“Yes,” Violet replied. “I’m Violet Baudelaire, and this is my brother, Klaus, and my sister, Sunny, and the reason why we—”

“Shush,” one of the other old men said. “We’re not discussing you right now. Rule #492 clearly states that the Council of Elders will only discuss things that are on the platform. Right now we are discussing our new Chief of Police. Are there any questions from the townspeople regarding Officer Luciana?”

“Yes, I have a question,” called out a man in plaid pants. “I want to know what happened to our previous Chief of Police. I liked that guy.”

The woman on the platform held up a white-gloved hand, and the Baudelaires turned to look at her for the first time. Officer Luciana was a very tall woman wearing big black boots, a blue coat with a shiny badge, and a motorcycle helmet with the visor pulled down to cover her eyes. The Baudelaires could see her mouth, below the edge of the visor, covered in bright red lipstick. “The previous Chief of Police has a sore throat,” she said, turning her helmet to the man who had asked the question. “He accidentally swallowed a box of thumbtacks. But let’s not waste time talking about him. I am your new Chief of Police, and I will make sure that any rulebreakers in town are punished properly. I can’t see how there’s anything more to discuss.”

“I quite agree with you,” said the first Elder who had spoken, as the people in folding chairs nodded. “The Council of Elders hereby ends the discussion of Officer Luciana. Hector, please bring the orphans to the platform for discussion.”

A tall skinny man in rumpled overalls stood up from one of the folding chairs as the Chief of Police stepped off the platform with a lipsticked smile on. His eyes on the floor, the man walked over to the Baudelaires and pointed first at the Council of Elders sitting on the bench and then at the empty platform. Although they would have preferred a more polite method of communication, the children understood at once, and Violet and Klaus stepped up onto the platform and then lifted Sunny up to join them.

One of the women in the Council of Elders spoke up. “We are now discussing the guardianship of the Baudelaire orphans. Under the new government program, the entire town of V.F.D. will act as guardian over these three children because it takes a village to raise a child. Are there any questions?”

“Are these the same Baudelaires,” came a voice from the back of the room, “who are involved in the kidnapping of the Quagmire twins by Count Omar?”

The Baudelaires turned around to see a woman dressed in a bright pink bathrobe and holding up a copy of The Daily Punctilio. “It says here in the newspaper that an evil count is coming after those children. I don’t want someone like that in our town!”

“We’ve taken care of that matter, Mrs. Morrow,” replied another member of the Council soothingly. “We’ll explain in a moment. Now, when children have a guardian, the guardian makes them do chores, so it follows that you Baudelaires will do all the chores for the entire village. Beginning tomorrow, you three children will be responsible for anything that anyone asks you to do.”

The children looked at each other in disbelief. “Begging your pardon,” Klaus said timidly, “but there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and there appear to be several hundred townspeople. How will we find the time to do everyone’s chores?”

“Hush!” several members of the Council said in unison, and then the youngest-looking woman spoke up. “Rule #920 clearly states that no one may talk while on the platform unless you are a police officer. You’re orphans, not police officers, so shut up. Now, due to the V.F.D. crows, you will have to arrange your chore schedule as follows: In the morning, the crows roost uptown, so that’s when you will do all the downtown chores, so the crows don’t get in your way. In the afternoon, as you can see, the crows roost downtown, so you will do the uptown chores then. Please pay particular attention to our new fountain, which was just installed this morning. It’s very beautiful, and needs to be kept as clean as possible. At night, the crows roost in Nevermore Tree, which is on the outskirts of town, so there’s no problem there. Are there any questions?”

“I have a question,” said the man in plaid pants. He stood up from his folding chair and pointed at the Baudelaires. “Where are they going to live? It may take a village to raise a child, but that doesn’t mean that our homes have to be disturbed by noisy children, does it?”

“Yes,” agreed Mrs. Morrow. “I’m all for the orphans doing our chores, but I don’t want them cluttering up my house.”

Several other townspeople spoke up. “Hear, hear!” they said, using an expression which here means “I don’t want Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire to live with me, either!”

One of the oldest-looking Elders raised both his hands up in the air. “Please,” he said. “There is no reason for all this fuss. The children will live with Hector, our handyman. He will feed them, clothe them, and make sure they do all the chores, and he is responsible for teaching them all of the rules of V.F.D., so they won’t do any more terrible things, such as talking while on the platform.”

“Thank goodness for that,” muttered the man in plaid pants.

“Now, Baudelaires,” said yet another member of the Council. She was sitting so far from the platform that she had to crane her head to look at the children, and her hat looked like it would fall off her head. “Before Hector takes you to his house, I’m sure you have some concerns of your own. It’s too bad you’re not allowed to speak right now, otherwise you could tell us what they were. But Mr. Poe sent us some materials regarding this Count Olaf person.”

“Omar,” corrected Mrs. Morrow, pointing to the headline in the newspaper.

“Silence!” the Elder said. “Now, Baudelaires, I’m sure you are very concerned about this Olaf fellow, but as your guardian, the town will protect you. That is why we have recently made up a new rule, Rule #19,833. It clearly states that no villains are allowed within the city limits.”

“Hear, hear!” the townspeople cried, and the Council of Elders nodded in appreciation, bobbing their crow-shaped hats.

“Now, if there are no more questions,” an Elder concluded, “Hector, please take the Baudelaires off the platform and take them to your house.”

Still keeping his eyes on the floor, the man in overalls strode silently to the platform and led them out of the room. The children hurried to catch up with the handyman, who had not said one word all this time. Was he unhappy to be taking care of three children? Was he angry at the Council of Elders? Was he unable to speak at all? It reminded the Baudelaires of one of Count Olaf’s associates, the one who looked like neither a man nor a woman and who never seemed to speak. The children kept a few steps behind Hector as he walked out of the building, almost afraid to get any closer to a man who was so strange and silent.

When Hector opened the door of Town Hall and led the children back out onto the crow-covered sidewalk, he let out a big sigh—the first sound the children had heard from him. Then he looked down at each Baudelaire and gave them a gentle smile. “I’m never truly relaxed,” he said to them in a pleasant voice, “until I have left Town Hall. The Council of Elders makes me feel very skittish. All those strict rules! It make me so skittish that I never speak during one of their council meetings. But I always feel much better the moment I walk out of the building. Now, it looks like we’re going to be spending quite a bit of time together, so let’s get a few things straight. Number one, call me Hector. Number two, I hope you like Mexican food, because that’s my specialty. And number three, I want you to see something marvelous, and we’re just in time. The sun is starting to set.”

It was true. The Baudelaires hadn’t noticed, when they stepped out of Town Hall, that the afternoon light had slipped away and that the sun was now just beginning to dip below the horizon. “It’s lovely,” Violet said politely, although she had never understood all the fuss about standing around admiring sunsets.

“Shh,” Hector said. “Who cares about the sunset? Just be quiet for a minute, and watch the crows. It should happen any second now.”

“What should happen?” Klaus said.

“Shh,” Hector said again, and then it began to happen. The Council of Elders had already told the Baudelaires about the roosting habits of the crows, but the three children hadn’t really given the matter a second thought, a phrase which here means “considered, even for a second, what it would look like when thousands of crows would fly together to a new location.” One of the largest crows, sitting on top of the mailbox, was the first to fly up in the air, and with a rustle of wings he—or she; it was hard to tell from so far away—began to fly in a large circle over the children’s heads. Then a crow from one of Town Hall’s windowsills flew up to join the first crow, and then one from a nearby bush, and then three from the street, and then hundreds of crows began to rise up at once and circle in the air, and it was as if an enormous shadow was being lifted from the town. The Baudelaires could finally see what all the streets looked like, and they could gaze at each detail of the buildings as more and more crows left their afternoon roosts. But the children scarcely looked at the town. Instead they looked straight up, at the mysterious and beautiful sight of all those birds making a huge circle in the sky.

“Isn’t it marvelous?” Hector cried. His long skinny arms were outstretched, and he had to raise his voice over the sound of all the fluttering wings. “Isn’t it marvelous?”

Violet, Klaus, and Sunny nodded in agreement, and stared at the thousands of crows circling and circling above them like a mass of fluttering smoke or like black, fresh ink—such as the ink I am using now, to write down these events—that somehow had found its way to the heavens. The sound of the wings sounded like a million pages being flipped, and the wind from all that fluttering blew in their grinning faces. For a moment, with all that air rushing toward them, the Baudelaire orphans felt as if they too could fly up into the air, away from Count Olaf and all their troubles, and join the circle of crows in the evening sky.

CHAPTER Three

“Wasn’t that marvelous?” Hector said, as the crows stopped circling and began to fly, like an enormous black cloud, over the buildings and away from the Baudelaire orphans. “Wasn’t that just marvelous? Wasn’t that absolutely superlative? That means the same thing as ‘marvelous,’ by the way.”

ch3

“It certainly was,” Klaus agreed, not adding that he had known the word “superlative” since he was eleven. “I see that just about every evening,” Hector said, “and it always impresses me. It always makes me hungry, too. What shall we eat this evening? How about chicken enchiladas? That’s a Mexican dish consisting of corn tortillas rolled around a chicken filling, covered with melted cheese and a special sauce I learned from my second-grade teacher. How does that sound?”

“That sounds delicious,” Violet said.

“Oh, good,” Hector said. “I despise picky eaters. Well, it’s a pretty long walk to my house, so let’s talk as we go. Here, I’ll carry your suitcases and you two can carry your sister. I know you had to walk from the bus stop, so she’s had more than enough exercise for a baby.”

Hector grabbed the Baudelaires’ bags and led the way down the street, which was now empty except for a few stray crow feathers. High above their heads, the crows were taking a sharp left-hand turn, and Hector raised Klaus’s suitcase to point at them. “I don’t know if you’re familiar with the expression ‘as the crow flies,’” Hector said, “but it means ‘the most direct route.’ If something is a mile away as the crow flies, that means it’s the shortest way to get there. It usually has nothing to do with actual crows, but in this case it does. We’re about a mile away from my home as the crow flies—as all those crows fly, as a matter of fact. At night, they roost in Nevermore Tree, which is in my backyard. But it takes us longer to get there, of course, because we have to walk through V.F.D. instead of flying up in the air.”

“Hector,” Violet said timidly, “we were wondering exactly what V.F.D. stands for.”

“Oh yes,” Klaus said. “Please tell us.”

“Of course I’ll tell you,” Hector said, “but I don’t know why you’re so excited about it. It’s just more nonsense from the Council of Elders.”

The Baudelaires looked at one another uncertainly. “What do you mean?” Klaus asked.

“Well, about three hundred and six years ago,” Hector said, “a group of explorers discovered the murder of crows that we just saw.”

“Sturo?” Sunny asked.

“We didn’t see any crows get killed,” Violet said.

“‘Murder’ is the word for a group of crows, like a flock of geese or a herd of cows or a convention of orthodontists. Anyway, the explorers were impressed with their patterns of migration—you know, they always fly uptown in the morning, downtown in the afternoon and over to Nevermore Tree in the evening. It’s a very unusual pattern, and the explorers were so excited by it that they decided to live here. Before too long, a town sprung up, and so they named it V.F.D.”

“But what does V.F.D. stand for?” Violet asked.

“The Village of Fowl Devotees,” Hector said. “‘Devotees’ is a word for people who are devoted to something, and ‘fowl’—”

“—means ‘bird,’” Klaus finished. “That’s the secret of V.F.D.? Village of Fowl Devotees?”

“What do you mean, secret?” Hector asked. “It’s not a secret. Everyone knows what those letters mean.”

The Baudelaires sighed with confusion and dismay, which is not a pleasant combination. “What my brother means,” Violet explained, “is that we chose V.F.D. to become our new guardian because we’d been told of a terrible secret—a secret with the initials V.F.D.”

“Who told you about this secret?” Hector asked.

“Some very dear friends of ours,” Violet replied. “Duncan and Isadora Quagmire. They discovered something about Count Olaf, but before they could tell us anything more—”

“Hold on a minute,” Hector said. “Who’s Count Olaf? Mrs. Morrow was talking about Count Omar. Is Olaf his brother?”

“No,” Klaus said, shuddering at the very thought of Olaf having a brother. “I’m afraid The Daily Punctilio got many of the facts wrong.”

“Well, why don’t we get them right,” Hector said, turning a corner. “Suppose you tell me exactly what happened.”

“It’s sort of a long story,” Violet said.

“Well,” Hector said, with a slight smile, “we have sort of a long walk. Why don’t you begin at the beginning?”

The Baudelaires looked up at Hector, sighed, and began at the beginning, which seemed such a long way off that they were surprised they could remember it so clearly. Violet told Hector about the dreadful day at the beach when she and her siblings learned from Mr. Poe that their parents had been killed in the fire that had destroyed their home, and Klaus told Hector about the days they spent in Count Olaf’s care. Sunny—with some help from Klaus and Violet, who translated for her—told him about poor Uncle Monty, and about the terrible things that had happened to Aunt Josephine. Violet told Hector about working at Lucky Smells Lumbermill, and Klaus told him about enrolling at Prufrock Preparatory School, and Sunny related the dismal time they had living with Jerome and Esmé Squalor at 667 Dark Avenue. Violet told Hector all about Count Olaf’s various disguises, and about each and every one of his nefarious associates, including the hook-handed man, the two powder-faced women, the bald man with the long nose, and the one who looked like neither a man nor a woman, of whom the Baudelaires had been reminded when Hector had been so silent. Klaus told Hector all about the Quagmire triplets, and about the mysterious underground passageway that had led back to their home, and about the shadow of misfortune that had seemed to hang over them nearly every moment since that day at the beach. And as the Baudelaires told Hector their long story, they began to feel as if the handyman was carrying more than their suitcases. They felt as if he was carrying each word they said, as if each unfortunate event was a burden that Hector was helping them with. The story of their lives was so miserable that I cannot say they felt happy when they were through telling it, but by the time Sunny concluded the whole long story, the Baudelaires felt as if they were carrying much less.

“Kyun,” Sunny concluded, which Violet was quick to translate as “And that’s why we chose this town, in the hopes of finding the secret of V.F.D., rescuing the Quagmire triplets, and defeating Count Olaf once and for all.”

Hector sighed. “You’ve certainly been through an ordeal,” he said, using a word which here means “a heap of trouble, most of which was Count Olaf’s fault.” He stopped for a second and looked at each Baudelaire. “You’ve been very brave, all three of you, and I’ll do my best to make sure you have a proper home with me. But I must tell you that I think you’ve hit a dead end.”

“What do you mean?” Klaus asked.

“Well, I hate to add some bad news to the terrible story you just told me,” Hector said, “but I think the initials that the Quagmires told you about and the initials of this town are just a coincidence. As I said, this village has been called V.F.D. for more than three hundred years. Scarcely anything has changed since then. The crows have always roosted in the same places. The meetings of the Council of Elders have always been at the same time every day. My father was the handyman before me, and his father was the handyman before him, and so on and so on. The only new things in this town are you three children and the new Fowl Fountain uptown, which we’ll be cleaning tomorrow. I don’t see how this village could have anything to do with the secret the Quagmires discovered.”

The Baudelaire children looked at one another in frustration. “Pojik?” Sunny asked in exasperation. She meant something along the lines of “Do you mean we’ve come here for nothing?” but Violet translated it somewhat differently.

“What my sister means,” Violet said, “is that it’s very frustrating to find that we’re in the wrong place.”

“We’re very concerned for our friends,” Klaus added, “and we don’t want to give up on finding them.”

“Give up?” Hector said. “Who said anything about giving up? Just because the name of this town isn’t helpful, that doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong place. We obviously have a great many chores to do, but in our spare time we can try to find out the whereabouts of Duncan and Isadora. I’m a handyman, not a detective, but I’ll try to help you the best I can. We’ll have to be very careful, though. The Council of Elders has so many rules that you can scarcely do anything without breaking one of them.”

“Why does the Council have so many rules?” Violet asked.

“Why does anyone have a lot of rules?” Hector said with a shrug. “So they can boss people around, I guess. Thanks to all the rules of V.F.D., the Council of Elders can tell people what to wear, how to talk, what to eat, and even what to build. Rule #67, for instance, clearly states that no citizen is allowed to build or use any mechanical devices.”

“Does that mean I can’t build or use any mechanical devices?” Violet asked Hector. “Are my siblings and I citizens of V.F.D., now that the town is our guardian?”

“I’m afraid you are,” Hector said. “You have to follow Rule #67, along with all the other rules.”

“But Violet’s an inventor!” Klaus cried. “Mechanical devices are very important to her!”

“Is that so?” Hector said, and smiled. “Then you can be a very big help to me, Violet.” He stopped walking, and looked around the street as if it was full of spies, instead of being completely empty. “Can you keep a secret?” he asked.

“Yes,” Violet answered.

Hector looked around the street once more, and then leaned forward and began speaking in a very quiet voice. “When the Council of Elders invented Rule #67,” he said, “they instructed me to remove all the inventing materials in town.”

“What did you say?” Klaus asked.

“I didn’t say anything,” Hector admitted, leading the children around another corner. “The Council makes me too skittish to speak; you know that. But here’s what I did. I took all of the materials and hid them out in my barn, which I’ve been using as sort of an inventing studio.”

“I’ve always wanted to have an inventing studio,” Violet said. Without even realizing it, she was reaching into her pocket for a ribbon, to tie her hair up and keep it out of her eyes, as if she were already inventing something instead of just talking about it. “What have you invented so far, Hector?”

“Oh, just a few little things,” Hector said, “but I have an enormous project that is nearing completion. I’ve been building a self-sustaining hot air mobile home.”

“Neebdes?” Sunny said. She meant something like, “Could you explain that a bit more?” but Hector needed no encouragement to keep talking about his invention.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever been up in a hot air balloon,” he said, “but it’s very exciting. You stand in a large basket, with the enormous balloon over your head, and you can gaze down at the entire countryside below you, spread out like a blanket. It’s simply superlative. Well, my invention is nothing more than a hot air balloon—except it’s much larger. Instead of one large basket, there are twelve baskets, all tied together below several hot air balloons. Each basket serves as a different room, so it’s like having an entire flying house. It’s completely self-sustaining—once you get up in it, you never have to go back down. In fact, if my new engine works properly, it will be impossible to get back down. The engine should last for more than one hundred years, and there’s a huge storage basket that I’m filling with food, beverages, clothing, and books. Once it’s completed, I’ll be able to fly away from V.F.D. and the Council of Elders and everything else that makes me skittish, and live forever in the air.”

“It sounds like a marvelous invention,” Violet said. “How in the world have you been able to get the engine to be self-sustaining, too?”

“That’s giving me something of a problem,” Hector admitted, “but maybe if you three took a look at it, we could fix the engine together.”

“I’m sure Violet could be of help,” Klaus said, “but I’m not much of an inventor. I’m more interested in reading. Does V.F.D. have a good library?”

“Unfortunately, no,” Hector said. “Rule #108 clearly states that the V.F.D. library cannot contain any books that break any of the other rules. If someone in a book uses a mechanical device, for instance, that book is not allowed in the library.”

“But there are so many rules,” Klaus said. “What kind of books could possibly be allowed?”

“Not very many,” Hector said, “and nearly all of them are dull. There’s one called The Littlest Elf that’s probably the most boring book ever written. It’s about this irritating little man who has all sorts of tedious adventures.”

“That’s too bad,” Klaus said glumly. “I was hoping that I could do a little research into V.F.D.—the secret, that is, not the village—in my spare time.”

Hector stopped walking again, and looked once more around the empty streets. “Can you keep another secret?” he asked, and the Baudelaires nodded. “The Council of Elders told me to burn all of the books that broke Rule #108,” he said in a quiet voice, “but I brought them to my barn instead. I have sort of a secret library there, as well as a secret inventing studio.”

“Wow,” Klaus said. “I’ve seen public libraries, private libraries, school libraries, legal libraries, reptile libraries, and grammatical libraries, but never a secret library. It sounds exciting.”

“It’s a bit exciting,” Hector agreed, “but it also makes me very skittish. The Council of Elders gets very, very angry when people break the rules. I hate to think what they’d do to me if they found out I was secretly using mechanical devices and reading interesting books.”

“Azzator!” Sunny said, which meant “Don’t worry—your secret is safe with us!”

Hector looked down at her quizzically. “I don’t know what ‘azzator’ means, Sunny,” he said, “but I would guess it means ‘Don’t forget about me!’ Violet will use the studio, and Klaus will use the library, but what can we do for you? What do you like to do best?”

“Bite!” Sunny responded at once, but Hector frowned and took another look around him.

“Don’t say that so loudly, Sunny!” he whispered. “Rule #4,561 clearly states that citizens are not allowed to use their mouths for recreation. If the Council of Elders knew that you liked to bite things for your own enjoyment, I can’t imagine what they’d do. I’m sure we can find you some things to bite, but you’ll have to do it in secret. Well, here we are.”

Hector led the Baudelaires around one last corner, and the children got their first glimpse of where they would be living. The street they had been walking on simply ended at the turn of the corner, leading them to a place as wide and as flat as the countryside they had crossed that afternoon, with just three shapes standing out on the flat horizon. The first was a large, sturdy-looking house, with a pointed roof and a front porch big enough to contain a picnic table and four wooden chairs. The second was an enormous barn, right next to the house, that hid the studio and library Hector had been talking about. But it was the third shape that caused the Baudelaires to stare.

The third shape on the horizon was Nevermore Tree, but to simply say it was a tree would be like saying the Pacific Ocean was a body of water, or that Count Olaf was a grumpy person or that the story of Beatrice and myself was just a little bit sad. Nevermore Tree was gargantuan, a word which here means “having attained an inordinate amount of botanical volume,” a phrase which here means “it was the biggest tree the Baudelaires had ever seen.” Its trunk was so wide that the Baudelaires could have stood behind it, along with an elephant, three horses, and an opera singer, and not have been seen from the other side. Its branches spread out in every direction, like a fan that was taller than the house and wider than the barn, and the tree was made even taller and wider by what was sitting in it. Every last V.F.D. crow was roosting in its branches, adding a thick layer of muttering black shapes to the immense silhouette of the tree. Because the crows had gotten to Hector’s house as the crow flies, instead of walking, the birds had arrived long before the Baudelaires, and the air was filled with the quiet rustling sounds of the birds settling in for the evening. A few of the birds had already fallen asleep, and the children could hear a few crow snores as they approached their new home.

“What do you think?” Hector asked.

“It’s marvelous,” Violet said.

“It’s superlative,” Klaus said.

“Ogufod!” Sunny said, which meant “What a lot of crows!”

“The noises of the crows might sound strange at first,” Hector said, leading the way up the steps of the house, “but you’ll get used to them before long. I always leave the windows open when I go to bed. The sounds of the crows remind me of the ocean, and I find it very peaceful to listen to them as I drift off to sleep. Speaking of bed, I’m sure you must be very tired. I’ve prepared three rooms for you upstairs, but if you don’t like them you can choose other ones. There’s plenty of room in the house. There’s even room for the Quagmires to live here, when we find them. It sounds like the five of you would be happy living together, even if you had to do the chores of an entire town.”

“That sounds delightful,” Violet said, smiling at Hector. It made the children happy just to think of the two triplets being safe and sound, instead of in Count Olaf’s clutches. “Duncan is a journalist, so maybe he could start a newspaper—then V.F.D. wouldn’t have to read all of the mistakes in The Daily Punctilio.”

“And Isadora is a poet,” Klaus said. “She could write a book of poetry for the library—as long as she didn’t write poetry about things that were against the rules.”

Hector started to open the door of his house, but then paused and gave the Baudelaires a strange look. “A poet?” he asked. “What kind of poetry does she write?”

“Couplets,” Violet replied.

Hector gave the children a look that was even stranger. He put down the Baudelaires’ suitcases and reached into the pocket of his overalls. “Couplets?” he asked.

“Yes,” Klaus said. “She likes to write rhyming poems that are two lines long.”

Hector gave the youngsters a look that was one of the strangest they had ever seen, and took his hand out of his pocket to show them a scrap of paper rolled into a tiny scroll. “Like this?” he asked, and unrolled the paper. The Baudelaire orphans had to squint to read it in the dying light of the sunset, and when they read it once they had to read it again, to make sure that the light wasn’t playing tricks on them and that they had read what was really there on the scrap of paper, in shaky but familiar handwriting:

For sapphires we are held in here. Only you can end our fear.

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