Annabelle and Eleanor raced away from the water and down the crooked side streets of Dusseldam. Once they were a few blocks away, Annabelle finally felt halfway safe again. Which helped her remember how happy and relieved she felt.
“It’s so good to see you.”
“You, too,” said Eleanor.
“I’m so glad you’re alive!”
“You’re the reason I am.”
It was their first opportunity to be together when neither one of them was skeptical, angry, kidnapped, or in anaphylactic shock.
“We make a pretty good team.”
Eleanor smiled at her. “We really do.”
“Thank goodness you had that extra set of handcuffs!” said Annabelle.
“It’s standard issue in every agency backpack,” said Eleanor. “Good old, Floyd. High-tech gadgets are all well and good, but sometimes the simple tools work best.”
“Want a cup of hot chocolate?” asked Annabelle, thinking of the third device.
“Maybe later,” said Eleanor. “We have a world to save.”
Annabelle liked how that sounded.
Eleanor consulted her device. “This way,” she said. A few minutes later, they were at the train station.
“Where to?” asked Annabelle.
“Long Arm said Fungo’s HQ was on the Island of Miniature Porcupines, right?”
“Let’s see if Floyd has ever heard of it.”
While Eleanor sent her message, Annabelle allowed herself a moment to think back on the last half hour or so. She had duped a deranged criminal. She had hugged a deranged criminal. She had rescued her friend from a deranged criminal.
“Not bad, Annabelle. Not bad at all,” she thought to herself as she watched a train pull into the station.
Eleanor’s device beeped excitedly.
“We’re in luck! Floyd says Fungo’s HQ lies in desolate stretch of waters just off the Cape of Bad Fortune, which is just a short train ride from here.”
“Excellent.” Annabelle’s heart surged as they walked to the counter to purchase their tickets. She no longer had to figure everything out on her own. Now she was part of a team.
Eleanor’s phone beeped again. “Another message from Floyd,” she said. “Hold on.” As Eleanor read, her face melted into the worst kind of scowl.
“You told Larf where the new HQ was?”
“Accidentally!” said Annabelle.
“And a herd of rampaging cats arrived in tiny speedboats and reduced it to a pile of rubble?!”
“I’m so, so sorry.”
“I’m the one who gave you that intel,” said Eleanor. “What was I thinking? I knew you weren’t ready.” Eleanor paced back and forth angrily. “I knew it, and I surrendered critical information in a moment of weakness. Because you told me your name. Because I let you get close!”
“Please, Eleanor…” said Annabelle. Eleanor whipped her head around with a stony sneer. “That’s #24 to you. From now on you do not ask questions, and you do exactly what I say! Do you understand?”
Annabelle felt about as tall as a termite. She wanted very badly to remind Eleanor about all of the good things she had done, including saving Eleanor’s life not once but twice, but clearly Eleanor was in no mood to hear about good things.
The train arrived, and the girls got on. It wasn’t full, so Eleanor took a seat on the opposite side of the car, leaving Annabelle to sit by herself and look out the window.
The world looked bleak and empty and damaged. The streets were filled with angry cats. Cats on corners. Cats on rooftops. Cats on windowsills, scowling and hissing and looking for someone to scratch. The few people she did see were worried and anxious and covered with bandages.
“What a sorry state of affairs,” thought Annabelle. She looked over at Eleanor, who was typing furiously on her device.
Probably messaging Floyd, thought Annabelle.
When they got off the train in Lowenbraü, Eleanor didn’t speak to Annabelle until they reached the intersection of two major streets near the center of town.
“You stay here,” said Eleanor with an accusatory tone. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you. Because I can’t trust you.”
For a minute, Annabelle stood there feeling sorry for herself, but a minute later, she popped into a nearby shop, purchased a map, and familiarized herself with the layout of the town.
Eleanor came back a few minutes later carrying a package the size of a small shoebox. Annabelle wanted to ask what it was, but decided to hold her tongue. She was determined to do everything she could to regain Eleanor’s trust.
“We’ll need a boat to reach the Island of Miniature Porcupines,” said Annabelle. “I figured out where the marina is. I can show you.”
Eleanor looked at her skeptically, but came along as Annabelle led the way down the hill, past shops and churches and crooked alleyways until they came to the waterfront.
Eleanor walked along the pier, examining the various boats anchored there. She stopped in front of a sleek-looking speedboat with two enormous outboard motors and bright red lightning bolts painted along either side. Then she nodded and took one of the little yellow tags out of her pocket.
Knowing full well what was about to happen, Annabelle felt a powerful objection. She was trying to figure out the best way to explain that there must be ways to save the world that didn’t involve stealing other people’s things, when she heard a voice from right behind her.
“She’s a beauty, isn’t she?”
Annabelle turned. There stood a short-but-feisty looking woman with silver hair, a pink jumper, and sunglasses dotted with tiny rhinestones.
“Get rid of her,” said Eleanor under her breath.
“Get rid of me?” said the woman, whose hearing was obviously much better than Eleanor had thought it would be. “You need me.”
“I’m Annabelle,” said Annabelle, holding out her hand politely.
“Rhonda,” said the woman, grabbing Annabelle’s hand and shaking it enthusiastically. “And this is my speedboat.”
Eleanor stood up quickly. “Let’s go,” she said, eager to get away from Rhonda.
But Rhonda walked right along with them.
“I’m sure you already know,” said Rhonda. “But the Island of Miniature Porcupines is impossible to reach.”
“Who said anything about the Island of Miniature Porcupines?” asked Eleanor. “And what do you mean by impossible?”
“I was the one who mentioned the Island of Miniature Porcupines,” Rhonda Eleanor. “You need to pay better attention. And by impossible, I mean that the surrounding waters are home to one hundred great white sharks who are frequently irritated and constantly vengeful.”
“We can deal with sharks,” said Eleanor with not quite as much confidence as Annabelle would have liked.
“There’s also the fact that the island is encircled by a complex network of jagged reefs that have ravaged and sunk more than ten thousand boats.”
“We will be extremely careful,” said Eleanor.
“Did I mention that the island’s desolate coastline is prone to frequent, unpredictable, and extremely powerful hurricanes? No one knows why, but they make the place pretty much impossible to reach.”
“So what are you saying?”
“My boat might be the only one in this marina fast enough to outrun the sharks. I might be the only person in The Cape of Bad Fortue who knows the secret route through the reefs. And I am one of the few people in the world who is sufficiently in tune with the weather systems to predict the onset of a sudden hurricane.”
“How do you do it?”
“My right elbow aches when one is coming.”
“Fascinating,” said Annabelle.
“What do you want?” Eleanor asked in the rudest possible way.
“Only to help.”
“We can’t pay you.”
“Who said anything about payment? I haven’t visited Susie in a while.”
“Get in! We have to act fast if we’re going get you there before the next hurricane. My elbow is starting to throb.”
“How much time do we have?”
“Enough. If we hurry!”
Eleanor and Annabelle glanced at each other. Clearly, Rhonda was a little bit batty. But she also seemed to have the knowledge, skills, and speedboat they needed to get to Fungo’s HQ.
“All right,” said Eleanor, stepping into the boat.
“And thank you,” said Annabelle, who wondered why Eleanor always had to be so rude.
As the boat pulled away from the marina, Annabelle kept her eye on the horizon. Dark clouds were forming to the west.
“Oooh. It’s going to be a good one,” said Rhonda, rubbing her elbow.
“Are we going to make it?” asked Annabelle.
“Life is unpredictable,” said Rhonda.
Annabelle knew this to be true. According to her mother, not knowing what was going to happen was the thing that made life exciting. In spite of this, Annabelle’s mother spent most of her time trying very hard to make things happen exactly as she wanted them to.
They cruised slowly out of the harbor, but once they reached open waters, Rhonda calmly suggested that it was probably a good idea for them to sit down. When they did, she pulled back the throttle, and the the front of the boat rose high into the air as they flew across the surface of the water, directly into the heart of the gathering clouds. After twenty minutes or so, Rhonda slowed the boat and pointed out across the water. “There.”
On the horizon, Annabelle could see a tiny island, in the middle of which loomed what appeared to be an enormous skull.
“What is that?”
“An enormous skull.”
“But what is it?”
“Apparently, it’s the secret HQ of a notorious global supervillain,” said Rhonda grinning, as if she were pointing out a beautiful flowering shrub.
“How do you know so much about this island?” said Eleanor suspiciously.
“I pay attention,” said Rhonda. “If you keep your eyes open and your assumptions to a minimum, the information you need is usually right in front of you.”
Annabelle liked Rhonda. She liked her a lot.
“Why are we stopped?” asked Eleanor. “I thought we were trying to beat the storm.”
“We will, we will,” said Rhonda, pointing to her elbow as if it might speak.
“Excuse me, but…” said Annabelle, but her throat swelled with fear, and all she could do was point. About twenty great white fins had surfaced in the water all around the boat. Colossal fins belonging to colossal sharks. Colossal sharks that were circling so close to the speedboat Annabelle could have reached out and touched them.
“Get us out of here!” said Eleanor.
“Not to worry,” said Rhonda.
“I thought you said we had to outrun the sharks!”
“That’s one way to go about it.”
“What’s the other way?” said Annabelle.
“Rhonda reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a roll of Mentos.
“Susie loves Mentos,” said Rhonda, just as one of the sharks poked its great white nose out of the water right next to the boat, its great white mouth open and great white teeth gleaming. Rhonda reached out and rubbed the shark on the tip of its great white muzzle then dumped the entire roll of candy onto its great white tongue. The shark’s great white mouth clapped shut and gave what Annabelle imagine was the closest thing an enormous, terrifying sea creature could make to a great white smile.
“Susie?” gulped Eleanor weakly.
“Isn’t she a sweetie?” asked Rhonda, smiling.
Susie disappeared below the water, and a moment later, her various great white friends followed her away.
“You can outrun them,” said Rhonda. “But then you miss the pleasure of their company. And it ticks them off. Even sharks need love.”
Annabelle had never wanted to love a shark before and she was pretty sure that was still true.
“Hold on!” said Rhonda suddenly, not really giving them time to sit down before pulling the throttle all the way back and shooting them across the water at a speed that made the world blur.
As the island got closer, the skull’s massive jaw seemed to be laughing at Annabelle, reminding her that she was nothing but a 12-year old who had not yet completed her training and didn’t even know how to do a Triple Jimbo. Its empty eyes sockets seemed to be staring into her soul, reminding her that a hurricane was coming, that Eleanor no longer trusted her, and that she might not even be able to trust herself.
They were only a few hundred yards away from the island when Rhonda slowed the boat again.
“What’s happening?” asked Eleanor.
“We’ve reached the intricate maze of razor-sharp reefs.”
The skies above the island were purest black, and the clouds were rolling toward them with incredible speed.
“Could you hurry things along a little?” asked Eleanor impatinetly.
“Trust me, you don’t want me to rush this,” said Rhonda, who seemed to be putting on a blindfold.
“Excuse me, but what are you doing?” asked Annabelle.
“Putting on a blindfold,” said Rhonda. “If can actually see the razor sharp reefs, I might get nervous and make a mistake. Our best chance of making it through alive is random guessing.”
Annabelle and Eleanor looked at each other with the kind of profound dread that can sometimes bring two people closer together even when they are having a major disagreement.
The way forward seemed unlikely to succeed. But there was no going back.
Looking out over the side of the boat, they could see jagged reefs rise up to just below the surface of the water, millions of tiny, razor-sharp protrusions just waiting to scrape a long, damaging hole in the side of a defenseless boat.
Rhonda hummed as she navigated, seeming joyful and confident.
At times, there seemed to be no way to get through, but somehow, improbably, Rhonda kept steering the boat through narrow passageways with only inches to spare.
A few minutes later, they were in open water once more.
Rhonda took her blindfold off.
“How did you do that?” said Annabelle.
“Photographic memory,” said Rhonda. “Expert boat driving skills. And sheer repetition. I’ve navigated that reef more than 700 times. Just thought it would be more fun for you two if I wore the blindfold. But it’s totally see-through,” she said, showing them that the material was not even slightly opaque.
“Never leave to chance what you can base on years of experience and careful practice.”
As much as Annabelle liked Rhonda, Eleanor clearly had opposite opinions.
“Could we please get going?” she asked through gritted teeth.
Heavy, cold raindrops were starting to fall and, as the boat approached the shoreline, the waves were high, making it difficult to pull into the beach.
“This next part could be kind of soggy,” said Rhonda, gunning the engine and pointing them directly toward the skull.
The boat rocketed forward across top of the waves, several times floating in mid-air before crashing back into the surf.
“Barf bags are in that compartment,” said Rhonda. Annabelle would have been terrified if she weren’t so busy being thrilled.
Moments later, the boat nosed up onto the beach, waves crashing over the back, drenching them all.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Get out!” shoted Rhonda.
With wobbly legs, Annabelle and Eleanor stepped onto the beach.
“Thank you, Rhonda!” said Rhonda. “Thank you for not letting Susie eat us. Thank you for navigating the treacherous reef! Your boat is so fast. Rhonda.You’re the best, Rhonda. We appreciate your getting us here alive.”
“Thank you, Rhonda,” said Annabelle, feeling ashamed and embarrassed for not having said so first and wanting Rhonda to know how much she truly did appreciate everything she had done for them in this course of this past, crazy hour.
Eleanor said nothing. She was staring up at the skull.
“Don’t mention it,” said Rhonda. “Here,” she said, tossing what looked like a keychain to Annabelle.
In spite of the wind and the rain and the waves crashing at her feet, Annabelle somehow caught it.
“Lighting-quick reflexes!” said Rhonda.
“Thanks,” said Annabelle, “What is it?”
“A beacon. Press that button when you want me to come back.” Rhonda gunned the engine in reverse and the boat backed away from shore. “Unless you decide to stay here forever!”
Annabelle shuddered at the thought of it.
“Just remember…” said Rhonda.
“Yes?” said Annabelle?
“There is always a way.”
“Yes,” said Annabelle, looking at Rhonda sideways, wondering if the echo could possibly be a pure coincidence. “A wise person once told me that.”
“Just remember that it’s not always the obvious…”
But Rhonda’s boat was pulling away from the shore, and the rest of her sentence got swallowed by the wind.
“What?” screamed Annabelle into the storm, assuming that whatever Rhonda had tried to tell her was pretty important.
But when she looked again into the cold, wet waves, Rhonda was gone.
Annabelle turned and faced the skull, which was even more upsetting up close. It seemed to be made of stone, but she couldn’t tell if it had been carved from a mountain or built by hand.
The rest of the island was barren, with occasional, scrubby bushes pushing up through the rocky soil. There were a handful stumps, but not a single tree, as if someone had deliberately cleared every bit of vegetation that might have blocked the view of the awful skull.
Or, thought Annabelle, anything that would have blocked Fungo’s view of people trying to sneak into his HQ.
Annabelle looked down and saw a few unappealing beetles. And a lizard-looking sort of thing. But where, she wondered, were the miniature porcupines?
Eleanor was crouching behind a low bush not far from the beach, and Annabelle joined her.
“Well?” asked Annabelle, after a while.
“We go in,” said Eleanor.
“In where?” said Annabelle, hoping she was misunderstanding what Eleanor was clearly suggesting.
But she was understanding perfectly. Eleanor looked at Annabelle as if she were missing a screw. “Into the mouth. Right down the gullet.” Annabelle was trying to figure out why the phrase sounded familiar. And then she remembered. “The name of Long Arm’s boat! What makes you think it has anything to do with this?”
“I overheard Long Arm talking to someone when I was tied up on the boat.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before.”
“We’ve been over this. I don’t trust you.”
Annabelle swallowed her damaged prided and tried to act dignified.
“Who was it?”
“I don’t know, but whoever it was, Long Arm was sending him to the Island of Miniature Porcupines and telling him what to do once he got there. He said to go down the gullet. And ‘down the gullet’ has to mean into the mouth.”
Annabelle thought about that. For starters, she had a 0 out of 10 interest in walking into that creepy, dark, tooth-lined cave. Beyond that though, the logic didn’t quite check out.
“Technically, you wouldn’t go down if you walked straight into the mouth,” said Annabelle. “I mean, since we are already at chin-level, wouldn’t we sort of be going over or across?”
Eleanor was looking at Annabelle as if Annabelle were a cockroach in the middle of her kitchen.
“It seems like you forgot what I said earlier about not talking and doing exactly what I say. And I say we’re going down the gullet.”
On one hand, Annabelle wanted nothing more than to get back into Eleanor’s good graces. She had made a terrible mistake, and she wanted to set things right. On the other hand, every instinct suggested that walking into the skull’s enormous mouth was a terrible idea.
“Sorry,” said Annabelle, “That’s not ok with me.”
“Then what do you suggest?” snapped Eleanor angrily. “Do you see any other gullets to go down?”
Annabelle scanned the tiny island. There really was nothing else of note. She was just about to confess that she had no other plan when she thought she saw, through the driving rains, at the far opposite end of the island, a tiny something or other.
“There,” she said, pointing. “What’s that?”
Eleanor squinted through the rain and then took out a tiny pair of binoculars and squinted again. She laughed in a way that was definitely not polite and handed the binoculars to Annabelle.
“Here,” she said, snorting with disgust.
Annabelle saw a small rectangular building with a slanted roof. It was, by all appearances, an outhouse.
“I’m going into the skull,” said Eleanor. “Are you coming?”
Annabelle glanced once again at the awful, grinning mouth when a tiny voice inside her stood up and shouted with all of it’s might that pleasing Eleanor wasn’t quite as important as following her gut.
“I’m not,” she said.
“Suit yourself,” said Eleanor with disgust. “I guess this is my mission now.”
“Good luck,” said Annabelle. And she actually meant it.
Eleanor gave a loud “hrumph,” pulled her coat tightly against her body, and sprinted through the rain, directly toward the skull. Annabelle watched as she scrambled up the jaw and climbed over the lower teeth. As soon as Eleanor was entirely inside the mouth, Annabelle heard a tremendous rumbling as the top half of the skull slid suddenly forward and the mouth slammed shut.
Annabelle’s heart capsized and sank, but there was no time to try to pull it back up again. The dark of the storm was giving way to the dark of night. The rain fell even harder. It was getting altogether unpleasant on the Island of Miniature Porcupines. Given that going into the skull was no longer an option even if she’d wanted to, Annabelle decided to take shelter in the only place that was still available. Plus, she really had to pee.
“There are worse things than taking shelter in an outhouse,” thought Annabelle to herself as hurried carefully toward the opposite end of the island. “Blood blisters, scorpions, liverwurst, Aunt Brenda…”
As she walked, Annabelle encountered a series of signs on poles.
First she came to, “Smells even worse than it looks.”
And a few hundred yards later, “Entirely out of toilet paper.”
And then, not far from the outhouse itself, “Not safe for human use.”
“How considerate,” thought Annabelle, wondering what kind person had gone to the trouble to warn her away from the outhouse and wishing she had any alternative. “And yet so odd.”
The island was so small that it only took her a few minutes to get to the outhouse, which looked like it was one good gust from caving in completely.
On the door was another sign that simply read, “This is a truly terrible idea.”
But then a sudden gust of wind threw what felt like an entire bucket of rain in Annabelle’s face.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” she said.
She grabbed the door handle and pulled.