"To avoid causing discomfort, it would be best if I didn't mention any of the unnerving ingredients of this story, particularly a confusing map, an ambidextrous person, an unruly crowd, a wooden plank, and Chabo the Wolf Baby."

A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS number nine picks up where we left the Baudelaires, in their uncomfortable hiding place: "The belly of the beast," Count Olaf's trunk. The three orphans huddle together and overhear the plans of Olaf and his cronies: They are going out to the middle of nowhere to meet up with a fortune-teller named Madame Lulu, who will supposedly give Count Olaf the information he wants. The Baudelaires hope that perhaps they can find out some information also.

After Olaf and his group vacate the car and head off to the fairgrounds, the children get out of the trunk using Violet's knowhow, and they trail the criminals to Lulu's lair. They overhear Lulu's conditions for telling fortunes: It has to be at sunrise, and she will only answer one question with her special crystal ball. Olaf insists that if that is the case, he will stay and impose on Madame Lulu, making her put up his group and serve them wine. It also seems, from their conversation, that Lulu is jealous of Esmé being Olaf's girlfriend. Apparently Olaf has been consulting Madame Lulu on where to find the Baudelaires, and that is how he's been able to somehow find them all these many times. This intrigues the Baudelaires; they want to know if one of their parents is still alive, and what V.F.D. means. Somehow or another, this woman has an inside source.

The Baudelaires decide to disguise themselves as freaks to get into the thick of the circus. Violet and Klaus take some clothes from the disguises in Olaf's trunk and disguise themselves as a two-headed person, and they put a false beard on Sunny and decide she is a wolf baby. Then they go to Madame Lulu and volunteer to be in the freak show. Lulu (and Olaf and his cronies, for that matter) seem to find the freaks quite funny and decide that Violet and Klaus (operating under the names Beverly and Elliot) can attempt to eat corn as their freak show act, while Sunny (as Chabo the Wolf Baby) attacks the audience. They are taken to meet the other freaks, who are Hugo, a hunchback, Colette, a contortionist, and Kevin, an ambidextrous person. All of the freaks are upset about their conditions, but have such low self-esteem that they don't believe they're good enough to go elsewhere for work. (Colette doesn't seem to understand that she could just refrain from contorting, and Kevin doesn't seem to understand that it's just not that weird to be ambidextrous; he's very glum about it.)

The Baudelaires get some sleep in the freak caravan, and the next day they are all required to perform in the freak show. The audience comes and laughs at their acts, discouraging everyone. Then Olaf and Lulu come back from an errand where they were purchasing lions for the carnival, which turn out to be a present to Lulu from Olaf for such wonderful fortune-telling. Olaf describes how the fortune-telling was accompanied by such miracles as indoor lightning and an unearthly hum, and then she told him that one of the Baudelaire parents was alive and hiding in some nearby mountains. Esmé gets jealous that Lulu has been given presents, and isn't content with Olaf's offer that she can share his whip. They decide that it will make a great act to whip the lions, starve them, and then feed a freak to them. The audience seems delighted with that idea, and the newspaper is happy to advertise it.

The siblings sneak into Lulu's place in order to see whether they can dig up any information on whether the fortune-telling is real and how the woman knows anything about them and their parents. They discover the physics behind the phony theatrics, and then they discover a library of information hidden in the room. Before they can make much headway, they are interrupted by Madame Lulu herself, who gets very angry that they are looking through her private things. She begins hollering at them, but when they reveal that they know the secrets behind her phony fortune-telling, she drops both her fake accent and her persona, and introduces herself as Olivia, quite ashamed of herself. Turns out she's just a softie who tries to give everyone whatever they want, and that was why she was helping Count Olaf. With a little persuasion, the Baudelaires convince her to help them instead, saying it will redeem her. She is surprised that they don't know what V.F.D. means, though, since they were using its training for their disguise: Veiled Facial Disguises, Various Finery Disguises, and Voice Fakery Disguises. Unfortunately, before they can pump more information out of Olivia, Count Olaf interrupts, and the "freaks" get kicked out.

Back at the freaks' caravan, everyone is a bit glum at the prospect that one of them will probably be fed to the lions tomorrow. But then Esmé comes in and offers the freaks a chance to join the acting troupe of Count Olaf, to become henchmen--if only whichever one of them is chosen to be fed to the lions will instead shove Madame Lulu in. Esmé doesn't like competition. The other freaks seem to think this is a small price to pay for being accepted like a normal person to do a job; they hardly think twice about it. But the Baudelaires, disguised still as Beverly, Elliot, and Chabo, refuse the offer. They are still hoping Madame Lulu--or rather, Olivia--is going to escape with them, bringing the part they need to make an old roller coaster into a getaway car.

Finally, the day comes when a freak is supposed to be fed to the hungry lions. A large crowd gathers, demanding violence and loudly voicing their opinions that the freaks are sub-human--continually getting people who aren't part of the "freak" exhibit confused as freaks also. Olaf goes to draw a name out to see who will be fed, and of course it turns out to be Violet and Klaus, the two-headed freak. Much to everyone's surprise (including theirs), Violet announces that they are thrilled to be chosen, then they incite a riot by proposing that someone push them in instead of having them willingly walk into the pit. An argument explodes over who will push them in, and in the confusion the orphans get away...unfortunately, in the scuffle, one of Olaf's cronies and Lulu became food for the lions.

The Baudelaires return to the fortune-telling caravan and find that many supplies were packed and ready to go, as if Lulu had prepared to journey. They hope to find some clues in the little library, and they find a mysterious map that seems to be coded with reference to an area called the Valley of Four Drafts. They try to figure out its meaning, but before they do, Olaf and Esmé find them, congratulate them on the show, and invite them to set the whole place on fire and escape with them. The Baudelaires have no choice but to avoid suspicion and follow the orders--plus, they also want to go to the mountains in search of their possibly living parent. So Olaf has the "Freaks" caravan tied up to his vehicle so that Klaus and Violet--or rather, Elliot and Beverly--can come along without taking up any room in the already-cramped car. (The other three freaks have come along, as promised.) Olaf holds Sunny--Chabo the Wolf Baby--on his lap. And finally, he double-crosses the children and informs them that he knows they are the Baudelaires, but that he only needs one alive to collect the fortune, and cuts the rope holding Violet and Klaus's caravan. The two vehicles separate and the freaks caravan goes spinning down the windy mountain road--separating Violet and Klaus from Sunny.

The next volume, The Slippery Slope, continues their adventures.

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