What Annabelle saw when she emerged from the alley was worse than lemon juice in your paper cut. The central square was filled with cats. Thousands of cats. Quite possibly tens of thousands of recently liberated cats doing an incredible, synchronized dance routine, the sort of thing you might see in the opening ceremonies of the Lower Barmonian Animal Olympics.
As the cats danced in the middle of the square, thousands of tourists gathered to watch. This was even better than taking pictures of the Fountain of Five Hundred Librarians. This was better than waiting in line to climb the Teetering Tower. This was not in any of the guidebooks. This was thrilling and improbable and happening now.
“Those poor suckers,” thought Annabelle, shaking her head as the utter destruction of everything began unfolding before her eyes.
Eleanor’s device buzzed. A message popped up. “From Floyd,” it said. “Sorry for delay. Was eating a hoagie. Studied Larf’s stops on the map. He was visiting LB’s major pet shops and animal shelters.”
Of course! He was releasing the cats, thought Annabelle to herself. And here they are.
The device buzzed again. “Miss you. XOXO.”
“Hmmm…” thought Annabelle, tucking away the information for later.
Annabelle knew she had to find a way to stop the cats. But instead, she found herself watching. And enjoying. What the cats were doing was utterly delightful…she could spend the whole afternoon just standing here taking it in. She could spend her whole life just…
Remembering Eleanor, Annabelle snapped back to attention. She had a world to save! She was strong enough to resist the enchanting cat dance. She had to be.
Just then, cats started doing triple hand springs and taking dramatic bows. Annabelle kept her eyes fixed on the ground just in front of her to avoid the incredible spectacle. She pushed her way through the rings of dancing cats and waded through the water and climbed up onto the pedestal in the middle of the fountain.
Even though protecting the citizens and tourists of Lower Barmonia wasn’t her specific mission, and even though she probably couldn’t stop what was about to happen, Annabelle knew she’d never forgive herself if she didn’t try.
Annabelle turned to face the ocean of cheerfully stupefied faces. Even though her message was very important, she felt extremely small.
“I HAVE A VERY IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT TO MAKE! YOU ARE ALL IN UTMOST DANGER. SEEK SHELTER NOW!”
But no one wanted to hear it.
“Down in the front!”
“You’re ruining the show!”
“I want more ice cream on a stick!”
“THESE CATS ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS. I URGE YOU TO RETURN TO YOUR HOTEL ROOMS IMMEDIATELY!”
“Someone tell that girl to be quiet!”
“These cats are the cutest!”
“I REALLY, REALLY MEAN IT. THESE CATS ARE UP TO NO GOOD!”
“That girl is ruining our vacation!”
“She is worse than a paper cut.”
“Now I’m going to cry!”
For Pete’s sake, said Annabelle, who was rapidly losing faith in humanity. As she stood there, looking out at the excited crowd, it was clear that no one was taking her seriously.
And could she really blame them? These cats were so great. So charming! So talented! They were happy and loving and not at all dangerous. Especially that beautiful grey cat with the bell around his neck. He was—
The sight of Mr. Jingles snapped Annabelle back to grim reality.
She thought of Eleanor. She thought of Larf. Where was Larf? Stopping him was the key to stopping the cats.
There was a sudden, gratifying key change, which meant the cats were getting to the end of their song. Annabelle knew she didn’t have long to find shelter. So she leaped from the pedestal and ran back through the electrified crowd.
As the song reached its grand finale, cats threw other cats into the air so they could do backflips and land with outstretched legs, making eager jazz paws while grinning (yes, actually grinning) at the crowd.
Annabelle sprinted for the safety of a recessed doorway.
The final note sounded. The dulcet purrs gave way to hisses. The pirouettes snapped to snarls. The tourists’ smiles evaporated as, all at once, they realized Annabelle had been right. These cats meant harm. And now it was too late.
The next few minutes were a gruesome blur. Cats leaping. People screaming and running and hiding. Cats attacking. Grown men weeping.
Annabelle did a surprising series of evasive maneuvers while trying to help a group of frightened children. But it was her against ten thousand cats. She was badly outnumbered. She did not have a plan.
The whole situation made Annabelle tired. And sad. And lonely.
What to do, what to do? she thought. No answers were coming. She was overcome with fear and indecision and doubt.
The device in her hand buzzed again. It was another message from Floyd. “All heck breaking loose in the central square.”
Tell me something I don’t know, thought Annabelle to herself, as alone and scared as she’d ever felt before.
She looked at the device again. In addition to everything else it could do, it seemed to be a phone. Which gave her an idea. Here goes nothing, thought Annabelle, typing some familiar digits.
As she dodged cats and tried to shepherd children to safety, Annabelle wedged the device between her shoulder and her ear. She heard a ring. And then another. And then the voice she really needed to hear.
“Millicent Adams here. Please be brief.”
“Annabelle. I’m about to go into a meeting, of course, but I have 93 unscheduled seconds that I can spend chatting with you. How’s camp?”
Annabelle had forgotten that she was supposed to be at camp, so she scanned her brain for words that seemed to have something to do with it.
“Canoeing! Sleeping bags! Marshmallows!”
“I appreciate your getting right to the point.”
“How are you and Dad? How’s Ellen?”
A river of cats came surging by, and Annabelle had to leap onto a bench to keep from getting swept away.
“Are you all right, Annabelle? You seem winded.”
“Jumping jacks,” said Annabelle.
“Ah yes. Fitness first!” said her mom.
Three cats lunged at Annabelle from three different angles, and somehow Annabelle managed to dodge them all.
“Anything new?” asked Annabelle.
“I just won a major case for the League of Disappointed Orphans. And your dad saved a bunch of people’s lives in the wake of a tragic speedboat accident.”
“That’s great,” said Annabelle, who wanted to explain that she, too, was in the process of helping people and saving lives but couldn’t figure out how to cram that information into the ten seconds that remained before her mother’s next meeting started.
Just then, Annabelle saw a large woman in a red, polka dotted dress. The woman stood out because she was not running around in a desperate panic like everyone else. She also stood out because she looked a lot like Larf. And because she was fiddling with a familiar-looking device.
“Got to go now, Mom,” said Annabelle. “Time for archery.”
“You know what I always say,” said her mom.
“Stay focused. Learn everything. There are no useless skills?”
“Well, yes, I do say that, because it’s absolutely true. But I was going to say that I love you.”
For a moment, the wild caper of the world slowed to a manageable blur, and Annabelle felt happy and safe and believed against all evidence to the contrary that everything was going to be all right.
You don’t always say that, thought Annabelle. In fact, you almost never do. But I sure am glad you said it just now.
But Annabelle kept those words inside her. Instead she said, “I love you, too.”
On an awning just above her, Annabelle spotted Mr. Jingles and his awful hissing sneer. Instinctively, Annabelle’s body prepared to leap nimbly out of the way.
“Gotta go, Mom, bye.”
As Annabelle hung up the phone, the world suddenly returned to full speed. But she also felt just a little bit better prepared to deal with it now.
“Oh, Mr. Jingles,” said Annabelle as her furry nemesis lunged through the air with a wicked gleam in his eyes. With astonishing quickness, Annabelle used her backpack to change the arc of Mr. Jingles’ leap so that he landed in a nearby trash can. And before he could leap back out, Annabelle wedged the can firmly between a tree and a fire hydrant.
“That should hold you for a bit.”
What Mr. Jingles said in reply cannot be printed in this book.
Annabelle scanned the crowd for Larf. The only hope of saving the tourists of Lower Barmonia was getting Larf and his device away from the square.
And suddenly there he was. In all his polka dotted glory. Larf was so busy with his device that he didn’t notice Annabelle standing next to him with hers. Which means that Annabelle could easily have made Larf feel like a pile cottage cheese, saved the world, and then had a nice, relaxing lunch—except that she had a nagging sense it was only fair to warn him first.
In movies, people in these sorts of situations said things like “Drop it,” and “Now I’ve got you,” and “You’ve reached the end of your rope.”
“Drop it!” said Annabelle. “Now I’ve got you. You’ve reached the end of your rope.”
But Larf did not drop it. Instead he ran. And, as badly as she wanted to, Annabelle could not bring herself to shoot him in the back.
“Ugh!” said Annabelle, exasperated with herself. As Larf ran down an alley. Annabelle ran after him, doing her best to be fierce.
For a heavy man in a polka dotted dress, Larf was surprisingly fast. Annabelle chased him several blocks until he disappeared behind a door, which he slammed shut behind him.
Annabelle tried to open the door, but it was unambiguously locked.
FART! FART! FART! thought Annabelle.