Thank you. It's partly because I've kept to the (sadly canonically imaginary) patterns of the number of words in the titles and panels on the cover reducing by one each time. Since I was obliged to use only two panels on this cover, that inspired the direction I took in making each panel a mirror image of each other, and cutting down the colours to pure monochrome - Lemony and Ellington, grey figures in a black-and-white world, casting portentious shadows while standing on the line between who they are and who they want to be. Unlike the other covers, which I drew after the writing process was over, this cover I drew up before I began writing, because I knew it was too strong a vision for me to deviate from.
Here, incidentally, is a good place to note that I had the entire story planned out and was indeed most of the way through writing it before I got my hands on ?4. Since this story is an alternative ending to ATWQ, I'd hoped to have it written up and published before the real ending, but it took me a lot longer to write than I anticipated. In the event, I only ended up changing one thing in the face of canon, but the story works better for it, so I don't mind.
To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of the cover art: I think your covers for ?a and especially ?b were far better. The title is interesting; I'm delighted that it fits your pattern of decreasing word numbers.
Choosing "?g" instead of "?c" is strange, but intriguing. Maybe there's a reason for this, or some allusion to it in the story. I think that's a gamma you've drawn on the cover (could that be why you chose 'g'?), but that's the third letter of the Greek alphabet, not the seventh.
And your four questions (or five in reality) are simple, but very effective - I particularly like the first.
To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of the cover art: I think your covers for ?a and especially ?b were far better. The title is interesting; I'm delighted that it fits your pattern of decreasing word numbers.
Choosing "?g" instead of "?c" is strange, but intriguing. Maybe there's a reason for this, or some allusion to it in the story. I think that's a gamma you've drawn on the cover (could that be why you chose 'g'?), but that's the third letter of the Greek alphabet, not the seventh.
And your four questions (or five in reality) are simple, but very effective - I particularly like the first.
It's fine that you don't like the cover. I'm on record myself saying that I wouldn't like it if the last book in the canon series had a monochrome cover, so I'm not sure how I'd have felt about it myself, and it's true that I've sacrificed a lot of detail for the sake of meaning, although in fact there is considerably more meaning than is at first apparent and the cover will look very different at the end of the book. But personally, I will forgive a lot for meaningful stylisation that also capitalises on existing patterns.
In fact, a lot about this book is informed by the use of the logical culmination of existing patterns to create a sense of difference. For instance, you correctly point out the use of a Greek letter on the cover, but did you go back and check the previous two covers to compare? What superficially appears to be different is in fact inevitable! Not dissimilarly, the three-word title is also the culmination of a pattern both this series and canon have been employing, but it's a total coincidence that the title of the canon finale is so extended as to form a strong contrast with the logical last title in my series. (Although I did toy with an even longer alternative title at one point.)
There was a town, and there was a myth, and there was a tragedy. While I was in town I tried to investigate the myth, in the hope of preventing the tragedy. I was thirteen years old and I was wrong. I was wrong about all of it. Even if I had asked the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I don’t know that it would have changed a thing. Instead, I asked the wrong questions – all of them, too many to count. This is the account of the final question.
The end of the Stain’d Myth Murders had been in motion for a long time already while I was sitting in a dusty attic reading a borrowed book, but I didn’t notice the clues, just as I didn’t notice the clue I had expected to find in the book, even though I was searching terribly hard for it. It was a book I had begun quite some time before, and after being interrupted by an arson that had led to the book’s destruction, I had been given a second copy in order to finish my search. And yet, here I was, in the book’s fourteenth chapter and on its final page, and all I had learned was that it was possible to get thoroughly sick of fish eggs without eating a single bite. The title on the book’s cover was Caviar: Salty Jewel of the Tasty Sea, and maybe it is, but like ice-cream, limericks, and murders in a mystery novel, you can have too much of a good thing, and too little of something better. The last word was “impossible,” and I closed the book and agreed. It was impossible. The respected, disgraced sub-librarian who had given me this book had assured me that it was the key to a great deception, but the key had escaped me in a black, squishy murk that I was assured was a great delicacy. It was impossible for me to find that key. But I needed it. I needed that key, soon, before whatever lock it fitted burst open and unleashed black horrors on the town.
The town I just mentioned, the one with the myth, and the tragedy, was Stain’d-by-the-Sea, a town no longer stained by anything except grime and crime. The ink industry had run the town for a long time, squeezing ink first from octopi in the sea and later from octopi in the crevasses they’d been chased to after the sea had been drained to pursue them, but the ink had at last run out, and likewise Ink Inc. had run out of town, leaving behind a vast dry valley of seashells and caverns and eerily waving seaweed, a lone lighthouse on the clifftop keeping watch over nothing. Draining the sea had been the beginning of the end for the town, and yet it was only the start of the trouble.
The town was Stain’d-by-the-Sea, and the great deception was Hangfire’s. Hangfire was the cause of all the trouble, although I was increasingly coming to think that he wasn’t the beginning of it. As you can probably guess from the fact that he was a grown man calling himself Hangfire, Hangfire was a wicked villain who had been undermining Stain’d-by-the-Sea for a long time. With the assistance of a secret organisation called the Inhumane Society, he’d been responsible for thefts, kidnappings, arsons, and murders in town, all whilst remaining hidden – his name replaced by a false one, his face disguised by a mask, his actions committed alone or in darkness where nobody could see him. I was one of the only people in town who had witnessed him at work, who had seen his face, and who had an inkling of his real name, and that made me terribly afraid. But it was the murders that I was particularly concerned about, as anyone should be. Two people had been murdered recently in seemingly impossible and supernatural circumstances, by him or by his command, and they weren’t the first. Lansbury Van Dyke and Cotton Haines had been the first and the second of what I called the Stain’d Myth Murders, but I wondered if I should also list Colonel Cyrus Colophon, thrown out of a window, and Ingrid Nummet Knight, killed by unknown means in a locked room years ago. All four of them had known each other, and been at the upper echelons of Stain’d-by-the-Sea’s society in their time and its – Colophon and Knight were the founders of Ink Inc., and Van Dyke and Haines their confidants. I wondered what dreadful secret they shared that had spawned such a terrible grudge in the heart of their murderer.
Whatever that secret was, Caviar: Salty Jewel of the Tasty Sea wasn’t willing to spell it out for me. There was nothing in its pages about strange fish eggs that grew on drained sea floors, or about toothed tadpoles that swarmed in fishtanks, or about vast and half-seen shapes that bombinated ferociously in deep, obscure ponds. These were all things I had personally witnessed, and I had various reasons for believing that the book I had been given might tell me something more about a creature some people called the Bombinating Beast, a mythical sea monster that had recently begun to seem like it might not be nearly mythical enough, and perhaps even about a statue of that monster that had a habit of curling up out of the shadows all across town. But the book didn’t tell me a single thing that was in any way out of the ordinary. I might have been better off reading the works of Jules Verne or Herman Melville, authors who knew something about the bottom of the sea and whose novels were also close to hand, but in Stain’d-by-the-Sea, everything had been turned upside-down. Just as the water had been removed from the sea and taken from somewhere else, it was like the monsters had been ripped from the pages of a book and set loose in reality. Where did that leave me?
Where it left me was blinking in the dark as I realised that time was drawing on. The attic where I was reading was no longer filled with daylight but gleamed with the fiery light of evening, shadows stretching to push it out the window. I couldn’t have read for much longer anyway, not without turning on a light, and I absolutely could not do that. It was two kinds of fire risk. The first risk was because, after a threat of arson, the books from the local library had all been moved and hidden in this attic to protect them, and the slightest spark could be fatal to all that paper. The second risk was that the arsonists were still out there and might notice. All I could do was carefully slide Caviar: Salty Jewel of the Tasty Sea into place in the back of a deep, dark cabinet, and close the doors on it. Maybe I could reread it later. I would never see it again.
The slight clank, clank of my feet unnerved me on the metal staircase. You’re either the kind of person who is terrified to break a silence, or simply can’t resist. The stairs descended from the attic and emerged into a stylish coffee shop so fashionable that nobody knew about it yet, or rather, any more. All the stools but my usual were carpeted with dust, and the player piano didn’t even give up the ghost of a tune. I had been spending a lot of time in this coffee shop since I arrived in the town, despite not caring a jot for coffee. I still didn’t care, and yet I felt like I could use one; I planned to be up late that night, and not doing reading a good book, either. If nothing else, the bitterness of the coffee, a bitter taste like life that I was still too young to swallow, would linger on my tongue for hours, and that as much as anything else would keep me awake. Beside the bottom of the stairs was a large, complicated machine that took the place of five baristas, bristling with pipes, conveyor belts, strange arms. A protruding display displayed three large buttons: A, B, and C. I pressed the A button, and a ghastly metallic scraping pierced the shop and made my clanks on the stairs look like a matchstick next to a house fire. The metal staircase slowly began to creak upwards, retracting into the ceiling and concealing the attic from anyone who didn’t push buttons or listen to sounds. I didn’t understand why the attic was optional, and never would, but like any other box, it felt untidy to leave it open. The staircase rose above my head before finally coming to a juddering, trembling stop right there, about halfway to the ceiling.
I gave the half-risen staircase an exasperated look I’d been saving for my chaperone. Like a half-unwrapped present, it was neither hidden nor useful. I didn’t want anyone to know that I had been in that attic, but I wanted to be able to return myself if need be. I reached out and pushed the A button again, and again and again, and still nothing happened. Then I reached up and gave the bottom of the stairs a slight prod, and because I was neither tall nor strong, the result was pretty predictable. The machine had given out on me. To make sure, I pressed the B and C buttons, but the machine remained still and silent rather than delivering me a loaf of bread and a cup of coffee. I didn’t know how to feel about that. You don’t have to like something to rely on it. I could have stood alone in that coffee shop for hours, staring at the machine that had betrayed me, feeling like nothing worked any more.
I didn’t stand there for hours, although it might have been a few minutes. I had somewhere to be, and I couldn’t rely on a taxi to get me there. I pushed my way out of the coffee shop, the door swinging too keenly on its hinges as if it was either eager for me to leave or eager to leave its own hinges, and stepped out onto the street. It was deserted, as I expected. That was Stain’d-by-the-Sea now; only the breeze crowded the streets, with a steady flow of jaywalking litter. The sun was sitting on the horizon like it didn’t feel good about dipping its toes in, and my shadow ran up the street like a snake was after it. Something was swinging gently above my shadow, and I looked above my head to see the sign with the coffee shop’s name, although there were no words on the sign. Instead there was a picture, paint laid on so thick it would never fade, of a black cat with an unreadable expression. Fur so dark it made the ink look like blank paper, eyes so green they made the sea look empty, and a smile that could have meant anything – truly anything, from strongest comradeship to unparalleled cruelty. It reminded me of somebody I told myself over and over again I should stop thinking about, and then thought about anyway. Ellington Feint was something like an associate and something like a friend and something like a terrible mistake I had made, because I couldn’t stop thinking about how I could take her back. She had joined Hangfire in the Inhumane Society, taking a certain statue with her, because she believed it would help her father. What worried me was that, after being lured to his hideout under false pretences, almost all of the other children left in town had done the same. Thinking about what would make them prefer the company of a masked murderer to their own homes and families gave me the sort of chills you only get when you realise you have just done something horribly wrong and can never, ever take it back.
The tooting of a car horn up the street brought me gently out of my reverie. It should have been a surprising noise, as I could count the number of cars I saw regularly on the streets of Stain’d-by-the-Sea on one hand, but that was the same reason why I wasn’t concerned. It wasn’t an angry blare but a jolly noise, demanding but amiable, like a friend come by with a box of fresh muffins. If there was one thing it didn’t sound like, it was a dilemma, and yet I knew that was exactly what it was.
A Dilemma was a car, the sort of fancy, shiny car that instantly raises the property value on any street it drives down, and seeing one glide down the street towards me could have made anyone believe that Stain’d-by-the-Sea was an upmarket tourist resort with a glamorous nightlife. The people in the car didn’t quite fit this picture but fitted me perfectly, because they were my associates and my friends and not terrible mistakes I had made, not yet. As the car drew to a halt so smooth it made me wonder if it wasn’t still going unbelievably slowly, I looked at these five people in turn, people I would trust with my life, and thought that maybe not everything was wrong with this town, and not everything broken. There was a reason I was still here, and that reason was named The Association Of Associates – or, to their friends, Moxie, Pip, Squeak, Jake, and Cleo.
“Evening, Snicket,” said Moxie, with a tip of the small bowler hat that topped her head like a letter a. She was drumming the fingers of her other hand on a thick, spiral-bound notepad, and I assumed this had replaced her old portable typewriter. Moxie had a habit of taking notes everywhere she went, because she was the last reporter in Stain’d-by-the-Sea, and last of a long line of reporters whose paper had finally shuttered as the town declined. Like me, she roamed the streets unchaperoned for lack of a decent chaperone; her father no longer got out of bed most days, and her mother had joined a larger newspaper in the city, and Moxie every day expected to be called to her side. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted her to leave or not. Moxie went on, “I thought we’d find you here.”
“How did you figure that out?” I asked, predictably wrongly. It was an easy answer. Moxie gave the Black Cat sign a piercing look. It reminded her of Ellington too.
“Climb in, Snicket,” Pip interrupted, reaching far over the back of the driver’s seat to open the back door beside me. He had a hat of his own too, with the name of a taxi company written around the rim, and I noticed as he moved that it was slightly too large for him and slipped down over his glasses sometimes.
“We’ve got something you have to see,” Squeak’s squeaky voice explained from somewhere below Pip. Pip and Squeak were brothers and former taxi drivers, but after the last drop of fuel had been sucked from their fuel tank they’d taken up chauffeuring, or in other words, driving other people’s cars for them, which wasn’t all that different from driving a taxi but sounded fancier. It was a pretty impressive job considering that Pip’s feet couldn’t reach the pedals, and his brother Squeak had to curl up in the footwell and operate them for him, so I didn’t like to rain on their parade by pointing out that neither of them were qualified drivers. In any case, they would probably do less damage in a Dilemma, which had top-of-the-line safety features, than in their father’s banged-up old Bellerophon Taxi cab.
“What’s the news, Moxie?” I asked, as I jumped into the back seat and slammed the door behind me. The Dilemma was the kind of car that could comfortably fit six children even if two of them weren’t in the driver’s seat, so there was plenty of room beside the other two people in the back seat, who were the car’s owner and the owner’s sweetheart.
Moxie looked irritably at the drivers. “You tell me,” she said, rhetorically to me and directly to them. “They promised me a scoop if I came with them, but haven’t let it slip yet.”
“I trust it was important enough to drag me away from my research,” Cleo said, with a slight frown. “It’s at a very delicate stage.” Cleo Knight was a chemist and an heiress, following in the footsteps of her grandmother, the late Ingrid Nummet Knight. Cleo’s parents and their business had abandoned the town, but she had not, and was working hard to develop working invisible ink from local resources. Her makeshift laboratory had recently been burnt down, however, but I was sure this wouldn’t prove too much of a setback. She was also, of course, the owner of the car, which had silently drifted into motion without me realising it, and it was generous of her to provide Pip and Squeak with more driving experience when she could have driven herself.
“You needed a break anyway, Cleo,” Jake said, from beside her. “You barely stop for food any more. You’re working for a good cause, but you’re still working far too hard.” I understood his concern, and the slightly anxious glint to his eyes. I felt similarly about someone else, someone not in the car. Jake Hix was Cleo’s sweetheart and the best chef I knew, keeping his aunt’s diner Hungry’s afloat while she spent much of her time sorting out bills and trying to find something to cook at all. In a town that was starting to go hungry, it was a relief I could still go to Hungry’s. It beat my chaperone’s specialty of half-defrosted toast from the hot plate in our hotel room.
“We wouldn’t ask you all along for something that everyone didn’t need to see,” Squeak called from the front seat.
Pip nodded and pushed his cap back up his head. “This is big enough that we even thought about grabbing Ornette from the job you gave her, Snicket, but then we figured that was too risky.”
Ornette Lost was another associate, though not one I’d had a chance to get to know as well as the rest. We’d rescued her from Wade Academy, once a school and now the lair where Hangfire was keeping the town’s children, and recently Hangfire had kidnapped and drugged her again as part of a complicated plot to save Ellington from jail, all of which was more than enough to convince her to work against him. She was the daughter of the local hotelier, niece of the town’s official firefighters, and specialist in papercraft, none of which had anything to do with the job I had been going to pick her up from. Not everyone can be the crucial element in a plan, but I appreciated her, nonetheless. “You were right,” I said to Pip, “and I’m sure you were right to get me, too. But where are we going?”
“Flounder Ponds, apparently,” Moxie explained, and I figured that she of all people wouldn’t have let them keep everything to themselves. “It’s one of the more run-down parts of town,” she said, and that was really saying something.
“I know. I’ve been there,” I replied. Flounder Ponds was the sort of place where any sea creature would flounder, for there wasn’t a pond or even a puddle to be seen. In truth, a puddle would have been more interesting than the rest of Flounder Ponds, with maybe one exception, and that exception wasn’t the kind of interesting that you want to go and see for yourself. “You’re not taking us to the Swinster Pharmacy, are you?”
“How did you figure that out?” Pip asked, his wide eyes turning to look at me instead of the road. He winced the way I did and turned back, as if somebody had given him a sharp poke in the leg before he got us into a car crash. “But you’re bang on the money. We’d dropped by the pharmacy to pick up something for our father, but then we saw something that made us drop everything.”
“Then we picked everything up and picked everyone else up,” Squeak added. “We nearly there?”
“Yep,” Pip said, as we turned into Yamgraz Drive. Dilemmas move faster than conversations, and the car was no different. “Hold onto your hats, everyone, because whatever you were expecting, it won’t have been this.”
Even though it was just a figure of speech, we all hung onto our hats anyway, except for Jake, who was the only one of us without a hat. He hung onto Cleo instead. The Swinster Pharmacy was coming up, like a giant cardboard box that somebody had dumped in the street after buying a refrigerator, the kind of cardboard box you don’t want to look inside anymore because who knows what might be living in there now. Like all the other buildings on the street, whatever colour its frontage once had had faded away, and the signboard above the door was practically unreadable, but the windows weren’t boarded up, merely dirty. There was a notice in the window that said “closed” but which was there even when it was open, and some labels advertising price reductions that it looked very difficult to profit from, and three styrofoam heads wearing mouldering wigs, and various other things that weren’t pharmaceuticals, and that was when I noticed something that definitely wasn’t a pharmaceutical, and definitely had no business being in the Swinster Pharmacy’s window or any other. The object was about the size of a milk bottle, though it wasn’t a bottle, and certainly didn’t contain milk. It was shiny and black in colour, like a bottle of ink or poison, and rough and jagged in texture, like a shark or an alligator or a nightmare. It was made of an extremely rare species of wood that could no longer be found in town, although it still grew in the darkest depths of the drained sea valley. And it was shaped like a creature that I wanted to say didn’t exist, but could only say shouldn’t exist, not at all. I had found where the Bombinating Beast would curl up out of the shadows next, and it was in the front window of the Swinster Pharmacy.
If you were to see a group of children gathered around a shop window, you would probably assume that the window contained sweets, or a shiny new bicycle, or something else which nearly anyone would like to get their hands on. But I could give no good reason, no reason anyone would understand, for why my friends and I were clustered like limpets around this window, the window of a dilapidated pharmacy in an empty street of a fading town, staring fixedly at a roughly-hewn, frighteningly-shaped block of wood. I could give no good reason why I wanted it, except that everyone else wanted it, which is no good reason to want anything and yet somehow seems very common. I had only the faintest idea, the most paper-thin theory, of what the Bombinating Beast was for, with the tiny holes and gaps carved into its malevolent expression, with the thick wad of paper pasted over a hole beneath its base. But the first time I had encountered Hangfire was when he tried to trick me into stealing it, and he had seemed determined to lay his hands upon it. The last I had known of it, I was sure it was in his possession.
So what was it doing sitting in public view in the window of the Swinster Pharmacy?
“This doesn’t make any sense,” Moxie said, looking into those familiar old eyes. “Hangfire went to a lot of trouble to steal that thing from my family. I think he even tried to buy it from us beforehand. Why would he abandon it here?”
“Where did you see this thing last, Snicket?” Jake asked me.
“Ellington had it,” I said. “I was certain she’d given it to Hangfire. Maybe I was wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Maybe she hid it here,” Pip suggested. “Maybe she wasn’t sure she wanted him to have it, so she put it here for safe-keeping.”
“But anyone can see it here,” Squeak argued.
“You’re quite right,” Cleo’s voice said, and we saw that she was not right behind us, staring in at the window, but standing over by the door of the shop. She indicated the door. “We don’t have to think about it. We just have to buy it.”
She pushed open the door, which hissed at her like she was the villain in a pantomime, and we followed suit – through the door, not by hissing. Cleo was right, of course, but for most of us, thinking was free, and buying anything was out of the question. Money was not abundant in Stain’d-by-the-Sea. It wasn’t even scarce. But Cleo’s family was ludicrously wealthy, and she could probably have bought up the whole town if she wanted to, especially now that it was practically worthless. Life is easy if you have rich friends. I don’t like it, but just then, I did.
The inside of the Swinster Pharmacy looked just how I remembered it, like somewhere that wanted you to leave immediately. It was a square room that felt even smaller when there were six of you in it, and its only features were shelves packed with brown bottles with labels that had probably faded to blankness, and a long counter that ran across the back of the room, with a thin gap at one end where the employees could move between the customers’ side and their own. There was probably about a metre’s space between the other side of the counter and the wall, but the counter was solid and so I couldn’t see anything on the other side. The cloudy windows kept the sunlight out, but there wasn’t a light on, so there were shadows stuck in every corner like gathering filth, and I didn’t want to imagine what the other side of the counter looked like. There were just two ways into the room, the entrance we had walked through which was now an exit, and an unassuming door opposite it, behind the counter, which was quite short and quite thin and quite closed. I suppose you could have broken the front windows and gotten in that way, but people who have broken a large window rarely want to stick around. I didn’t like the Swinster Pharmacy. It felt like the sort of place where something was about to happen, like a tent with a bear outside… or a pharmacy with a beast in the window, one none of us could take our eyes off.
“Hello?” called Cleo, starting to lean on the counter and then thinking better of it. A bowl of fruit sat next to the till, fruit like apples and bananas and grapes, all sliced in half, except for the grapes. You could take a piece of fruit if you wanted to, but it looked like nobody ever had and it looked like nobody ever would, as the apples were brown and shrivelled on one side and even worse on the other, while the bananas didn’t bear mentioning. Something was growing on the counter, next to that fruit bowl. It looked like it had once been a grape.
“Hello,” someone replied, and if you have ever looked around and noticed an enormous spider sitting nearby without you having noticed it, you will know how we felt. The man seemed to emerge out of the dreary colour of the walls, unfolding like a paper fan. He was tall the way a burning building is unsafe, and his arms and legs seemed like they were all in different corners of the room. At least half of us had met the proprietor of the Swinster Pharmacy before, and yet every time was as unsettling as the one before, because our memories seemed too strange to be true but still were true.
“Hello,” Cleo repeated, much more uncomfortably, as like the rest of us she failed to meet the man’s eyes. It would have been uncomfortable to lean back that far. “I was hoping to make a purchase here.”
“Yes,” the owner said. He didn’t say it like a question. He just said it, that was all.
Cleo’s mouth twitched a little. I couldn’t make out her eyes behind her glasses. Jake was standing right behind her, but I wasn’t sure who was giving moral support to whom. “I was thinking,” she went on, carefully, “about that statue in the window.”
“Thinking is free,” the owner said.
I could see Cleo’s cheeks flush very faintly pink at that. He didn’t seem to mean anything buy it. But it was exactly like he’d heard what Cleo had said outside the shop – what she had said, and what I had thought. It gave me a start, but maybe it annoyed Cleo, as she more firmly said, “I want to be sure of that statue’s provenance before I buy it. Provenance means where something came from. Can you tell me where it came from?”
The owner replied just a fraction of a second later than his previous replies. “From a customer.”
“It sounds more like you were his customer,” Moxie interjected. I saw that she was taking notes.
“He was my customer and I was his customer,” the owner explained.
“So he was a man,” Moxie said, and suddenly it had become an interview, and she had taken over.
“He might have been a woman,” the owner conceded. “That is none of my business.”
“What is your business?” Moxie asked. “With him, I mean?”
The owner paused again, but if he was thinking about violating customer confidentiality, he didn’t think about it for very long. “Laudanum,” he answered.
We all tensed up a little. Laudanum was an opiate and a medicament and a sleeping draught and we had all had enough of it. Hangfire and his associates used it to keep troublesome people in line, and we were troublesome people. One of those associates was a doctor named Flammarion, and I had assumed Hangfire had been getting his laudanum from him. Perhaps Flammarion had gotten it from the Swinster Pharmacy.
This reminded me that, not so long ago, I had seen Flammarion apparently dosing someone with laudanum in one of their hiding-places even more remote than the Wade Academy. That person had been in a wheelchair, and I hadn’t seen their face, but Flammarion had acted like this person was in charge of him, rather than the other way around. But I didn’t have time to wonder now who it was, as Moxie had clearly been thinking along the same lines as me about the laudanum. “Was the man’s name Flammarion?” she asked.
“I didn’t ask for his name,” the owner said. “I asked for his money.”
“But one day, he gave you a statue instead,” I guessed.
“The statue is valued at upward of a great deal of money,” the owner replied.
“So it was worth the laudanum,” Moxie suggested.
“No,” the owner said. “It was worth some other chemicals.”
“Chemicals?” Cleo asked, and perhaps my eyes gleamed if they saw hers do the same. “Which chemicals?”
“Confidential chemicals,” the owner said, meaning ones he couldn’t tell us, but it didn’t matter because my mind was already racing. Chemistry was Cleo’s specialty, and moreover, was something Hangfire had been dabbling in, too. When Cleo had begun her experiments on invisible ink, Hangfire had had her kidnapped to steal her research, but increasingly it didn’t seem like invisible ink was what he was after. He seemed most interested in a component called clustergrease, a substance Cleo had managed to extract from plants on the drained sea floor, and had used this volatile substance to set fires and bombs. Probably the chemicals were related to these. I didn’t see how chemistry could be one of Hangfire’s talents, since he had had to kidnap Cleo, but he seemed pretty adept with clustergrease. Perhaps this was because Ellington Feint’s father, Armstrong Feint, was a naturalist who knew all about the properties of plants.
The statue was the truly important thing, though, and here we had a chance to lay our hands on it again, although something else was bothering Cleo. “So he sold you a statue,” Cleo was saying, “and now you’re selling it. That doesn’t seem like the normal business of a pharmacy.”
The owner made an odd, twisting movement with his shoulders, like he wanted to shrug but didn’t know how. “Barter is becoming common again.”
I could see Squeak looking like he wanted to ask what barter meant, but it wasn’t the question to ask right now, so I asked a question instead, one that, as usual, I thought was the right question. “Can we buy the statue?” I asked.
The owner looked us up and down, or rather just looked down at us, the shadows rolling out over his face and hiding the faintest reflection in his eyes. “Certainly,” he said at last, and after a pause, finished his statement with, “not.”
I made a strange sound, like a balloon or an accordion being squeezed. In his own way, the owner of the Swinster Pharmacy had been forthcoming enough that I had really started to believe that we might get the Bombinating Beast without a fight; that for once we could just walk into a room and get what we were looking for without anyone trying to stop us, but here someone was, trying to stop us. I looked at the Beast’s mean, empty glare, and didn’t even know why I felt surprised.
Cleo took the lead again. “I am more than capable of either buying this statue or providing you an item of equal value,” she told the owner, looking him in the space where his eye should be. “I can’t see why you shouldn’t sell it to me.”
“You can’t see the sign,” the owner said, quite matter-of-factly. I didn’t know what sign he meant, so he was right. But he unfolded a long, long arm, one that seemed like it was moving independent of his still body, and reached over the room to point down at a sign placed on the shelf in the window, separating the statue and the wigs and the pharmaceuticals from the store. It is a sign that only adults ever take any notice of.
“‘Keep out of reach of children,’” Pip read out, and his voice made his feelings clear.
The owner nodded, just once. “There are often suspicious children near this pharmacy, so I have to take precautions,” he explained. “Selling you the statue would violate the sign.”
“But why,” I argued, “would you need to keep a statue out of reach of children?”
“That is none of my business,” the owner replied. “It is merely what the seller advised.”
I hadn’t given Dr. Flammarion, if it was him, nearly enough credit. He had thought this through more than I had assumed.
Jake brightened up. “But we aren’t children,” he said, gesturing to himself and Cleo. “You can trust us to be careful with the statue.”
Whether Jake and Cleo were or weren’t children was, sadly, a matter of opinion, because whether anyone is a child or not is a matter of opinion. Nobody can agree on when you stop being a child, and I didn’t like to think of myself that way, although I had to admit that it was probably true. But the owner was thinking along completely different lines to the rest of us again as he shook his head. “Maybe,” he said, “but the sign says, ‘Keep out of reach of children.’ If I sell you the statue, it will be in your friends’ reach, and they are children.”
Moxie cleared her throat loudly next to me, and it occurred to me that she did, in fact, have a trump card that none of the rest of us could use. “Excuse me,” she said, “but are you aware that that statue is stolen property?”
The owner slowly turned his head to look at her, but he didn’t say anything. He was silent for just long enough for it to be very awkward before Moxie continued.
“Let me introduce myself,” she said, and she pulled a business card out of the band of her hat. MOXIE MALLAHAN, it read, and underneath, PRESS. Underneath the card was an insignia and the name of an organisation I have already mentioned. “That statue is called the Bombinating Beast,” she explained, gesturing to it. “It has been in my family for generations. You probably remember, sir, that it was the mascot of the town newspaper, The Stain’d Lighthouse, which my family owned and ran. It was stolen from us some time ago” – I liked the way she avoided mentioning that the thief had, strictly speaking, been me – “and we have been looking to reacquire it ever since. Receiving stolen property is, of course, a crime, but if you were to return it, we would be happy to arrange a substantial finder’s fee.”
She was smiling by the time she finished, and so was I. Reading so many old newspapers really paid off when it came to sounding the part. She would make a very fine reporter one day, Moxie Mallahan – a very fine anything she wanted to be. But being very fine at something does not always mean that you will be successful, and she was still holding out the business card in mid-air without it being taken.
“Your credentials are impeccable,” the owner said, meaning that her story checked out, examining the business card from a long, long way away without making a move to take it. “Nonetheless…”
The long arm unfolded once again, and tapped the shelf next to the sign next to the statue. I didn’t think anyone could reach that far.
“…you are still a child,” he concluded. “Will that be all?”
It wasn’t, but it was all we had, at least there and then. The only thing we could give him were disappointed looks with a hint of puppy-dog eyes. The owner didn’t look like the sort of man who liked animals. His long arm brushed the door as he gestured to it.
We filed over to the door. We may not have been able to solve a mystery at first glance, but we could take a hint. Our eyes were mostly on the Bombinating Beast, all the same, but Moxie turned back to the owner and assumed her haughtiest expression, which would be my favourite if she used it on adults more than she used it on me. “I will be back,” she told him.
The owner folded his arms behind his own back. “The store will be closing soon,” he said.
Probably we all looked back as we left the pharmacy, the door hissing shut behind us like a leaking radiator, but the owner had already faded from view. We stood on the sidewalk like kids people complain to the newspaper about, moody and irritable. The Bombinating Beast was barely visible now, and more unreachable than ever.
Squeak looked up at us. He’d been holding that question in for a while. “What does barter mean?”
“It means trading,” I explained. “It’s how people paid for things before money existed.”
Cleo looked aside at Jake. “Is that really becoming common again?” she asked.
“Cleo,” the cook replied, “you’re the only person here who still pays for Hungry’s.”
“Or for taxis,” Pip added.
“Or for statues at pharmacies,” I said. “Maybe if Cleo or Jake went back alone later.” I looked at the sky. It was the colour of the pharmacy windows. “Or tomorrow.”
“I think I was getting somewhere, though,” Moxie pointed out. “I just need an adult with me… although I don’t know where I’d find one.”
“How about your father?” Jake asked.
She shook her head. “Not an option.”
Jake sighed. “Well,” he said, “nobody ever said life would be easy.”
“Nobody ever said it would be really difficult, either,” I pointed out. “Nobody ever said anything at all. Life is not being told what you’re getting into.” I kicked around a thought that had rolled into my head like litter, and like litter, it might have been a good idea but was probably just garbage. “You could ask Theodora,” I said quietly, because I couldn’t be enthusiastic.
“Theodora?” Moxie repeated, the way you would say “Excuse me?” even if you were sure you had heard correctly. “Your chaperone?”
That was the official term for what S. Theodora Markson was. In V.F.D., the organisation we were both a part of, which was different from the organisation me and my friends were a part of, it meant something like a guardian and something like a teacher. Theodora was neither of these things, nor was she a very good detective, which is what people were meant to think she was. Nonetheless, the two of us had been sent to Stain’d-by-the-Sea quite some time before to investigate a simple case of theft that turned out to be exceedingly complex, and which had turned into the case I was still investigating at that moment. For a long time, Theodora had tried her best to find easy ways out of the case, but after discovering recently that the two of us were just the latest of several of our organisation’s members sent to Stain’d-by-the-Sea to get us out of the way – I because my family were causing trouble in V.F.D., she because she was terrible for V.F.D.’s reputation – she had finally resigned herself to becoming a more active participant, or in other words, being useful.
“I think she would volunteer for it,” I explained. “She is an adult, after all. And she wants to solve this case.” I didn’t mention that she only wanted to solve it to snub V.F.D. and get out of town.
“From what I’ve seen, she is pretty good at talking a lot of nonsense,” Jake mused. “It could work.”
Moxie nodded slowly. “And I bet she wouldn’t mind another crack at getting that statue, after her first try at stealing it didn’t pan out.” She raised an eyebrow at me. “Do you think my forgiveness for that would help convince her?”
“No, but flattery might,” I replied. “Alright. If we’re all agreed, then Pip, Squeak, you should motor over to the Lost Arms and pick her up right away. The owner said he’d close soon, and I don’t know if he meant for the day or forever.”
“You can take me back to the Ink Inc. tower afterwards,” Cleo told the two drivers. “I need to plan my experiments for tomorrow before it gets late.”
“And I need to plan her meals for tomorrow,” Jake said. “That and my aunt doesn’t like me being away from the diner for long these days, so if you can drop me back there, that’d be swell.”
“Sure, but you’d better have some tips handy,” Pip said, as he ushered them all back to the Dilemma. “It’s so hard to find a good book these days.”
Squeak noticed me hanging back as he got into the footwell. “Aren’t you coming, Snicket?” he asked, as Moxie, Pip, Cleo and Jake were climbing in.
I shook my head. “I’m going the wrong way, as usual,” I said, pointing the other way down the street. “I think I’ve let Ornette wait long enough.”
It would still be a long walk; I hadn’t avoided it, just delayed it. I was heading to the jagged edge of town, the literal edge. At the end of its long viaduct over the drained sea, Stain’d Station was waiting.
Well, well. It's hard to know what is happening so far, but it's certainly an interesting idea to bring the Swinster Pharmacy into it - and yes, it almost certainly has some connection with Dr Flammarion.
So Caviar... was not initially illuminating? Well, why such a book would contain the answer is indeed a puzzle. Presumably there's something Lemony has missed, though. (Firefox, which accepts 'lemony' as word, questions 'caviar'.)
And I really like the cover.
(Banner by Roxy.)
'The world, no matter how monstrously it may be threatened, has never been known to succumb entirely' - Lemony Snicket.
I once told a person I admired that showing up early was a sign of a noble person. All I can say is that I tried, and yet still the sun was barely visible over the horizon as I finally arrived at Stain’d Station, breathless enough to have to stop and appreciate the scenery. Stain’d Station wasn’t much to look at any more, for while it had once been a grand building decorated with elaborate carvings of octopi, with platforms enough to hold eight separate trains, and a roof high enough to contain the stormcloud of steam those trains would vent, it was now only open in the same way a murder victim is open, lying fallen in the street with a gaping wound in its side. The train came by just once a month now, which wouldn’t be any time soon, and probably the service would soon be cancelled altogether. The cliff edges on the opposite side of the building crept closer every day. I could already see it in my mind, the building falling in one day, the cliff snatching it all into the abyss, and the viaduct being left hanging onto nothing, like the arches of a famous Roman building I had seen in history books. Then I would be able to see clearly the red sun squatting in the bottom of the drained valley, casting a bloody shadow over the rippling sea of unnatural weeds called the Clusterous Forest, where black trees grew and where one of my organisation’s submarines had fallen long ago.
All in all, then, I was glad I hadn’t asked Ornette to stay in Stain’d Station itself, although that would have defeated the very purpose of the mission I had given her. No, I had asked her to watch the station, and what lay beyond it, and probably she was watching me right now, gasping in the street to recover my breath for running up several flights of stairs. I hoped it counted as being a little less late if she saw me down here.
The district around Stain’d Station had originally served to serve the station and its many passengers, with hotels, eateries, and tourist information, but these days, nobody came to Stain’d; people only left, and they had left the hotels, eateries, and tourist information centres, too, left them empty and unstaffed and unused. There was a big hotel right across the street from the station, big enough that it had probably failed faster than the letters spelling out its name could fall from over the front door, where they now lay in a disordered jumble that even I couldn’t rearrange. But when they had locked those front doors for the final time and chained them shut to make absolutely sure then they had forgotten to lock the back door. Looking around to make sure I wasn’t being followed, although I knew well I was being watched, I slipped around the back of the hotel and through the door and into a stairwell, and from there up more flights of stairs than I cared for, and like all stairwells in the world, each flight felt longer and steeper than the last. By the time I was at the top I had no breath left to call out, and had only my deep, noisy breaths to announce my presence as I opened the door to room 215.
“I was beginning to think something had happened, Snicket,” Ornette’s voice said, the peak of her cap telling me that her face was pointed the other way, towards the hotel room’s window. She sounded halfway between worried and halfway between being annoyed, the way most friends will be when you’re late to see them.
“It did,” I said, “but not to me.” I took a step towards her, but had to adjust it in mid-air. The floor was littered with elaborate creations of folded paper. Paper birds perched atop the empty wardrobe, a few paper apples lay in a bowl looking more appetising than the ones in the Swinster Pharmacy, and on the bedside table a paper cup had a wisp of paper smoke curling up from inside. Ornette could make just about anything out of paper, if she had enough paper, and sometimes I wondered if her real talent was finding enough; she could probably make a complete replica Bombinating Beast if I asked her to, and I thought I might, if I found that that statue was still in the window of the pharmacy the next morning. I looked at the paper model I had just missed stepping on. It was a paper footprint. “I see you’ve been keeping yourself busy,” I said.
“I had to, because the job didn’t do it for me,” she said, as I carefully tiptoed my way across the floor to join her, leaning on the back of a sofa below the window. A pair of binoculars sat on the window ledge between us, borrowed from Ornette’s uncles. “I know you said it was just a precaution, but it was too good a precaution, Snicket,” she went on. “As far as I can see, there’s nothing happening out there, not even a paper aeroplane.”
The window looked out over Stain’d Station – literally over, so that, as I had imagined, you could see the viaduct beyond as it stretched over the waving arms of seaweed in the Clusterous Forest below, narrowing to a needlepoint as it arched its way over the drained valley to eventually meet the far distant mainland. But between Stain’d Station and the mainland there was one another stop the viaduct made on land, and that was Offshore Island, a small island a little way out from the town itself. The viaduct passed over one edge of the island, and the rest was occupied by a crumbling red-brick wall surrounding a tall red-brick building, blank-faced and square like a monolith. This was Wade Academy – Hangfire’s headquarters and hideout, brazenly planted in plain sight, and wholly impenetrable. The whole island was patrolled by the adult members of the Inhumane Society, watching for intruders and escapees, while the children inside spent their time chopping black logs dragged up from the Clusterous Forest for some reason I couldn’t yet fathom. A tall red tower, taller than the school, also pointed upwards from within the high walls, and I was sure Hangfire had his own watchers surveying the town from there, and ringing the tower bell when Hangfire had some dirty work to do in town. The townsfolk of Stain’d-by-the-Sea associated the tolling of this bell with various things; for many, it was a fabricated medical risk called salt lung that was supposedly associated with excess salt particles the wind picked up from the valley floor, but for others, the older, the more gullible, the bell meant something else. It meant that the Bombinating Beast was out hunting. The only defence was to stay inside and wear a special mask, and funnily enough this defence was the same against both salt lung and the Beast, but in fact it was to Hangfire’s convenience that people stay out of his way and not get suspicious at masked people wandering the town’s streets.
Offshore Island, Stain’d Station, and the viaduct that linked them – this is what I had asked Ornette to spend her time doing today, and indeed which all the members of The Association Of Associates had been performing in shifts for quite some time: Watching those places frequented by Hangfire, and alerting the rest of the group if any members of the Inhumane Society were seen creeping from their lair into town. They’d been very quiet just lately, though – very suspiciously quiet.
“Oh wait, I tell a lie, there was something,” Ornette suddenly announced. She reached over to a shelf nearby and picked up a paper model from next to a real apple core. Solemnly, she turned to me and placed the cuboid of folded paper into my hands.
“You made a paper truck,” I said.
“No, there was a paper truck,” she said. “I just made one so that I wouldn’t forget, at least not for too long.”
I put the truck down. Ornette had worked hard on it; the wheels actually turned, and it rolled unevenly away and fell off the sofa. “Why would you forget it? An actual truck made of paper driving around the streets sounds pretty memorable to me.”
“Don’t joke around with me, Snicket. It wasn’t made of paper, it contained paper,” Ornette snippily replied. “A few hours ago, a truck drove out of town and right up to the gates of the Wade Academy.”
“It drove out of town?” I asked. “It didn’t come from the school originally?”
“I doubt it,” Ornette replied. “Look closer at my model, Snicket. That’s a mail truck. That’s why I didn’t think much of it at first. But the other kids spent a while bringing bundles of paper out of the school for the postman to pile up in the back of the truck, and then eventually they were done and the truck drove back into town and the kids went back into school. Sharon Haines was overseeing the whole thing.”
Sharon Haines was the face of the Department of Education and Wade Academy, but like so many faces in Stain’d-by-the-Sea, it was nothing but a mask. There hadn’t been a real Department of Education for a very long time, and no Wade Academy for even longer, probably. There was only the Inhumane Society, which had imitated both organisations for its own ends, that end being gathering all of the town’s children in Wade Academy to work at some purpose that was inscrutable to me. Inscrutable means unfathomable. Unfathomable means I didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on. I’d been in Wade Academy and escaped, twice by now, with my friends and associates in The Association Of Associates, but the rest of the town’s children had chosen to remain behind because they knew something we didn’t. I should have listened to them. Rather, I should have made myself find the chance to listen to them, especially to people like Kellar Haines, who had been torn between his friends and his family and had finally chosen the latter, and Carr Carter, who had always been a traitor sent by Hangfire to manipulate me.
Traitors. There had been a traitor in Ink Inc., too, probably; that was what Cleo’s mother, Doretta Knight, had told her in a letter she had sent recently. Back in the time of Ingrid Nummet Knight and the glory of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, someone in the company had been leaking the company’s secrets to the recently-formed Inhumane Society. In the same letter, Doretta Knight mentioned that she’d been friends with the Inhumane Society’s founder, a girl named Picacea Plover, until the latter’s disappearance. I don’t know if Cleo had spotted the connection, but I don’t think I was being paranoid in making it.
“Earth to Snicket, Earth to Snicket,” Ornette’s voice reached me, with the gusts from a paper fan she was waving in my face. “You’re drifting off again, Snicket.”
“Sorry,” I said, shaking my head as if I could shake off all my questions and doubts. “I have a lot to think about. But this mail delivery, though…”
“Even with binoculars, I couldn’t make out what the papers were, obviously,” Ornette explained. “But whatever they were, Wade Academy was clearly mailing out a heck of a lot of them, and I don’t think it was their school newsletter.”
“Enough to maildrop the whole town?” I asked.
Ornette nodded. “There really aren’t that many people left now, Snicket. I’d say they’d easily cover everyone.”
“If that’s the case, we’ll probably find out what they have to say very soon,” I said, and I started to settle down on the couch for a long night. “Maybe even by the time you get home. It’s late and it’s my shift, Ornette. You should get home and get some sleep.”
Ornette looked at me, and looked away, and looked uneasy, uncomfortable suddenly, like I was an eel slithering around rather than a boy going nowhere. “About that. There’s something else I didn’t mention. Not something I’ve seen, and not something out there. Just a vibe, that I’m getting at home…”
My eyes should have been on the street, but instead they were on her. A friend sharing an uncomfortable problem might as well be sharing an uncomfortable seat; there is no way you could be thinking of anything else. “Your uncles’ home, or your father’s?”
Ornette’s uncles, known as the Talkie brothers, were two-thirds of the town’s official fire department, an organisation I have some respect for, although I prefer volunteering. Her father, Prosper Lost, was the other third, but he spent the other two-thirds of his own time running the Lost Arms, a hotel I had the grave misfortune to be living in and which I had considerably less respect for, although I had changed my opinion of the proprietor for the better recently. “Both, sort of, but mainly my father,” Ornette went on, her eyes now firmly fixed on a sheet of paper she had conjured up and was now rapidly folding every which way. “It’s partly why I volunteered to do this in the first place, to get out of there for a while. Not just because this is important, but because he doesn’t approve.”
“Nobody’s ever approved of what we’re doing here, I think,” I said, respecting the way she was avoiding my gaze by avoiding hers, too, and looking out at the darkening town. The light was almost gone now, but there might be moonlight to replace it. “What we’re doing is dangerous and irresponsible and not for children. Everyone’s guardians are saying the same thing – not just in our organisation, but in the whole world.”
“Maybe they’re right,” Ornette admitted. “Even if they knew everything, maybe they wouldn’t approve. Maybe even we wouldn’t, because we don’t know everything either. Maybe we’re wrong about all of it.” She looked out of the window, and I could see her eyes narrow as she tried to look at something very, very far in the distance, but she didn’t pick up the binoculars. “I think he’s thinking of taking us out of town,” she said abruptly. “Giving up and leaving for good. It was after I was kidnapped by Hangfire that one time… He realised that, for what little business there was in Stain’d-by-the-Sea, there was even less security. Especially for me.”
I didn’t know what to say. The hardest thing of all to say was what we both knew for sure, which is that her father was right. Getting out of Stain’d-by-the-Sea might well be the safest thing to do, even if the consequence was letting Hangfire get away with everything he was going to do – and more to the point, everything he’d already done. If there was any justice in the world, someone had to bring him to account. It shouldn’t have been us, but there was nobody else.
“So anyway,” Ornette picked up, after we’d silently shared that thought, “that’s what I wanted to say. That if I walk out of here and go home right now, it might be the last time we see each other. Well, I know we haven’t known each other long, but it’s leaving everything else, too, and you’re part and parcel of that, you and Jake and Moxie and the Lost Arms and Stain’d-by-the-Sea. It honestly wasn’t a great place to grow up, but it’s where I grew up, and…” She shrugged her shoulders, like she was giving something up. “I wasn’t ready.”
Nobody is ever ready. I thought that, but I didn’t say it, because I knew it would be of no comfort. Sometimes, the true thing to say is the wrong thing to say, maybe even too often. Maybe the wrong thing to say was actually the right thing to say, for that reason, but I couldn’t say it, not then. I still didn’t know how to tell the right wrongs from the wrong rights, and I still struggle today. Maybe there was no right thing to say or do, no right place to look, no right place to be, but there was only where we were, and only who we were, and I was the only one who could say anything.
I stuck out my hand. “Good luck,” I said.
She laughed all of a sudden, loud in the silent building, and stuck out her own hand. We shook, like associates parting from a meeting. “Good luck to you, too, Snicket,” she said, giving me one last smile before she turned to walk out of the room and out of my story. “I think you’ll need it more than I do.” She walked over to the door and put her hand on it and I thought she was hesitating, but she was only throwing something back into the room behind her, and then the door was open and shut and she was gone.
I looked after her, and then I looked out of the window, wondering if I’d see her in the street, and then I decided that, no, we’d already said our goodbyes, with words and with a folded piece of paper. I let the binoculars be and walked over to the piece of paper she’d left. It looked simple at first, a few rectangles stuck together, but I picked it up and saw that it was actually a plane, one of the smaller ones that would only hold a few ant-sized passengers, but still better than the triangles of paper that were the best I could fold. On a whim, I tossed it into the air, and I was surprised when it didn’t fall straight to the ground like most paper planes but soared gently across the room to finally come down to land on top of the wardrobe, way out of my reach. On balance, that was probably the safest place for it. For myself, I returned to the window, took up the binoculars, and prepared to strain my eyes in the moonlight for even the slightest glimpse of activity at the school or in the street. Had that station wagon, I wondered suddenly, been there when I arrived?
A roar from behind me practically sent me leaping through the window to a very early end on the street below. Swivelling to the door in a flurry of paper objects I saw a man’s shape blocking my only exit, and my terrified imagination told me it could be only one man, the man dogging my footsteps in Stain’d-by-the-Sea: Hangfire.
But I only believed it for a moment, because after that moment my brain took over and recognised the voice and the potato-like silhouette. I might have preferred Hangfire. Instead it was the police.
“Well, well, well,” growled Officer Harvey Mitchum, as he strode slowly into the room, scrunching paper punctuating his footsteps. “Well, well, well.”
I cleared my throat nervously. “Goodnight, officer,” I said, with a glance at the dark street. I hoped by now that I had something of a rapport with Officer Mitchum and his wife, also called Officer Mitchum. They knew I spent my time in Stain’d-by-the-Sea investigating crimes, and had even made a couple of arrests based on my investigations. But they also blamed me for stirring up trouble in the first place. It is easy not to be bothered by crime if you stay in the police station all day.
“Oh, it will be a good night, for someone,” echoed the officer. “And that someone is me, Snicket. I’ve finally caught you red-handed.”
It is hard not to look at your hands when someone mentions them like that, even when you know that “red-handed” is just a phrase meaning “in the middle of a crime.” My hands just looked shadowy to me, but Harvey Mitchum cried out “Aha! You’re looking at your hands! That’s a sign of a guilty conscience!”
I put my hands away behind my back.
“Aha! You’re hiding your hands!” Harvey Mitchum cried again. “That’s a sign of a guilty conscience!”
I sighed, and just let my hands hang loose at my side. “Can I help you, officer?”
“Oh, you’d like to help, wouldn’t you?” the officer sneered, to which I nodded sincerely. “Well, answer me this, Snicket: What are you doing here?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I ask because the police station received an anonymous tip-off from a regular caller,” Harvey Mitchum said. “It said that two children were behaving suspiciously in the abandoned hotel near Stain’d Station.”
So Ornette and I hadn’t gone unnoticed. It seemed that someone had, in the end, noticed us without being noticed themselves. That told me that we were probably on the right track, but now we were on the wrong side of the law. Or at least I was, and that gave me an idea. “It must have been a hoax,” I said quickly. “There’s only one child here.”
“Don’t try and fool me, Snicket. You can’t fool someone smarter than yourself,” Harvey Mitchum answered. “I saw your accomplice sneaking out of here, but instead of catching the catspaw, I decided to go for the ringleader himself. Normally I aim to arrest all the criminals involved in a crime, but right now I simply don’t have the manpower.”
There was indeed something very strange about Harvey Mitchum showing up on his own. Normally he never investigated a crime without his partner in policing, marriage, and endless bickering, Mimi Mitchum, by his side. Talking to just one of them was a bit like talking to only half a person, half as talkative and half the brains. I wasn’t the Mitchums’ biggest fan, but it was a little concerning, and I said so. “I notice that your partner is missing this evening,” I said. “I do hope that she’s alright.”
The lone officer Mitchum harrumphed and rolled his shoulders and tried not to look like he appreciated the sympathy. “She’s in the station wagon, with Stew,” he muttered. “We’re spending time with him while we think about asking Fred to drive him out of town, to his aunt’s, poor boy.”
If Stew Mitchum’s aunt was anything like the rest of the family, I almost sympathised. Then I remembered everything Stew Mitchum had ever done or said, and stopped sympathising. Stew Mitchum was the Mitchums’ son, a son as spoiled as the son of the town’s only police officers can possibly be, and just about every time I met him, he got worse. The first time I met him, he had tried to shoot me with a catapult. Later on, he had beaten me up. But there was another name the officer had mentioned that I didn’t recognise.
“Who’s Fred?” I asked.
“Pheidippides,” he replied, and I was about to excuse him when he went on, “but that’s Mr. Bellerophon to you. I haven’t seen him around in a while, but I’m sure he’d be willing to help an old school pal out.”
Pheidippides Bellerophon. I should have known the owner of the Bellerophon Taxi would have a name as tough on the tongue, and a nickname as bite-size, as his sons “Pip” Bouvard and “Squeak” Pecuchet. I hadn’t seen him around either, and his sons had told me he was sick. Come to think of it, they’d told me they’d been at the Swinster Pharmacy in the first place buying something for him, so maybe he really was sick. I was so surprised that I let Harvey Mitchum start talking about his son again.
“My poor boy’s an emotional wreck at the moment,” he sighed. “We can’t leave him on his own, but we can’t bring him into danger either, so he comes in the police car and one of us stays with him while the other checks things out. It’s impeding our police work, but family is the most important thing.”
I wondered if Stew would agree. He’d recently left his family to become a student at the Wade Academy, or so he had told his parents, but really he’d been lured into joining the Inhumane Society and had enforced their instructions upon the children they had captured. That had backfired eventually when they rebelled against him and locked him up. The last time I’d seen him, I’d helped to take him home at last, but it looked as if the experience still haunted him.
“I take it,” I said, “that Wade Academy didn’t agree with him.”
“And here was me thinking he was getting a top-drawer education over there,” Harvey Mitchum sighed, and suddenly he drew a chair out from against the wall and sat on it in that horribly unwise backwards position, his front and its back facing me. “Listen, Snicket. Since you mention it, I should have a serious talk with you about something.” He gave me that stern yet over-sincere expression that every child is terrified of seeing on their parents’ faces. “I want to talk to you about bullying.”
My eyes flicked to the door. “Officer –”
“Bullying is bad, Snicket,” Harvey Mitchum began to explain, gesturing vaguely with his hands while staring into my eyes with unsettling directness. “It’s wrong. And worst of all, it’s not good.”
“I’m fully aware of that, officer –”
“If you ever bully someone, Snicket, then the person you’re really bullying is yourself. And you’ll regret it someday, just like I did.”
“I’m sure you’re right, officer, but I don’t go to –”
“Come sit over here, Snicket, and let me tell you my story…”
“I confess!” I blurted out. “Your tip-off was right. I was behaving suspiciously here. Arrest me, officer.”
Harvey Mitchum blinked a few times, as if he couldn’t believe that he wasn’t dreaming, and then heaved himself up from the chair and pushed it aside with a smile.
“Aha!” he repeated. “I knew I’d catch you one day, Snicket, and now I have. I’ll have you cuffed and in the cells before you can say ‘guilty as charged.’”
“Guilty as charged?” I repeated, as he slipped a pair of cuffs over my wrists faster than I expected. “I wasn’t aware that behaving suspiciously was that serious an offence.”
“Ah, but you weren’t just behaving suspiciously,” Officer Mitchum said, as he began pulling me along by the chain between the two cuffs, which is apparently very painful if the cuffs aren’t too large to fit you. “There’s a word for what you’re doing here, Snicket, and that word is breaking and entering.”
“I think you mean ‘entering,’” I pointed out, as we shuffled into the corridor. “I didn’t break anything, and you said it was just one word.”
“Smart as ever, I see, Snicket,” he huffed, as we began to descend the stairs. “But we’ll see how smart you are when you’re put on board a train to the city jail.”
At this point I was seriously considering simply running away from him as soon as we left the building, but I still had a few arguments left up my sleeve. “I thought the next train wasn’t for a few weeks,” I said. “You don’t intend to put me in the police station’s cell for that whole time?”
“Oh, but I do,” Officer Mitchum explained, with a smug grin. “I intend to keep a very close eye on you for the next few weeks.”
“And listen to me being smart the whole time?”
He stopped dead in the hallway, and I bumped into his back because it was far too dark to see that he’d stopped dead. He was blocking the light, so I couldn’t see what expression was on his face, or gauge just which way the little gears in his head were turning. But after what felt like quite a long time just standing there, he turned around and slipped the handcuffs off my wrists again.
“I’m going to put you under house arrest,” he said, “in the Lost Arms, with that guardian of yours, Markson. I’ve spoken to her enough to know that she has a pretty firm hand when it comes to children. I can trust her.”
Which was a very good measure of Officer Mitchum’s competence, but I kept all further smart remarks to myself as he paraded me out of the building, right out of the front doors, which he’d knocked one of the chained handles off to enter. The surveillance had been a failure, sure, but at least I could be pretty confident that nothing had come into town from the Inhumane Society up until about this time, that bundle of papers aside. I’d make that my next course of action, I thought, as we marched up to the station wagon, the illuminated cab of which revealed two figures inside.
“Guess who?” Harvey Mitchum announced, as he opened the back door and shoved me inside. I wasn’t sure who he was addressing, but he’d already told me he had Stew with him, and here he was, sharing the back seat with me. He was the spitting image of his father and mother in the front seats, a shapeless body and a head with plump cheeks and stubbly hair. There was one big difference about him to how I remembered, though. His eyes were flashing about everywhere, on me, on his parents, especially out the darkened windows, and the expression he wore didn’t suit him, or anyone. It was one of fear.
“Hello, Stew,” I said, as politely as I could muster, which was more than I would have mustered if his parents hadn’t been around. “Officer Mitchum.”
Mimi Mitchum scowled at me from the front seat, but said nothing, which was the nicest thing she’d ever said to me.
“Breaking and entering,” Harvey Mitchum announced, as he climbed into the passenger seat; it was Mimi’s turn to drive. “House arrest with his guardian. A very successful night’s work, but we’ll have to drive him home now.”
“We’re not a taxi service, Harvey,” his wife answered, and I groaned internally at the beginning of what threatened to be another of the endless arguments that passed for candlelit dinners between them. “We’re not a train or an autogyro. It’s not our job to drive people home, it’s our job to arrest criminals.”
“Yeah, and I arrested him, job done,” argued her husband. “I’m only saying let’s drive him home because we’ve got to drive him somewhere before we drive us home.”
“We can’t drive us home before we check out that tip-off about Wizard’s Hollow, Harvey, or did you forget, like you forgot that I haven’t arrested anyone yet tonight?”
“There won’t be anything to see out there in the middle of the night, and you can just re-arrest Snicket if it’s so important to you!”
“I can’t re-arrest him if he’s already arrested!”
“Then I’ll de-arrest him and you can re-arrest him!”
“You can’t de-arrest him, he’s committed a crime!”
“And that’s why we need to drive him to his home to get him out of our hair!”
“We’re not a taxi service, Harvey.”
As Mimi Mitchum drew in another breath to begin the whole argument again from the beginning, I interrupted as fast as I could. It wasn’t just because they were going nowhere – though we were all literally going nowhere, as Mimi hadn’t started the car yet – but one of them had just mentioned such an obvious clue that at first I wondered if it might even be too obvious. “If you don’t mind me asking, what exactly is Wizard’s Hollow?”
They both turned to glare at me, making it clear that they minded me asking very much, and Mimi angrily started the car and left her husband to answer.
“You read a lot, Snicket, I’ll say that for you,” Harvey Mitchum began, looking back from the front seat. “So you’ve probably read about the wizard of Stain’d-by-the-Sea.”
“I preferred L. Frank Baum’s version, but yes,” I said, immediately thinking back to a book I had been thinking of a lot since I came to Stain’d-by-the-Sea. It was called Stain’d Myths, and had become one of my most important resources in predicting Hangfire’s murderous plans. I had been wondering if the wizard would turn up. “The wizard lived in Stain’d-by-the-Sea in ancient times, when the Bombinating Beast roamed freely, and kept it under his power by keeping it well-fed – on human flesh, naturally.”
Stew let out a little whimper beside me, and shrank farther away from the windows. It was a disturbing sight, and I didn’t like to look at it. I didn’t like to think of what he might have known, what he could have been told that would drain away all the bravado he’d had and leave shameless terror in its place. What had happened to him since I’d seen him last?
His father was looking at him with a pained expression, too, and reached out to ruffle his stubbly hair as best he could. “Don’t worry, my little stewed apple pie, you’re safe in here,” Harvey Mitchum told him as I cringed in the next seat. Family nicknames should never, ever be shared. Added to that, if I was honest with myself, he probably wasn’t safe in here at all, but if Harvey Mitchum had his doubts, he didn’t show them as he turned back to me with a fierce frown. “Don’t scare my son, Snicket. Remember our little chat.”
I didn’t want to. “I’m sorry, Stew,” I said quickly, “and officer, please continue with your story.”
“Well, alright,” muttered Harvey. “Anyway, you’re not wrong, Snicket. The wizard was the one who controlled the Bombinating Beast, but he didn’t just do it by keeping it fed but by imitating the buzzing noise it made, from which we get the word ‘bombinating.’”
I hope I looked suitably awestruck. I had never expected to get an actually useful vocabulary lesson from Harvey Mitchum.
“That wasn’t all the wizard could do!” Mimi interrupted, taking her eyes off the darkened road to give her husband an accusatory stare. “He was a wizard, after all! He could cast all kinds of magical spells.”
“I was getting to those, Mimi, and anyway, don’t you know all spells are magical?”
“What about spells of bad weather?”
“Those aren’t real spells, Mimi, I’m talking about the magical ones!”
“But you just said all spells are magical!”
“Only the magical ones!”
I may have read the L. Frank Baum novel, but only because my sister told me the wizard was a phoney; I still preferred my brother’s detective novels, but I would prefer anything to having to listen to an argument about whether all spells are real or just the magical ones. “What magical spells did the wizard have?” I interrupted, with an internal sigh. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hangfire tried to use this idea, but I couldn’t possibly take it seriously, not then.
“He stole an invisibility spell from the Stain’d witch coven, I heard,” Harvey said. “And he brought terrible fates upon his enemies with spells of the four elements – you know, water, earth, fire, and air…”
I made a mental note not to mention this story to Cleo Knight, who had a poster of the hundred-odd chemical elements in the periodic table at her home.
“Anyway,” Harvey Mitchum resumed. “Your storybook wizards all live in towers and the like, but of course that’s completely unrealistic. The wizard of Stain’d-by-the-Sea lived in a cave out on a tiny islet between the town and Offshore Island, where he could work his evil magic without being disturbed by the townsfolk. Obviously, with the draining of the sea the island isn’t an island any more, but the cave is still a cave, whether or not it has a wizard living in it, and that’s Wizard’s Hollow.”
That question had certainly taken long enough to be answered, but it left me with quite a few more, most notable of which was how anyone could take such nonsense seriously, though why didn’t I ask Prosper Lost rather than expecting the Mitchums to give a straight answer was nipping at its heels. Chief among the questions I could actually say out loud, though, was “How easy is it to get there, since you were talking about going there tonight?”
Harvey and Mimi exchanged looks. “Well, it’s probably a bit late now,” Harvey admitted. “The person who tipped us off was probably just jumping at shadows.”
She sounded a bit uneasy herself. I wondered if she’d heard these stories a lot in her childhood, perhaps when tucked up into bed late at night, with only a single dim lamp that wasn’t quite bright enough to chase out the shadows, windows that didn’t quite keep the howling winds from stirring the curtains.
“It’s easy to get near, but a bit harder to get in,” Mimi explained. “If you want to see it, you just drive down along the lighthouse side of the viaduct, past Godwit Falls, and you can’t miss it. It has a sign up and everything, from when the town was trying to attract tourists after the draining of the sea. But obviously, because the sea was drained, the cave is now halfway up a cliff, and climbing up from the bottom is a challenge. That’s why they put in the Stain’d Chain Walk.”
“I think I’ve heard of chain walks,” I said. “They’re walks along coasts and cliff edges that are so difficult that they require chains hammered into the cliffside to walk safely.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Harvey said, nodding approvingly. “There are four or five chains that take you all the way to the top and Wizard’s Hollow. Pretty dangerous under windy, rainy, or dark conditions.”
“You know, I think it’s a little windy outside right now,” Mimi piped up. “We’d better not risk it.”
“Yeah, I hear it too,” Harvey eagerly confirmed, though the streets had been very still when we’d gotten into the car. That had been a little while ago, I realised, and it must have been very late; Mimi must have been driving slowly in the darkness, and it was indeed pitch-black outside, and I was suddenly starting to feel lonely. Somehow, there are few lonelier places than a car in the middle of the night, even with all the lights on and other people around you. It is even lonelier if you don’t know or even like those people very well. Harvey and Mimi Mitchum in the front, their shoulders jostling against each other, their faces drawn tighter than blackout curtains, and Stew in the back, a bully, curling up into himself, his frightened eyes reflecting off his window. There was not a sound to be heard, just the faint chugging of the engine, too quiet against the vastness of the night.
And then there was another sound.
It was a sound I’d heard quite a few times since I had come to Stain’d-by-the-Sea – a low, mournful clanging in the distance, the sad toll of a faraway bell, stuck up at the top of a lonely tower so it could be heard all the way across the town. It rang through me like a cold, cold breeze, because this bell also meant something dreadfully sinister to me. It was the bell of the Wade Academy, and whatever its warning meant to the townsfolk, it meant to me that Hangfire and his associates were prowling about, on some unknown and terrible mission.
After a few seconds of tolling, the echoing call of the bell rang only in our ears, and then faded away for good. It was like being able to breathe again, and from the collective sigh of relief in the car I guessed that the Mitchums felt the same way.
“Masks on,” Harvey Mitchum instructed, handing one over his seat to Stew and then helping his wife fix her own on. The masks were completely unnecessary, nothing but a myth, but I had mine, too, and I slipped it out from my jacket and put it on. I don’t normally do things just because other people are, but sometimes it’s only sensible to fit in, and become as faceless as the people around you for a while. It is strange, that the act of putting on a mask can help you to avoid suspicion, and yet sometimes that is just what people want to see.
“Just the normal bell!” Mimi Mitchum said, her voice strangely bright under the tinniness of the mask. “For a moment there, I thought it might be the big one.”
“The big one?” I asked, my own voice muffled. The Mitchums were really on a roll tonight. I couldn’t think of another time they’d known so much more than me.
Harvey Mitchum sighed. “You ask a lot of questions, don’t you, Snicket?” he asked, which seemed faintly hypocritical even though it was a rhetorical question, a question he didn’t expect an answer to. “If you just stayed at home for once and opened your mail like a normal person, you’d be in the loop more often, and this is one heck of an important loop to be in.” He opened the glove compartment and shuffled his large hands about in there for a few moments. “Here, read this,” he said, pulling out a newly-crumpled piece of paper. “Arrived just this evening, a joint announcement from the Coast Guard and Octopus Council. The whole town’s been put on alert.”
Letting myself get arrested had turned out pretty well, just like the last time I had let myself get arrested. I didn’t want to make a habit of it, but I didn’t have to hide my smile at all as I reached for the piece of paper the officer was holding out. The mask did it for me.
IMPENDING SALTSTORM CRITICAL ALERT.
A storm front moving in from Zanclean Dam is expected to distribute dangerously high levels of salt into the atmosphere around Stain’d-by-the-Sea within an estimated forty-eight hours. During that period, anyone within the town’s limits will be susceptible to salt lung, a medical condition unique to the locality in which salt crystallises within the respiratory system, causing a persistent salty flavour in the mouth, suffocation, and death. While the risk of salt lung can ordinarily be minimised using the Coast Guard’s air filtration masks, these were not designed to cope with the inordinately dense saltwinds approaching and are expected to fail. As such, there will be no defence from salt lung within Stain’d-by-the-Sea for the duration of the saltstorm.
Experts agree that a temporary evacuation of Stain’d-by-the-Sea is the only guaranteed means of survival, and advise all residents with non-essential business in the town to evacuate upon receipt of this notice and not return until the stated period is exceeded. Fortunately, the Octopus Council has developed highly sensitive instruments which can deliver up to one hundred and seventy minutes’ warning of the saltstorm’s arrival in town. This warning will be relayed to the town by a continuous tolling of the alarm bell during this period. Use this time to gather your family and important belongings, and exit the town before the ringing ends to avoid fatalities. Those who stay do so at their own risk.
From your friends and guardians at THE OCTOPUS COUNCIL THE COAST GUARD “Responsibility lies within humanity.”
My smile had faded soon enough. The Mitchums were right. This was the big one. This, not nonsense about wizards, was what I had to be worried about. Forcing people to cower in their homes wasn’t good enough anymore; Hangfire’s ambitions had reached so much farther, and he now intended to reach out and take Stain’d-by-the-Sea all for himself. What would he do then, in a town with no people in it? What secret was so enormous that he would have to banish the whole town to keep it hidden?
I’d abandoned my mask often enough to know that salt lung wasn’t real, and I certainly wouldn’t be evacuating, because it seemed very likely that anyone who evacuated would never be coming back. This was Hangfire’s endgame, or so he planned, but I had a different plan, now. This would be our final showdown. Whatever he was planning, I had to find out first – and find him, too, and stop him. And I had a lead, too, thanks to that clumsy tip-off – perhaps he’d been hoping to lure the Mitchums into a trap and get them out of the way, too. Instead, tomorrow morning Wizard’s Hollow would become my trap for Hangfire.
“I’ve already seen quite a few cars heading out past the lighthouse for the road to the mainland,” Harvey Mitchum’s tinny voice said, as I read over the flier again and again. “Of course, we’re not non-essential, so we’ll be remaining until the full alarm, but that’s why we’ve been thinking of sending Stew to his aunt in the city with ol’ Fred Bellerophon. We can trust him.”
“I l-l-love my dear auntie,” a thin and whiny voice spoke up, and it took me a second to realise it was Stew’s voice speaking up from behind his mask. He sounded nervous, which was unusual, but dishonest, which was familiar enough to help me recognise that it wasn’t some imitator hiding in the boot. “I’d be happy to leave anytime if my mommy and daddy follow soon.”
“Oh, you’re such a good boy, Stewie!” Mimi exclaimed, almost sobbing with adoration. Her fist thrust too close to my head on its way to ruffle Stewie’s hair. “Don’t you worry. So long as you’re with your mommy and daddy, everything will be okay.”
Suddenly the car seemed to jump upwards, and the side dipped and jerked up again with a great BANG that threw me and Harvey out of our seats and into Mimi and Stew, and Stew screamed as a second BANG sent the car bouncing upwards and a CLANG split the air as something shot past the right window, and then there was a terrible, high-pitched squealing and grinding as car careened and jerked to a sudden halt. The headlights through the front window flickered on and off, but all I could see were the dim shapes of the yellow-tinted street, flicker-flicker, shadows jumping in and out of life in the stillness.
I heaved myself off the trembling Stew with difficulty; the car was still raised upwards slightly on the right and front. Shuffling up to the right window, I slowly wound it down and looked out as Harvey Mitchum did the same thing. It looked like we’d jumped the curb on the right side of the road, and something had knocked one of the wing mirrors off. Looking back down the street, I saw a streetlight shining at an odd angle that made a likely culprit, but the light revealed something else.
“I told you to keep your eyes on the road, Mimi!” Harvey yelled, slamming his hand on the dashboard hard enough to make him growl and start rubbing his reddened palm.
“It’s not her fault, officer,” I spoke up, although perhaps I wasn’t being completely honest. Probably everything was, on some level, as much her fault as everyone else’s in Stain’d-by-the-Sea, but in total darkness save for a few headlamps that needed changing I could well imagine that she might just have missed what had lurched us off the road. “Look behind us.”
Harvey looked, and I saw his little eyes in the little slits on his mask look past me and back at the section of road we’d just driven on. I couldn’t make out his expression, but his sharp intake of breath told me everything, certainly far more than the face of the road would reveal.
Running across the road was a long, jagged crack where the road surface had split and come apart, crumbling edges flaking away, and the road on each side of the crack was tilted upwards, like a small, wide mountain range, or a pair of trapdoors opening. It was as if a giant had stood underneath the road and put their hands up and pushed slightly, breaking the road and folding it outwards. Yes, it was just like that, as if something had passed underground too close to the surface, pushing it upwards in its wake. The crack narrowed and vanished in the sidewalks on either side, leaving just the split in the road, like an especially severe speed bump. Harvey Mitchum opened his car door, got out, and walked slowly over to the crack, treading carefully as he reached the risen ground. The crack wasn’t very wide, but it was wide enough for him to lean over and peer inside.
“Does Stain’d-by-the-Sea suffer from earthquakes?” I quietly asked Mimi Mitchum, as the three of us stared at her husband.
She silently shook her head. “That’s never been a problem,” she said. “Apart from a couple thirteen years ago, that is.”
Harvey Mitchum returned, in a slow and thoughtful silence, and we didn’t take our eyes off him as he got back into the car. With a shrug of his shoulders and a deep breath, he said probably the last thing I had wanted to hear.
“Well,” Harvey Mitchum said, “that wasn’t there when we drove this way earlier.”
"and tourist information , but these days, " - there shouldn't be a space before the comma. "But they also blamed for stirring up trouble in the first place." - I think you mean "they also blamed me for ..." "and stopped sympathising Stew Mitchum" - I think a full stop is needed after "sympathising".
I feel mean just pointing out trivial typos: the story itself is as intriguing and brilliantly written as ever.
Violent Bun Fortuna: Ah yeah there are loads of great concept drawings by Gerald Scarfe for Hercules, it's really interesting to see how much his designs were carried into the film.
Oct 11, 2021 17:42:19 GMT -5
Mister M: the miserable mill
Oct 12, 2021 0:49:33 GMT -5
Mister M: the wide window (almost forgot)
Oct 13, 2021 11:58:36 GMT -5