The last couple of months were probably the most miserable in lives of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire. It all began when the loving parents of these intelligent and charming children perished in a terrible fire and the atrocious villain named Count Olaf started chasing after the Baudelaires’ fortune. Since then, the poor siblings lost two guardians, each of whom was rather amiable in their own ways, took a trip across the carnivorous leeches’ lake on a stormy night, and worked in a sawmill where hypnotized employees received their wages in coupons. Though they survived through all these revolting events, the Baudelaires couldn’t keep confidence they would ever get a chance for better future.
So no one would have blamed them for the lack of enthusiasm they felt when Mr. Poe, a banker in charge of their affairs, announced he could only find one guardian who had accepted to take the Baudelaire orphans in after all the misfortunes happened to the previous volunteers.
“Volunteers?” Klaus repeated, realizing this word sounded strangely meaningful to him, although he couldn’t remember where had he heard it last time.
“Yes, that was his expression, I believe.”
“Who is he?” Violet asked.
“I’m not entirely sure... you see, children, I was never keen on science — except for statistics — and your new guardian did sound like a man of science. He also lives in our town, isn’t it nice?”
The children looked at each other. It might have been nice to finally stay in a familiar place, and it also meant they could address Justice Strauss, should they be in need of help; a solid advantage for those who haven’t received almost any aid so far. Yet the very air there was still filled with grief and ashes from the unfortunate fire, and the last and only guardian they had in their hometown was Count Olaf.
“Anyway, he was on the list in your parents’ will, so you shouldn’t worry about him. I’m sure you’ll like him when you’ll see him.”
Mr. Poe had never been a big guesser, but a mistake of such a scale was rare even for him.
“You!” Violet and Klaus exclaimed in unison when the door of a modest house had opened to reveal the owner.
“Ralbr!” Sunny screamed at the same moment, meaning, “Your disguise is always horrible, Count Olaf!”
There was some dramatic irony in her statement, although she couldn’t suspect it yet.
“You don’t even know me, but you dislike me already? Usually people take their time to start disliking me,” said the tall man standing in the doorway. “Billy’s the name.”
He held out his hand in a common welcoming gesture, and Violet unconsciously took a step back, pulling Sunny closer. She expected the tall man, who certainly looked like Count Olaf in some uncharacteristically prosaic disguise, to be irritated and angry; to her surprise, he seemed embarrassed and perplexed.
“You won’t fool us!” Klaus said as firmly as he could.
“I think I will, given a day or so to prepare my prank, but I certainly wouldn’t want to do this.”
“You may have hidden your hideous tattoo...”
“Joined after the schism, why should I have a tattoo—”
“Or shaved off a part of your eyebrow…”
“Or even dyed your hair…”
“...hey, I’m a natural blond!”
“But anyone could see you’re Count Olaf!” Klaus concluded. “Well, anyone besides those who don’t listen to the obvious things,” he thought, noticing Mr. Poe’s reaction.
“There’s no need to be impolite, children!” Mr. Poe coughed and turned to the tall man. “I’m sorry, but this Count Olaf tried very hard to steal the Baudelaires’ enormous fortune, so the children are a little obsessed with the idea he’s following them.”
“We weren’t ‘impolite’, and Count Olaf did always follow us before,” Klaus insisted, supported by Sunny’s shriek.
“I’m awfully sorry,” Mr. Poe mumbled again.
“No, it’s alright,” suddenly said the tall man; he didn’t even look at Mr. Poe and was evidently speaking to the Baudelaires. “I thought Jacquelyn sent you a note. Along with your spyglass. A ‘yes, Billy is our local meme’ kind of note?”
“Jacquelyn?” now Klaus was confused.
“What a coincidence, I have a secretary named Jacquelyn!” Mr. Poe smiled.
The tall man sighed.
“Mr. Poe, did you give the Baudelaires the package you had absolutely coincidentally received from South America a few days ago?”
Only now something clicked in Klaus’ head.
It was Mr. Poe’s secretary who called her work “a volunteer position”.
“I almost forgot about it, thank you! I have no idea how did you know about this package, which means I must have mentioned it in our previous conversation,” Mr. Poe replied sprightly. “This came to the bank for you, children,” he said, taking a small box from his pocket. The kraft paper was covered in postage stamps, and so far as Klaus — who read a book or two about philately — could tell, this package was really delivered from South America. “I also have no idea why the return address is from my secretary,” Mr. Poe added.
Violet barely held the chuckle when the tall man rolled his eyes, visibly impressed by Mr. Poe’s investigative skills. Something wasn’t right: Count Olaf they knew was the most frightening person on Earth, whether he was wearing his stage costume, a fake beard and glasses, or a red midi dress.
This man wasn’t scary at all.
Klaus gave him another distrustful glance and untied the rope.
“She said she’d get it back. She did,” Klaus whispered with a spark of hope in his voice. A device he got out of the box was truly a mysterious part of spyglass that Count Olaf had stolen from them. At least this one time luck was on their side.
“And look, there’s a message,” Violet said, taking a sticky note that was lying under the spyglass.
“Suwo!” Sunny cried, trying to make her siblings remember she didn’t know how to read yet.
“Of course we will read it, Sunny,” Violet answered. The pencil handwriting was small, but readable enough to cause no problem.
“Dear Baudelaires, do not be baffled by your new guardian’s appearance,” Klaus started. “However similar to Count Olaf he may look at first glance, you will find that Billy has nothing to do with your enemy. Your trust won’t be mistaken.”
The tall man nodded, swaying impatiently on his feet.
“If you suspect that Count Olaf has already replaced Billy, you can use the code ‘all that matters’, to which Billy should reply—”
“Taking matters into your own hands,” the tall man continued wearily, just like the note anticipated.
The Baudelaires didn’t read the postscriptum out loud. They were well-mannered children, after all, and such embarrassing warnings as “don’t talk about horses too much, this theme makes Billy nervous” weren’t meant for public announcement, an expression which here means “a speech that Billy himself could hear”.
“Now can we please say goodbye to Mr. Poe and come indoors?” the tall man wondered.
“Yes,” said Mr. Poe, happy to get back on track, “I believe the introduction went amazingly well.”
“Tuskev!” Sunny shrieked, agreeing, “It’s amazing it went well after all!”
“If you need anything, children, you can always reach me at Mulctuary Money Management. Although as a newly promoted Vice President of Orphan Affairs I won’t have time to check in on you. But if you really need me, my secretary will surely find the time for your appointment in my schedule. Good luck!” Mr. Poe said, stepping back.
“Goodbye, Mr. Poe”, Violet and Klaus drawled, as Mr. Poe walked to his car, muttering, “Jacquelyn, what a funny coincidence.”
The house was as modest inside as it looked outside, yet despite the interior that one could call slightly austere and a little chaos that would seem unbearable to a neat freak, this place looked homelike — a word the Baudelaires would hardly use in their descriptions of Lucky Smells Lumbermill or Aunt Josephine’s residence. This house wasn’t as colorful as Uncle Monty’s or as comfortable as their destroyed mansion, but Violet felt she could grow to like it, Klaus thought it looked rather suitable for a scientist, and Sunny supposed she’ll get something to bite within these walls.
“Let’s try another take, shall we?” the tall man said, closing the door and turning to the Baudelaires. “My name is Billy, and I believe I got your names right, so, Violet, Klaus, Sunny, welcome to your new home. I’m sorry I didn’t know your parents really well, and I understand my face is hardly pleasant for you right now, but I hope we can become friends.”
“How do you do?” Violet said, sensing how strange it sounded after such an awkward introduction. Being a very polite girl, though, she comprehended that any question about the nature of the remarkable likeness would be even more ill-timed.
“Glad that the misunderstanding is finally over, to be honest,” Billy replied, winking. “I doubt they fed their workers well in that appalling sawmill, how about some dinner?”
It was the first decent meal the Baudelaires had after they’d secretly cooked some hot food in Aunt Josephine’s house, so they weren’t quite in the mood to evaluate Billy’s culinary talent. However, they got enough time to look around while sitting in the kitchen and were pleased to see oregano and paprika containers, along with some other of their favorite spices. The menaces of broken stove, cold soup and chewing gum seemed so far away that, despite their persistent wariness, the Baudelaires gave Billy sincere and quite warm thanks after they had finished their eating.
He instantly seemed cheered up, and Violet unexpectedly realized that he was probably just as perturbed by this new acquaintance as themselves.
“Let’s take a quick look around the house and leave everything more exhaustive for tomorrow, alright?” Billy said in a slightly too vivacious tone.
It soon became clear that there wasn’t actually much to look at. The guest room — similar to another one on the second floor, as Billy explained — though being tidy, wore an air of a long-standing yearning for any visitors. The bathroom, which also had a double upstairs, shined with its tiles of various shades of blue, but the most eye-catching item was an enormous washing machine.
“The laundries here are awful,” Billy said with a wry face, as if he felt the need to be apologetic. The Baudelaires couldn’t decide what to make of it, so they simply nodded; after all, they never had a possibility to give the local laundries a try.
“Here we have a storage room for the things that don’t fit anywhere else,” Billy continued, turning yet another knob, “like waste batteries waiting for recycling or an ugly vase someone brought as a birthday gift. The room is tiny, as you can see, because it’s usually easier to find objects in a specific place than in some mingle-mangle.”
He also showed them the armored door to the room at the back of the house. Unlike the one on the way to the Reptile Room, this door seemed simple, but solid enough to serve as a protection from anyone who would try to get in.
Or, Violet suddenly thought, anything that would try to get out.
“Here’s the laboratory, which I will show you tomorrow, because now it’s really late and you were supposed to be seeing dreams an hour ago already. I believe some devices may arouse your curiosity, Violet. And Sunny, I beg of you, don’t bite anything in there unless I say it’s absolutely safe.”
“Wokef!” Sunny responded.
“No, I don’t question the fact that you are an intelligent child who knows better than risking her life!”
Violet and Klaus exchanged looks with each other: there were not many people who actually could understand Sunny’s talk, even if missing some nuances.
“I flatter myself I am an intelligent adult who knows better than risking his life,” Billy continued, “yet from time to time I do receive an electric shock, and I wouldn’t want similar things to happen to you.”
“Braur,” Sunny grunted.
“I’m glad we’re clear on that,” Billy said in a very serious tone.
A tour of the house was almost over, yet one very important part was still missing, and an embarrassing question started to burn in the Baudelaires’ minds.
“Sorry...” Klaus couldn’t even imagine how one asks such a thing politely, but he still intended to try. “Don’t you have any books?”
“Of course I do,” Billy seemed more surprised than offended, as if Klaus had just ignored a bookshelf right under his nose.
“So... can we read them?” Klaus tried once again.
“Anytime, anything you’d like to,” Billy replied readily. “Avoid Carnegie, though, if you don't want to be bored to death.”
“But where are they?”
“Mostly here,” Billy grabbed a bunch of flash drives from the table, “but I also keep some of them on my hard drives.”
“You have no paperbacks?” Violet asked, remembering the magnificent library in the mansion, the unique collection cherished by Justice Strauss, and the room full of light and books in Aunt Josephine’s house.
“Come on, are you really trying to tell me that reading with a flashlight under a blanket is better for eyes?” Billy chuckled.
“Besides, it’s much easier to keep a decent library this way: no bookcases, no dust. Oh,” Billy suddenly looked truly worried, “oh, don’t tell me you never had an e-reader before.”
Violet and Klaus shrugged. Now Billy was terrified.
“Do you even know what epub is?!”
“Sort of,” Klaus replied. “It is a technical standard published by—”
“Alright, alright, I’ve no doubt you read the dictionary, thank you. I guess I should teach you children a few things about pirate parties and social change,” Billy said quite emotionally.
Klaus frowned. There was definitely no hope that Billy meant some kind of costume ball, and although Klaus never avoided a possibility to enlarge his erudition, he wasn’t sure this particular subject was quite safe.
When they went upstairs, Billy pointed at one of the doors.
“I heard you prefer to stick together, which is totally understandable, so your beds are in the same room, although I can’t imagine a teen who doesn’t want to have her or his own room, but as I’ve said, it’s alright, since—”
“Thank you,” Violet interrupted, assuming that Billy was simply too agitated to stop. “And thank you for accepting to be our guardian.”
“Yeah, well, who would leave kids alone in trouble…” Billy said, and then curtly shook his head, as though he remembered something. “And I know you tried to get some answers from your guardians for too long, so in case something will happen tonight — which is highly improbable, I must emphasize — I better tell you the basics.”
The Baudelaires looked at each other once again. They were excited, of course, being in search of truth for so long, yet somehow they surmised it wasn’t the best replacement for a more ordinary bedtime story.
“I, Jacquelyn, Josephine Anwhistle, Dr. Montgomery Montgomery and your parents had all at some point in our lives joined the organization called V.F.D., Volunteer Fire Department. The volunteers try to extinguish fires, both literally and figuratively. The problem is, at some point our organization — well, I myself wasn't a member then, but still — fell into schism, and the evil side started setting fires instead of fighting them. As you can guess, Count Olaf was one of their masterminds.”
Violet and Klaus did not know what to say.
“Oy vey,” Sunny expressed the general sentiment.
“We’ll discuss it further in the morning,” Billy added hastily, “and if you’ll need more information, you can always read a scan of The Incomplete History of Secret Organizations, it’s on the red flash drive, in the ‘Fahrenheit 451’ folder. We’ll also discuss the importance of having a safe messenger on your smartphone, but now’s not the time. There’s a panic button near the closet in case of any danger, have nice dreams!”
The Baudelaires, stunned by Billy’s manner of talking about mysterious events and secret organizations as much as they were stunned by all this unexpected knowledge, didn’t move. Billy waited a short while, and then calmly asked:
“Is something wrong?”
“Everything,” Klaus answered in a flat voice.
The worst thing was that all these phantasmagorias seemed logical in light of the Baudelaires’ tragic adventures.
Billy smiled, joylessly but still reassuring.
“You’re absolutely right about this world. To change it, though, you need to gain strength, and a good night sleep surely helps.”
Lying in their cozy beds that night, the Baudelaires were thinking that maybe their new guardian wasn’t as horrible as they had suspected, impressed by his extraordinary resemblance to Count Olaf.
Hardly could they imagine they were both right and wrong at the same time.