Twenty years ago

Snicket left down the hallway, leaving me to act as brave as I could. I was scared. Truly. Probably more frightened than I'd ever been.

Cleo Knight, the daughter of the richest family in town, had disappeared. Snicket and I had done some research, and we were pretty sure that we knew where she was - the Colophon Clinic. The only problem was, one of Hangfire's associates was there.

And while Snicket went looking around, I was in the lobby with her.

I turned to face Nurse Dander, who was looking at me carefully - not like a researcher looking at an old manuscript, but like a hawk looking at a mouse. The whole situation made me queasy.

I stood for about two minutes, looking around for something to take my mind off of this whole thing. It didn't work. Nurse Dander watched me intently, and I almost hoped that she would break the silence.

Then she did, with no provocation.

Nurse Dander walked to me. She was holding something behind her back. I couldn't see it. I tried my best to look calm and keep from shaking.

"Tell me, girl," she said, without breaking eye contact with me, "why did you and your friend come here?"

I didn't answer. I didn't dare. I only thought of Snicket, and whether or not he had found any information. It sort of helped, in a way. But I didn't really have time to think that through entirely.

"Answer me!" she said loudly, grabbing my arm. I tried pulling away, but it was an ineffective attempt.

"We were just delivering the flowers."

"Those flowers," she told me with fury, "were from the garden just outside. Don't lie to me, girl. Let me ask you again." The nurse began taking out what was behind her back. I tried to take some deep breaths. Get scared later, Moxie, I heard Snicket say in my head. Do the scary thing first.

Nurse Dander had taken out a knife. She retained hold of my arm and would not relinquish it.

"Why," she seethed, "are you here?"

I was shaking. I couldn't help myself. She knew what we were here for. We had been found out, and now we would suffer the consequences. She brought the blade closer to me.

"Did I tell you," she whispered, "that I'm good with a knife?"

"We will stop you." The words came out. I didn't bother stopping them. Somehow, even under a possible threat to my life, I managed to say it. "All of you."

"You know too much."

A long time ago, when I was maybe six years old, climbing up the stairs of the lighthouse I slipped and fell down about ten steps. Frightened and distracted, I cried out, and Dad came and helped me. I was fine, just - scared. Why, I don't know. Add that to my list of questions that will never be answered. I'm not sure why I remembered that moment specifically at that point, when it couldn't hold a candle to what I was going through right then at the Colophon Clinic.

I have never experienced anything as painful as what I experienced that night. Maybe you already know what happens here. If I'm not mistaken, Snicket wrote about his time in Stain'd-by-the-Sea, and this was a part of it. I probably don't need to describe everything to you, but I'll try my best.

I cried out. I didn't know who I was crying out to. Maybe Snicket. Maybe Hangfire. Maybe Nurse Dander, or the Bellerophon brothers, waiting outside. Maybe my mother. Maybe Dorothy Parker, for all I knew. I was in too much pain to think clearly.

I was on fire.

Nurse Dander didn't flinch. In fact, she looked a little smug. I kept shaking.

"We'll stop you," I said again, as strongly as I could - which wasn't really saying a lot. Next to Nurse Dander, I was about as strong as a baby bird. She laughed coldly.

"Stop us?" she said. "You and your friend? I don't think that will happen."

And then a lot of things happened, all at once.

Something made a loud noise and the whole building trembled. I felt my typewriter drop from my hand and fall to the floor. Two people walked in the door and one started to speak, but stopped when he saw our situation. Pip and Squeak, I had just enough time to think. Taxi.

They pushed Nurse Dander over, catching her off guard, leaving me standing. The world was spinning at a hundred miles per hour. I'm hyperventilating, I thought. I'm breathing too fast. I need to…

Without realizing it, I fell to the floor.

I closed my eyes and listened as the world happened around me. My arm still seared. There was the sound of a struggle, and things happening. I don't know. I just lay there, with my eyes closed.

Some time passed, maybe ten minutes or so. At least it felt that long. Then I heard the sound of many people coming into the lobby. Two of the people were bickering, probably the Officers Mitchum. Someone else spoke to the Bellerophons proudly, and then, all of a sudden, worriedly. Quick footsteps came closer to me. My arm was in a lot of unignorable pain.

"Moxie."

I opened my eyes to see Snicket worrying above me, and everything felt a little bit better. Seeing a familiar face after what felt like hours definitely helped. Despite the situation, I smiled, at least a little, but then a wave of pain overtook my arm again and I winced. Then something came back to me, a conversation we had shared just earlier that day.

"I would have gone with you."

"I keep telling you, Moxie, I don't want to lead you into danger."

Snicket hadn't wanted me to come with him. He knew that it was a possibility that something could happen to one or both of us, and he didn't want anything to happen to me. And now it had. I knew at once that it was my own fault that I had gotten hurt in the first place.

"You were right, Snicket," I said, looking up at him with an unconvincing I'll-be-fine look. It was so unconvincing I didn't even convince myself, so I quit trying. "This is dangerous work."

He kept looking worried, and I didn't really blame him. "Does it hurt a lot?"

"That's the wrong question," I said, using a phrase we had adopted recently. The room still spun, and it made me sick. I closed my eyes. "The question is, can you save me?"

"This girl needs a hospital," Snicket called to the rest of the room.

"This is the only hospital around here," said another voice, who I immediately recognized as Jake Hix. I figured he had finally gotten here.

Then someone else walked over to me and knelt down on my other side, where my injury was. "She'll be all right," the person said, and there was the sound of ripping fabric. I didn't recognize her voice, so I opened my eyes.

A girl was bandaging my arm with a sleeve from her shirt. She worked with expertise, like she'd had a lot of experience with it before. "See what you can find in those rooms we passed," she said firmly to someone - probably Jake Hix, because he turned and walked down the hallway quickly. I recognized her almost immediately, from the posters blowing around town. She had very light hair and glasses. She was Cleo Knight.

And she had been found.

"You're Cleo Knight," I said, stating the obvious. "What did Dr. Flammarion want? Who was behind the plot to kidnap you? When will -"

"Shh," she said, gently.

"This is Moxie Mallahan," Snicket said to Cleo, introducing me, "a journalist and an associate of mine."

"I'll answer all your questions, Moxie, as soon as we fix up your arm," Cleo told me. She finished tying the torn sleeve around my arm carefully. It was striped black and white. I lay very still.

The Officers Mitchum handcuffed Nurse Dander and made to drag her outside, along with Dr. Flammarion. Both pairs of people were frowning at the other half of their pair. "Looks like we have the culprit and the accomplice," Harvey Mitchum said.

"The real culprit's not here," Snicket said to him. "Hangfire escaped a little while ago."

"Who's Hangfire?"

"Skip it," replied Snicket.

"Don't tell my husband to skip it," Mimi Mitchum butted in. I rolled my eyes. Here we go again, I thought.

"I can handle this, Mimi."

"Like you handled the drive over here? That was the bumpiest ride of my life!"

"Don't insult my driving!"

"Don't insult me!"

Apparently, I was not the only one annoyed at this whole shebang. Everybody else in the room watched them with exasperation.

"Could you please take us to jail now?" Nurse Dander spoke up, frustrated. I watched her and the other three leave, and then shivered, closing my eyes. I didn't exactly want to relive what had happened. She had hurt me, and I was glad I would never see her again.

"I appreciate your help," I heard Snicket say to the Bellerophons, "although I'd like to ask you another favor."

"Name it," Pip said back to him. I wondered what the favor would be, and decided to pay close attention.

"In the back of the building is a spiral staircase," Snicket began. "At the top is a room with a broken window, and somewhere in the room is an old-fashioned record player." I didn't know why Snicket needed an old-fashioned record player. Something here was suspicious. "It was on a bed stand, but Hangfire hid it right before I came in. Please take it, along with all those papers on the desk, to Black Cat Coffee and put it in the attic. There's a cupboard there that's larger than it looks."

"Who wants all that stuff?" Squeak asked. "Another associate of yours?"

This made me open my eyes and watch Snicket, to see if I could detect something in his face to tell me what was going on. He noticed my careful analysis and gave me another please-don't-be-skeptical-in-this-situation look. I gave him a look back that showed him that I was still suspicious. He was thinking about that girl again, the one that had caused so much trouble in this case. Ellington Feint. He knew that I knew and said, still looking at me, "I wouldn't call her that."

Jake came running into the room carrying a bunch of bottles.

"This is all the medicine I could find, Cleo," he told her, and she began taking some from him. After looking carefully at two, she opened them and mixed them together in one bottle, and then knelt down next to me again. In all the commotion, I had completely forgotten about my arm, even though a throbbing pain coursed through it without pause.

"Will Moxie be OK?" Snicket asked. He clearly thought that this was at least partially his fault. I wanted to tell him that it wasn't, but I knew that he wouldn't listen.

"It'll be a few days before she can type," Cleo responded, "but she'll be fine, Snicket. Let me work. I can heal a cut. Chemistry is a branch of science dealing with the basic elementary substances of which all bodies and matter are composed."

"I never found it interesting until now," Snicket said. Cleo started to peel back the bandage that she had wound around my arm.

"Hopefully, the whole town will find it interesting before long," she said.

"How close are you to finishing the formula?"

Cleo took a small piece of fabric and poured a little of the contents of the bottle on it. "I don't know," she said. "I thought I was close a few nights ago and tested it out in my bedroom, but it didn't work."

She took the piece of fabric and began to dab it on my cut. Whatever was in it brought the pain back all over again. I tried to remain still, but winced. Snicket quickly grabbed my hand. It was comforting, knowing someone was there. No one had really been there for months. No one except my father, who did so little he was barely there at all.

"I know," Snicket said. "I tested it myself."

"Well perhaps my luck will change. I've set up a small laboratory in a small cottage right where the sea used to be."

"Handkerchief Heights?"

"That's the one. It's a good location. Some of the ingredients I need can be found near Offshore Island, just a short hike from the cottage."

I was grateful that Snicket was asking the questions here so that I didn't have to. At that time, Cleo was putting her concoction on my injury, and it hurt quite a bit, although it wasn't nearly as bad as before.

"Maybe the Coast Guard can help you," said Snicket. "I think they're the ones who ring the bell when it's time to don masks."

"I have a theory that the masks aren't for a scientific reason at all," Cleo said, wrapping my arm up again. "They're just superstition - another fading myth in this town."

"Like the Bombinating Beast."

"Or Colonel Colophon," Jake chimed in. "He was supposed to be a war hero, but he turned out to be a villain."

I shook my head. I remembered the research I had done in the library. "Hangfire is the villain," I said. "The real Colonel Colophon must be somewhere else."

Snicket opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out. He shut it again. I would have to ask him later about what had happened with Hangfire in that room at the top of the stairs. For now, though, other things were happening. We frowned at each other, and Cleo frowned at my arm.

"I've got to get that formula finished. It's a puzzle, but I've got to solve it," she said, narrowing her eyes in focus. "Invisible ink that actually works could make Ink Inc. a successful company again. We could save this town from all the people who want to destroy us. I told my mother and father that, in my note. I love them, but my parents have given up on making things better."

"So have mine," Jake said. The Bellerophons nodded in agreement. I thought of my mother, who might as well have disappeared off the face of the Earth. I thought of my father, who had completely given up hope. Everywhere I turned were people who had given up on making things better. We were the only ones who hadn't.

I nodded. We would have to make things better ourselves.

We all sat for a moment, thinking.

Snicket finally broke the silence. "You'll need help," he said.

"I have help," Cleo responded, and smiled. She seemed so different from her missing flyer at that moment that I was truly surprised. She was a good person, and I knew that she would help us solve this mystery.

Pip and Squeak left down the corridor, and Jake went outside to get Cleo's Dilemma. Cleo helped me stand up. I took a shaky breath. A little lightheadedness began creeping back, but it soon cleared away and I was fine. Snicket looked around the room, a little sadly, and turned to go outside. He was halfway down the steps when I asked one question. I couldn't help myself.

"Where are you going, Snicket?"

He hesitated for a second, and looked at me. He straightened his hat.

"I have a job to do," he said, and left.

Cleo and I walked outside. "I'll take you home," she said, "on my way to the cottage. It's not far."

"Oh, it's all right," I said. "I can walk home."

"It'd be better if you didn't, Moxie," she replied. "You're still hurt, and it's late. You should be getting home quickly anyway."

I nodded. Jake pulled the Dilemma up in front of the clinic. Cleo took the driver's seat, and Jake sat in the passenger seat. I sat in the backseat, thinking, as we drove all the way home. My arm throbbed, but it wasn't in total pain anymore, which I guess was an improvement.

We dropped Jake Hix off at Hungry's. I stayed in the backseat. I needed some time alone. A lot had happened, and I needed to somehow catalog it all in my mind until I could type it up.

Cleo dropped me off at the lighthouse, and I silently went inside. It was dark. My father was asleep in his room. I navigated the stacks of typed pages and found my own room, where I carefully got into bed. Somewhere out there, Snicket was doing something unknown. I wondered what job he had to do. It had sounded like he just needed some time alone, like me, to see where he fit in.

I closed my eyes. In one day I had given someone a ridiculous haircut, been a witness to the theft of two honeydew melons, done extensive research, been (unintentionally) abandoned by an associate, and gotten threatened and injured. That seemed like enough for me. Tomorrow would be a new day.

I was exhausted, and I fell asleep quickly. We would find the answer to this mystery soon enough. Until then, we all had each other.

. . .

Now

I kept walking, with a map of the city for reference. I wished that these memories would stop coming, but I couldn't keep them out of my head. They weren't helping anything, and they were completely out of context.

I had to stop dwelling on the past. For now, what was important was the present.