بخش 04

مجموعه: مجموعه بدبیاری ها / کتاب: دهکده شوم / فصل 4

بخش 04

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CHAPTER Eleven

Inside these letters, the eye will see Nearby are your friends, and V.F.D.

“Isn’t it marvelous?” Klaus said with a grin, as his sisters read the fourth couplet. “Isn’t it absolutely superlative?” “Wibeon,” Sunny said, which meant “It’s more confusing than superlative—we still don’t know where the Quagmires are.”

“Yes we do,” Klaus said, taking the other couplets out of his pocket.

“Think about all four poems in order, and you’ll see what I mean.”

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

Until dawn comes we cannot speak. No words can come from this sad beak.

The first thing you read contains the clue: An initial way to speak to you.

Inside these letters the eye will see Nearby are your friends, and V.F.D.

“I think you’re much better at analyzing poetry than I am,” Violet said, and Sunny nodded in agreement. “This poem doesn’t make it any clearer.”

“But you’re the one who first suggested the solution,” Klaus said. “When we received the third poem, you thought that ‘initial’ meant ‘initials,’ like V.F.D.”

“But you said that it probably meant ‘first,’” Violet said. “The poems are the first way the Quagmires can speak to us from where they are hidden.”

“I was wrong,” Klaus admitted. “I’ve never been so happy to be wrong in my life. Isadora meant ‘initials’ all along. I didn’t realize it until I read the part that said ‘Inside these letters the eye will see.’ She’s hiding the location inside the poem, like Aunt Josephine hid her location inside her note, remember?”

“Of course I remember,” Violet said, “but I still don’t understand.”

“‘The first thing you read contains the clue,’” Klaus recited. “We thought that Isadora meant the first poem. But she meant the first letter. She couldn’t tell us directly where she and her brother were hidden, in case someone else got the poems from the crows before we did, so she had to use a sort of code. If we look at the first letter of each line, and we can see the triplets’ location.”

“‘For sapphires we are held in here.’ That’s F,” Violet said. “‘Only you can end our fear.’ That’s O.”

“‘Until dawn comes we cannot speak,’” Klaus said. “That’s U. ‘No words can come from this sad beak.’ That’s N.”

“‘The first thing you read contains the clue’—T,” Violet said excitedly. “‘An initial way to speak to you’—A.”

“I! N!” Sunny cried triumphantly, and the three Baudelaires cried out the solution together: “FOUNTAIN!”

“Fowl Fountain!” Klaus said. “The Quagmires are right outside that window.”

“But how can they be in the fountain?” Violet asked. “And how could Isadora give her poems to the V.F.D. crows?”

“We’ll answer those questions,” Klaus replied, “as soon as we get out of jail. We’d better get back to the mortar-dissolver before Detective Dupin comes back.”

“Along with a whole town of people who want to burn us at the stake, thanks to mob psychology,” Violet said with a shudder.

Sunny crawled over to the loaf of bread and placed her tiny hand against the wall. “Mush!” she cried, which meant something like, “The mortar is almost dissolved—just a little bit longer!”

Violet took the ribbon out of her hair and then retied it, which was something she did when she needed to rethink, a word which here means “Think even harder about the Baudelaire orphans’ terrible situation.” “I’m not sure we have even a little bit longer,” she said, looking up at the window. “Look at how bright the sunlight is. The morning must be almost over.”

“Then we should hurry,” Klaus said.

“No,” Violet corrected. “We should rethink. And I’ve been rethinking this bench. We can use it in another way, besides as a ramp. We can use it as a battering ram.”

“Honz?” Sunny asked.

“A battering ram is a large piece of wood or metal used to break down doors or walls,” Violet explained. “Military inventors used it in medieval times to break into walled cities, and we’re going to use it now, to break out of jail.” Violet picked up the bench so it was resting on her shoulder. “The bench should be pointing as evenly as possible,” she said. “Sunny, get on Klaus’s shoulders. If the two of you hold the other end together, I think this battering ram will work.”

Klaus and Sunny scrambled into the position Violet had suggested, and in a moment the siblings were ready to operate Violet’s latest invention. The two Baudelaire sisters had a firm hold on the wood, and Klaus had a firm hold on Sunny so she wouldn’t fall to the floor of the Deluxe Cell as they battered.

“Now,” Violet said, “let’s step back as far as we can, and at the count of three, run quickly toward the wall. Aim the battering ram for the spot where the mortar-dissolver was working. Ready? One, two, three!”

Thunk! The Baudelaires ran forward and smacked the bench against the wall as hard as they could. The battering ram made a noise so loud that it felt as if the entire jail would collapse, but they left only a small dent in a few of the bricks, as if the wall had been bruised slightly. “Again!” Violet commanded. “One, two, three!”

Thunk! Outside the children could hear a few crows flutter wildly, frightened by the noise. A few more bricks were bruised, and one had a long crack down the middle. “It’s working!” Klaus cried. “The battering ram is working!”

“One, two, minga!” Sunny shrieked, and the children smacked the battering ram against the wall again.

“Ow!” Klaus cried, and stumbled a little bit, almost dropping his baby sister. “A brick fell on my toe!”

“Hooray!” Violet cried. “I mean, sorry about your toe, Klaus, but if bricks are falling it means the wall is definitely weakening. Let’s put down the battering ram and get a better look.”

“We don’t need a better look,” Klaus said. “We’ll know it’s working when we see Fowl Fountain. One, two, three!”

Thunk! The Baudelaires heard the sound of more pieces of brick hitting the filthy floor of the Deluxe Cell. But they also heard another sound—a familiar one. It began with a faint rustling, and then grew and grew until it sounded like a million pages were being flipped. It was the sound of the V.F.D. crows, flying in circles before departing for their afternoon roost, and it meant that the children were running out of time.

“Hurol!” Sunny cried desperately, and then, as loudly as she could, “One! Two! Minga!”

At the count of “Minga!” which of course meant something along the lines of “Three!” the children raced toward the wall of the Deluxe Cell and smacked their battering ram against the bricks with the mightiest Thunk! yet, a noise that was accompanied by an enormous cracking sound as the invention snapped in two. Violet staggered in one direction, and Klaus and Sunny staggered in another, as each separate half made them lose their balance, and a huge cloud of dust sprang from the point where the battering ram had hit the wall.

A huge cloud of dust is not a beautiful thing to look at. Very few painters have done portraits of huge clouds of dust or included them in their landscapes or still lifes. Film directors rarely choose huge clouds of dust to play the lead roles in romantic comedies, and as far as my research has shown, a huge cloud of dust has never placed higher than twenty-fifth in a beauty pageant. Nevertheless, as the Baudelaire orphans stumbled around the cell, dropping each half of the battering ram and listening to the sound of the crows flying in circles outside, they stared at the huge cloud of dust as if it were a thing of great beauty, because this particular huge dust cloud was made of pieces of brick and mortar and other building materials that are needed to build a wall, and the Baudelaires knew that they were seeing it because Violet’s invention had worked. As the huge cloud of dust settled on the cell floor, making it even dirtier, the children gazed around them with big dusty grins on their faces, because they saw an additional beautiful sight—a big, gaping hole in the wall of the Deluxe Cell, perfect for a speedy escape.

“We did it!” Violet said, and stepped through the hole in the cell into the courtyard. She looked up at the sky just in time to see the last few crows departing for the downtown district. “We escaped!”

Klaus, still holding Sunny on his shoulders, paused to wipe the dust off his glasses before stepping out of the cell and walking past Violet to Fowl Fountain. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said, using a phrase which here means “There’s still plenty of trouble on the horizon.” He looked up at the sky and pointed to the distant blur of the departing crows. “The crows are heading downtown for their afternoon roost. The townspeople should arrive any minute now.”

“But how can we get the Quagmires out any minute now?” Violet asked.

“Wock!” Sunny cried from Klaus’s shoulders. She meant something like, “The fountain looks as solid as can be,” and her siblings nodded in disappointed agreement. Fowl Fountain looked as impenetrable—a word which here means “impossible to break into and rescue kidnapped triplets”—as it did ugly. The metal crow sat and spat water all over itself as if the idea of the Baudelaires rescuing the Quagmires made it sick to its stomach.

“Duncan and Isadora must be trapped inside the fountain,” Klaus said. “Perhaps there’s a mechanism someplace that opens up a secret entrance.”

“But we cleaned every inch of this fountain for our afternoon chores,” Violet said. “We would have noticed a secret mechanism while we were scrubbing all those carved feathers.”

“Jidu!” Sunny said, which meant something like, “Surely Isadora has given us a hint about how to rescue her!”

Klaus put down his baby sister, and took the four scraps of paper out of his pocket. “It’s time to rethink again,” he said, spreading out the couplets on the ground. “We need to examine these poems as closely as we can. There must be another clue about getting into the fountain.”

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

Until dawn comes we cannot speak. No words can come from this sad beak.

The first thing you read contains the clue: An initial way to speak to you.

Inside these letters the eye will see. Nearby are your friends, and V.F.D.

“‘This sad beak’!” Violet exclaimed. “We jumped to the conclusion that she meant the V.F.D. crows, but maybe she means Fowl Fountain. The water comes out of the crow’s beak, so there must be a hole there.”

“We’d better climb up and see,” Klaus said. “Here, Sunny, get on my shoulders again, and then I’ll get on Violet’s shoulders. We’re going to have to be very tall to reach all the way up there.”

Violet nodded, and knelt at the base of the fountain. Klaus put Sunny back on his shoulders, and then got on the shoulders of his older sister, and then carefully, carefully, Violet stood up, so all three Baudelaires were balancing on top of one another like a troupe of acrobats the children had seen once when their parents had taken them to the circus. The key difference, however, is that acrobats rehearse their routines over and over, in rooms with safety nets and plenty of cushions so that when they make a mistake they will not injure themselves, but the Baudelaire orphans had no time to rehearse, or to find cushions to lay out on V.F.D.’s streets. As a result, the Baudelaire balancing act was a wobbly one. Violet wobbled from holding up both her siblings, and Klaus wobbled from standing on his wobbling sister, and poor Sunny was wobbling so much that she was just barely able to sit up on Klaus’s shoulder and peer into the beak of the gargling metal crow. Violet looked down the street, to watch for any arriving townspeople, and Klaus gazed down at the ground, where Isadora’s poems were still spread out.

“What do you see, Sunny?” asked Violet, who had spotted a few very distant figures walking quickly toward the fountain.

“Shize!” Sunny called down.

“Klaus, the beak isn’t big enough to get inside the fountain,” Violet said desperately. The streets of the town appeared to be shaking up and down as she wobbled more and more. “What can we do?”

“‘Inside these letters the eye will see,’” Klaus muttered to himself, as he often did when he was thinking hard about something he was reading. It took all of his concentration to read the couplets Isadora had sent them while he was teetering back and forth. “That’s a strange way to put it. Why didn’t she write ‘Inside these letters I hope you’ll see,’ or ‘Inside these letters you just might see’?”

“Sabisho!” Sunny cried. From the top of her two wobbling siblings, Sunny was waving back and forth like a flower in the breeze. She tried to hang on to Fowl Fountain, but the water rushing out of the crow’s beak made the metal too slippery.

Violet tried as hard as she could to steady herself, but the sight of two figures wearing crow-shaped hats coming around a nearby corner did not help her find her balance. “Klaus,” she said, “I don’t mean to rush you, but please rethink as quickly as you can. The citizens are approaching, and I’m not sure how much longer I can hang on.”

“‘Inside these letters the eye will see,’” Klaus muttered again, closing his eyes so he wouldn’t have to see the world wobbling around him.

“Took!” Sunny shrieked, but no one heard her over Violet’s scream as her legs gave out, a phrase which here means that she toppled to the ground, skinning her knee and dropping Klaus in the process. Klaus’s glasses dropped off, and he fell to the ground of the courtyard elbows first, which is a painful way to fall, and as he rolled on the ground both of his elbows received nasty scrapes. But Klaus was far more concerned about his hands, which were no longer clasping the feet of his baby sister. “Sunny!” he called, squinting without his glasses. “Sunny, where are you?”

“Heni!” Sunny screamed, but it was even more difficult than usual to understand what she meant. The youngest Baudelaire had managed to cling to the beak of the crow with her teeth, but as the fountain kept spitting out water, her mouth began to slip off the slick metal surface. “Heni!” she screamed again, as one of her upper teeth started to slip. Sunny began to slide down, down, scrambling desperately to find something to hang on to, but the only other feature carved into the head was the staring eye of the crow, which was flat and provided no sort of toothhold. She slipped down farther, farther, and Sunny closed her eyes rather than watch herself fall.

“Heni!” she screamed one last time, gnashing her teeth against the eye in frustration, and as she bit the eye, it depressed. “Depressed” is a word that often describes someone who is feeling sad and gloomy, but in this case it describes a secret button, hidden in a crow statue, that is feeling just fine, thank you. With a great creaking noise, the button depressed and the beak of Fowl Fountain opened as wide as it could, each part of the beak flipping slowly down and bringing Sunny down with it. Klaus found his glasses and put them on just in time to see his little sister drop safely into Violet’s outstretched arms. The three Baudelaires looked at one another with relief, and then looked at the widening beak of the crow. Through the rushing water, the three siblings could see two pairs of hands appear on the beak as two people climbed out of Fowl Fountain. Each person was wearing a thick wool sweater, so dark and heavy with water that they both looked like huge, misshapen monsters. The two dripping figures climbed carefully out of the crow and lowered themselves to the ground, and the Baudelaires ran to clasp them in their arms.

I do not have to tell you how overjoyed the children were to see Duncan and Isadora Quagmire shivering in the courtyard, and I do not have to tell you how grateful the Quagmires were to be out of the confines of Fowl Fountain. I do not have to tell you how happy and relieved the five youngsters were to be reunited after all this time, and I do not have to tell you all the joyous things the triplets said as they struggled to take off their heavy sweaters and wring them out. But there are things I do have to tell you, and one of those things is the distant figure of Detective Dupin, holding a torch and heading straight toward the Baudelaire orphans.

CHAPTER Twelve

If you have reached this far in the story, you must stop now. If you take one step back and look at the book you are reading, you can see how little of this miserable story there is to go, but if you could know how much grief and woe are contained in these last few pages, you would take another step back, and then another, and keep stepping back until The Vile Village was just as small and distant as the approaching figure of Detective Dupin was as the Baudelaire orphans embraced their friends in relief and joy. The Baudelaire orphans, I’m sorry to say, could not stop now, and there is no way for me to travel backward in time and warn the Baudelaires that the relief and joy they were experiencing at Fowl Fountain were the last bits of relief and joy they would experience for a very long time. But I can warn you. You, unlike the Baudelaire orphans and the Quagmire triplets and me and my dear departed Beatrice, can stop this wretched story at this very moment, and see what happens at the end of The Littlest Elf instead.

“We can’t stay here,” Violet warned. “I don’t mean to cut short this reunion, but it’s already afternoon, and Detective Dupin is coming down that street.”

The five children looked in the direction Violet was pointing, and could see the turquoise speck of Dupin’s approaching blazer, and the tiny point of light his flaming torch made as he drew near the courtyard.

“Do you think he sees us?” Klaus asked.

“I don’t know,” Violet said, “but let’s not stick around to find out. The V.F.D. mob will only get worse when they discover we’ve broken out of jail.”

“Detective Dupin is the latest disguise of Count Olaf,” Klaus explained to the Quagmires, “and—”

“We know all about Detective Dupin,” Duncan said quickly, “and we know what’s happened to you.”

“We heard everything that happened yesterday, from inside the fountain,” Isadora said. “When we heard you cleaning the fountain we tried to make as much noise as we could, but you couldn’t hear us over the sound of all that water.”

Duncan squeezed a whole puddle out of the soaked stitches of his left sweater sleeve. Then he reached under his shirt and brought out a dark green notebook. “We tried to keep our notebooks as dry as possible,” he explained. “After all, there’s crucial information in here.”

“We have all the information about V.F.D.,” Isadora said, taking out her notebook, which was pitch black. “The real V.F.D., that is, not the Village of Fowl Devotees.”

Duncan opened his notebook and blew on some of the damp pages. “And we know the complete story of poor Jac—”

Duncan was interrupted by a shriek behind him, and the five children turned to see two members of the Council of Elders staring at the hole in the uptown jail. Quickly, the Baudelaires and Quagmires ducked behind Fowl Fountain so they wouldn’t be seen.

One of the Elders shrieked again, and removed his crow hat to dab at his brow with a tissue. “They’ve escaped!” he cried. “Rule #1,742 clearly states that no one is allowed to escape from jail. How dare they disobey this rule!”

“We should have expected this from a murderer and her two accomplices,” the other Elder said. “And look—they’ve damaged Fowl Fountain. The beak is split wide open. Our beautiful fountain is ruined!”

“Those three orphans are the worst criminals in history,” the first replied. “Look—there’s Detective Dupin, walking down that street. Let’s go tell him what’s happened. Maybe he’ll figure out where they’ve gone.”

“You go tell Dupin,” the second Elder said, “and I’ll go call The Daily Punctilio. Maybe they’ll put my name in the newspaper.”

The two members of the Council hurried off to spread the news, and the children sighed in relief. “Cose,” Sunny said.

“That was too close,” Klaus replied. “Soon this whole district will be full of citizens hunting us down.”

“Well, nobody’s hunting us,” Duncan said. “Isadora and I will walk in front of you, so you won’t be spotted.”

“But where can we go?” Isadora asked. “This vile village is in the middle of nowhere.”

“I helped Hector finish his self-sustaining hot air mobile home,” Violet said, “and he promised to have it waiting for us. All we have to do is make it to the outskirts of town, and we can escape.”

“And live forever up in the air?” Klaus said, frowning.

“Maybe it won’t be forever,” Violet replied.

“Scylla!” Sunny said, which meant “It’s either the self-sustaining hot air mobile home, or being burned at the stake!”

“When you say it like that,” Klaus said, “I’m convinced.”

Everyone agreed, and Violet looked around the courtyard to see if anyone else had arrived yet. “In a place as flat as this one,” she said, “you can see people coming from far away, and we’re going to use that to our advantage. We’ll walk along any empty street we can find, and if we see anyone coming, we’ll turn a corner. We won’t be able to get there as the crow flies, but eventually we’ll be able to reach Nevermore Tree.”

“Speaking of the crows,” Klaus said to the two triplets, “how did you manage to deliver those poems by crow? And how did you know that we would receive them?”

“Let’s get moving,” Isadora replied. “We’ll tell you the whole story as we go along.”

The five children got moving. With the Quagmire triplets in the lead, the group of youngsters peered down one street after another until they found one without a sign of anyone coming, and hurried out of the courtyard.

“Olaf smuggled us away in that item from the In Auction with the help of Esmé Squalor,” Duncan began, referring to the last time the Baudelaires had seen him and his sister. “And he hid us for a while in the tower room of his terrible house.”

Violet shuddered. “I haven’t thought of that room in quite some time,” she said. “It’s hard to believe that we used to live with such a vile man.”

Klaus pointed to the distant figure who was walking toward them, and the five children turned onto another empty street. “This street doesn’t lead to Hector’s house,” he said, “but we’ll try to double back. Go on, Duncan.”

“Olaf learned that you three would be living with Hector at the outskirts of this town,” Duncan continued, “and he had his associates build that hideous fountain.”

“Then he placed us inside,” Isadora said, “and had us installed in the uptown courtyard, so he could keep an eye on us while he tried to hunt you down. We knew that you were our only chance of escaping.”

The children reached a corner and stopped, while Duncan peeked around it to make sure no one was approaching. He signaled that it was safe, and continued the story. “We needed to send you a message, but we were afraid it would fall into the wrong hands. Isadora had the idea of writing in couplets, with our location hidden in the first letter of each line.”

“And Duncan figured out how to get them to Hector’s house,” Isadora said. “He’d done some research about migration patterns in large black birds, so he knew that the crows would roost every night in Nevermore Tree—right next to Hector’s house. Every morning, I would write a couplet, and the two of us would reach up through the fountain’s beak.”

“There was always a crow roosting on the very top of the fountain,” Duncan said, “so we would wrap the scrap of paper around its leg. The paper was all wet from the fountain, so it would stick easily.”

“And Duncan’s research was absolutely right. The paper dried off, and fell at night.”

Isadora recited.

“That was a risky plan,” Violet said.

“No riskier than breaking out of jail, and putting your lives in danger to rescue us,” Duncan said, and looked at the Baudelaires in gratitude. “You saved our lives—again.”

“We wouldn’t leave you behind,” Klaus said. “We refused to entertain the notion.”

Isadora smiled, and patted Klaus’s hand. “Meanwhile,” she said, “while we were trying to contact you, Olaf hatched a plan to steal your fortune—and get rid of an old enemy at the same time.”

“You mean Jacques,” Violet said. “When we saw him with the Council of Elders, he was trying to tell us something. Why does he have the same tattoo as Olaf? Who is he?”

“His full name,” Duncan said, flipping through his notebook, “is Jacques Snicket.”

“That sounds familiar,” Violet said.

“I’m not surprised,” Duncan said. “Jacques Snicket is the brother of a man who—”

“There they are!” a voice cried, and in an instant the children realized they had neglected to look in back of them, as well as in front of them and around each corner. About two blocks behind them was Mr. Lesko, leading a small group of torch-carrying citizens straight up the street. The day was getting later, and the torches left long, skinny shadows on the sidewalk as if the mob were being led by slithering black serpents, instead of a man in plaid pants. “There are the orphans!” Mr. Lesko cried triumphantly. “After them, citizens!”

“Who are those other two?” asked an Elder in the crowd.

“Who cares?” said Mrs. Morrow, and waved her torch. “They’re probably more accomplices! Let’s burn them at the stake, too!”

“Why not?” said another Elder. “We already have torches and kindling, and I don’t have anything else to do right now.”

Mr. Lesko stopped at a corner and called down a street the children couldn’t see. “Hey, everyone!” he shouted. “They’re over here!”

The five children had been staring at the group of citizens, too terrified to get moving again. Sunny was the first to recover. “Lililk!” she shouted, and began crawling down the street as fast as she could. She meant something like “Let’s go! Don’t look behind you! Let’s just try to get to Hector and his self-sustaining hot air mobile home before the mob catches up with us and burns us at the stake!” but her companions didn’t need any encouragement. Down the street they raced, paying no attention to the footsteps and shouts behind them, which seemed to be growing in number as more and more people heard the news that V.F.D.’s prisoners were escaping. The children ran down narrow alleys and wide main streets, across parks and bridges that were all covered in black feathers. Occasionally they had to retrace their steps, a phrase which here means “turn around and run the other way when they saw townspeople approaching,” and often they had to duck into doorways or hide behind shrubbery while angry citizens ran by, as if the children were playing a game of hide-and-go-seek instead of running for their lives. The afternoon wore on, and the shadows on V.F.D.’s streets grew longer and longer, and still the sidewalks echoed with the sounds of the mob’s cries and the windows of the buildings reflected the flames from the torches the townspeople were carrying. Finally, the five children reached the outskirts of town, and stared at the flat, bare landscape. The Baudelaires searched desperately for a sign of the handyman and his invention, but only the shapes of Hector’s house, the barn, and Nevermore Tree were visible on the horizon.

“Where’s Hector?” Isadora asked frantically.

“I don’t know,” Violet said. “He said he’d be at the barn, but I don’t see him.”

“Where can we go?” Duncan cried. “We can’t hide anywhere around here. The citizens will spot us in a second.”

“We’re trapped,” Klaus said, his voice hoarse with panic.

“Vireo!” Sunny cried, which meant “Let’s run—or, in my case, crawl—as fast as we can!”

“We’ll never run fast enough,” Violet said, pointing behind them. “Look.”

The youngsters turned around, and saw the entire Village of Fowl Devotees, marching together in a huge group. They had rounded the last corner and were now heading straight toward the five children, their footsteps as loud as a roll of thunder. But the youngsters did not feel as if it was thunder that was rolling toward them. As hundreds of fierce and angry citizens approached, it felt more like the rolling of an enormous root vegetable. It felt like a root vegetable that could crush all of the reptiles in Uncle Monty’s collection in five seconds flat, or one that could soak up every drop of water of Lake Lachrymose in an instant. The approaching crowd felt like a root vegetable that made every tree in the Finite Forest look like a tiny twig, made the huge lasagna served at the Prufrock Preparatory School cafeteria look like a light snack, and made the skyscraper at 667 Dark Avenue look like a dollhouse made for midget children to play with, a root vegetable so tremendous in size that it would win every first-place ribbon in every starchy farm crop competition in every state and county fair in the entire world from now until the end of time. The march of the torch-wielding mob, eager to capture Violet and Klaus and Sunny and Duncan and Isadora and burn each one of them at the stake, felt like the largest potato the Baudelaire orphans and the Quagmire triplets had ever encountered.

CHAPTER Thirteen

The Baudelaires looked at the Quagmires, and the Quagmires looked at the Baudelaires, and then all five children looked at the mob. All the members of the Council of Elders were walking together, their crow-shaped hats bobbing in unison. Mrs. Morrow was leading a chant of “Burn the orphans! Burn the orphans!” which the Verhoogen family was taking up with spirit, and Mr. Lesko’s eyes were shining as brightly as his torch. The only person missing from the mob was Detective Dupin, who the children would have expected to be leading the crowd. Instead, Officer Luciana walked in front, scowling below the visor of her helmet as she led the way in her shiny black boots. In one white-gloved hand she was clutching something covered in a blanket, and with the other hand she was pointing at the terrified children.

“There they are!” Officer Luciana cried, pointing her white-gloved finger at the five terrified children. “They have nowhere else to go!”

“She’s right!” Klaus cried. “There’s no way to escape!”

“Machina!” Sunny shrieked.

“There’s no sign of deus ex machina, Sunny,” Violet said, her eyes filling with tears. “I don’t think anything helpful will arrive unexpectedly.”

“Machina!” Sunny insisted, and pointed at the sky. The children took their eyes off the approaching mob and looked up, and there was the greatest example of deus ex machina they had ever seen. Floating just over the children’s heads was the superlative sight of the self-sustaining hot air mobile home. Although the invention had been quite marvelous to look at in Hector’s studio, it was truly wondrous now that it was actually being put to use, and even the angry citizens of V.F.D. stopped chasing the children for a moment, just so they could stare at this amazing sight. The self-sustaining hot air mobile home was enormous, as if an entire cottage had somehow detached itself from its neighborhood and was wandering around the sky. The twelve baskets were all connected and floating together like a group of rafts, with all of the tubes, pipes, and wires twisted around them like a huge piece of knitting. Above the baskets were dozens of balloons in varying shades of green. Fully inflated, they looked like a floating crop of crisp, ripe apples glistening in the last light of the afternoon. The mechanical devices were working at full force, with flashing lights, spinning gears, ringing bells, dripping faucets, whirring pulleys, and a hundred other gadgets all going at once, but miraculously, the entire self-sustaining hot air mobile home was as silent as a cloud. As the invention sailed toward the ground, the only sound that could be heard was Hector’s triumphant shout.

“Here I am!” the handyman called from the control basket. “And here it is, like a bolt from the blue! Violet, your improvements are working perfectly. Climb aboard, and we’ll escape from this wretched place.” He flicked a bright yellow switch, and a long ladder made of rope began to unfurl down to where the children were standing. “Because my invention is self-sustaining,” he explained, “it isn’t designed to come back down to the ground, so you’ll have to climb up this ladder.”

Duncan caught the end of the ladder and held it for Isadora to climb up. “I’m Duncan Quagmire,” he said quickly, “and this is my sister, Isadora.”

“Yes, the Baudelaires have told me all about you,” Hector said. “I’m glad you’re coming along. Like all mechanical devices, the self-sustaining hot air mobile home actually needs several people to keep it running.”

“Aha!” cried Mr. Lesko, as Isadora hurriedly climbed the ladder with Duncan right behind her. The mob had stopped staring at the deus ex machina and was now marching once again toward the children. “I knew it was a mechanical device! All those buttons and gears can’t fool me!”

“Why, Hector!” an Elder said. “Rule #67 clearly states that no citizen is allowed to build or use any mechanical devices.”

“Burn him at the stake, too!” cried Mrs. Morrow. “Somebody get extra kindling!”

Hector took a deep breath, and then called down to the mob without a trace of skittishness in his voice. “Nobody’s going to be burned at the stake,” he said firmly, as Isadora reached the top of the ladder and joined Hector in the control basket. “Burning people at the stake is a repulsive thing to do!”

“What’s repulsive is your behavior,” an Elder replied. “The children have murdered Count Olaf, and you have built a mechanical device. You have both broken very important rules!”

“I don’t want to live in a place with so many rules,” Hector replied in a quiet voice, “or a place with so many crows. I’m floating away from here, and I’m taking these five children with me. The Baudelaires and the Quagmires have had a horrible time since their parents died. The Village of Fowl Devotees ought to be taking care of them, instead of accusing them of things and chasing them through the streets.”

“But who’s going to do our chores?” an Elder asked. “The Snack Hut is still full of dirty dishes from our hot fudge sundaes.”

“You should do your own chores,” the handyman said, as he leaned over to lift Duncan aboard his invention, “or take turns doing them according to a fair schedule. The aphorism is ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ not ‘Three children should clean up after a village.’ Baudelaires, climb aboard. Let’s leave these terrible people behind us.”

The Baudelaires smiled at one another, and began climbing up the rope ladder. Violet went first, her hands clutching the scratchy rope as tightly as she could, and Klaus and Sunny followed closely behind. Hector turned a knob, and the mobile home rose up higher just as the crowd reached the end of the ladder. “They’re getting away!” another Elder called, her crow-shaped hat bobbing with frustration. She jumped up to try to grab the edge of the ladder, but Hector had maneuvered his invention too high for her to reach. “The rulebreakers are getting away! Officer Luciana, do something!”

“I’ll do something, all right,” Officer Luciana said with a snarl, and tossed away the blanket she had been holding. From halfway down the ladder, the three climbing Baudelaires looked down and saw a large, wicked-looking object in Luciana’s hands, with a bright red trigger and four long, sharp hooks. “You’re not the only one with a mechanical device!” she called up to Hector. “This is a harpoon gun that my boyfriend bought for me. It fires four hooked harpoons, which are long spears perfect for popping balloons.”

“Oh no!” Hector said, looking down at the climbing children.

“Raise the self-sustaining hot air mobile home, Hector!” Violet called. “We’ll keep climbing!”

“Our Chief of Police is using a mechanical device?” Mrs. Morrow asked in astonishment. “That means she’s breaking Rule #67, too.”

“Officers of the law are allowed to break rules,” Luciana said, aiming the harpoon gun in Hector’s direction. “Besides, this is an emergency. We need to get those murderers down from there.” Members of the mob looked at one another in confusion, but Luciana merely gave them a lipsticked smile, and pressed the harpoon gun’s trigger with a sharp click! followed by a swoosh! as one of the hooked harpoons flew out of the gun straight toward Hector’s invention. The handyman managed to manuever the self-sustaining hot air mobile home so the harpoon did not hit a balloon, but it struck a metal tank on the side of one of the baskets, making a large hole.

“Drat!” Hector said, as a purplish liquid began to pour out of the hole. “That’s my supply of cranberry juice! Baudelaires, hurry up! If she causes any serious damage, we’re all doomed!”

“We’re coming as fast as we can!” Klaus cried, but as Hector moved his invention even higher in the air, the rope ladder was shaking so much that the Baudelaires could not move very fast at all.

Click! Swoosh! Another harpoon flew through the air and landed in the sixth basket, sending a cloud of brown dust fluttering to the ground, followed by some thin metal tubes. “She hit our supply of whole wheat flour,” Hector cried, “and our box of extra batteries!”

“I’ll hit a balloon with this one!” Officer Luciana called. “Then you’ll fall to the ground, where we can burn you at the stake!”

“Officer Luciana,” said one of the Council of Elders in the crowd, “I don’t think you should break the rules in order to capture people who have broken the rules. It doesn’t make sense.”

“Hear, hear!” called out a townsperson from the opposite side of the crowd. “Why don’t you put down the harpoon gun, and we’ll walk over to Town Hall and have a council meeting.”

“It’s not cool,” called out a voice, “to have meetings!” There was a rumble, as if another large potato had arrived, and the crowd parted to reveal Detective Dupin, riding through the mob on a motorcycle painted turquoise to match his blazer. Below his sunglasses was a grin of triumph, and his bare chest swelled with pride.

“Detective Dupin is using a mechanical device too?” an Elder asked. “We can’t burn everyone at the stake!”

“Dupin isn’t a citizen,” another member of the Council pointed out, “so he’s not breaking Rule #67.”

“But he’s riding through a crowd of people,” Mr. Lesko said, “and he’s not wearing a helmet. He’s not showing good judgment, that’s for sure.”

Detective Dupin ignored Mr. Lesko’s lecture about motorcycle safety and pulled to a stop beside Officer Luciana. “It’s cool to be late,” he said, and snapped his fingers. “I was buying today’s edition of The Daily Punctilio.”

“You shouldn’t be buying newspapers,” said an Elder, shaking his crow hat in disapproval. “You should be catching criminals.”

“Hear, hear!” said several voices in agreement, but the crowd was beginning to look uncertain. It is hard work to be fierce all afternoon, and as the situation grew more complicated, the citizens of V.F.D. seemed a bit less bloodthirsty. A few townspeople even lowered their torches, which had been heavy to hold up all this time.

But Detective Dupin ignored this change in V.F.D.’s mob psychology. “Leave me alone, you crow-hatted fool,” he said to the Elder, and snapped his fingers. “It’s cool to fire away, Officer Luciana.”

“It certainly is,” Luciana said, and looked up into the sky to aim the harpoon gun again. But the self-sustaining hot air mobile home was no longer alone in the sky. In all the commotion, no one had noticed that the afternoon was over, and the V.F.D. crows had left their downtown roost to fly in circles before migrating to Nevermore Tree to spend the night as usual. Now the crows were arriving, thousands and thousands of them, and in seconds the evening sky was covered in black, muttering birds. Officer Luciana could not see Hector and his invention. Hector could not see the Baudelaires. And the Baudelaires could not see anything. The rope ladder was right in the path of the migrating crows, and the three children were absolutely surrounded by the birds of V.F.D. The wings of the crows rustled against the children, and their feathers became tangled in the ladder, and all the three siblings could do was hang on for dear life.

“Baudelaires!” Hector called down. “Hang on for dear life! I’m going to fly even higher, over the crows!”

“No!” Sunny cried, which meant something like, “I’m not sure that’s the wisest plan—we won’t survive a fall from such a height!” but Hector couldn’t hear her over another click! and swoosh! from Luciana’s harpoon gun. The Baudelaires felt the rope ladder jerk sharply in their hands, and then twist dizzily in the crow-filled air. From up in the control basket, the Quagmire triplets looked down and caught a glimpse, through the migrating crows, of some very bad news.

“The harpoon hit the ladder!” Isadora called down to her friends in despair. “The rope is coming unraveled!”

It was true. As the crows began to settle in at Nevermore Tree, the Baudelaires could see more clearly, and they stared up at the ladder in horror. The harpoon was sticking out of one of the ladder’s thick ropes, which was slowly uncurling around the hook. It reminded Violet of a time when she was much younger, and had begged her mother to braid her hair so she could look like a famous inventor she had seen in a magazine. Despite her mother’s best efforts, the braids had not held their shape, and had come unraveled almost as soon as she had tied their ends with ribbons. Violet’s hair had slowly spun out of the braid, just as the strands of rope were spinning out of the ladder now.

“Climb faster!” Duncan screamed down. “Climb faster!”

“No,” Violet said quietly, and then said it again so her siblings could hear. More and more crows were taking their places in the tree, and Klaus and Sunny could see Violet’s grim face as she looked down at them in despair. “No.” The eldest Baudelaire took another look at the unraveling rope and saw that they couldn’t possibly climb up to the basket of Hector’s self-sustaining hot air mobile home. It was just as impossible as her mother ever braiding her hair again. “We can’t do it,” she said. “If we keep trying to climb up, we’ll fall to our deaths. We have to climb down.”

“But—” Klaus said.

“No,” Violet said, and one tear rolled down her cheek. “We won’t make it, Klaus.”

“Yoil!” Sunny said.

“No,” Violet said again, and looked her siblings in the eye. The three Baudelaires shared a moment of frustration and despair that they could not follow their friends, and then, without another word, they began climbing down the unraveling ladder, through the murder of crows still migrating to Nevermore Tree. When the Baudelaires climbed down nine rungs, the rope unbraided completely and dropped the children onto the flat landscape, unhappy but unharmed.

“Hector, maneuver your invention back down!” Isadora called. Her voice sounded a bit faint from so far away. “Duncan and I can lean out of the basket and make a human ladder! There’s still time to retrieve them!”

“I can’t,” Hector said sadly, gazing down at the Baudelaires, who were standing up and untangling themselves from the fallen ladder, as Detective Dupin began to stride toward them in his plastic shoes. “It’s not designed to return to the ground.”

“There must be a way!” Duncan cried, but the self-sustaining hot air mobile home only floated farther away.

“We could try to climb Nevermore Tree,” Klaus said, “and jump into the control basket from its highest branches.”

Violet shook her head. “The tree is already half covered in crows,” she said, “and Hector’s invention is flying too high.” She looked up in the sky and cupped her hands to her mouth so her voice could travel all the way up to her friends. “We can’t reach you now!” she cried. “We’ll try to catch up with you later!”

Isadora’s voice came back so faintly that the Baudelaires could scarcely hear it over the muttering of the crows, who were still settling themselves in Nevermore Tree. “How can you catch up with us later,” she called, “in the middle of the air?”

“I don’t know!” Violet admitted. “But we’ll find a way, I promise you!”

“In the meantime,” Duncan called back, “take these!” The Baudelaires could see the triplet holding his dark green notebook, and Isadora holding hers, over the side of the basket. “This is all the information we have about Count Olaf’s evil plan, and the secret of V.F.D., and Jacques Snicket’s murder!” His voice was as trembly as it was faint, and the three siblings knew their friend was crying. “It’s the least we can do!” he called.

“Take our notebooks, Baudelaires!” Isadora called, “and maybe someday we’ll meet again!”

The Quagmire triplets dropped their notebooks out of the self-sustaining hot air mobile home, and called out “Good-bye!” to the Baudelaires, but their farewell was drowned out by the sound of another click! and another swoosh! as Officer Luciana fired one last harpoon. After so much practice, I’m sorry to say, her aim had improved, and the hook hit exactly what Luciana hoped it would. The sharp spear sailed through the air and hit not one but both Quagmire notebooks. There was a loud ripping noise, and then the air was filled with sheets of paper, tossing this way and that in the rustling wind made by the flying crows. The Quagmires yelled in frustration, and called one last thing down to their friends, but Hector’s invention had flown too high for the Baudelaires to hear it all. “…volunteer…” the children heard dimly, and then the self-sustaining hot air balloon floated too high for the orphans to hear anything more.

“Tesper!” Sunny cried, which meant “Let’s try to gather up as many pages of the notebooks as we can!”

“If ‘Tesper’ means ‘All is lost,’ then that baby isn’t so stupid after all,” said Detective Dupin, who had reached the Baudelaires. He opened his blazer, exposing more of his pale and hairy chest, and took a rolled-up newspaper out of an inside pocket, looking down at the children as if they were three bugs he was about to squash. “I thought you’d want to see The Daily Punctilio,” he said and unrolled the newspaper to show them the headline. “BAUDELAIRE ORPHANS AT LARGE!” it read, using a phrase which here means “not in jail.” Below the headline were three drawings, one of each sibling’s face.

Detective Dupin removed his sunglasses so he could read the newspaper in the fading light. “Authorities are trying to capture Veronica, Klyde, and Susie Baudelaire,” he read out loud, “who escaped from the uptown jail of the Village of Fowl Devotees, where they were imprisoned for the murder of Count Omar.” He gave the children a nasty smile and threw The Daily Punctilio down on the ground. “Some names are wrong, of course,” he said, “but everybody makes mistakes. Tomorrow, of course, there will be another special edition, and I’ll make sure that The Daily Punctilio gets every detail correct in the story about Detective Dupin’s supercool capture of the notorious Baudelaires.”

Dupin leaned down to the children, so close that they could smell the egg salad sandwich he’d apparently eaten for lunch. “Of course,” he said, in a quiet voice so only the siblings could hear him, “one Baudelaire will escape at the last minute, and live with me until the fortune is mine. The question is, which Baudelaire will that be? You still haven’t let me know your decision.”

“We’re not going to entertain that notion, Olaf,” Violet said bitterly.

“Oh no!” an Elder cried, and pointed out at the flat horizon. By the light of the sunset, the Baudelaires could see a small, slender shape sticking out of the ground, while the Quagmire pages fluttered by. It was the last harpoon Luciana had fired, and it had hit something else after destroying the Quagmire notebooks. There, pinned to the ground, was one of the V.F.D. crows, opening its mouth in pain.

“You harmed a crow!” Mrs. Morrow said in horror, pointing at Officer Luciana. “That’s Rule #1! That’s the most important rule of all!”

“Oh, it’s just a stupid bird,” Detective Dupin said, turning to face the horrified citizens.

“A stupid bird?” an Elder repeated, his crow hat trembling in anger. “A stupid bird? Detective Dupin, this is the Village of Fowl Devotees, and—”

“Wait a minute!” interrupted a voice from the crowd. “Look, everyone! He has only one eyebrow!”

Detective Dupin, who had removed his sunglasses to read the paper, reached into the pocket of his blazer and put them back on again. “Lots of people have one eyebrow,” he said, but the crowd paid no attention as mob psychology began to take hold again.

“Let’s make him take off his shoes,” Mr. Lesko called, and an Elder knelt down to grab one of Dupin’s feet. “If he has a tattoo, let’s burn him at the stake!”

“Hear, hear!” a group of citizens agreed.

“Now, wait just a minute!” Officer Luciana said, putting down the harpoon gun and looking at Dupin in concern.

“And let’s burn Officer Luciana, too!” Mrs. Morrow said. “She wounded a crow!”

“We don’t want all these torches to go to waste!” cried an Elder.

“Hear, hear!”

Detective Dupin opened his mouth to speak, and the children could see he was thinking frantically of something to say that would fool V.F.D.’s citizens. But then he simply closed his mouth, and with a flick of his foot, kicked the Elder who was holding on to his shoe. As the mob gasped, the Elder’s crow-shaped hat fell off as she rolled to the ground, still clutching Dupin’s plastic shoe.

“It’s the tattoo!” one of the Verhoogens cried, pointing at the eye on Detective Dupin’s—or, more properly, Count Olaf’s—left ankle. With a roar, Olaf ran back to his motorcycle and, with another roar, he started the engine. “Hop aboard, Esmé!” he called out to Officer Luciana. The Chief removed her motorcycle helmet with a smile, and the Baudelaires saw that it was indeed Esmé Squalor.

“It’s Esmé Squalor!” an Elder cried. “She used to be the city’s sixth most successful financial advisor, but now she works with Count Olaf!”

“I heard the two of them are dating!” Mrs. Morrow said in horror.

“We are dating!” Esmé cried in triumph. She climbed aboard Olaf’s motorcycle and tossed her helmet to the ground, showing that she cared no more about motorcycle safety than she did about the welfare of crows.

“So long, Baudelaires!” Count Olaf called, zooming through the angry crowd. “I’ll find you again, if the authorities don’t find you first!”

Esmé cackled as the motorcycle roared off across the flat landscape at more than twice the legal speed limit, so within moments the motorcycle was as tiny a speck on the horizon as the self-sustaining hot air mobile home was in the sky. The mob stared after the two villains in disappointment.

“We’ll never catch up to them,” an Elder said with a frown. “Not without any mechanical devices.”

“Never mind about that,” another Elder replied. “We have more important things to attend to. Hurry, everyone! Rush this crow to the V.F.D. vet!”

The Baudelaires looked at one another in astonishment as the citizens of V.F.D. carefully unpinned the crow and began to carry it back into town. “What should we do?” Violet asked. She was talking to her siblings, but a member of the Council of Elders overheard and turned back to answer her. “Stay right here,” he said. “Count Olaf and that dishonest girlfriend of his may have escaped, but you three are still criminals. We’ll burn you at the stake as soon as this crow has received proper medical attention.”

The Elder ran after the crow-carrying mob, and in a few seconds the children were alone on the flat landscape with only the shuffling papers of the Quagmire notebooks for company. “Let’s gather these up,” Klaus said, stooping down to pick up one badly ripped page. “They’re our only hope of discovering the secret of V.F.D.”

“And of defeating Count Olaf,” Violet agreed, walking over to where a small stack of pages had blown together.

“Phelon!” Sunny said, scrambling after one that seemed to have a map scrawled on it. She meant “And of proving that we’re not murderers!” and the children paused to look at The Daily Punctilio, which still lay on the ground. Their own faces stared back at them, below the headline “BAUDELAIRE ORPHANS AT LARGE!” but the children did not feel at large. The Baudelaires felt as small as could be, standing alone on the bare outskirts of V.F.D., chasing down the few pages of the Quagmire notebooks that were not gone forever. Violet managed to grab six pages, and Klaus managed to grab seven, and Sunny managed to grab nine, but many of the recovered pages were ripped, or blank, or all crumpled from the wind.

“We’ll study them later,” Violet said, gathering the pages together and tying them in a bundle with her hair ribbon. “In the meantime, we have to get out of here before the mob returns.”

“But where will we go?” Klaus asked.

“Burb,” Sunny said, which meant “Anywhere, as long as it’s out of town.”

“Who will take care of us out there?” Klaus said, looking out on the flat horizon.

“Nobody,” Violet said. “We’ll have to take care of ourselves. We’ll have to be self-sustaining.”

“Like the hot air mobile home,” Klaus said, “that could travel and survive all by itself.”

“Like me,” Sunny said, and abruptly stood up. Violet and Klaus gasped in surprise as their baby sister took her first wobbly steps, and then walked closely beside her, ready to catch her if she fell.

But she didn’t fall. Sunny took a few more self-sustaining steps, and then the three Baudelaires stood together, casting long shadows across the horizon in the dying light of the sunset. They looked up to see a tiny dot in the sky, far far away, where the Quagmire triplets would live in safety with Hector. They looked out at the landscape, where Count Olaf had ridden off with Esmé Squalor, to find his associates and cook up another scheme. They looked back at Nevermore Tree, where the V.F.D. crows were muttering together for their evening roost, and then they looked out at the world, where families everywhere would soon be reading all about the three siblings in the special edition of The Daily Punctilio. It seemed to the Baudelaires that every creature in the world was being taken care of by others—every creature except for themselves.

But the children, of course, could care for one another, as they had been caring for one another since that terrible day at the beach. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny looked at one another and took a deep breath, gathering up all their courage to face all the bolts from the blue that they guessed—and, I’m sorry to say, guessed correctly—lay ahead of them, and then the self-sustaining Baudelaire orphans took their first steps away from town and toward the last few rays of the setting sun.

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