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.
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!”
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.
“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.
“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.”
“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?”
“…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.”
“The most aggressive kind.”
“Is this the reason Em won’t let you be a full time operative?”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Surprisingly, the outhouse was dry and mostly clean and not at all smelly. If pressed to describe it, Annabelle might even have used the word pleasant, at least in comparison to conditions outside. She pulled the door shut and enjoyed a few seconds of not getting pelted by rain and wind. The only light came from a series of tiny windows where the walls met the roof, but as Annabelle’s eyes adjusted, she could see that there was, in fact, toilet paper. Annabelle really did have to go, and so she lifted the seat, and when she did, she suddenly understood why things were so much less smelly than they might have been.
This was no ordinary outhouse.
Annabelle took out her toothbrush flashlight and peered into the depths. There, gleaming in the darkness, were the rungs of a shiny steel ladder that disappeared into the nothingness beyond the flashlight’s beams. And there, on the lip of the toilet seat was the name of the company that had made it “Gullet.”
“Down the gullet,” said Annabelle. And even though “toilet explorer” hadn’t been on the list of possible careers Annabelle’s mother had directed her to write the day she turned eight, Annabelle knew all at once that climbing down that ladder was something that she had to do.
It’s even something that I want to do, she clarified to herself.
Annabelle climbed down and down and down. The air got ever colder as she went. When her feet eventually hit solid ground, a series of weird blue lights illuminated either side of a pathway that led through a tunnel, the walls of which were sleek and metallic and covered with unnecessary rivets.
There was a row of glowing red skulls where a railing might have been. Occasionally, jets of purple steam would suddenly erupt from various unseen pipes for no apparent reason. And every 30 seconds or so, a menacing prerecorded cackle echoed through the tunnel.
I wonder if they know I’m here or if this place is just constantly creepy, thought Annabelle.
No one came to stop her, so Annabelle kept on walking. But she had to admit, it all seemed a little too easy.
The tunnel sloped gently upward in what Annabelle assumed was in the direction of the skull. And even though this thought filled Annabelle with dread, the key to saving the world was stopping Dr. Fungo, and she was pretty sure the skull was where Fungo would be.
At the end of the tunnel was a ladder, which Annabelle climbed until she found herself in the center of the skull’s cavernous interior.
Behind her were the two rows of enormous teeth. Above them was the upside-down heart shape of the nostrils. And high above her head were the enormous eye sockets, which held two enormous windows, through which Annabelle could see lightning flash as the storm continued to rage. And lying there in the shadows, not far from the teeth, was a crumpled, motionless something or other that Annabelle’s heart recognized at a glance. Annabelle ran to Eleanor’s side. Her friend was unconscious, and Annabelle could barely find a pulse.
Annabelle didn’t see any blood or wounds. Eleanor just seemed to be extremely asleep. Annabelle shook her, trying to wake her up, and when she did, the mysterious package poked out from inside her friend’s coat.
Even though she didn’t like to be a snoop, she had the sense that Eleanor had obtained whatever was inside because she thought it might be helpful. And since Eleanor was in no condition to be helpful, Annabelle figured it was her right—no, her responsibility—to see what was inside.
She gently pulled it out and peeked inside, and then smiled and said to herself in surprise, “But why isn’t it—?” But then she had a theory and closed the box and smiled again, suddenly filled with a whole new respect for Eleanor’s genius.
“I won’t let you down,” she said, giving Eleanor’s hand a reassuring squeeze. Then Annabelle tucked the box into her backpack and set out to explore the rest of the room.
To her left was an enormous bank of computers. On every screen was a different scene of devastating cat attacks. Angry cats in London. Angry cats in Addis Ababa. Angry cats in Sri Lanka.
To her right side was a raised platform, atop which sat an elaborate looking throne-like chair.
On the far end of the room, at the very back of the skull, was an enormous contraption that looked like a hair dryer crossed with a flyswatter crossed with a satellite dish.
It wasn’t just red, it was angry red. The wires weren’t just wires, they were wicked wires. The lights and levers and cables and tubes were all the darkest, most demented versions of themselves, as if someone had stayed up all night for three weeks trying to make them look as ruthless as possible.
It was the single most diabolical-looking thing Annabelle had ever seen. She knew exactly what it was.
“The Machine,” she said in a grim whisper.
The machine’s evil convolutions seemed to culminate in a kind of missile-looking shaft, the tip of was pointing toward a huge round window in the center of the skull, through which Annabelle could see more lightning.
At the base of the machine was a huge dial, the design of which Annabelle recognized. There was a smiling face on the left, a neutral face at the top and an angry face on the right. The dial was turned to the angry face.
Annabelle wondered. Could it be so easy?
“The worldwide devastation! I can stop it right now!” thought Annabelle, excited that the moment had finally arrived.
Annabelle knew what she had to do. There were handles on either side of the dial. She grabbed the one on the right and pushed with all her might. But it wouldn’t budge. Not even a little. She tried the one on the left and pulled as hard as she could. But it was like trying to move a mountain.
“I see you’ve met The Machine.” The voice echoed through the empty room in a profoundly unpleasant way. Annabelle followed the sound to the raised platform with the chair/throne thing. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Seeing Fungo for the first time, Annabelle’s first impression was that he was very short and rather bald. And not quite as intimidating as she had thought he should be.
“It is,” she said. Because it kind of was. Annabelle could accept that something could be beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
“Unfortunately for you,” said Fungo, “that dial was carefully designed so that it takes two people to turn it. Which means that if a nosy girl sneaks in, she won’t be able to thwart my plans…or that, if two nosy girls sneak in, one of them must be quickly neutralized so that they cannot cooperate and turn the dial together.”
Annabelle glanced over at Eleanor, who was still slumped on the floor.
“Why?” asked Annabelle, summoning as much menace as she could mange while making a mental note that she had to figure out a way to be more menacing.
“I just told you. If one of you sneaky girls is unconscious, then it’s impossible for the two of you to thwart me by turning the dial. Please play attention!”
“Not just #24,” said Annabelle. “All of it. The machine. The cats. The world. The utter destruction of everything. Why?”
“What did you say?”
“What part? The machine. The cats. The utter destruction of everything.”
“The utter destruction of everything?” said Fungo. “Who put that idea in your head?”
“Long Arm,” said Annabelle. “He said your mission was, at the risk of repeating myself, ‘the utter destruction of everything’.”
“Ugh. He’s so dramatic,” said Fungo. “Always trying to make our schemes sound more diabolical than they actually are. And consistently failing to appreciate the beautiful subtlety of my evil intentions!”
Fungo shot Annabelle a pointed glare.
“Don’t get me wrong, if I wanted to destroy everything I absolutely could. I’m a goal-oriented supervillain who thinks big, tries hard, and spares no detail. But the utter destruction of everything? No, there are so many things I enjoy—waterfalls, gummi bears, really comfortable slippers. If I destroyed everything, my life would be dull and uncomfortable.”
Annabelle was relieved. But also confused.
“Then what are you up to?” she said. “The cats certainly seem to be destroying everything.”
“I’ll let them rampage for a while,” said Fungo dismissively. The Machine is sending the strongest signals to the places I love least. But I’ll stop the cats as soon as they’ve destroyed the one thing I absolutely do want to wipe off the face of the earth.”
“All around the world, people love cats, keeping them in their homes, buying them decorative beds, feeding them expensive treats, and taking them to the vet whenever they get even slightly sick! I cannot comprehend it! The Ancient Egyptians worshipped cats! An entire civilization founded on the lie that there is even a shred of goodness to be found in the common domestic housecat. Do I admire the lion? I do. The tiger also has his merits. But the housecat! Ungrateful! Insolent! Refusing to fetch slippers or grovel for my affection! In my opinion, ALL CATS SHOULD BE FORCED TO LIVE ON ICEBERGS! But since that is not a practical plan, I will simply make sure that all cats are universally shunned and despised.”
Throughout his speech, Fungo had grown more and more agitated. Annabelle thought it best to try and calm him down.
“Have you ever considered getting a dog?”
Fungo looked at Annabelle as if she’d asked if he’d ever considered having a nose.
“OF COURSE! I have the most loyal and ferocious and thoroughly dog-like dog on the planet.”
Fungo pulled a lever and a doghouse rose from a hidden compartment in the floor surrounded by great gusts of purple steam.
“What is the steam for?” asked Annabelle.
“It’s exciting,” said Fungo. “Don’t you find it exciting?”
“Sure,” said Annabelle, who had to admit the steam was pretty exciting. When the steam cleared, a lumbering bulldog waddled across the platform and sat next to Fungo.
“Good boy, Franz.”
“Yes, Franz. Though some know him as Killer or Nightshade or The Constant Assassin.”
“Is there anyone else in your evil network named Franz?” said Annabelle.
Fungo looked shocked. “Of course not,” he said, “Franzy boy is a true original.”
“Why do you ask?”
“Long Arm seemed rather…agitated…about someone named Franz.”
Fungo scowled, “He would, that rogue. Make no mistake, Franz is my dog. Mine. That was perfectly clear in the separation agreement.”
Franz whimpered and looked up at Fungo pleadingly.
“Oh, alright,” he said, pulling a dog treat from the pocket of his evil smock and holding it up, waiting for Franz to stand up on his hind legs and get it. But, Franz did not stand up on his hind legs and get it. Franz just sat there, panting hopefully. Which seemed to be enough for Fungo. “All right, we’ll try again tomorrow,” he said, giving Franc the treat. “That’s my good boy. Good boy, good boy, good boy, boy, boy, boy.”
“He seems like a pretty nice dog,” said Annabelle, who didn’t usually think of herself as a dog person.
“HE IS A COLDBLOODED KILLING MACHINE!” roared Fungo. “Crossing Franz would be the last mistake you’ll ever make. Isn’t that right my little dumpling of a duckling, my little quack quack quack quack?”
Franz gave a little yip as if to agree.
Annabelle made a mental note that Franz might be less threatening than a soup spoon.
“So,” said Fungo, his eyes sharpening suddenly, “shall we get down to the matter at hand…Annabelle.” This took Annabelle aback.
“How do you know my name?”
“How do I know your name? I know everything about you. I’ve gone to great lengths and tremendous expense to create a comprehensive file on your ever detail. Your birthday, your favorite color, your sensible cat Ellen.”
“If you ever touch a single hair on Ellen’s—”
Fungo waved his hand dismissively. “I have no interest in harming Ellen. In fact, I have no interest in harming you.”
Annabelle was glad to hear it, but wasn’t quite sure where this was going.
“Larf…tries hard. But, overall, his work is…disappointing. In short, I need a better henchman. Someone who is strong and smart and resourceful. Someone capable of executing my dark plans without making ridiculous mistakes. Someone I can mold in my sinister likeness. And you, Annabelle, you are just the sort of person I have been looking for.”
Annabelle didn’t like the idea of being a good match for anything in Fungo’s world.
“You don’t know me,” she said. “You don’t know anything about me.”
You run 100 meters in 11.5 seconds. Your vertical leap is 22 inches. You dodge deliberately thrown projectiles with the grace of an extremely motivated gazelle. If I were to throw six marbles into the air at this moment, you would be able to catch at least five of them.”
Annabelle listened intently. This was fascinating.
“You don’t know how to speak Mandarin, but with a strict-yet-nurturing tutor in an immersive environment, you could master it in just under five weeks. You have the instincts and stamina to be an excellent stock car driver—if only you knew how to drive. You’re two 90-minute tutorials shy of being a serviceable helicopter pilot.”
Annabelle had always wanted to speak Mandarin! And drive a stock car! And pilot a helicopter!
“In just under one year of training,” Fungo continued, “you could be the world’s second greatest supervillain, overseeing my awful plans on the continent of your choosing. Play your cards right, and I might even give you a hemisphere.
Part of Annabelle found this flattering. She wanted to do all these things. But she didn’t want Fungo to be the reason she learned how to do them. And she certainly didn’t need her own hemisphere.
“Thank you for your generous offer, but even if every cat in the world threatened to scratch me at the same time, I would not join you and your evil enterprise.”
Fungo looked surprised at how loudly Annabelle was talking.
“Ow,” he said, putting his hands over his ears. “Your loud words make no sense to me.”
“In the name of justice and goodness and decency, I renounce you! In the name of Ellen, the word’s most sensible cat, I renounce you!” Annabelle folded her arms and added a final “hmph” for emphasis.
“That was unnecessary dramatic,” said Fungo, irritated. “A simple ‘no’ would have done it.”
“I wanted to make sure there was no doubt.”
“I get it,” said Fungo. “Disappointed, to be sure, but there are other fish in the sea. That one, for example,” he said, gesturing toward the still-unconscious Eleanor.
“What about her?”
“She is extremely talented, too. Very smart. Extremely resourceful. Maybe not quite as gifted as you, but she’d do in a pinch.”
“She’d never join you,” said Annabelle defiantly.
“Maybe you’re right,” said Fungo. “But maybe not. I sense a bit of wickedness in her. Once I have destroyed you, it will be safe to wake her up and make my offer.”
“I will never let that happen!”
Fungo smiled. “If I haven’t made it clear, I admire you.”
“I realize that,” said Annabelle, irritated that Fungo’s compliments were getting in the way of her attempt to be menacing. “And I appreciate it.”
“Good. I wanted to make sure you know that I will take only limited pleasure in destroying you.” Fungo walked over to his control panel and pushed a button. A panel in the floor slid open, and a large and fierce-looking robot rose up through the floor.
Annabelle, well trained in manners, was tempted to say “Hi, Max,” but Max was so evil-looking, so grimly destructive, so pointy and wicked and metallic cruel that she simply couldn’t bring herself to do it.
“You will notice that Max has lasers in his hands,” said Fungo.
Max raised his hands. There were definitely lasers.
“Lucky!” said Annabelle, fairly certain this was the first time she’d been jealous of a robot.
“Say hello to Max.”
“Don’t be rude.”
“He’s a robot. Robots don’t have feelings.”
“Are you sure?”
Annabelle looked at Max. Because he had been designed to look as evil as possible, there was no light in his eyes, no feeling in his expression.
“Very well. You being rude to my robot makes it even easier to turn you into dog food.”
Annabelle looked over at Franz, who was lying on his back with one paw up in the air, and was convinced that he was probably a vegetarian.
“Do you have any last words?” asked Fungo.
Annabelle glanced around. It was time to take action, but she wasn’t sure what, if anything she could do.
“LASER CHARGING,” said Max in a flat, robotic monotone.
Annabelle knew a thing or two about lasers. “Does it really need to charge?”
“Smart girl! No. It’s ready to fire now,” said Fungo. “The charging bit is just to make it more exciting. But Max doesn’t know that.”
“CHARGING in 10, 9…”
“So he can’t fire at me until he thinks it’s charged?”
“Exactly,” said Fungo. “A special feature that Long Arm added at my request.”
“What a great idea!” said Annabelle before breaking into a sprint toward the ladder in the middle of the room. But as she did, panels in the floor flew open and mechanical arms reached out, grabbing her around the ankles, wrists, and waist.
“Those,” said Fungo, “Are another special feature Long Arm added. He’s really quite clever.”
“… 6, 5 …” said Max.
“Last chance to rethink my offer.”
Annabelle loved life. She loved cicadas and pistachios and crunching the thin layers of ice that remained above evaporated puddles. She did not want to die. But she had faith that, as long as she remembered who she was and what she stood for, everything was going to work out fine.
“…3, 2…” said Max.
“Drat,” said Fungo. “Can’t blame a guy for trying.”
Annabelle looked at Max and his laser hands and tried her hardest to remember everything she stood for.
But at the moment, her mind was coming up blank.
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?”
“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.”
“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.
“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.