The book begins when the Baudelaires are in Mr. Poe’s office, looking at The Daily Punctilio (a poorly written newspaper full of lies about the Quagmires and Count Olaf). Mr. Poe gives a brochure to the Baudelaire orphans about a new program allowing an entire village to serve as guardian, based on the saying “It takes a village to raise a child.”. The children naturally choose V.F.D., an acronym which the two Quagmire triplets (before they were captured by Count Olaf), discovered is part of a fearsome secret somehow related to Count Olaf.
The children depart for the unknown V.F.D. by bus, and after a long, hot and dusty walk from the bus stop, they reach the town of V.F.D., which is filled with crows. They become acquainted with the Council of Elders, who proclaim that the children will do all the chores for the entire village, but they will be living with Hector, the handyman.Hector takes them to his home, where he shows them the house, the barn and the Nevermore Tree, where all the crows come to roost at night. The Baudelaires learn that V.F.D. stands for the Village of Fowl Devotees. Hector shows the Baudelaires the following couplet, which he says was found at the base of Nevermore Tree:
For sapphires we are held in here,
Only you can end our fear.
The Baudelaires discover that Hector has been breaking the town rules by keeping a secret library and working on a hot-air mobile home in his barn, so that he can sail away from V.F.D. forever. They discuss the Quagmires and consider the fact that Isadora might be somehow sending the Baudelaires a plea for help in the poem. They also discover a new couplet under the tree, though they’ve kept the tree under surveillance the whole night, which reads:
Until dawn comes we cannot speak,
No words can come from this sad beak.
Two members of the Council of Elders come and report that Count Olaf has been captured, and the Baudelaires are to report immediately to the Town Hall. The Baudelaires discover that Count Olaf was not captured, but instead a man named Jacques, who also has one eyebrow and a tattoo of an eye on his ankle. The children insist that he is not Count Olaf, but the townspeople do not listen to them. The next day he is to be burned at the stake.
That night the Baudelaires construct a plan. Sunny keeps watch at Nevermore Tree to see where the poems are coming from. Klaus searches the rules of V.F.D. for something to help Jacques out of trouble. Violet helps finish Hector’s hot-air balloon device, for it will be a useful escape device if Count Olaf comes after them.
Violet fixes the hot air balloon. Klaus discovers that a rule allows the accused to make a speech explaining himself. If a few people say something, mob psychology can make everyone demand the same thing and thus they can suggest that Jacques be freed. Sunny discovers that the crows are somehow delivering the couplets, and finds a new one:The first thing you read contains the clue,
An initial way to speak to you.
When the children run to the uptown jail where Jacques is being held, they learn that he has “died” in the night. Olaf, masquerading as Detective Dupin, announces that Jacques has ‘died’ in the night, and accuses the Baudelaires of murdering “Count Olaf”. He claims that Violet’s hair ribbon and a lens from Klaus’s glasses were found on the scene, and Sunny’s teeth marks are on the body. The people ignore the fact that the orphans have solid alibis and the children are quickly locked up inside the Deluxe Cell. Detective Dupin tells them that one will make a great escape before the burning, making it possible for him to inherit the Baudelaire fortune, and he leaves them to decide who will survive.
While they are locked up, Klaus realizes that it is his 13th birthday. At that time Officer Luciana comes in and brings them water and bread. Violet uses the bread and water to allow them to escape: they soak the bread in the water and squeeze it against the soft mortar, allowing the water to run down the bench into the pitcher. At daybreak, Hector comes and tells them that if they break out, he has the hot-air balloon ready. He also gives them the daily couplet:
Inside these letters the eye will see, Nearby are your friends and V.F.D.
They break free of the jail using the wooden bench as a battering ram and reread the poems.
For sapphires we are held in here. Only you can end our fear. Until dawn comes we cannot speak. No words can come from this sad beak. The first thing you read contains the clue. An initial way to speak to you. Inside these letters the eye will see. Nearby are your friends and V.F.D.
The Baudelaires figure out a number of things: The sapphires refer to the Quagmires’ fortune. The Quagmires cannot speak until dawn as the crows do not arrive uptown until then. The initial way to speak to them is not V.F.D., but the first letter in each verse, which spells out ‘fountain’. They rush over to Fowl Fountain and manage to open the beak, revealing the damp Quagmires.
At this point they flee the mob coming to burn them and make a run for Hector’s house. As they go, the Quagmires explain that Count Olaf locked them in the tower of his house. Then he had his associates build the fountain. The Quagmires tied the couplet to the crows’ feet every morning. They try to tell the Baudelaires that the man who died – Jacques Snicket – is the brother of Lemony Snicket, but the mob catches sight of them and they have to run. They reach Hector’s house and the Quagmires climb a rope ladder to get in the hot-air mobile home. Officer Luciana shoots at the rope ladder with a harpoon gun so the Baudelaires can’t get up. The Quagmires throw their notebooks down to the orphans, but the notebooks are scattered when Officer Luciana hits them.
The book ends with Count Olaf and Officer Luciana, who is revealed to be Esme Squalor, escaping on a motorcycle, and the Baudelaires fleeing, rather than waiting for the police, as the Daily Punctilio has written an article that they killed Jacques.