This is where I share the adventures of my hero and the world’s greatest kid detective, Annabelle Adams, chapter by chapter.

To be updated when a new chapter is posted, like The Real McCoys Facebook page.

Chapter 12: This is a Truly Terrible Idea

Annabelle and Eleanor raced away from the water and down the crooked side streets of Dusseldam. Once they were a few blocks away, Annabelle finally felt halfway safe again. Which helped her remember how happy and relieved she felt.

“It’s so good to see you.”

“You, too,” said Eleanor.

“I’m so glad you’re alive!”

“You’re the reason I am.”

It was their first opportunity to be together when neither one of them was skeptical, angry, kidnapped, or in anaphylactic shock.

“We make a pretty good team.”

Eleanor smiled at her. “We really do.”

“Thank goodness you had that extra set of handcuffs!” said Annabelle.

“It’s standard issue in every agency backpack,” said Eleanor. “Good old, Floyd. High-tech gadgets are all well and good, but sometimes the simple tools work best.”

“Want a cup of hot chocolate?” asked Annabelle, thinking of the third device.

“Maybe later,” said Eleanor. “We have a world to save.”

Annabelle liked how that sounded.

Eleanor consulted her device. “This way,” she said. A few minutes later, they were at the train station.

“Where to?” asked Annabelle.

“Long Arm said Fungo’s HQ was on the Island of Miniature Porcupines, right?”

“Right.”

“Let’s see if Floyd has ever heard of it.”

While Eleanor sent her message, Annabelle allowed herself a moment to think back on the last half hour or so. She had duped a deranged criminal. She had hugged a deranged criminal. She had rescued her friend from a deranged criminal.

“Not bad, Annabelle. Not bad at all,” she thought to herself as she watched a train pull into the station.

Eleanor’s device beeped excitedly.

“We’re in luck! Floyd says Fungo’s HQ lies in desolate stretch of waters just off the Cape of Bad Fortune, which is just a short train ride from here.”

“Excellent.” Annabelle’s heart surged as they walked to the counter to purchase their tickets. She no longer had to figure everything out on her own. Now she was part of a team.

Eleanor’s phone beeped again. “Another message from Floyd,” she said. “Hold on.” As Eleanor read, her face melted into the worst kind of scowl.

“You told Larf where the new HQ was?”

“Accidentally!” said Annabelle.

“And a herd of rampaging cats arrived in tiny speedboats and reduced it to a pile of rubble?!”

“I’m so, so sorry.”

“I’m the one who gave you that intel,” said Eleanor. “What was I thinking? I knew you weren’t ready.” Eleanor paced back and forth angrily. “I knew it, and I surrendered critical information in a moment of weakness. Because you told me your name. Because I let you get close!

“Please, Eleanor…” said Annabelle. Eleanor whipped her head around with a stony sneer. “That’s #24 to you. From now on you do not ask questions, and you do exactly what I say! Do you understand?”

Annabelle felt about as tall as a termite. She wanted very badly to remind Eleanor about all of the good things she had done, including saving Eleanor’s life not once but twice, but clearly Eleanor was in no mood to hear about good things.

The train arrived, and the girls got on. It wasn’t full, so Eleanor took a seat on the opposite side of the car, leaving Annabelle to sit by herself and look out the window.

The world looked bleak and empty and damaged. The streets were filled with angry cats. Cats on corners. Cats on rooftops. Cats on windowsills, scowling and hissing and looking for someone to scratch. The few people she did see were worried and anxious and covered with bandages.

“What a sorry state of affairs,” thought Annabelle. She looked over at Eleanor, who was typing furiously on her device.

Probably messaging Floyd, thought Annabelle.

When they got off the train in Lowenbraü, Eleanor didn’t speak to Annabelle until they reached the intersection of two major streets near the center of town.

“You stay here,” said Eleanor with an accusatory tone. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you. Because I can’t trust you.”

For a minute, Annabelle stood there feeling sorry for herself, but a minute later, she popped into a nearby shop, purchased a map, and familiarized herself with the layout of the town.

Eleanor came back a few minutes later carrying a package the size of a small shoebox. Annabelle wanted to ask what it was, but decided to hold her tongue. She was determined to do everything she could to regain Eleanor’s trust.

“We’ll need a boat to reach the Island of Miniature Porcupines,” said Annabelle. “I figured out where the marina is. I can show you.”

Eleanor looked at her skeptically, but came along as Annabelle led the way down the hill, past shops and churches and crooked alleyways until they came to the waterfront.

Eleanor walked along the pier, examining the various boats anchored there. She stopped in front of a sleek-looking speedboat with two enormous outboard motors and bright red lightning bolts painted along either side. Then she nodded and took one of the little yellow tags out of her pocket.

Knowing full well what was about to happen, Annabelle felt a powerful objection. She was trying to figure out the best way to explain that there must be ways to save the world that didn’t involve stealing other people’s things, when she heard a voice from right behind her.

“She’s a beauty, isn’t she?”

Annabelle turned. There stood a short-but-feisty looking woman with silver hair, a pink jumper, and sunglasses dotted with tiny rhinestones.

“Get rid of her,” said Eleanor under her breath.

Get rid of me?” said the woman, whose hearing was obviously much better than Eleanor had thought it would be. “You need me.”

“I’m Annabelle,” said Annabelle, holding out her hand politely.

“Rhonda,” said the woman, grabbing Annabelle’s hand and shaking it enthusiastically. “And this is my speedboat.”

Eleanor stood up quickly. “Let’s go,” she said, eager to get away from Rhonda.

But Rhonda walked right along with them.

“I’m sure you already know,” said Rhonda. “But the Island of Miniature Porcupines is impossible to reach.”

“Who said anything about the Island of Miniature Porcupines?” asked Eleanor. “And what do you mean by impossible?”

“I was the one who mentioned the Island of Miniature Porcupines,” Rhonda Eleanor. “You need to pay better attention. And by impossible, I mean that the surrounding waters are home to one hundred great white sharks who are frequently irritated and constantly vengeful.”

“We can deal with sharks,” said Eleanor with not quite as much confidence as Annabelle would have liked.

“There’s also the fact that the island is encircled by a complex network of jagged reefs that have ravaged and sunk more than ten thousand boats.”

“We will be extremely careful,” said Eleanor.

“Did I mention that the island’s desolate coastline is prone to frequent, unpredictable, and extremely powerful hurricanes? No one knows why, but they make the place pretty much impossible to reach.”

“So what are you saying?”

“My boat might be the only one in this marina fast enough to outrun the sharks. I might be the only person in The Cape of Bad Fortue who knows the secret route through the reefs. And I am one of the few people in the world who is sufficiently in tune with the weather systems to predict the onset of a sudden hurricane.”

“How do you do it?”

“My right elbow aches when one is coming.”

“Fascinating,” said Annabelle.

“What do you want?” Eleanor asked in the rudest possible way.

“Only to help.”

“We can’t pay you.”

“Who said anything about payment? I haven’t visited Susie in a while.”

“Susie?”

“Get in! We have to act fast if we’re going get you there before the next hurricane. My elbow is starting to throb.”

“How much time do we have?”

“Enough. If we hurry!”

Eleanor and Annabelle glanced at each other. Clearly, Rhonda was a little bit batty. But she also seemed to have the knowledge, skills, and speedboat they needed to get to Fungo’s HQ.

“All right,” said Eleanor, stepping into the boat.

“And thank you,” said Annabelle, who wondered why Eleanor always had to be so rude.

As the boat pulled away from the marina, Annabelle kept her eye on the horizon. Dark clouds were forming to the west.

“Oooh. It’s going to be a good one,” said Rhonda, rubbing her elbow.

“Are we going to make it?” asked Annabelle.

“Life is unpredictable,” said Rhonda.

Annabelle knew this to be true. According to her mother, not knowing what was going to happen was the thing that made life exciting. In spite of this, Annabelle’s mother spent most of her time trying very hard to make things happen exactly as she wanted them to.

They cruised slowly out of the harbor, but once they reached open waters, Rhonda calmly suggested that it was probably a good idea for them to sit down. When they did, she pulled back the throttle, and the the front of the boat rose high into the air as they flew across the surface of the water, directly into the heart of the gathering clouds. After twenty minutes or so, Rhonda slowed the boat and pointed out across the water. “There.”

On the horizon, Annabelle could see a tiny island, in the middle of which loomed what appeared to be an enormous skull.

“What is that?”

“An enormous skull.”

“But what is it?”

“Apparently, it’s the secret HQ of a notorious global supervillain,” said Rhonda grinning, as if she were pointing out a beautiful flowering shrub.

“How do you know so much about this island?” said Eleanor suspiciously.

“I pay attention,” said Rhonda. “If you keep your eyes open and your assumptions to a minimum, the information you need is usually right in front of you.”

Annabelle liked Rhonda. She liked her a lot.

“Why are we stopped?” asked Eleanor. “I thought we were trying to beat the storm.”

“We will, we will,” said Rhonda, pointing to her elbow as if it might speak.

“Excuse me, but…” said Annabelle, but her throat swelled with fear, and all she could do was point. About twenty great white fins had surfaced in the water all around the boat. Colossal fins belonging to colossal sharks. Colossal sharks that were circling so close to the speedboat Annabelle could have reached out and touched them.

“Get us out of here!” said Eleanor.

“Not to worry,” said Rhonda.

“I thought you said we had to outrun the sharks!”

“That’s one way to go about it.”

“What’s the other way?” said Annabelle.

“Rhonda reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a roll of Mentos.

“Susie loves Mentos,” said Rhonda, just as one of the sharks poked its great white nose out of the water right next to the boat, its great white mouth open and great white teeth gleaming. Rhonda reached out and rubbed the shark on the tip of its great white muzzle then dumped the entire roll of candy onto its great white tongue. The shark’s great white mouth clapped shut and gave what Annabelle imagine was the closest thing an enormous, terrifying sea creature could make to a great white smile.

“Susie?” gulped Eleanor weakly.

“Isn’t she a sweetie?” asked Rhonda, smiling.

Susie disappeared below the water, and a moment later, her various great white friends followed her away.

“You can outrun them,” said Rhonda. “But then you miss the pleasure of their company. And it ticks them off. Even sharks need love.”

Annabelle had never wanted to love a shark before and she was pretty sure that was still true.

“Hold on!” said Rhonda suddenly, not really giving them time to sit down before pulling the throttle all the way back and shooting them across the water at a speed that made the world blur.

As the island got closer, the skull’s massive jaw seemed to be laughing at Annabelle, reminding her that she was nothing but a 12-year old who had not yet completed her training and didn’t even know how to do a Triple Jimbo. Its empty eyes sockets seemed to be staring into her soul, reminding her that a hurricane was coming, that Eleanor no longer trusted her, and that she might not even be able to trust herself.

They were only a few hundred yards away from the island when Rhonda slowed the boat again.

“What’s happening?” asked Eleanor.

“We’ve reached the intricate maze of razor-sharp reefs.”

The skies above the island were purest black, and the clouds were rolling toward them with incredible speed.

“Could you hurry things along a little?” asked Eleanor impatinetly.

“Trust me, you don’t want me to rush this,” said Rhonda, who seemed to be putting on a blindfold.

“Excuse me, but what are you doing?” asked Annabelle.

“Putting on a blindfold,” said Rhonda. “If can actually see the razor sharp reefs, I might get nervous and make a mistake. Our best chance of making it through alive is random guessing.”

Annabelle and Eleanor looked at each other with the kind of profound dread that can sometimes bring two people closer together even when they are having a major disagreement.

The way forward seemed unlikely to succeed. But there was no going back.

Looking out over the side of the boat, they could see jagged reefs rise up to just below the surface of the water, millions of tiny, razor-sharp protrusions just waiting to scrape a long, damaging hole in the side of a defenseless boat.

Rhonda hummed as she navigated, seeming joyful and confident.

At times, there seemed to be no way to get through, but somehow, improbably, Rhonda kept steering the boat through narrow passageways with only inches to spare.

A few minutes later, they were in open water once more.

Rhonda took her blindfold off.

“How did you do that?” said Annabelle.

“Photographic memory,” said Rhonda. “Expert boat driving skills. And sheer repetition. I’ve navigated that reef more than 700 times. Just thought it would be more fun for you two if I wore the blindfold. But it’s totally see-through,” she said, showing them that the material was not even slightly opaque.

“But…”

“Never leave to chance what you can base on years of experience and careful practice.”

As much as Annabelle liked Rhonda, Eleanor clearly had opposite opinions.

“Could we please get going?” she asked through gritted teeth.

Heavy, cold raindrops were starting to fall and, as the boat approached the shoreline, the waves were high, making it difficult to pull into the beach.

“This next part could be kind of soggy,” said Rhonda, gunning the engine and pointing them directly toward the skull.

The boat rocketed forward across top of the waves, several times floating in mid-air before crashing back into the surf.

“Barf bags are in that compartment,” said Rhonda. Annabelle would have been terrified if she weren’t so busy being thrilled.

Moments later, the boat nosed up onto the beach, waves crashing over the back, drenching them all.

“Well, what are you waiting for? Get out!” shoted Rhonda.

With wobbly legs, Annabelle and Eleanor stepped onto the beach.

“Thank you, Rhonda!” said Rhonda. “Thank you for not letting Susie eat us. Thank you for navigating the treacherous reef! Your boat is so fast. Rhonda.You’re the best, Rhonda. We appreciate your getting us here alive.”

“Thank you, Rhonda,” said Annabelle, feeling ashamed and embarrassed for not having said so first and wanting Rhonda to know how much she truly did appreciate everything she had done for them in this course of this past, crazy hour.

Eleanor said nothing. She was staring up at the skull.

“Don’t mention it,” said Rhonda. “Here,” she said, tossing what looked like a keychain to Annabelle.

In spite of the wind and the rain and the waves crashing at her feet, Annabelle somehow caught it.

“Lighting-quick reflexes!” said Rhonda.

“Thanks,” said Annabelle, “What is it?”

“A beacon. Press that button when you want me to come back.” Rhonda gunned the engine in reverse and the boat backed away from shore. “Unless you decide to stay here forever!”

Annabelle shuddered at the thought of it.

“Just remember…” said Rhonda.

“Yes?” said Annabelle?

“There is always a way.”

“Yes,” said Annabelle, looking at Rhonda sideways, wondering if the echo could possibly be a pure coincidence. “A wise person once told me that.”

“Just remember that it’s not always the obvious…”

But Rhonda’s boat was pulling away from the shore, and the rest of her sentence got swallowed by the wind.

“What?” screamed Annabelle into the storm, assuming that whatever Rhonda had tried to tell her was pretty important.

But when she looked again into the cold, wet waves, Rhonda was gone.

Annabelle turned and faced the skull, which was even more upsetting up close. It seemed to be made of stone, but she couldn’t tell if it had been carved from a mountain or built by hand.

The rest of the island was barren, with occasional, scrubby bushes pushing up through the rocky soil. There were a handful stumps, but not a single tree, as if someone had deliberately cleared every bit of vegetation that might have blocked the view of the awful skull.

Or, thought Annabelle, anything that would have blocked Fungo’s view of people trying to sneak into his HQ.

Annabelle looked down and saw a few unappealing beetles. And a lizard-looking sort of thing. But where, she wondered, were the miniature porcupines?

Eleanor was crouching behind a low bush not far from the beach, and Annabelle joined her.

“Well?” asked Annabelle, after a while.

“We go in,” said Eleanor.

“In where?” said Annabelle, hoping she was misunderstanding what Eleanor was clearly suggesting.

But she was understanding perfectly. Eleanor looked at Annabelle as if she were missing a screw. “Into the mouth. Right down the gullet.” Annabelle was trying to figure out why the phrase sounded familiar. And then she remembered. “The name of Long Arm’s boat! What makes you think it has anything to do with this?”

“I overheard Long Arm talking to someone when I was tied up on the boat.”

“Why didn’t you tell me before.”

“We’ve been over this. I don’t trust you.”

Annabelle swallowed her damaged prided and tried to act dignified.

“Who was it?”

“I don’t know, but whoever it was, Long Arm was sending him to the Island of Miniature Porcupines and telling him what to do once he got there. He said to go down the gullet. And ‘down the gullet’ has to mean into the mouth.

Annabelle thought about that. For starters, she had a 0 out of 10 interest in walking into that creepy, dark, tooth-lined cave. Beyond that though, the logic didn’t quite check out.

“Technically, you wouldn’t go down if you walked straight into the mouth,” said Annabelle. “I mean, since we are already at chin-level, wouldn’t we sort of be going over or across?”

Eleanor was looking at Annabelle as if Annabelle were a cockroach in the middle of her kitchen.

“It seems like you forgot what I said earlier about not talking and doing exactly what I say. And I say we’re going down the gullet.”

On one hand, Annabelle wanted nothing more than to get back into Eleanor’s good graces. She had made a terrible mistake, and she wanted to set things right. On the other hand, every instinct suggested that walking into the skull’s enormous mouth was a terrible idea.

“Sorry,” said Annabelle, “That’s not ok with me.”

“Then what do you suggest?” snapped Eleanor angrily. “Do you see any other gullets to go down?”

Annabelle scanned the tiny island. There really was nothing else of note. She was just about to confess that she had no other plan when she thought she saw, through the driving rains, at the far opposite end of the island, a tiny something or other.

“There,” she said, pointing. “What’s that?”

Eleanor squinted through the rain and then took out a tiny pair of binoculars and squinted again. She laughed in a way that was definitely not polite and handed the binoculars to Annabelle.

“Here,” she said, snorting with disgust.

Annabelle saw a small rectangular building with a slanted roof. It was, by all appearances, an outhouse.

“I’m going into the skull,” said Eleanor. “Are you coming?”

Annabelle glanced once again at the awful, grinning mouth when a tiny voice inside her stood up and shouted with all of it’s might that pleasing Eleanor wasn’t quite as important as following her gut.

“I’m not,” she said.

“Suit yourself,” said Eleanor with disgust. “I guess this is my mission now.”

“Good luck,” said Annabelle. And she actually meant it.

Eleanor gave a loud “hrumph,” pulled her coat tightly against her body, and sprinted through the rain, directly toward the skull. Annabelle watched as she scrambled up the jaw and climbed over the lower teeth. As soon as Eleanor was entirely inside the mouth, Annabelle heard a tremendous rumbling as the top half of the skull slid suddenly forward and the mouth slammed shut.

Annabelle’s heart capsized and sank, but there was no time to try to pull it back up again. The dark of the storm was giving way to the dark of night. The rain fell even harder. It was getting altogether unpleasant on the Island of Miniature Porcupines. Given that going into the skull was no longer an option even if she’d wanted to, Annabelle decided to take shelter in the only place that was still available. Plus, she really had to pee.

“There are worse things than taking shelter in an outhouse,” thought Annabelle to herself as hurried carefully toward the opposite end of the island. “Blood blisters, scorpions, liverwurst, Aunt Brenda…”

As she walked, Annabelle encountered a series of signs on poles.

First she came to, “Smells even worse than it looks.”

And a few hundred yards later, “Entirely out of toilet paper.”

And then, not far from the outhouse itself, “Not safe for human use.”

“How considerate,” thought Annabelle, wondering what kind person had gone to the trouble to warn her away from the outhouse and wishing she had any alternative. “And yet so odd.”

The island was so small that it only took her a few minutes to get to the outhouse, which looked like it was one good gust from caving in completely.

On the door was another sign that simply read, “This is a truly terrible idea.”

But then a sudden gust of wind threw what felt like an entire bucket of rain in Annabelle’s face.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” she said.

She grabbed the door handle and pulled.

Chapter 11: What would Ninja say?

When Annabelle arrived in Dusseldam, she stopped at a newsstand to buy a banana and a pack of breath mints. While waiting in line at the checkout counter, she read the front pages of newspapers from all over the world. The news wasn’t good.

CAT-ASTROPHE IN CUTAN

IT’S ME-OW-FUL in MARBLEHEAD

FEEL-INE FRANTIC IN FROTSYLDAANG.

CAT-AMINATION in THYVALKIA

Me-OW in MUSTRECHT!

 

Beneath the headlines were photographs that looked not unlike the grisly scene that Annabelle had seen unfolding near the Fountain of Five Hundred Librarians.

“This is outrageous! Something must be done!” said Annabelle out loud.

“Ok! Calm down. Here’s your change,” said the man behind the counter.

Dodging angry cats at every step, Annabelle took a cab to the center of Dusseldam and used the search feature on Eleanor’s device to find a costume shop. She bought a wig, a trench coat, and set of false teeth, then rented a hotel room and transformed herself into a creepy looking salesman with long hair and bad teeth.

“Perfect,” said Annabelle, looking at herself in the mirror.

Next, she took a cab to the biggest candy store in town, where she filled a bag with delectable treats. Annabelle, who was usually careful only to spend her allowance on things that were useful, took particular glee in having a good excuse to buy a large amount of candy.

“When in Dusseldam…” she said, allowing herself to sample just one piece of homemade fudge before walking out of the store.

Then she took a cab to a butcher shop and did a bit of browsing before making her selection and walking out with a package wrapped in wax paper.

Finally, she took a cab to the waterfront, where she bought a sausage on a stick and munched and strolled and looked around.

Good thing Em gave me all this money, Annabelle thought to herself.

The pier was lined with fancy yachts, each bigger and prouder and shiner than the last.

But eventually, Annabelle found what she was looking for.

At the very end of the row of gleaming boats was one that didn’t match the others, a dilapidated houseboat with a rotting railing and broken windows. Painted in badly faded letters on the hull was the ship’s name, “Down the Gullet.” Annabelle wondered how the thing stayed afloat.

Annabelle took a deep breath, walked across a creaking, crooked plank that led from the pier to the mossy, moldy deck, and knocked on the door with as much confidence as her worried knuckles would allow.

A moment later, familiar face of Long Arm leered back at her through the circular window in the middle of the door.

“Who is it?”

Annabelle cleared her voice and spoke. “Naughtso Sweet.”

“Who?”

“Naughtso Sweet. Fungo sent me.”

“I don’t know any—”

“I am undercover as a traveling candy salesman,” said Annabelle insistently. “Because you are undercover as a candy store owner. I am dressed this way to avoid suspicion. But if you do not let me in, people will become suspicious!”

“What people?”

“Any people who might be watching.”

“Like who?”

Annabelle looked around.

“Like that guy!” She said, pointing to a man who was eating a sausage on a stick and seemingly minding his own business on a different boat.

Long Arm looked mildly convinced.

“So can I come in?”

Long Arm’s face got serious again.

“What’s the password?”

Annabelle froze. Of course there would be a password. How could she have been so foolish? She was considering making a break for it when she remembered that Eleanor desperately needed saving and that she, Annabelle, was her friend’s only hope.

So instead of running away in fear, Annabelle dug deep remembered her mother’s advice, “When you don’t want to answer a question, convince the other person to answer it for you.” Suddenly, she had an idea.

“Exactly. What’s the password?” she insisted.

“That’s what I asked you!” said Long Arm.

“And that’s what I asked you!” said Annabelle. “There are spies everywhere! Fungo said I had to be sure it was actually you before I came to your rescue.”

“Came to my rescue?”

“Is there an echo in here?”

“Am I in trouble?” asked Long Arm.

“Terrible trouble,” said Annabelle, doing her best to look grim. “And I’ll tell you what it is as soon as you convince me that you’re actually you by saying the password.”

Long Arm’s face was having a war with itself. Annabelle watched a kind of movie play out as his expression changed from skeptical to concerned to downright worried.

“Is it bad?” asked Long Arm.

“You have only minutes to live,” said Annabelle. “I’d let me in if I were you.”

“Come in, come in,” said Long Arm. “What are you waiting for?”

“WHAT IS THE PASSWORD?” said Annabelle, surprising herself.

“Of course…the password…dog,” said Long Arm, “The password is dog.”

Annabelle, who was expecting something more complex or diabolical, hesitated for just a minute before saying, “Yepper. That’s right. Dog. We need to talk to the boss about getting a better password.”

“I tell him that all the time,” said Long Arm, opening the door and gesturing for Annabelle to sit down.

“Now, what is it?” asked Long Arm nervously.

“Here,” said Annabelle, handing him the bag.

“What’s in it?”

“All that’s left.”

“Of what?”

“Just look,” said Annabelle, pretending she was too emotional to keep on talking.

Long Arm looked down at the bag nervously.

Annabelle broke down sobbing, grateful that her parents had enrolled her in theater camp the summer before. She gestured wildly at the bag as if to say, It will be difficult, I know, but be strong and look inside.

Long Arm peered into the bag and gasped, his face white with horror.

“What is this?!”

“It’s…all that’s left…”

“Of who?”

“Of…of…oh, don’t make me say it,” said Annabelle, as she burst into another round of wailing tears.

“It’s not…?” Long Arm looked at Annabelle desperately.

“Yes!”

“Franz!”

“Franz!”

Long Arm started sobbing uncontrollably. It was astonishing to see pure evil reduced such bawling.

“It was a terrible accident.”

“Was it…The Machine?”

“YES! The Machine!”

“I knew it!” blubbered Long Arm. “I knew it was too soon. I knew The Machine wasn’t ready! Why is Fungo always so impatient?”

“I know,” said Annabelle. “He can be so tedious. Here, let me get you some Kleenex.”

“Thank you,” said Long Arm, blowing his nose, looking back into the bag, and then starting to wail again, even louder this time.

“Would you like me to make you some tea?” asked Annabelle.

Long Arm nodded, too miserable to speak.

“And the kitchen is…?”

Long Arm gestured vaguely toward the back of the boat.

Leaving him sobbing on the stinking couch, Annabelle walked down a narrow hallway.

The first room she came to was filled with stuffed elephants. “Weird,” thought Annabelle. The second was a tiny bedroom with a puppy-themed bedspread. The bedroom was empty. In the third room was Eleanor, tied to a chair with a sock in her mouth.

Annabelle removed the sock.

“Annabelle! How did you—?”

“There’s no time. We have to get you out of here.”

Annabelle untied Eleanor’s hands.

“What about Long Arm?”

“He’s busy having an emotional episode in the living room.”

“What’s the plan?”

“Working on it. Be ready.”

Annabelle made a cup of chamomile tea and returned to the front of the boat. Long Arm had stopped crying, but his face was still damp and blotchy.

“How can I help?” asked Annabelle, taking the hand attached to Long Arm’s regular-sized arm and holding it reassuringly. “Would you like…a hug?”

The word “hug” had an astonishing affect on Long Arm. His face melted into a puddle of gratitude and he threw his normal sized arm around Annabelle.

Annabelle glanced across the room at Eleanor as if to say, This is probably the perfect moment for you to sneak out.

“There, there,” said Annabelle, hugging Long Arm tighter and turning him ever so slightly away from the side of the boat where Eleanor would need to walk to make her escape. “What can we do to make you feel better?”

“We need to get to The Machine! I need to fix it before this happens again! And I want to give Franz a proper burial. Oh FRANZ!”

With a quiet sneakiness that would have made Ninja proud, Annabelle slid one end of her handcuffs around a railing that was bolted to the wall just behind the couch.

“Where?” she said gently, “Where do you want to bury him?”

“Right next to the HQ,” said Long Arm.

Annabelle squeezed Long Arm even more tightly, trying to move his regular arm closer and closer to the other end of the handcuffs.

“But where is that?” asked Annabelle.

“On the Island of Miniature Porcupines, of course,” said Long Arm. But then, something inside him clicked. “But you should have known that,” he said pulling away from Annabelle, his eyes mistrustful again.

“Of course I knew…I just wanted to make sure you did,” Annabelle stammered.

Of course I know! I built The Machine! The island was my home before Fungo stole Franz and drove me away—”

In the middle of his sentence, Long Arm noticed Eleanor creeping across the room. Annabelle took advantage of his moment of outrage to grab Long Arm’s regular-sized arm, slap the other end of the handcuffs around his wrist, and leap away from the couch.

“Run!” she shouted. But Eleanor was already out the door.

“You can keep the candy!” said Annabelle, racing after her friend.

Long Arm let out a bellow of rage as he pulled against the handcuffs and realized he was stuck.

Annabelle and Eleanor walked quickly but carefully across the rickety plank. Not only was it wobbly and splintery, but it seemed as if it might break in two at any moment. Almost there, almost there, thought Annabelle.

Once she was across, Annabelle allowed herself just a second to rest and appreciate the feel of solid ground.

“Keep moving!” screamed Eleanor, but it was too late.

Annabelle tried to walk, but couldn’t move forward, as if she were snagged on something. She turned to look and realized with horror that Long Arm’s long arm had grabbed the back of her shirt and was pulling her back across the rickety plank.

“Here!” said Eleanor, tossing Annabelle another set of handcuffs. With the grace of a gazelle standing on the edge of a pier while being dragged backward into peril, Annabelle attached one end of the handcuffs to the rickety wooden railing and the other to the extended wrist of Long Arm’s long arm.

Which meant that Long Arm could only pull her back so far. But he still wasn’t letting go.

If only he weren’t so very strong, thought Annabelle. But Long Arm was so very strong. Bellows of rage ensued as he pulled with all his might against the handcuffs.

Annabelle sensed that the rickety railing was not going to last long.

“What do we do?” she pleaded, hoping that something in Eleanor’s vast training would have prepared her for this particular situation.

“I don’t know!” said Eleanor. “Do you have any of Floyd’s devices?”

“The only one I have left just makes a cup of cocoa!”

“That does sound delicious, but…”

Annabelle had an idea. “What would Ninja say?”

Eleanor’s eyes got wide. “Everyone has a weakness!”

In Annabelle’s experience, this was true. Her teacher Mr. Potter could be distracted out of giving a scheduled quiz if you asked him enough questions about mini golf. Ellen produced undignified purrs when scratched behind her left ear. And no matter how busy she was, Annabelle’s mom could always be lured away from her paperwork by the scent of a fresh-from-the-oven oatmeal raisin cookie. Which was the reason Annabelle had learned to bake in the first place.

Long Arm is very emotional, thought Annabelle. My uncle Duncan is very emotional. My Uncle Duncan is extremely ticklish. Might Long Arm also be—?

Long Arm gave another mighty yank. The the splintering rail was threatening to give up.

“Tickle him!” screamed Annabelle.

Eleanor’s face wrinkled up as if Annabelle had asked her to tickle a tarantula.

Another yank. The railing shuddered.

“Just do it! On the wrist. Just a little tickle. I’d do it myself, but I have to…”

YANK

“…hold onto…”

YANK

“…this railing!”

Eleanor reached out with her pointer finger, and gave Long arm the tiniest tickle on the wrist. And that’s all it took. From inside the boat, they heard a high-pitched shrieking sort of wild and unhinged cackle.

“Stop it! No! Nononononono! Please! HA HA HAHAHA! I can’t take it! STOP!”

“I will if you let go of Annabelle!” Eleanor bellowed.

“I can’t. Ha ha. I WON’T!” As he laughed, Long Arm clenched Annabelle’s shirt even harder.

Eleanor’s face went from worried to just plain mad, and she began to tickle Long Arm’s wrist with gusto.

The laughing got louder and even more crazed as Long Arm’s grip softened just a bit.

“It’s working!” said Annabelle. “Keep going!”

“I’m tickling as hard as I can,” said Eleanor, who was now using both hands to tickle Long Arm’s wrist in two different places.

“We’re almost there,” said Annabelle, “Try something else!”

“What?”

“I don’t know! Make him laugh harder!”

“Hey, Long Arm,” shouted Eleanor, “Why was the little cookie sad?”

“HAHAHAHAHA. I don’t know. Why? HAHAHAHA?”

“Because his mommy was so crumby and his daddy was a wafer so long.”

Long Arm’s erupted in a geyser of laughter so wild and reckless and frightening that Annabelle worried he might explode. His grip loosened a little more. And then a tiny bit more. Annabelle waited for a particularly intense burst of laughter and then pulled forward with all her might just as the railing gave out, and Long Arm pulled his long arm back inside the boat.

His laughter was replaced by a bellow of rage.

“Let’s go!” shouted Annabelle.

“In a minute” said Eleanor, who ran to the piling, untied the rope attaching the boat to the pier, and gave it a good shove.

“Help me,” she said. Keeping an eye out for the arm, Eleanor and Annabelle pushed the boat away from the pier and out into the harbor.

“Now can we go?” said Annabelle.

“Is crème brule the tastiest dessert you can make with a blowtorch?”

“Was that a yes?”

“Yes.”

Eleanor raised her hand and held an open palm out for Annabelle. Annabelle moved her own palm in a perfect arc, completing a high five so crisp and confident and satisfying that Annabelle knew in the depths of her heart that she and Eleanor had been put on the planet to save the world together.

 

Chapter 10: People Can Get Duped and Led Astray

Annabelle spent approximately four seconds feeling sullen and defeated before remembering that world-saving required steely resolve and creative thinking.

My hands alone will not solve this problem, she thought. What other tools do I have at my disposal?

Annabelle glanced down at the Stun-Tastic. As far as she knew, it turned a person’s insides into cottage cheese. Might it also turn a locked metal door into cottage cheese? she wondered.

Annabelle decided to find out.

She pointed the stun-tastic, pulled the trigger, and held on for dear life as the device vibrated enthusiastically while launching a blue-green beam of pure mystery at the unyielding rectangle of reinforced steel.

Moments later, Annabelle was staring at an open doorway at the base of which was a steaming pile of what definitely appeared to be cottage cheese.

Amazing, thought Annabelle. But there was no time to enjoy her minor victory. Annabelle raced into the building and found herself inside a cavernous space full of bizarre machinery, the purpose of which she could not begin to imagine.

She saw Larf near the top of a tall ladder that led to a high catwalk. He’d had such a big head start that Annabelle knew she couldn’t catch up.

And so she reached into her backpack. She had two devices left. She still had no idea what they did. But if Annabelle didn’t stop Larf immediately, Eleanor might not make it. And rampaging cats might tear Lower Barmonia apart.

The utter destruction of everything…thought Annabelle. Not on my watch!

She held the two devices side by side. The label for the first one read:

TURNS OUT THE LIGHTS.

The second one read:

MAKES THE PERFECT CUP OF COCOA.

As much as Annabelle might have liked some hot chocolate right about now, she didn’t see how it would help her capture Larf, so she grabbed the other device and pushed the button and hoped for the best.

Instantly, it was pitch black. Be careful what you wish for, thought Annabelle, wondering suddenly why she thought it would be a good idea to be without lights.

Annabelle considered asking Larf if he also couldn’t see, but before she had the chance, he wailed, “I CAN’T SEE!”

At which point, Annabelle decided that it made a lot more sense to just stay quiet.

“WHO TURNED OUT THE LIGHTS?! THIS IS AWFUL! WAAAAAAA!”

Annabelle had a pretty good idea where the ladder had been, and so she felt her way through the pitch blackness and quietly climbed up to the catwalk.

Larf continued to complain about how dark and awful it was, making it easy for Annabelle to follow the sound of his voice until she was so close that she could feel Larf’s candy-scented breath on her arm.

Gradually but steadily, the light was returning. Annabelle knew she didn’t have much time.

She carefully removed the cat-control device from the loop in Larf’s belt and carefully removed the set of handcuffs from her backpack and carefully closed one end around the catwalk.

Just as Annabelle was closing the other end of the handcuffs around Larf’s ankle, the light returned. Larf lurched to grab Annabelle, but since he was handcuffed to the catwalk, he lost his balance and tumbled into empty air.

“Why doesn’t this catwalk have a safety railing?” Larf complained in showy outrage as he dangled by his ankle.

“Lower Barmonia is known for inadequate safety regulations,” said Annabelle.

“I’ll get you!” said Larf as he reached for his belt.

“Looking for this?” asked Annabelle, holding up the cat control device triumphantly and allowing herself a smug smile.

“Darn it.”

Annabelle turned the dial all the way to the left and could almost feel the collective relief of Lower Barmonia as ten thousand cats switched from murderous rampage back to synchronized show tunes.

Annabelle looked down at Larf and said, “The tables have turned.” It was the sort of thing she was pretty sure she was supposed to say in a moment like this, even though there had never been a moment like this in her life.

Now that she had Larf where she wanted him, Annabelle didn’t quite know what to do with him. To her surprise, Larf started to cry big, gushing tears that made him sound like a walrus stuck between two rocks.

“I’m so, so sorry,” said Larf. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I’m not a bad guy. I’m spineless and feeble minded and easily influenced by charismatic criminal masterminds. It’s all Fungo’s fault. He’s the worst.”

“Excuse me?” said Annabelle, who had spent the entire day watching Larf participate in the utter destruction of everything.

“I’m just a pawn, I swear. I’m ready to talk! I have all the information you need!”

“You can start by giving me Eleanor’s backpack.”

“Sure, of course,” said Larf, slipping the backpack off of his shoulders and tossing it up to Annabelle.

Annabelle knew that she had to get the epi pen to Eleanor as quickly as possible. But she also knew that Larf was the one person with the information she needed to track down Dr. Fungo.

“And the snow globe?”

“I shipped it to Fungo this afternoon via overnight global delivery service.”

“That must have been very expensive.”

“It was.”

“But Long Arm said you were to deliver it to Fungo in person.”

“I’m terrible at following directions.”

Taking one look at the blubbering, dangling mess, Annabelle believed it.

“What about the note that was inside it—the one with the location of Fungo’s HQ?”

“It’s in my pocket.”

“Which pocket?”

“The pocket of my jeans.”

Annabelle looked down. There was no way she was going to get the note out of the pocket of Larf’s jeans without first hauling him back up onto the catwalk.

“Ok. Then. What did it say on the paper? Which HQ is Fungo hiding out in?”

“I have no idea!”

“Liar!” Annabelle pointed the Stun-Tastic at Larf, still not much liking the thought of pulling the trigger.

“I can tell you my best guesses!”

“I’m listening.”

“Well, he could be holed up in his elaborate undersea lair beneath the Arctic Ice Cap. Or maybe lurking in the secret room above his used car dealership, Fords of Norway.

“Where is that?”

“New Jersey. Exit 13A. Or he could be in his skull-shaped fortress on the Island of Miniature Porcupines. He really likes it there.”

Why?

“Because there are no cats.”

“And lots of tiny porcupines, I imagine?”

“Oddly, not a single one.”

“Weird.”

“I know, right?”

For a moment, neither one of them said anything. But Larf was quickly turning purple, and Annabelle was starting to feel sorry for him.

“Now that I’ve helped you, can you please, please help me back up?” he pleaded. “I’m starting to get dizzy. Soon I’ll be no use to you.”

Annabelle looked down. Larf looked so pitiful, it was impossible to believe he could be truly evil. People can get duped and led astray, thought Annabelle, People can change.

Larf reached up and Annabelle reached down. Slowly and with great effort, she helped him climb back onto the catwalk.

“You’re surprisingly strong,” said Larf.

“Thanks. You’re unsurprisingly heavy.”

“Thanks. Could you…?” Larf gestured to his ankle, which was still handcuffed to the catwalk.

Annabelle took out the key and unlocked Larf.

“Whew. Thanks,” said Larf, rubbing his ankle. “The next step is to get to your HQ so that I can tell your people everything I know about Fungo and his evil intentions. We’ll have him thwarted by dinner time.”

Annabelle felt a huge wave of relief. She had stopped the cats. She had retrieved Eleanor’s backpack. And she had convinced Fungo’s henchman to give up all his darkest secrets.

Well done, Annabelle, she thought to herself. Well done.

“That sounds like a plan.”

“Excellent,” he said. “So where is your HQ?”

“On an desolate island off the coast of Ye Olde Drumburgh, just south of Tragic Rock.”

Larf smiled. “See? We’re such good friends now. Isn’t it better this way?”

Annabelle admitted it was better being on Larf’s good side than his bad one. She relaxed just a little. She put the Stun-Tastic back into her backpack.

At which point, Larf gave Annabelle a shove, which made Annabelle lose her balance, which made her fall off the catwalk.

“Ha, ha, ha!” said Larf as Annabelle plummeted toward the concrete floor below.

Annabelle surprised herself by twisting acrobatically midair and landing on two feet with the grace of an extremely fortunate gazelle.

“Wow,” said Larf. “Surprising result. Still, I’m up here and you’re down there.”

“But I have your cat-control device!” said Annabelle, holding it triumphantly above her head.

“That’s ok,” said Larf, “I don’t need it any more.”

“Why not?”

“That device was a temporary measure to get things started,” Larf looked at his watch. “In 17 minutes and 32 seconds…The Machine becomes operational.”

“And what is The Machine?

“I’ll never tell.”

Annabelle pulled out the Stun-Tastic and pointed at Larf.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

“Why not?”

“Because I might drop this,” said Larf, pulling a tube from the pocket of his vest. “It’s extremely fragile.”

“Eleanor’s epi pen!”

Larf tossed the epi pen into the air. When it came to choosing between turning Larf into cottage cheese and saving Eleanor’s life, there was no choice at all. Annabelle raced across the room, leaped over a jagged heap of machine parts, an extremely rusty saw blade, and a patch of oily concrete, and caught the pen inches before it hit the floor. Annabelle couldn’t help but thinking that Ninja would have been proud.

When Annabelle glanced up again, Larf was disappearing through an open door at the far end of the catwalk.

“Drat!” said Annabelle, closing her eyes and allowing herself just a second to feel sorry for herself.

But just a second later, she was sprinting back to Eleanor. All around her were yawning, indifferent cats, wandering around as scratched and bleeding people cried and screamed and swore.

When Annabelle got back to the alley, Eleanor was limp and pale and seemingly lifeless. Annabelle bent down and felt for a pulse. It was faint, but Eleanor was still breathing!

As Annabelle reached into her backpack to pull out the epi pen, Eleanor’s body started to rise into the air.

“I’m too late!” thought Annabelle. “She’s dead! And now she’s being taken to a better place.”

But then she looked closer and saw that Eleanor was being lifted by an arm. A long arm. A shockingly long arm. Annabelle’s eyes followed the arm up, and up, and up, all the way to the rooftop above her head. The arm was attached to…

“Ha ha ha ha!” cackled Long Arm, whose arm was not just long but also extremely strong.

With surprising-yet-intuitive burst of self confidence, Annabelle pulled out the epi pen, took careful aim, and threw it like a dart at the fleshy part of Eleanor’s thigh, where, to Annabelle’s immense relief, it stuck.

A moment later, Eleanor revived, saw what was happening, and glanced down at Annabelle.

“Thanks,” she said.

“I’ll rescue you!” said Annabelle.

“I seriously doubt it,” said Long Arm, cackling.

“For the record, I agree that it’s unlikely,” said Eleanor. “But please do try.”

“I absolutely will!”

Moments later, an enormous black helicopter appeared. Long Arm and Eleanor disappeared inside. And then were gone.

A moment after that, Mr. Jingles poked his nose into the alley. Angry Mr. Jingles. Followed by his army of angry cats.

Annabelle pulled out the cat control device and turned the knob all the way to the left. But Jingles and his army continued to advance, their eyes smoldering with menace. The device started making an angry mechanical honking song, and the following words appeared on the display.

OVERRIDE!!! OVERRIDE!!! THE MACHINE IS OPERATIONAL!!! HA HA HA HA HA!!!

Annabelle was entirely fed up. She leaped onto a dumpster, wriggled through a window, ran through the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant, stopped briefly to sample some fresh dumplings, sprinted out into the street, dodged a smattering of angry cats, hailed a cab, and told the driver to take her to the airport.

As the cab sped through streets full of rampaging cats, Annabelle had an awful realization. She had told Larf the location of the new HQ. Em and Floyd and Ninja were in peril!

Using Eleanor’s device, she called Floyd.

“Confirmation code?”

“What, hello?”

“Confirmation code!” Annabelle knew that Floyd knew who she was.

“Ugh. Sorry. I don’t know it.”

Floyd hung up. Annabelle called again.

“Confirmation code?”

“Floyd, I know that’s you. This is Annab—”

“I’m sorry, but without a confirmation code, I can’t continue this conversation.”

“But I have something important to—!”

Floyd hung up again.

While Annabelle imagined kicking Floyd in the shin, the device buzzed and glowed orange.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Annabelle, this is Em.”

“I’m so sorry, I don’t have a confirmation code.”

“That’s ok. I told Floyd to go peel some potatoes. What’s up?”

“I might have accidentally revealed the location of the new HQ to Larf.”

“That’s extremely disappointing.”

“I know. I’m really sorry.”

“This is one of those cases where a mere apology doesn’t quite cut it.”

“But I did discover that he is working on a top-secret evil device called The Machine.

“I’m suddenly a little less disappointed. What does it do?”

“No idea. But Larf said that it was going to be activated in 15 minutes. And that was about 17 minutes ago.”

“Oh no.”

“What?”

“Another invasion. Cats. So many of them.”

“But that desolate island has no cats.”

“They are arriving in tiny speedboats.”

“But!”

“I’ve never seen anything so dastardly. “

“Em!”

“Stop Fungo, Annabelle! Rescue Eleanor! You’re our only hope. We have reason to believe that Long Arm has a houseboat in Dusseldam.”

“But I can’t—

“Aaaaarrhhghh!”

The line went dead.

What have I done? thought Annabelle.

But instead of feeling sorry for herself, she remembered what Em had said when she was stuck in the duffel bag.

“There is a way. There is always a way,” said Annabelle out loud.

“That’s really good advice,” said the cab driver.

The cab pulled up to the airport and Annabelle bought a ticket to Dusseldam.

On the plane she slept. She was incredibly tired. She did not even wake up for the free peanuts.