“What now?” asked Annabelle, expecting #24 to pull out some device that would allow them to safely return to their scooters.
“I was hoping you would have an idea,” said #24, peering over the edge of the roof.
“The grappling hook?”
“Still hanging in the stairwell surrounded by angry cats.”
Annabelle thought about the cats. Maybe, just like the cats back home, these were just ordinary cats who were having a really bad day.
“I have a theory,” said Annabelle, walking over to the hatch.
“Do not tell me you are going to open that hatch,” said #24.
“Listen,” said Annabelle. The hissing and screeching seemed to have stopped.
Annabelle opened the hatch and peered down with the toothbrush flashlight. The cats were milling about as if nothing had happened.
“I remain skeptical,” said #24.
“Larf’s device,” said Annabelle. “I think it controls the cats, but once it’s out of range, the cats relax.”
Annabelle and #24 raced back to the alley.
“Darn it, Larf!” said #24. Various important pieces of their scooter were missing.
“Wow, he was really thorough,” said Annabelle.
“He’s on the move,” said #24. The little dot was zig-zagging through the streets of Lower Barmonia.
“Look. It stopped,” said Annabelle.
“I’m sending the location to Floyd,” said #24, pushing a few buttons on her phone. “He’ll analyze it for us.”
“What’s up with that guy?” said Annabelle. “Why so grouchy?”
“He has his reasons.”
“Is anything not classified?”
“Give it some time. Floyd will grow on you.”
Annabelle wasn’t sure about that, so she snapped back to the task at hand. “We’ve got to find Larf.”
“I agree,” said #24. “We need fresh wheels.”
“I’m a pretty good runner,” said Annabelle.
#24 and Annabelle jogged a few blocks and got winded. And yet they pressed on. A few blocks later, they passed a bright yellow tandem bicycle that was chained to a fence outside a townhouse.
“This will do,” said #24, removing a tiny laser and cutting through the lock as if it were a mozzarella cheese stick.
“That is not our bicycle,” said Annabelle.
But #24 wasn’t even sort of listening. She was in the process of attaching a tiny tag to the fence where the bike had been. The tag read:
“Come on!” said #24.
Fighting every instinct, Annabelle hopped onto the back seat of the bike and started to pedal.
The words on the tag didn’t sit well with Annabelle. She made a mental note of the address and vowed that the first thing she would do after saving the world was find the bike’s owners and buy them a new one.
“Here, you navigate,” said #24, handing the device to Annabelle. Larf’s dot stopped a second time, and after a short pause, was on the move again.
Annabelle noticed that their route would take them right by the candy shop.
“What do you know about Long Arm?” she asked.
“One of the worst,” said #24. “We’ve been monitoring his movements for years. What I wouldn’t give for the chance to ask him a few pointed questions.”
“I might have locked him in a kennel in the back room of a candy shop.”
#24 looked over her shoulder with a mixture of excitement and irritation. “Well, did you or didn’t you?”
“I absolutely did.”
“Then say so next time. Precision is very important.”
“He is extremely locked up.”
“Turn right at the next intersection.”
When they got to the candy shop, the sidewalk was still a sticky purple-red mess.
“What did you do?!” said #24 with a mixture of admiration and horror.
“It’s not what you think.”
When they got to the back of the store, the kennel door was open and Minos was lying on his side moaning. Long Arm was nowhere to be seen.
“You’ll feel better in the morning” Annabelle assured Minos, giving him a little scratch behind the ear. That’s when she noticed the key in the lock.
“He must have had an extra in his pocket,” said Annabelle.
“Or…” said #24 pointing to an empty hook on the far side of the room. The hook was labeled “Extra kennel key.”
“That’s on the other side of the room!”
“His arm is really long.”
“It didn’t look that long.”
“Was it in a sling?”
“A trick to avoid drawing attention.”
“But that hook is like 15 feet away.”
“It’s really, really long.”
Annabelle was incredulous, but there simply wasn’t time to stand there arguing the details of Long Arm’s long arm.
“He’s stopped again,” said Annabelle, pointing to the screen.
“Are there any messages from Floyd?” asked #24.
“Weird. He usually gets back to me right away. Let’s keep moving.”
They hopped back on the bike and sped across town.
It suddenly occurred to Annabelle that she didn’t really know who she was riding with.
“What’s your real name?”
“Fine. But so you know, I’m Annabelle,” said Annabelle, knowing that #24 had no way of plugging her ears since they were currently being used to hold onto the handlebars.
“STOP! Knowing your name could compromise the mission,” said #24. But Annabelle continued.
“I’m 12 years old. I live in America. I have a mom and a dad and the world’s most sensible cat, whose name is Ellen. Turn left!”
“You are the world’s worst secret agent!” screamed #24, turning left.
“As far as I know, I am not a secret agent,” said Annabelle. “I am Annabelle Adams. I am here to stop Dr. Fungo. But I’m feeling undertrained and overwhelmed and, at this moment, I am trying to have a conversation with the closest thing I have to a friend. Turn right!”
#24 turned right.
“Fine,” said #24. “But for the record, you are having this conversation with yourself. I am forbidden from learning the personal details of my associates.”
Annabelle turned her thoughts inward. This was not the affirming heart-to-heart she had been hoping for.
They burst suddenly into a huge public square, in the middle of which was the famous Fountain of Five Hundred Librarians. Thousands of people were milling about, taking photographs and eating ice cream on sticks.
“Stop here,” said Annabelle. “The map says Larf is in that alley on that far side of the square. And we’re in luck. It appears to be a dead end, so there’s no way he can escape.”
“Let’s stash the bike here,” said #24, pulling out a device that looked like a machine gun mixed with a can opener.
“What’s that?” asked Annabelle, who believed guns were a terrible way to settle disagreements.
“A Stun-Tastic 2000,” said #24. “It will stop a 600-lb man from 30 paces.”
“Science. It temporarily turns his insides into a pile of cottage cheese.”
“Why didn’t you use it in the stairwell?” said Annabelle.
“I didn’t want to risk hitting you.”
Annabelle was touched. It was the first vaguely kind thing that #24 had said in their short time together.
“#24 doesn’t want to stun me,” thought Annabelle to herself, glad for any shred of comfort in the midst of this long, weird day. “She doesn’t want to turn me into cottage cheese.”
“Let’s do this,” said #24.
“Do you have another one of those for me?” asked Annabelle, gesturing to the Stun-Tastic.
“Nope,” said #24. “You keep tracking Larf’s movements. I’ll do the stunning.”
They crept silently into the alley. It was dark and damp and creepy. The buildings on either side of them towered up like the walls of a canyon.
“The map says Larf it at the very end of the alley,” said Annabelle.
They got to the very end. Larf was not there.
“Maybe he’s in the dumpster,” suggested #24.
They opened the dumpster. And saw a fuzzy grey head.
“Mr. Jingles!” said Annabelle.
“My hair clip!” said #24. It was true. There, on Mr. Jingles’ ear was #24’s bright pink butterfly hair clip with tracking chip embedded.
“Larf put the tracker on Mr. Jingles!” said Annabelle.
Mr. Jingles seemed like his old self again, and Annabelle was tempted to pet him.
But before #24 could ask, “And who is Mr. Jingles, anyway?” Annabelle saw the cat’s expression change from pleasant to uncertain to just plain mad. There was grey blur and the sound of a tiny bell as Jingles leaped forward and landed squarely on #24’s chest, digging in his claws as if she were a parade float he was determined to pop.
#24 made the most anguished sound that Annabelle had ever heard another person make as the Stun-Tastic tumbled from her hands and onto the grimy cobblestones.
Thinking quick, Annabelle grabbed the device and pointed it at Mr. Jingles, who had turned his glare on her.
Annabelle weighed the pros and cons. She knew that Jingles was not a bad cat and did not want to make him feel like a pile of cottage cheese, but she also knew that he was, at present, consumed in a murderous rage. As she stood there with her finger on the trigger, she saw a blur out of the corner of her eye.
It was Larf. Peering down from on a rooftop high above.
Annabelle pointed the Stun-Tastic at him. She had absolutely no problem making him feel like a pile of cottage cheese.
But Larf was already fiddling with his phone.
Immediately, Mr. Jingles stopped attacking #24 and started doing a moonwalk. And then he grabbed his rear paws with his front paws spun around on his back a couple of times.
Amazing! thought Annabelle. As much as she wanted to keep pointing the Stun-Tastic at Larf, she couldn’t tear her eyes away as Jingles did a perfectly timed handstand and then moonwalked right out of the alley.
As soon as Jingles was gone, Annabelle returned to her senses. She pointed the Stun-Tastic up to where Larf had been, but Larf was gone.
Annabelle couldn’t believe she’d let him slip away. Those dancing cats! Their lure was irresistible.
Annabelle heard a pitiful groan behind her. #24 had swelled up like a balloon.
“What the—?” asked Annabelle.
“I’m extremely allergic to cats,” said #24.
“Why didn’t you say?” said Annabelle, taking #24’s puffy hand in her own.
“The mission. It had to come first.”
“I assume you have an epi pen that will mitigate the swelling and make you feel like new again in no time?”
“I do. At least, I did. While you were transfixed by his incredible breakdancing, Mr. Jingles swiped my backpack.”
“I can’t believe I let him do that! I’m so sorry.”
“That’s ok. It was the best cat breakdancing I’ve ever seen.”
Annabelle was about to cry.
“Get ahold of yourself!” snapped #24. “There’s no time for emotion. Follow that cat! Save the world. And, if you have time, save me.”
“In case I don’t make it…”
“You will,” said Annabelle. “You have to!”
“But in case I don’t, the new HQ is located on a desolate island off the coast of Ye Olde Drumburgh. Just south of Tragic Rock. Em will tell you what to do next.”
Annabelle’s heart had to grow to make room for the information, which made her feel trusted and important.
“Yes?” said Annabelle, hoping that #24 was going give her some insight into the elusive Triple Jimbo.
“…my name is Eleanor.”
And to Annabelle, this information was the most powerful weapon she could have asked for.
“Thank you, Eleanor,” she said, “I will be back soon. You hold on.”
But Eleanor didn’t respond. Her eyes were closed and her breathing was shallow.
Annabelle ran out of the alley, feeling extremely sorry for Eleanor and for herself—and for the entire world—very much wishing there were anyone else on hand to save the day.