As the door closed itself behind her, Annabelle heard the sound of several outraged cats bouncing off the window. A seatbelt wrapped itself across her chest and clicked into place. Moments later, she was gliding smoothly and far too quickly down the streets of town.
Only then did Annabelle glance over to the driver’s seat. A short, chubby man with bulging eyes and scraggly sideburns was holding the steering wheel with one hand while stuffing candy into his mouth with the other.
“Want some?” he asked, holding out a bag.
“Thanks, but I’m winded. Who are you?”
“That doesn’t work for me,” said Annabelle.
“Ok, fine. I’m Larf.”
Annabelle wasn’t sure that she’d heard correctly.
“Larf. Rhymes with…” And here the man hesitated.
“Ugh. I wish there were anything else it rhymed with!”
Annabelle scanned her inner dictionary. “But there isn’t.”
“THERE ISN’T!” said Larf, as if this fact had been bothering him for a really long time.
“Bummer,” said Annabelle.
“Can we talk about something else?” asked Larf.
“Sure,” said Annabelle, who had at least a thousand questions.
“Do you know how many cats there are in this town?”
“No idea,” said Annabelle.
“Wow. How did you know?”
“We track these things.”
“Who is we?”
“I’ve already said too much.”
“Again, that doesn’t work for me,” said Annabelle. “Please let me out. I can walk home from here.”
“Maybe you’d better look in the rearview mirror.”
Annabelle looked in the rearview mirror. And immediately wished she hadn’t.
“What the—!” said Annabelle. The army of cats was chasing after the car at seemingly impossible speeds. As they drove, more cats were streaming in from the side streets, dropping out of trees, and leaping from rooftops.
“678 is a lot of cats,” said Larf.
“I’ll say!” said Annabelle, who was rethinking her request to get out of the car.
They pulled up to a busy intersection and had to stop. Moments later, the car was covered with angry cats, hissing and scratching and howling to get inside. Annabelle looked through the windshield, straight into the angry eyes of Mr. Jingles. She had never seen such determination.
The light turned green. Larf turned on the windshield wipers, and it cleared the cats for just a moment. He gunned the engine, and a few more cats flew off as they raced through the intersection. But other cats hung on.
“You kind of have to admire these cats,” said Annabelle.
“Hey,” said Larf, handing something to Annabelle. “Could you turn off my phone?”
Larf’s phone was like no phone Annabelle had ever seen. It was kind of like a walkie-talkie mixed with a tablet mixed with a chainsaw.
“I’m not sure how,” she said.
“Turn that big knob in the middle all the way to the left.”
Annabelle did as she was asked. The phone didn’t seem to be off, but Larf seemed satisfied.
“My mom. She calls constantly,” Larf explained. “I don’t think we could have a satisfying chat at the moment, given the current situation.”
I wish I had a mom who called constantly, thought Annabelle.
Annabelle’s mother was so thoroughly busy that she couldn’t brush her teeth without simultaneously reading legal documents and doing calf-toning leg lifts. Her days and afternoons were filled with meetings and more meetings and phone calls with people who were suing other people.
Larf picked up speed. Annabelle watched as, one by one, furiously scowling cats fell off or let go. Finally, there were no more cats on the car and no more cats in the rearview mirror.
“I think we’ve lost them,” said Larf. “For now.”
“You can let me out now,” said Annabelle.
“But this is just the beginning,”
“What do you mean?”
“The cats. They’re angry.”
“Who can say? Do you know how many cats there are in the world?”
Annabelle frequently read the encyclopedia for fun. “Around 600 million.”
“Exactly,” said Larf. “And all of them are mad.”
“How do you know?”
“We track these things.”
“Same we as before?”
“That’s classified,” said Larf, scrunshing his eyebrows in a serious way.
“I wish I could help.”
“Do you?” said Larf, turning to look Annabelle right in the eyes. “Do you really?”
Annabelle thought about that. She had said ‘I wish I could help,’ because it was the sort of thing you say when someone is in trouble and you want to make them feel better without actually doing a single thing about it. But when Annabelle thought about it more carefully, she actually did want to do something.
“I do,” she said. “I really do.”
“I know,” said Larf. “That’s why we chose you.”
Annabelle scrunched her own eyebrows now. “Who are you?”
“I am a henchman,” said Larf with a smile of pride.
“Who do you work for?”
“You’ll find out soon enough. I’m taking you to meet the boss.”
Annabelle was excited. For a long time now, she had suspected that she was meant for big, important things. Every morning she woke up expecting something extraordinary to happen.
But now that it was actually happening, Annabelle was suddenly aware that “extraordinary” and “desirable” were not exactly synonyms.
“I’m afraid that’s impossible,” said Annabelle.
“I thought you wanted to help.”
“I do,” said Annabelle. “But I have obligations to Ellen.”
“My cat. She depends on me. I need to feed her dinner, for example.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” said Larf, pointing to a long, red scratch on Annabelle’s arm.
Ellen was the most thoroughly sensible cat that Annabelle had ever known. In spite of everything that had recently happened, Annabelle was confident Ellen would refuse to get wrapped up in whatever drama was upsetting the other, less enlightened cats.
“I am absolutely sure,” said Annabelle. “My address is 14 Pleasant Street. Please take me there now.”
“I don’t know. We’re on a tight schedule.”
“Do you want me to come with you, or not?”
“In the worst way.”
“Then take me home. Ellen needs her dinner. And I need to grab my toothbrush.”
Larf scowled and took a sudden, recklessly speedy turn. And then another. Then some more. A few minutes later, the car pulled up in front of 14 Pleasant Street. Larf and Annabelle looked around for any sign of the cat army, but the street was quiet.
“The boss doesn’t like waiting,” said Larf with a mouthful of candy.
“I’ll only be a minute.”
Annabelle walked up the front path and hesitated for just a moment before opening the door. But when she did, Ellen was lying there on the living room window seat, looking as dignified and sensible as always.
“You are the greatest cat the world has ever known,” said Annabelle as she ran a loving finger from the top of Ellen’s furry head to the tip of her perfect nose.
Ellen looked at Annabelle as if to say, “Of course I am. Now where’s my dinner?”
Annabelle fed Ellen, grabbed her toothbrush, and hurried back to the car.
“This must be yours,” said Larf, handing Annabelle a hair clip. “It was on your seat.”
Annabelle felt the back of her head. Her hair clip was indeed missing.
“Thanks,” she said, sliding it back into place. “Where are we headed?”
“Cats don’t swim,” said Larf.
“I’m aware of this,” said Annabelle. “Your larger point?”
“We’re headed for the water,” said Larf. “Somewhere cats can’t follow.”
“How do you know that all the cats are angry?” said Annabelle. “What if that was an isolated moment of cat confusion?”
“We know,” said Larf as he turned his phone back on again. “In case Mom calls,” he explained. “She likes to chat in the afternoons
“Of course,” said Annabelle, who wished her mom liked to chat in the afternoons.
As it turned out, Larf was right about the cats. As they turned left onto Flockhart, they saw the cat army moving toward them, even larger and angrier than before. Larf made a quick U-turn.
“Nice handling,” said Annabelle, who knew a thing or two about cars.
“Thanks,” said Larf. “What’s the quickest way to the abandoned airstrip on the edge of town?”
“The one with the ‘Danger Do Not Enter’ sign hanging on the rusty gate?’”
“That’s the one.”
“Twelve blocks north, then three blocks west,” said Annabelle, who studied maps of town in her spare time. She had always wanted to explore the abandoned airfield but was altogether too law-abiding to consider it.
Larf drove. Cats chased. Even though the car was very fast, the cats seemed even faster.
“Extraordinary,” said Annabelle, whose already keen appreciation for cats had reached an even higher level.
There was a fence around the abandoned airstrip, and the rusty gate was closed.
“Want me to open the—?” Annabelle started to ask. But it was too late. The car flattened the gate. Moments later, the cat army knocked down the rickety fence entirely. Annabelle’s heart pounded pleasingly.
Just ahead, Annabelle saw an enormous cargo jet with the back hatch open and a ramp leading up into a cavernous interior. But the plane was not just sitting on the runway. It was in the process of taking off. Sparks flew as the ramp skittered hastily along the tarmac.
“We’re not going to . . .”
“Oh, yes we are,” said Larf. “Hold on.”
Annabelle grabbed the sides of her seat, and Larf flipped a switch on the dashboard. Suddenly the car lurched forward. The plane kept speeding up, which meant they weren’t quite close enough to drive up the ramp.
“I don’t like to do this, but . . . hold on . . .” Larf pushed another button, a red one, and the car shot forward and slightly upward and went straight up the ramp. Seconds later, the cargo door slammed shut behind them, and the plane lifted into the air.
Annabelle wasn’t sure if she was imagining it or not, but she was fairly sure she could hear the collective wail of disappointed cats from the ground below.
Annabelle and Larf stepped out of the car.
“Whew,” said Larf.
“Nice driving,” said Annabelle.
“I think we’ve finally lost them,” said Larf.
Hissssssss— said a sizable cluster of cats that had been clinging to the undercarriage of the car and were now preparing to attack. Annabelle heard the tinkling of a silver bell.
“Mr. Jingles! You’re relentless!”
“Darn it,” said Larf, who was fiddling with his phone.
“At a time like this!?” said Annabelle with deliberate exasperation.
But the cats did not attack, and they did not dance. They stood there in a row, looking uncertainly at Annabelle as if trying to figure out what what to order for lunch.
“Hi Mom,” said Larf. “Nothing much. How about you?” While Larf talked to his mom and the cats hesitated, Annabelle looked around. The cargo section of the plane was empty except for two parachutes, which were hanging on hooks.
Annabelle strapped one of the parachutes on her back and handed one to Larf with a look of ‘Am I wearing this thing correctly?’ on her face. Larf gave Annabelle a thumbs-up.
“An entire bowl of chili in one sitting? The operation must have worked! Good for you, Mom. Good for you.”
Annabelle kept one eye on Larf and one on the cats. Larf was adjusting the volume on his phone. The cats seemed slightly more irritated now, as if they wanted to attack but weren’t entirely sure it was a good idea.
Larf pulled a lever, which opened up a door in the side of the plane. The cold, windy world flashed by outside. A lightning storm was brewing on the western horizon. The cats were growing more and more agitated. Annabelle felt trapped between two horrible options.
“Gotta go now, Mom. I love you too.” Larf hung up and turned to Annabelle. “She’s the best.”
Annabelle wasn’t in the mood to chat about moms. The cats seemed to have worked through whatever issues were holding them back. Their eyes glowed. Their claws were bared.
“See that speedboat?” asked Larf, pointing down.
Far below, Annabelle saw a tiny dot racing along the surface of the water.
“We’re going to land on it,” said Larf.
“But that’s impossible,” said Annabelle.
“Have you ever had Coconut Cream Pie ice cream from Yumm Factory?”
“The kind with tiny bits of actual pie crust inside?”
“That’s the one.”
“Yes, I’ve had it. Plenty of times. Why?”
“Wouldn’t you describe it as ‘impossibly tasty’?”
“Anything less complimentary would be wildly inaccurate.”
“Well then,” said Larf, “Then this must be possible, too.”
Annabelle wasn’t sure that logic checked out, but before she could say another word on the matter, Larf jumped out of the plane.
And as much as she didn’t want to follow him, Annabelle was even less interested in getting scratched to death by a pack of irrational cats.
And so she jumped. Suddenly, the world was quiet and cold. The wailing of cats stopped. The roar of the plane’s engines quickly fell away as Annabelle plunged. The great wide ocean spread out before her. The clouds were an orange shade of pink. She was meant for astonishing things. And now they were finally happening.
Annabelle enjoyed herself for about two seconds before panic kicked in. Larf was falling beside her. He pointed to the speedboat, which was getting closer by the second. And then he gestured for Annabelle to pull the ripcord on her parachute.
And as soon as she did, she stopped plummeting and started gliding gently downward. She did a little math, exploring the angles and trajectory involved in her current descent. There was no way she was going to make it to the speedboat.
Annabelle was philosophical. “If am going to drown in the cold, dark ocean, at least I’ve had an extremely exciting last few hours.”
She closed her eyes and prepared for the worst, but then her feet hit something solid and she opened them again. Larf was standing next to her on the deck of the speedboat.
“But—!” said Annabelle. “We never could have made it to that speedboat! This is impossible.”
“We brought a second speedboat just in case.”
“Oh,” said Annabelle. “Thanks.”
“This is your first mission, after all.”
“More will be explained.”
While the speedboat sped, Larf led Annabelle into the tiny cabin, which was cozy and warm.
“Have some cocoa,” said Larf.
“Thanks,” said Annabelle. “Do you have any mini marshmallows?”
“Of course! What kind of henchman do you think I am?”
Annabelle raised an eyebrow at that, but just one, and just for a second, because it had been a really stressful couple of hours. Even though it was not even close to her bedtime, before she could drink a single sip of cocoa, she was already asleep.