Surprisingly, the outhouse was dry and mostly clean and not at all smelly. If pressed to describe it, Annabelle might even have used the word pleasant, at least in comparison to conditions outside. She pulled the door shut and enjoyed a few seconds of not getting pelted by rain and wind. The only light came from a series of tiny windows where the walls met the roof, but as Annabelle’s eyes adjusted, she could see that there was, in fact, toilet paper. Annabelle really did have to go, and so she lifted the seat, and when she did, she suddenly understood why things were so much less smelly than they might have been.
This was no ordinary outhouse.
Annabelle took out her toothbrush flashlight and peered into the depths. There, gleaming in the darkness, were the rungs of a shiny steel ladder that disappeared into the nothingness beyond the flashlight’s beams. And there, on the lip of the toilet seat was the name of the company that had made it “Gullet.”
“Down the gullet,” said Annabelle. And even though “toilet explorer” hadn’t been on the list of possible careers Annabelle’s mother had directed her to write the day she turned eight, Annabelle knew all at once that climbing down that ladder was something that she had to do.
It’s even something that I want to do, she clarified to herself.
Annabelle climbed down and down and down. The air got ever colder as she went. When her feet eventually hit solid ground, a series of weird blue lights illuminated either side of a pathway that led through a tunnel, the walls of which were sleek and metallic and covered with unnecessary rivets.
There was a row of glowing red skulls where a railing might have been. Occasionally, jets of purple steam would suddenly erupt from various unseen pipes for no apparent reason. And every 30 seconds or so, a menacing prerecorded cackle echoed through the tunnel.
I wonder if they know I’m here or if this place is just constantly creepy, thought Annabelle.
No one came to stop her, so Annabelle kept on walking. But she had to admit, it all seemed a little too easy.
The tunnel sloped gently upward in what Annabelle assumed was in the direction of the skull. And even though this thought filled Annabelle with dread, the key to saving the world was stopping Dr. Fungo, and she was pretty sure the skull was where Fungo would be.
At the end of the tunnel was a ladder, which Annabelle climbed until she found herself in the center of the skull’s cavernous interior.
Behind her were the two rows of enormous teeth. Above them was the upside-down heart shape of the nostrils. And high above her head were the enormous eye sockets, which held two enormous windows, through which Annabelle could see lightning flash as the storm continued to rage. And lying there in the shadows, not far from the teeth, was a crumpled, motionless something or other that Annabelle’s heart recognized at a glance. Annabelle ran to Eleanor’s side. Her friend was unconscious, and Annabelle could barely find a pulse.
Annabelle didn’t see any blood or wounds. Eleanor just seemed to be extremely asleep. Annabelle shook her, trying to wake her up, and when she did, the mysterious package poked out from inside her friend’s coat.
Even though she didn’t like to be a snoop, she had the sense that Eleanor had obtained whatever was inside because she thought it might be helpful. And since Eleanor was in no condition to be helpful, Annabelle figured it was her right—no, her responsibility—to see what was inside.
She gently pulled it out and peeked inside, and then smiled and said to herself in surprise, “But why isn’t it—?” But then she had a theory and closed the box and smiled again, suddenly filled with a whole new respect for Eleanor’s genius.
“I won’t let you down,” she said, giving Eleanor’s hand a reassuring squeeze. Then Annabelle tucked the box into her backpack and set out to explore the rest of the room.
To her left was an enormous bank of computers. On every screen was a different scene of devastating cat attacks. Angry cats in London. Angry cats in Addis Ababa. Angry cats in Sri Lanka.
To her right side was a raised platform, atop which sat an elaborate looking throne-like chair.
On the far end of the room, at the very back of the skull, was an enormous contraption that looked like a hair dryer crossed with a flyswatter crossed with a satellite dish.
It wasn’t just red, it was angry red. The wires weren’t just wires, they were wicked wires. The lights and levers and cables and tubes were all the darkest, most demented versions of themselves, as if someone had stayed up all night for three weeks trying to make them look as ruthless as possible.
It was the single most diabolical-looking thing Annabelle had ever seen. She knew exactly what it was.
“The Machine,” she said in a grim whisper.
The machine’s evil convolutions seemed to culminate in a kind of missile-looking shaft, the tip of was pointing toward a huge round window in the center of the skull, through which Annabelle could see more lightning.
At the base of the machine was a huge dial, the design of which Annabelle recognized. There was a smiling face on the left, a neutral face at the top and an angry face on the right. The dial was turned to the angry face.
Annabelle wondered. Could it be so easy?
“The worldwide devastation! I can stop it right now!” thought Annabelle, excited that the moment had finally arrived.
Annabelle knew what she had to do. There were handles on either side of the dial. She grabbed the one on the right and pushed with all her might. But it wouldn’t budge. Not even a little. She tried the one on the left and pulled as hard as she could. But it was like trying to move a mountain.
“I see you’ve met The Machine.” The voice echoed through the empty room in a profoundly unpleasant way. Annabelle followed the sound to the raised platform with the chair/throne thing. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Seeing Fungo for the first time, Annabelle’s first impression was that he was very short and rather bald. And not quite as intimidating as she had thought he should be.
“It is,” she said. Because it kind of was. Annabelle could accept that something could be beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
“Unfortunately for you,” said Fungo, “that dial was carefully designed so that it takes two people to turn it. Which means that if a nosy girl sneaks in, she won’t be able to thwart my plans…or that, if two nosy girls sneak in, one of them must be quickly neutralized so that they cannot cooperate and turn the dial together.”
Annabelle glanced over at Eleanor, who was still slumped on the floor.
“Why?” asked Annabelle, summoning as much menace as she could mange while making a mental note that she had to figure out a way to be more menacing.
“I just told you. If one of you sneaky girls is unconscious, then it’s impossible for the two of you to thwart me by turning the dial. Please play attention!”
“Not just #24,” said Annabelle. “All of it. The machine. The cats. The world. The utter destruction of everything. Why?”
“What did you say?”
“What part? The machine. The cats. The utter destruction of everything.”
“The utter destruction of everything?” said Fungo. “Who put that idea in your head?”
“Long Arm,” said Annabelle. “He said your mission was, at the risk of repeating myself, ‘the utter destruction of everything’.”
“Ugh. He’s so dramatic,” said Fungo. “Always trying to make our schemes sound more diabolical than they actually are. And consistently failing to appreciate the beautiful subtlety of my evil intentions!”
Fungo shot Annabelle a pointed glare.
“Don’t get me wrong, if I wanted to destroy everything I absolutely could. I’m a goal-oriented supervillain who thinks big, tries hard, and spares no detail. But the utter destruction of everything? No, there are so many things I enjoy—waterfalls, gummi bears, really comfortable slippers. If I destroyed everything, my life would be dull and uncomfortable.”
Annabelle was relieved. But also confused.
“Then what are you up to?” she said. “The cats certainly seem to be destroying everything.”
“I’ll let them rampage for a while,” said Fungo dismissively. The Machine is sending the strongest signals to the places I love least. But I’ll stop the cats as soon as they’ve destroyed the one thing I absolutely do want to wipe off the face of the earth.”
“All around the world, people love cats, keeping them in their homes, buying them decorative beds, feeding them expensive treats, and taking them to the vet whenever they get even slightly sick! I cannot comprehend it! The Ancient Egyptians worshipped cats! An entire civilization founded on the lie that there is even a shred of goodness to be found in the common domestic housecat. Do I admire the lion? I do. The tiger also has his merits. But the housecat! Ungrateful! Insolent! Refusing to fetch slippers or grovel for my affection! In my opinion, ALL CATS SHOULD BE FORCED TO LIVE ON ICEBERGS! But since that is not a practical plan, I will simply make sure that all cats are universally shunned and despised.”
Throughout his speech, Fungo had grown more and more agitated. Annabelle thought it best to try and calm him down.
“Have you ever considered getting a dog?”
Fungo looked at Annabelle as if she’d asked if he’d ever considered having a nose.
“OF COURSE! I have the most loyal and ferocious and thoroughly dog-like dog on the planet.”
Fungo pulled a lever and a doghouse rose from a hidden compartment in the floor surrounded by great gusts of purple steam.
“What is the steam for?” asked Annabelle.
“It’s exciting,” said Fungo. “Don’t you find it exciting?”
“Sure,” said Annabelle, who had to admit the steam was pretty exciting. When the steam cleared, a lumbering bulldog waddled across the platform and sat next to Fungo.
“Good boy, Franz.”
“Yes, Franz. Though some know him as Killer or Nightshade or The Constant Assassin.”
“Is there anyone else in your evil network named Franz?” said Annabelle.
Fungo looked shocked. “Of course not,” he said, “Franzy boy is a true original.”
“Why do you ask?”
“Long Arm seemed rather…agitated…about someone named Franz.”
Fungo scowled, “He would, that rogue. Make no mistake, Franz is my dog. Mine. That was perfectly clear in the separation agreement.”
Franz whimpered and looked up at Fungo pleadingly.
“Oh, alright,” he said, pulling a dog treat from the pocket of his evil smock and holding it up, waiting for Franz to stand up on his hind legs and get it. But, Franz did not stand up on his hind legs and get it. Franz just sat there, panting hopefully. Which seemed to be enough for Fungo. “All right, we’ll try again tomorrow,” he said, giving Franc the treat. “That’s my good boy. Good boy, good boy, good boy, boy, boy, boy.”
“He seems like a pretty nice dog,” said Annabelle, who didn’t usually think of herself as a dog person.
“HE IS A COLDBLOODED KILLING MACHINE!” roared Fungo. “Crossing Franz would be the last mistake you’ll ever make. Isn’t that right my little dumpling of a duckling, my little quack quack quack quack?”
Franz gave a little yip as if to agree.
Annabelle made a mental note that Franz might be less threatening than a soup spoon.
“So,” said Fungo, his eyes sharpening suddenly, “shall we get down to the matter at hand…Annabelle.” This took Annabelle aback.
“How do you know my name?”
“How do I know your name? I know everything about you. I’ve gone to great lengths and tremendous expense to create a comprehensive file on your ever detail. Your birthday, your favorite color, your sensible cat Ellen.”
“If you ever touch a single hair on Ellen’s—”
Fungo waved his hand dismissively. “I have no interest in harming Ellen. In fact, I have no interest in harming you.”
Annabelle was glad to hear it, but wasn’t quite sure where this was going.
“Larf…tries hard. But, overall, his work is…disappointing. In short, I need a better henchman. Someone who is strong and smart and resourceful. Someone capable of executing my dark plans without making ridiculous mistakes. Someone I can mold in my sinister likeness. And you, Annabelle, you are just the sort of person I have been looking for.”
Annabelle didn’t like the idea of being a good match for anything in Fungo’s world.
“You don’t know me,” she said. “You don’t know anything about me.”
You run 100 meters in 11.5 seconds. Your vertical leap is 22 inches. You dodge deliberately thrown projectiles with the grace of an extremely motivated gazelle. If I were to throw six marbles into the air at this moment, you would be able to catch at least five of them.”
Annabelle listened intently. This was fascinating.
“You don’t know how to speak Mandarin, but with a strict-yet-nurturing tutor in an immersive environment, you could master it in just under five weeks. You have the instincts and stamina to be an excellent stock car driver—if only you knew how to drive. You’re two 90-minute tutorials shy of being a serviceable helicopter pilot.”
Annabelle had always wanted to speak Mandarin! And drive a stock car! And pilot a helicopter!
“In just under one year of training,” Fungo continued, “you could be the world’s second greatest supervillain, overseeing my awful plans on the continent of your choosing. Play your cards right, and I might even give you a hemisphere.
Part of Annabelle found this flattering. She wanted to do all these things. But she didn’t want Fungo to be the reason she learned how to do them. And she certainly didn’t need her own hemisphere.
“Thank you for your generous offer, but even if every cat in the world threatened to scratch me at the same time, I would not join you and your evil enterprise.”
Fungo looked surprised at how loudly Annabelle was talking.
“Ow,” he said, putting his hands over his ears. “Your loud words make no sense to me.”
“In the name of justice and goodness and decency, I renounce you! In the name of Ellen, the word’s most sensible cat, I renounce you!” Annabelle folded her arms and added a final “hmph” for emphasis.
“That was unnecessary dramatic,” said Fungo, irritated. “A simple ‘no’ would have done it.”
“I wanted to make sure there was no doubt.”
“I get it,” said Fungo. “Disappointed, to be sure, but there are other fish in the sea. That one, for example,” he said, gesturing toward the still-unconscious Eleanor.
“What about her?”
“She is extremely talented, too. Very smart. Extremely resourceful. Maybe not quite as gifted as you, but she’d do in a pinch.”
“She’d never join you,” said Annabelle defiantly.
“Maybe you’re right,” said Fungo. “But maybe not. I sense a bit of wickedness in her. Once I have destroyed you, it will be safe to wake her up and make my offer.”
“I will never let that happen!”
Fungo smiled. “If I haven’t made it clear, I admire you.”
“I realize that,” said Annabelle, irritated that Fungo’s compliments were getting in the way of her attempt to be menacing. “And I appreciate it.”
“Good. I wanted to make sure you know that I will take only limited pleasure in destroying you.” Fungo walked over to his control panel and pushed a button. A panel in the floor slid open, and a large and fierce-looking robot rose up through the floor.
Annabelle, well trained in manners, was tempted to say “Hi, Max,” but Max was so evil-looking, so grimly destructive, so pointy and wicked and metallic cruel that she simply couldn’t bring herself to do it.
“You will notice that Max has lasers in his hands,” said Fungo.
Max raised his hands. There were definitely lasers.
“Lucky!” said Annabelle, fairly certain this was the first time she’d been jealous of a robot.
“Say hello to Max.”
“Don’t be rude.”
“He’s a robot. Robots don’t have feelings.”
“Are you sure?”
Annabelle looked at Max. Because he had been designed to look as evil as possible, there was no light in his eyes, no feeling in his expression.
“Very well. You being rude to my robot makes it even easier to turn you into dog food.”
Annabelle looked over at Franz, who was lying on his back with one paw up in the air, and was convinced that he was probably a vegetarian.
“Do you have any last words?” asked Fungo.
Annabelle glanced around. It was time to take action, but she wasn’t sure what, if anything she could do.
“LASER CHARGING,” said Max in a flat, robotic monotone.
Annabelle knew a thing or two about lasers. “Does it really need to charge?”
“Smart girl! No. It’s ready to fire now,” said Fungo. “The charging bit is just to make it more exciting. But Max doesn’t know that.”
“CHARGING in 10, 9…”
“So he can’t fire at me until he thinks it’s charged?”
“Exactly,” said Fungo. “A special feature that Long Arm added at my request.”
“What a great idea!” said Annabelle before breaking into a sprint toward the ladder in the middle of the room. But as she did, panels in the floor flew open and mechanical arms reached out, grabbing her around the ankles, wrists, and waist.
“Those,” said Fungo, “Are another special feature Long Arm added. He’s really quite clever.”
“… 6, 5 …” said Max.
“Last chance to rethink my offer.”
Annabelle loved life. She loved cicadas and pistachios and crunching the thin layers of ice that remained above evaporated puddles. She did not want to die. But she had faith that, as long as she remembered who she was and what she stood for, everything was going to work out fine.
“…3, 2…” said Max.
“Drat,” said Fungo. “Can’t blame a guy for trying.”
Annabelle looked at Max and his laser hands and tried her hardest to remember everything she stood for.
But at the moment, her mind was coming up blank.