The moment Annabelle pushed the button, the room was flooded with purple light. Everything froze in place, including Annabelle. Her face was wet and sticky and she couldn’t breathe. She opened her mouth to scream, but it was immediately filled with…black raspberry Jell-O? Almost by necessity, Annabelle gulped and chewed and swallowed. Eating the Jell-O right in front of her mouth created a bit of room for breathing, and so she took a breath and allowed herself just a moment to ponder the hand she had been dealt.
Before her, Minos was stuck mid-lunge, claws bared, paws splayed, jaw open, teeth snarling, looking confused and alarmed and uncertain. Behind her, she could hear the muffled sound of sticky thrashing.
If it weren’t such a ridiculous thing to assume, I’d suggest the four of us are trapped inside a room full of black raspberry Jell-O, thought Annabelle.
Annabelle took another big bite. “Delicious,” the thought. She made a mental note to compliment Floyd on his choice of flavors if and when she escaped from her current predicament.
Her current predicament was in flux. Minos was thrashing about, carving out a dog-sized space in the Jell-O and gradually inching closer and closer to Annabelle. “I guess I’d better thrash about, too,” thought Annabelle, as she used her arms and legs to carve out an Annabelle-sized space.
As she saw it, Annabelle had two options, going back toward the door or forward toward the kennel. The kennel was much closer. Plus, Annabelle had an idea.
As she thrashed and dug and ate her way through the Jell-O, she veered slightly to avoid the thrashing, digging Minos. Behind her, she could hear the thrashing, digging men. For a while, there was nothing but the sloppy, slurpy sounds of Jell-O being gulped and swallowed and pushed around as everyone tried to catch Annabelle. But Annabelle was so fast! Before long, she had tunneled her way into the back corner of the kennel. Not long after, Minos had tunneled his way in as well. Right behind him was Long Arm, and, she assumed, Larf. But it was hard to see. There was a lot of Jell-O in the way.
Instead of stopping in the far back corner of the kennel and cowering like a frightened bunny, Annabelle dug her tunnel in a looping curve that led right back to the front of the kennel. Eventually, she found her way back to the gate and slipped back out. Minos and Long Arm were both still inside. And, she hoped, Larf.
Annabelle wanted nothing more than to slam the gate shut and say, “Take that, suckers,” but because of all the Jell-O in the way, slamming was not an option. But there was a second part to Annabelle’s plan. She just hoped it would work.
“Here goes nothing,” she said again, grabbing the Jiggler and crossing her heart and hoping not to die.
When Annabelle pushed the button again, the Jell-O stopped being solid Jell-O and turned into a sticky purple-red lake of sugary goop that drained in a torrent through the open door and toward the front of the store. Fighting the current, Annabelle pushed the kennel gate closed until she heard the latch click shut. Thinking quick, she turned the key, pulled it out of the lock, and said “Whew,” just as Minos threw his sticky wet body against the kennel door.
Annabelle took a moment to assess the situation. She was outside the kennel. Very wet. Extremely sticky. Rather red.
Minos was inside the kennel. Also wet, sticky, and red.
And Long Arm was also inside the kennel—sticky, red, and wet. “YES!” said Annabelle. This had been her plan. And it had worked.
But Larf? He was nowhere to be seen.
“Hmm…” thought Annabelle. Just then, she heard a crash from the front of the store, followed by the jingle of the bell.
As much as she wanted to stand there and gloat a little, Annabelle knew that the snow globe and the piece of paper containing the secret location of Dr. Fungo’s HQ were rapidly disappearing onto the streets of Lower Barmonia.
Minos looked queasy. “I’m guessing you ate a little more Jell-O than you should have?” asked Annabelle. Minos lay down and started to pant.
Long Arm was looking at Annabelle with fiery eyes, as if he had a great deal to say but was, for the time being, choosing not to.
“See you later,” said Annabelle.
“You absolutely will,” said Long Arm, in a way that made Annabelle gulp.
As Annabelle waded through the front of the store, she was tempted to stop and grab some treats, but even in light of the current situation, she was pretty sure it would count as shoplifting. Plus, she was in a hurry. Plus, she was guessing that everything would be black raspberry-flavored, and at the moment, she’d had quite enough black raspberry.
When Annabelle got back to the sidewalk, she saw Larf trying to kick start a scooter on the other side of the street.
She was tempted to tackle him and grab the snow globe, but she wasn’t sure if that was the best approach.
“That man is a great deal larger than I am,” she reasoned. “Further, I have been hastily trained and have no actual experience in physical combat. Third, it’s possible that if I follow Larf, he will lead me to some valuable information. Lastly, he is now disappearing down the street on his scooter.”
The last point suddenly seemed like the most important, so Annabelle raced after Larf, ducking behind the row of cars parked along the street to avoid being detected. Larf’s scooter was not particularly fast, but it was much faster than Annabelle.
“Discouraged!” said Annabelle, as Larf turned around a corner and disappeared from view.
Annabelle kept running. She was an excellent runner. At this moment, she was inspired by an intense sense of duty as she remembered Long Arm’s words. The “utter destruction of everything” struck an unpleasant note in her soul.
As she turned the corner, she saw Larf idling at a stoplight a few blocks ahead. Annabelle sprinted, but before she could catch up with him, the light turned green, and he pulled away again. This kept up for a while, Annabelle never losing sight of Larf but never quite catching up.
Annabelle was starting to feel a little winded when she heard a roar behind her. And then right beside her.
“Get on!” said someone. Annabelle allowed herself a quick glance to her left. A girl about Annabelle’s age was riding alongside her on a stylish scooter.
“No thanks,” said Annabelle, who was not about to take another ride with a stranger.
“We’re going to lose Larf. Get on!”
“Who are you?” asked Annabelle, between jagged breaths.
“There’s no time for that,” said the girl. “I’m on your side. Em sent me. Ninja says hi.”
“You speak Ninja?”
“Of course!” The girl looked perplexed. “Don’t you?”
Annabelle could barely see Larf now. He was getting farther and farther away. For the second time in as many days, Annabelle ignored her parents’ best advice and took a leap of faith.
“Ok,” she said. The girl stopped the scooter, and Annabelle climbed on behind her.
“Helmet?” asked Annabelle.
“In that compartment,” said the girl.
Annabelle strapped on her helmet. “Follow that henchman.”
“Already on it.”
They followed Larf through the city, staying far enough back that they wouldn’t be spotted.
“For now, our mission is to see where he goes,” said the girl.
Annabelle felt gratified that her instincts had been correct.
Eventually, Larf pulled into an alley, parked his scooter behind a dumpster, opened a heavy-looking metal door, and slipped inside.
“What is this place?” asked Annabelle, as the girl parked their scooter behind a different dumpster.
“Not sure,” said the girl. She tried the door, but it was locked.
“Who are you?” asked Annabelle.
“I mean, what’s your name?”
#24 looked at her with surprise. “Classified, of course. What’s your number?”
“My phone number?”
“Your agent number.”
“I don’t have one.”
“Impossible.” #24 looked at Annabelle as if she could not be trusted.
“My training was cut short by a cat attack,” said Annabelle.
#24 looked not entirely satisfied. While Annabelle combed through her brain for a better explanation, the girl removed a gun-like gadget from her backpack, and shot it up toward the roof.
“What the—?” said Annabelle.
“Grappling hook,” said #24, tugging on the thin black cord to make sure the hook was firmly set. “Shall we?” she asked, grabbing Annabelle around the waist and flipping a switch that activated a motor that quickly reeled in the line, causing them to fly upward at a breathtaking speed toward the roof of the building.
“Wow,” said Annabelle as she climbed onto the roof.
“Never gets old,” said #24.
They were on a flat roof covered with gravel. It was sunset now, and as Annabelle looked out over the skyline of Lower Barmonia with its 32 historic towers and 19 extraordinary fountains, she was struck by the magnificence of the city. It looked nothing like her neighborhood from home. “The world is big,” thought Annabelle. “The world is beautiful.”
“No enjoying,” said #24. “The mission.”
“Right,” said Annabelle, remembering the snow globe.
In the middle of the roof was a hatch, which #24 cautiously opened. A ladder led down into darkness.
“After you,” said #24.
“I couldn’t possibly,” said Annabelle, hoping to seem polite instead of nervous, which was closer to the truth.
“This is your mission,” said #24. “I’m just here because Em thought you could use a little backup.”
“Right,” said Annabelle. Her mission. Larf. Long Arm. Fungo. The utter destruction of everything.
She opened her backpack and rummaged around, looking for a flashlight.
#24 gave an irritated sigh. “Here,” she said, handing Annabelle a toothbrush. “Twist the end.”
Annabelle did, and an intense blue light emerged from the bristles. “Amazing,” said Annabelle.
“Not really,” said #24. “It’s just a flashlight.”
Annabelle thought to herself that #24 and Floyd would probably get along great. “Why are secret agents all so crabby?” she wondered.
Using her toothbrush light to guide her, Annabelle climbed down the stairs, and #24 followed. They found themselves in a room full of small cages.
“Weird,” said Annabelle.
“Not really,” said #24. “This is weird,” she said, holding up a stuffed pig wearing a t-shirt that said “Me So Kitty.”
“What IS this place?” asked Annabelle.
“That’s what we’re here to find out.”
Annabelle lifted a trap door, beneath which was a stairway. The climbed down and found themselves in a dim hallway with squeaky floors.
“What’s that smell?” asked #24.
#24 was right. The hallway smelled like a litter box that needed to be cleaned three weeks ago.
“What’s that sound?” asked Annabelle.
“Barking,” said #24.
The barking was distant, but there was another, closer sound.
“Meowing,” said Annabelle.
There were doors all along the hallway. Annabelle and #24 pressed their ears against the closest one and listened.
“So much meowing,” said #24.
Cautiously, Annabelle opened the door, and a huge herd of friendly-seeming cats poured into the hallway. The room was full of cages, all of which were open and empty.
“How did they escape?” asked #24, reaching down to pet one of the cats, as one naturally would. It was extremely cute.
Given her recent experience with cats, Annabelle was hesitant. But these cats seemed no more antisocial than your average cat would be.
A door opened at the far end of the hallway, and a figure appeared, along with another flood of adorable cats.
“Larf!” said Annabelle.
“Get him!” said #24.
As #24 raced along beside her, Annabelle found herself flipping down the hallway like an acrobat, dexterously and intuitively leaping and twisting and definitely not squashing cats each time she touched the floor.
Wow, thought Annabelle, where did these moves come from?! But she didn’t have time to truly appreciate what was happening.
She reached the end of the hallway in no time, but Larf was already out the door and racing down the stairwell, followed by a sizable flood of escaping cats.
Larf had a head start, but Annabelle was so much faster. She quickly left #24 behind and nearly caught up with Larf, who suddenly stopped. Which made Annabelle stop. She knew how to chase, but now that she had caught up, Annabelle was drawing a blank.
She was at the top of a flight of stairs, and Larf was at the bottom. Between them was a sea of cats. #24 was still two flights above. If Annabelle was going to stop Larf, she’d have to do it on her own.
Larf took out his phone and turned the knob. Instantly, the hundreds of cats suddenly stopped being calm and cute. All of them turned to look at Annabelle.
“You weren’t really calling your mom the other day, were you?” asked Annabelle.
“My mom is a kindergarten teacher. She disowned me the day I became an evil henchman.”
“Do you want me to feel sorry for you?”
“Yes,” said Larf. He was so sincere that Annabelle believed him. He was such an ineffective henchman.
“Well I kind of do,” she admitted. “But more important, we’ve got you cornered.”
“Ha, ha. We both know that’s not true,” said Larf, turning the knob on his device some more, at which point the cats got very angry.
“See you later!” said Larf cheerfully, as he slipped through a door, leaving Annabelle alone and surrounded in the rapidly shrinking eye of a class-five cat hurricane.
She heard a voice from above. “Retreat!”
Annabelle looked. The grappling hook was dangling just beside her.
“Clip it onto your belt!”
Annabelle did, and a moment later, she felt herself being lifted up through the air as a chorus of disappointed cats wailed and hissed beneath her.
“Thanks!” said Annabelle.
“Just doing my job,” said #24.
With cats in pursuit, the two girls raced back to the roof.
They looked over the edge and saw Larf climb back on his scooter and scoot back down the alley.
“We lost him!” said Annabelle.
“Not quite,” said #24, pulling out a tiny screen that showed what looked like a map.
“Lower Barmonia?” said Annabelle.
“And that flashing dot in the middle of the screen?”
“But how did you—”
“I let him borrow my hair clip,” said #24. She gave Annabelle a thin smile. “Those were some nice moves in the hallway.”
“It’s all Ninja,” said Annabelle, who was never one to take credit but who was still rather surprised by the moves. And even more surprised by how much she had enjoyed them.