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 16: A Way of Not Staying Thwarted for Long

As the world flew by outside her window, Annabelle sat there marveling at all that had happened since she left home.

“Do either of you guys want some hot chocolate?” she asked.

Floyd’s eyes lit up. “My device!” he said. But then he remembered, “It’s untested.”

“What could go wrong?” asked Annabelle.

“Everything,” said Eleanor, with the knowing glance of someone who had been at the wrong end of Floyd’s experiments.

“Anything worse than what we’ve already been through today?” said Annabelle.

“Probably not,” said Floyd.

“All right then,” said Annabelle, taking out the device and placing it on her lap. “Shall I?”

Eleanor nodded. Floyd gave her the thumbs up.

Annabelle pressed the button and nothing went wrong. Floyd’s device brewed four perfect mugs of hot chocolate.

“Don’t get me wrong,” I like this hot chocolate a lot,” said Annabelle. But I’m wondering why you don’t just use a kettle of water and cocoa mix. Why all the complexity?”

“Oh, it’s not just normal hot chocolate,” said Floyd, taking a long, satisfying sip from his mug. “We’ll all be invisible for the next three hours.”

But before he reached the end of the sentence, he disappeared. They all did.

Annabelle made a note to talk to Floyd later about how he might label his devices more helpfully in the future.

But not now. Sitting there drinking cocoa with her invisible friends with whom she had just saved the world, the moment was just too perfect.

Eventually, the helicopter flew into a narrow valley that became an even narrower canyon lined with jagged rocks and sturdy pines.

Eleanor handed Annabelle a parachute. “Here you go.”

Annabelle looked down at the world flashing by. She still didn’t want to jump, but was pleased this time to have a moment to collect her thoughts without being rushed by angry cats.

“Just you, little fellow,” she said tucking the shoebox carefully inside her coat, taking a deep breath, and leaping into the open air.

Em was sitting at her table when Annabelle entered the Dojo.

“This looks exactly like the old HQ,” said Annabelle.

“Ninja doesn’t like change,” said Em. “We like to keep him as comfortable as possible.”

Annabelle didn’t want to spoil the mood, but she had something important to say.

“I’m sorry.”

Em looked at her with surprise. “What for?”

“For telling Larf the location of the old HQ. For being occasionally hesitant when action was required. For failing to catch Dr. Fungo. He’s still out there somewhere.”

“First off, I didn’t like that HQ. Too drafty. And you learned your lesson. Right?”

“Right.”

“Which is?”

“Never reveal the location of the HQ?”

“No. When designing laser-hand robots, prioritize function over countdowns and purple smoke.”

“Got it.”

“Second, sometimes it’s better to take no action than the wrong one. Did things turn out ok in the end?”

“Yes.”

“Then you have nothing to apologize for. This was your first mission after all.”

Annabelle thought about that, and for the very frist time, successfully resisted her usual temptation to be as hard on herself as possible.

“As for Fungo,” said Em, “don’t feel bad for a second. We never catch him. We’ve thwarted him at least a dozen times now, and he always escapes. Every time. It’s uncanny.”

“Every time?”

“Its like someone doesn’t want him to stay caught.”

Annabelle felt better, but just a little.

Em stood up and smoothed her stylish jacket and looked Annabelle in the eye.

“Well, Annabelle. You’ve done it. You have succeeded in the impossible.”

“Stopping Fungo and destroying The Machine?”

“No,” said Em. “Although I am glad and grateful, the fact that you accomplished these things was merely unlikely. The truly impossible thing you did was give me back my hope.”

“But how did I do that?”

“By escaping from Minos. By saving Eleanor. By fooling Long Arm. By climbing down the right gullet. By defeating Fungo and his 100 foolishly designed robots. By being you. By always finding a way.”

Annabelle wanted to point out that she ways always herself, but it didn’t look like Em was finished.

“I suddenly believe that the world can be saved.”

“That’s wonderful.”

“It really is.”

“And what have you learned?” asked Em, suddenly quite serious.

Annabelle thought about that. She had done and seen so much. Before she could think of anything specific to say, Em continued.

“Remember how I told you that you’d eventually know everything?

Annabelle did remember. It had been a compelling claim. “Yes.”

“Well do you?”

“Know everything?”

“Yes.”

“No way.”

“But do you know more than you did two weeks ago?”

“So much more.”

“Then would you say you’re moving in the right direction?”

Annabelle smiled. “I would,” she said, “I definitely would.”

Em and Annabelle smiled at one another, continuing their conversation at a much deeper level than words could possibly capture.

But Annabelle had the sense there was still something more to know, and apparently Em could tell.

“You have a sense that there’s still more to know, don’t you?”

“I’m afraid so. Sorry!”

“No, no. You have a right to know. Have a seat.”

Annabelle did.

“For as long as the world has been around, there have been people trying to take more than their share. Fungo is a great example, but so was his father, Mitchell. And for as long as there have been people like that, there has been a clandestine network of girls about your age with pure hearts and focused minds to thwart them. Rhonda was a member when she was your age. And then she grew up and became their leader and recruited me. And now I am the person in charge of finding and training and protecting the Girl Detectives.”

Annabelle gasped. All of this was even more official and important than she had thought.

“How many of us are there?”

Em frowned and paused and looked wistfully out the window.

“There are two.”

Annabelle was pretty sure she must have heard wrong.

“You did not hear wrong. I said two.”

“Eleanor and me?”

“That’s it.”

“But…why?”

“Because young women with the necessary collection of intangibles are getting harder and harder to find. We look long and hard, but everyone seems distracted with hand-held devices.”

Annabelle suddenly felt sheepish for wanting a device. But she also felt more inspired than ever to do whatever she could on behalf of the world. On the one hand, Annabelle missed Ellen and her parents and was ready to go home. But if the world’s supply of Girl Detectives was down to two, Annabelle was ready to do whatever Em needed her to do.

“I’m ready to do whatever you need me to do.”

Em looked at her with a sad smile.

“Thank you for that…but it’s time for you to go home.

“But—!”

“I will be resuming my previous duties,” Em continued, “and you will return to the business of finishing middle school and caring for the world’s most sensible cat.”

The word “school” sounded strange to Annabelle’s ears, like a part of her distant past, and the thought of going back was like the thought of un-jumping off of a diving board. She liked being Annabelle Adams, Girl Detective.

But Em had gone back to writing something, and it seemed that the conversation was over.

Annabelle walked toward the door of the dojo.

“Annabelle”

“Yes?”

“Don’t forget to take your toothbrush.”

“Of course not,” said Annabelle, once again turning to leave.

“Also,”

“Yes?”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Also.”

“Yes?”

“I’m certain that we’ll be seeing each other again. Fungo has a way of not staying thwarted for long.”

“I’ll be ready,” said Annabelle, walking out of Em’s office and into the dojo and back into her old life again.

 


 

Chapter 15: But Isn’t It Exciting?

“Turn the dial back to the middle,” said Annabelle. Floyd and Ninja did, and suddenly, the kitten stopped dancing.

Annabelle could almost feel the world take a collective sigh of relief.

“Well done, little fellow,” she said.

“What happened?” asked Eleanor, who was sitting up groggily and rubbing the back of her head.

“Eleanor!” said Floyd.

“Floyd!” said Eleanor.

They hugged a little bit longer than Annabelle thought secret agents were probably supposed to.

Then Eleanor turned to Annabelle. “You saved the day, didn’t you?”

“Well, all of us did.”

Ninja winced in a way that caused a dimple to appear on his left cheek.

Eleanor smiled. “Ninja says you were great. That we never could have defeated Fungo without you. That you saved us all from 100 exciting laser-hand robots. That I should cut you some slack and forgive you for making a mistake. That it’s time for us to make up.”

“Ninja is wise,” said Annabelle.

“That he is,” said Eleanor.

And the two of them hugged for even longer.

“What I can’t understand,” said Floyd, “is why that kitten stayed so calm and cute inside the box, even when the dial was turned all the way to the right.”

“I’ve been wondering that, too,” said Annabelle.

“I had a hunch,” said Eleanor, “that maybe kittens weren’t effected by The Machine. When we were in that animal shelter in Lower Barmonia, I noticed that Larf hadn’t bothered to rescue the kittens. When we were in Mustrecht, I slipped into a pet shop and confirmed it. All the adult cats were going nuts inside their cages, but the kittens were acting completely normal. And so I bought one, thinking he might come in handy.”

“He certainly did,” said Annabelle, scooping up the tiny cat that had just saved the world and giving him a loving scratch behind the ear.

“What next?” said Floyd, who still sounded a little wheezy.

“Let’s make sure this never happens again,” said Eleanor.

“Agreed,” said Annabelle. “Robots. Fungo is gone. I am now the boss of you. Your new target is The Machine.”

The 99 robots turned to face the machine. “ACQUIRING TARGET,” they said. “CHARGING IN 10, 9, 8…”

“Robots, you’ve already charged. You don’t need to do the countdown,” said Annabelle.

“WE KNOW,” said 99 robots, “BUT ISN’T IT EXCITING?”

Annabelle had to admit it kind of was. She joined the robots in the countdown. And then she watched as their hand lasers shot 198 powerful jets of unrelenting energy that incinerated the machine into satisfying heaps of smoldering rubble.

“Man, I want hand lasers,” said Annabelle.

“I’m working on it,” said Floyd.

“Thanks.”

“I think we’re done here,” said Eleanor.

“I still have one question,” said Annabelle. “Who was it that Long Arm was telling to go ‘down the gullet’ when you overheard him in the houseboat?”

“I have no idea,” said Eleanor.

“It was I,” said Larf, suddenly popping up from the hole in the middle of the floor, carrying an awful-looking rocket launcher type weapon and pointing it directly at Annabelle.

“Hey now!” said Annabelle.

“Not cool,” said Eleanor.

“Who’s this guy?” asked Floyd.

“I used to be a henchman,” said Larf. “But now that you guys have taken care of the boss, I’m next in line for the chair/throne thing.”

“You and what army?” asked Annabelle.

“Turn around,” said Larf.

They turned around. The 99 robots were pointing their laser hands menacingly.

“Seriously?” said Annabelle. “I thought we were finished with this part.”

“Evil is never finished,” said Larf. “It goes on and on.”

“Darn it,” said Eleanor.

“Why did Long Arm send you here?” asked Annabelle, sensing complicated family dynamics among the evil leadership.

“After Fungo fired me, Long Arm asked me to sneak into HQ and kidnap Franz. He and Fungo were having a custody dispute.”

“Custody dispute?”

“Fungo and Long Arm got Franz to keep them company while they were building The Machine. But eventually, Fungo and Long Arm grew apart. Great evil collaborations don’t last forever. There was tension. Hurt feelings.  You know how it is.”

“I absolutely don’t,” said Annabelle. “But go on.”

“Long Arm wanted to take Franz and go sulk in his houseboat, but Fungo said no way and banished him to the candy shop in Lower Barmonia. The rest is history.”

“Who does Franz actually belong to?”

“He’s mine, of course,” said Larf, “But isn’t the more important question ‘Who controls the robot army?’ Long Arm designed them to obey whoever holds this evil-looking remote control.”

Larf held up a truly evil-looking remote control. Everyone gasped.

“Now, everyone please hold still so that the robots can process your locations then incinerate you so that I can take Franz and get out of here.”

“LASERS CHARGING in 10, 9, 8…”

With a flash of pent-up irritation, Ninja sprinted across the room and give Larf a series of quick punches, causing him to drop the enormous rocket launcher on his toe and then jump around pathetically.

Ninja pushed a couple of buttons on the remote control, and suddenly the 99 robots started incinerating each other with their laser hands. In less than fifteen seconds, the HQ was filled with 99 piles of smoldering robot parts.

Ninja wiggled his nose and lifted one of his eyebrows while giving the tiniest smile.

“Ninja says that sometimes all you need to solve a problem is one especially irritated ninja,” said Eleanor.

“I know,” said Annabelle. “I speak Ninja.”

“I’d really like to handcuff Larf to a railing,” said Eleanor, but I left my cuffs on Long Arm’s houseboat.”

“Here,” said Floyd. “I always carry extras.”

“Good old Floyd,” said Annabelle. “Do you have two sets?”

“Of course.”

Working together, Annabelle and Eleanor handcuffed Larf’s hands and legs to a railing.

There was a low rumbling sound as the skull’s enormous jaws started opening again.

“What now?” asked Annabelle.

“This can’t be good,” said Eleanor, as everyone braced for the worst.

But, as it turns out, it was all right. As sunlight streamed in through the open mouth, they saw a figure striding confidently toward them, surrounded by thousands of…

“Miniature porcupines!” said Annabelle.

“Where have they been all this time?” asked Eleanor.

“No one knows,” said the person walking toward them. “But here they are.”

“Rhonda!” said Annabelle. “But I didn’t even press the beacon!”

“It’s not actually a beacon,” said Rhonda. “It’s a tiny listening device that I’ve been using to follow your every move.”

“But!”

“I work for Em,” said Rhonda. “She thought that maybe you could use a little help.”

For about half a second, Annabelle was irritated that no one seemed to think her capable of running her own mission. But then she remembered that she had her friends had just saved the world and that it had taken every last one of them to do it.

“She was absolutely right.”

The miniature porcupines were milling cheerful about, gnawing on bits of incinerated robot.

“Should they be doing that?” asked Eleanor.

“Miniature porcupines are capable of digesting scrap metal,” said Floyd.

“Really?” said Annabelle.

“Really,” said Floyd. “They are an extremely strange species, not at all related to regular porcupines.”

“Weird,” said Annabelle.

“I know, right?”

“Shall we leave them to reclaim their island,” suggested Eleanor.

“And get ourselves back to the new HQ?” said Floyd.

“I thought it had been destroyed!” said Annabelle, suddenly feeling guilty all over again.

“We have an even newer one,” said Floyd, smiling. “Would you like to see it?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” said Annabelle.

When they walked outside, they were greeted with the clearest, bluest, blue sky morning any of them had ever seen.

“What a beautiful day,” said Annabelle.

“What a beautiful world,” said Rhonda.

“It really is,” said Annabelle.

“Thanks to us,” said Floyd.

“Look,” said Eleanor. It was hard to believe, but eager plants were already pushing their way up through the rocky soil.

“Amazing,” said Annabelle.

Floyd woofed. The kitten meowed.

Everyone was in a really good mood.

 

When they got to Rhonda’s boat, Long Arm was sitting in the back seat, handcuffed to a railing and looking put out.

“I found him drifting in his houseboat, not far from where Susie and her friends were planning on having lunch,” said Rhonda. “And he still hasn’t thanked me.”

“Franz!” said Long Arm.

Franz jumped up and licked Long Arm’s face. “Franzie boy!”

“He’ll be coming with us,” said Eleanor.

“And you’ll be coming with me,” said Rhonda, giving Long Arm a disapproving look. And then she yelled, “Hold on,” without really waiting for everyone to sit down. The boat lurched forward.

“But what about the reef with razor sharp—” said Annabelle as Rhonda pushed a button that turned the speedboat into a hovercraft.

“Whoah!” said Annabelle, as they skated gracefully across the surface of the water and across the jagged reef.

“But why didn’t you do that on our way to Fungo’s HQ?”

“The story wouldn’t have been as interesting,” said Rhonda.  Annabelle was thinking about that, but not for long. They were approaching the place where the sharks had been, but Rhonda showed no sign of slowing down.

“But don’t you have to—?” said Eleanor.

“I’m fresh out of Mentos,” said Rhonda. “So today, we’re going to outrun them.”

After a good long while, Rhonda stopped the boat, and a submarine surfaced right next to them. The hatch opened, and a man stepped out.

“I’m a sailor.”

“Let me guess. Your name is Sailor?” said Annabelle.

“You’re good,” said the man.

Annabelle climbed onto the submarine, followed by Floyd, Eleanor, and an extremely unhappy Franz.

“Aren’t you coming?” Annabelle asked Rhonda.

“Nope. Someone has to take Larf Long Arm to Wonderland.”

“But why? That sounds so fun.”

“Not at all. It’s the most heavily guarded prison in the world.”

“It’s so top secret, I don’t even know where it is,” said Rhonda.

“Then how do you find it?” asked Annabelle.

“Exactly,” said Rhonda.

It seemed to Annabelle that the logic of things wasn’t quite working out, but Rhonda didn’t seem to think it was a problem, so Annabelle decided not to make it one.

“Well, goodbye then,” she said to Rhonda, “And thanks. For everything.”

“You did good, Kid. Glad to have you on board.”

“Technically, she just got off,” said Long Arm.

Rhonda scoffed at Long Arm. Then smiled at Annabelle. But just for a second.

“Hold on!” she said, gunning the throttle and knocking Larf and Long Arm back into their seats. “Whoops!” she said. And then she was gone.

 

The submarine took them to an underwater base where they were directed to a tunnel, through which they rode bicycles for a very long time. At the other end of the tunnel, a helicopter was waiting.

“Where are we headed?” asked Annabelle.

“Back to HQ,” said Eleanor.

“Where’s that?” said Annabelle.

Eleanor gave her a long look that wandered through several emotions before melting eventually into a warm smile. “A secluded canyon in the jagged mountains of West Humbacher.”

“Thanks,” said Annabelle, feeling like her heart was back to the right size again.

“Don’t mention it,” said Eleanor. “To anyone.”

“I definitely won’t.”

 

 

Chapter 14: Suddenly Slightly Less Winded

Annabelle wished there were some way to call her parents so that she could say goodbye. In spite of their various shortcomings, she loved them and was grateful for giving her a very good life.

But her hands and feet here bound by robotic arms, so there was no way to grab Eleanor’s device and place the call. And so she closed her eyes and thought about Ellen and hoped that Max’s hand lasers would do their job quickly.

Just then, Annabelle heard a sound like the end of the world. Her eyes flew open as one of the colossal eye-socket windows shattered into a million pieces. A bright white streak shot through the air above her head landed with astonishing grace on the ground beside her.

“Ninja!” Annabelle had never been so happy.

“NEW TARGET ACQUIRED. REPROCESSING!” said Max.

“Do you have any idea how much that window cost?” Dr. Fungo wailed, brushing tiny pebbles of safety glass off the shoulder of his evil smock. “The question was not rhetorical!” he said, stomping his small, angry foot and glaring at Ninja.

Ninja’s right eye twitched.

“Darn it! I know you’re trying to tell me something,” said Annabelle, reminding herself that she simply had to learn to speak Ninja at the soonest opportunity.

“Something really important?” she prompted, doing the best to read the contours of Ninja’s face.

Ninja nodded. Much more vigorously than Ninja usually did.

“CHARGING LASERS IN 10, 9…” said Max.

“They don’t need to charge, Max!” said Fungo. “They are already charged! Incinerate the ninja now, please!”

“His name is Ninja!” said Annabelle, defiantly.

“ …7, 6, 5…”

“Seriously, Max. I am the boss of you,” said Fungo. “Please fire now.”

Ninja’s face was a carnival of twitches, tics, and wiggles.

“Sorry, Ninja, I just don’t understand.”

“MAX, I COMMAND YOU TO FIRE!”

“…3, 2…”

Just then, there was another thundering crash as something shattered the other enormous eye socket window. There was a blur of a streak and a roar, and then Floyd was standing beside Annabelle, grinning wildly and wearing an impressive looking jetpack.

“Floyd!”

“Annabelle,” said Floyd, trying to look serious, but obviously quite delighted to have broken Fungo’s window.

“Couldn’t you have just come in through the one that was already broken?” asked Fungo, even more irritated.

“NEW TARGET ACQUIRED, REPROCESSING,” said Max.

Isn’t it exciting how he has to charge before he can fire?” asked Annabelle with glee.

“Aaaaargh!” wailed Fungo with glee’s polar opposite.

“CHARGING IN 10, 9, 8…”

“Do you guys have a plan?” Annabelle asked Floyd, who was holding up a finger as if to say, I am currently winded and not quite able to speak.

Annabelle gulped. There were no more eye socket windows left to shatter. No more allies to come to the rescue and throw Max off his game. At some point, Max was actually going to fire.

“Suddenly, I’m slightly less winded,” said Floyd, still gasping, but standing upright again.

Floyd glanced over at Ninja, whose face was trying its hardest to be understood.

“Are you sure?” asked Floyd.

Ninja nodded.

“All right!”

“What did the ninja say?” said Fungo.

“HIS NAME IS NINJA!” said Annabelle and Floyd together.

“…6, 5, 4…”

“Ninja says it’s time for the Triple Jimbo,” Floyd whispered to Annabelle.

“I heard that!” said Fungo.

“How exciting!” said Annabelle, “But…I never learned how it works.”

“That’s ok,” said Floyd. “You just stay put, and we’ll take care of the rest.”

“Doesn’t it require all three of us?”

“Strange as it sounds, the Triple Jimbo only requires two people.”

“Weird.”

“I know, right?”

“…3, 2…” said Max.

“What’s this Triple Jimbo?” said Fungo, suspiciously, “It sounds like a game changer.”

“It absolutely is,” said Floyd. “Ready, Ninja?”

“Ninja nodded.”

“…1…” said Max. “LASERS CHARGED.”

“FINALLY!” said Fungo. “FIRE! FIRE!”

“I AM SERIOUSLY CONSIDERING IT,” said Max, slowly raising his laser hands.

But just then, Floyd lunged to the left of Max and Ninja to the right, running in circles around him in opposite directions.

Max’s robotic head kept pivoting back and forth, trying to follow both Floyd and Ninja at once and having a difficult time of it.

“CONFUSING SITUATION,” said Max. “REPROCESSING.”

“Incinerate one of them at a time!” Fungo pleaded. “This isn’t hard. Or incinerate Annabelle, at least! SHE IS NOT MOVING!”

“PLEASE REMAIN QUIET AND CALM WHILE I REPROCESS,” said Max with a lack of expression that made him sound even creepier.

Suddenly, Floyd and Ninja started running together in the same direction, and as they did, Max’s head spun slowly counterclockwise, trying to track their movements but never quite catching up.

“MY NECK SEEMS TO BE GETTING LONGER AND LONGER,” said Max, as the threads of the mighty bolt that held his head in place became exposed.

“Your head isn’t just…screwed on, is it?” asked Fungo in horror.

Max’s head fell off and landed on the floor. “REPROCESSING,” it said. The rest of Max just stood there.

“The Triple Jimbo! It worked!” said Annabelle.

“Design flaw!” screamed Fungo.

“Woof,” said Franz. He had found a rubber ball and was looking hopefully at up Fungo and wagging his tail.

“Victory!” said Floyd.

“Not quite,” said Fungo. He pushed a button, and 99 more robots identical to Max rose up through the floor and pointed their laser hands at Floyd.

Annabelle was undaunted. “The Triple Jimbo. Can it work with 99 robots at once?”

But Floyd was bent over, hands on his knees, taking great wheezing breaths. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m winded again. My asthma has flared up.”

“Asthma?”

“The most aggressive kind.”

“Is this the reason Em won’t let you be a full time operative?”

Floyd nodded.

“Why didn’t you say?”

“My foolish pride.”

“But it would have helped me understand.”

“I wanted you to like me.”

Annabelle understood that. There were a few things about herself that she didn’t want other people to know.

“I do like you,” she said, realizing in that moment that it was true.

“Thanks,” said Floyd. Annabelle wondered if they might shake hands or have a quick hug, but Floyd started wheezing again.

“Why don’t you have a seat on that bench over there?” Annabelle suggested.

Floyd nodded.

Annabelle turned to Ninja. “How about you and me? We can do it, right?”

But Ninja had fallen asleep. “Seriously, Ninja?” asked Annabelle.

“Cut him some slack,” said Floyd, “He sprinted all the way here.”

Annabelle felt guilty. Ninja had come to her rescue in spite of being conflict-averse. Floyd had exerted himself in spite of being predisposed to dangerous shortness of breath. They were her friends. She was part of a team.

But at this moment, with Floyd slumped on his bench and Ninja fast asleep, she was once again alone.

Alone and shackled and surrounded by 99 laser hand-robots.

“TARGET ACQUIRED. CHARGING IN 10, 9…” said all 99 in perfect creepy unison.

Something in Annabelle shifted. The part of her that believed everything was going to be all right took a good hard look at her current situation.

“…8, 7…”

Annabelle thought about Em’s words, “There is always a way.” But in this moment, Annabelle couldn’t for the life of her think of what that way might be. She felt…hopeless. The sensation was as strange and unwelcome as wearing someone else’s glasses.

“…6, 5…”

But as quickly as the feeling came, it was gone again, replaced by an understanding of why she had refused to be Fungo’s henchman in the first place.

Fungo had tried to recruit her because of the things she could do. Her skills and abilities. Her lightning-quick reflexes.

Em believed in her because of the things that she was—her toughness and courage and wisdom and goodness. These were the things that were going to save the world, not her extraordinary intellect or her piercing stare or her extraordinary vertical leap. These were the things that neither Fungo nor an army of 99 robots could ever take away.

Suddenly, a geyser of red hot hope sprung up from the very middle of Annabelle’s heart and slammed into her brain.

She had an idea.

“…3, 2…” said 99 robots.

“All right, all right!” said Annabelle.

“Yes?” said Fungo. “What is it?”

“I’ll join you,” said Annabelle. “I will be your henchman.”

Fungo broke into a wide grin, as if he’d been playing chess for hours and had finally discovered the move that would ensure his opponent’s downfall.

“Stop, robots,” said Fungo. “Do not incinerate Annabelle.”

“STANDBY, STANDBY, STANDBY,” said 99 robots all at once. The sound was deafening.

“Standby quietly!” said Fungo.

The 99 robots started whispering, “STANDBY, STANDBY, STANDBY, which was still pretty loud, but by shouting a little, Annabelle and Fungo were able to have a reasonable conversation.

“How do I know you mean it?” said Fungo. “How do I know you’re not just saying that to avoid being laser-handed?”

“I’ll prove it to you,” said Annabelle, “Floyd has been working on a new, top-secret super weapon.”

Fungo’s eyes gleamed. “Tell me about it.”

“It’s perfect,” said Annabelle. “Simple, compact, and utterly destructive.”

“Ooh! Those are some of my favorite adjectives. Where is it?”

“I brought it with me. It’s in my backpack. If you remove these shackles, I’ll get it for you.” And when Fungo looked at her skeptically, Annabelle added, “And the 99 robots are welcome to incinerate me if I try to make a run for it.”

Seeming to agree that Annabelle was not a flight risk, Fungo pushed a button, and the robotic hands let go and slithered back into the floor.

Annabelle unzipped her backpack and removed the shoebox. She carried it up the steps to Fungo’s platform.

“Careful,” she said. “This box contains the single most powerful, unstoppable force on the planet. I was going to use it against you, but, since you’ve obviously won…”

Fungo was excited as a bully at his own birthday party. He rubbed his hands together with glee and then held them out to take the box from Annabelle.

He cradled the box as if it were a newborn puppy and then, very slowly, and with great anticipation, opened it and peered inside.

Fungo let out a shriek like the end of the world. He dropped the box and climbed up on top of chair/throne thing and held his hands above his head and continued to make anguished and undignified whooping sounds.

A moment later, a tiny black and white kitten poked its head out of the box and looked lazily around.

“Kill it, Franz! DESTROY IT!”

Franz waddled over to the box and sniffed the kitten before bathing it in loving kisses.

“Good, boy, Franz,” said Annabelle.

“GET THAT HIDEOUS, TERRIFYING CREATURE AWAY FROM MY EXTREMELY VISCIOUS DOG!” said Fungo, whose breathing was so quick and shallow that Annabelle worried he might pass out.

Annabelle saw something move out of the corner of her eye. It was Ninja. He had just woken up from his nap. Like a gauzy white blur, he dashed away from the robots, who were still whispering “standby, standby, standby,” and appeared at Annabelle’s side. He twitched his left nostril and wrinkled up his nose just a tiny bit with an incredibly hopeful look in his eye.

And in that moment, a formerly loose gear inside of Annabelle’s head suddenly slipped into place and she understood exactly what Ninja was trying to say.

“Are you trying to say, ‘Let’s come up with a plan to foil Fungo while he is utterly incapacitated by that adorable kitten?”

Ninja’s eyes got wide, and he nodded enthusiastically.

Annabelle smiled. She raised her right eyebrow then pursed her lips and flared her nostrils twice, but what Ninja heard was, “Go get Floyd, and together, turn that gigantic dial to the smiley face setting.”

Ninja nodded and even sort of smiled.

That’s so unlike him, thought Annabelle, entirely pleased.

While Fungo continued to shriek, Floyd and Ninja turned the dial all the way to the left. And when they did, the kitten stood up on its two hind furry legs and started doing a playful, jazzy tap routine while walking closer and closer to Fungo.

How I wish he had tiny tap shoes on! thought Annabelle.

Fungo writhed and moaned as if he had been suddenly submerged in a tub of powerful acid. He ran back and forth as if he were on fire and needed to be put out. He lay on the floor and howled as if he were being bitten by thousands of angry red ants. Clutching his stomach as if he was about to lose his lunch, Fungo staggered over to his chair/throne thing, fastened the seatbelt, and pulled a lever on the side. Propelled by white-hot rockets, the seat shot up into the air, through a hatch the top of the skull, and into the night.