In this sixth book in A Series of Unfortunate Events, the Baudelaire orphans—Violet, Klaus, and Sunny—arrive at a new home under the care of new guardians.
Mr. Poe tells the Baudelaire children not to be nervous as he takes them to their new home on Dark Avenue to live with the Squalors in a penthouse apartment. The ever-incompetent Mr. Poe assures the children that they do not need to worry about either Count Olaf or the missing Quagmire triplets.
Mr. Poe's false reassurances, the literal grim darkness of Dark Avenue, and the children being left to climb—or in the case of Sunny, crawl—the sixty-six stories of dark staircases to the penthouse apartment by themselves because elevators are "out" of fashion casts an aura of foreboding over their arrival at their new home. However, they are greeted with kindness by Jerome Squalor, a wealthy man who was once a friend of their mother.
His wife, Esmé Squalor, is another story. A shallow, fashion-obsessed woman, she has only allowed him to adopt the Baudelaire children because orphans are "in," leaving them to wonder what will happen to them when orphans are "out."
The children learn that their new home is a mix of good and bad. Jerome takes them around the city to amuse them, but at home they are often left by themselves, in part because Esmé is often out and in part because the penthouse is so large that they usually can't find Jerome. But more than that, they are oppressed by worry about what happened to the missing Quagmire triplets.
The Quagmire triplets, Duncan and Isadora, are actually a twosome, as their triplet brother, Quigley, is missing and presumed dead. The triplets befriended the Baudelaire orphans and helped save them at the Austere Academy in the previous book, and the two sets of children—who are decent, intelligent, sensitive, and polite—share a deep bond.
Esmé is bored with the children's worry about the Quagmires but obsessed with an "in" auction she organizes every year. They find out that she is money-hungry, as she is delighted to keep all the auction proceeds for herself, even after Jerome urges her to give them to charity. Worse, despite Mr. Poe's assurances, Count Olaf shows up to go to dinner with them at the Salmonella Cafe, disguised as the auctioneer Gunther. Adding to their anxieties, Jerome does not believe it when they tell him Gunther is Count Olaf. He even scolds them for their suspicions.
The morning after the dinner, the children search the enormous apartment, looking for Count Olaf. They do not find him. Then Klaus realizes that one of two elevators to their penthouses must be ersatz (fake), as the other apartments only have one elevator. Olaf, they decide, must be hiding in the ersatz elevator.
The children realize that the ersatz elevator is simply a dark, empty shaft. They decide to go down it but, not finding any ropes in the apartment, concoct an ersatz rope from neckties, extension cords, and curtain pulls. Although they are frightened to go down the dark shaft, the Baudelaire orphans courageously do so and find Duncan and Isadora Quaqmire at the bottom in a rusty cage.
The two caged children are so disoriented that they at first believe they are dreaming or hallucinating when they see the Baudelaires. In turn, the Baudelaires are shocked by the appearance of the triplets, who are dirty, hungry, ragged, frightened, and haunted-looking, as if they are carrying ghosts around inside them. The Baudelaires only recognize the Quagmires from the notebooks the triplets always carry.
The Quagmires inform the Baudelaires that Count Olaf is plotting to hide them on a deserted island until they come of age, at which point he plans to steal their fortune in sapphires. Olaf will transport the Quagmires by hiding them in one of the lots in the upcoming auction, then having one of his associates buy the lot. They don't know, however, what lot they will be in.
The Baudelaires decide they will return with tools to free the triplets. Back in the penthouse,...
(The entire section is 1,166 words.)