This is a preliminary short story for a book I'm currently working on, provisionally titled 'Rez-Q Me'. I'd love to hear you thoughts on it! (And apologies for the water-marked image - I'm still playing around with designs!)
"The city never sleeps. Crime never takes a day off. Heroes are always vigilant."
Papercut Girl shook her head, a snort escaping her. What a load of crap. Well, OK, not that it wasn't true... It was 3 a.m. and London was still bustling, the ever-present neeenawneenaw of police cars was evidence enough that crimes were occurring - not the only evidence, of course - and here she was, watching it all from the top of one of the old Victorian buildings that had somehow avoided being knocked-down and replaced by the giant glass penises, sorry, skyscrapers that modern architects seemed so enamored with. There had to be something Freudian there, right?
She tried another one, whispering under her breath in a deep, gravelly voice: "High above the city, one person stands alone, watching, waiting... protecting."
All she succeeded in doing was making herself cough.
Movement caught her eye, and she turned slightly on her ledge. A fight on the top of the 'walkie-talkie', the huge, curved oblong building officially known as 20 Fenchurch Street. Two figures were scrabbling on the arched roof, twisting and turning as they each looked for an advantage over the other. She pulled her binoculars from her utility belt, adjusting the focus until she could make them out.
Dizmal and Fireforce.
Dizmal had escaped three days ago, and had spent his seventy-two hours of freedom terrorizing the city. Bombs, robberies, some bizarre scheme to do with the fish in the Thames, which had made for some interesting headlines. But now Fireforce had him. Through her binoculars, Papercut Girl watched as the fight reached its zenith, the hero and the villain facing each other, their mouths moving as they no doubt spat witty one-liners back and forth. And then Dizmal lunged at Fireforce, a glint of steel in his hand. Fireforce dodged expertly, twisting like a ballerina, and Dizmal slid forward, his momentum and the curve of the ridiculously shaped skyscraper dragging him, inexorably, towards the edge.
Except that his fall wasn't really impossible to prevent, was it? Papercut Girl watched, unsurprised, as Fireforce lunged forward, a grappling gun in one hand shooting a wire that must have hooked onto something, she couldn't see, his other hand reaching out for Dizmal and catching him at the last moment. Their bodies jerked as the wire took the strain of their weight.
Fireforce pulled Dizmal up, and the villain submitted, almost eagerly, to the cuffs.
Papercut Girl dropped her binoculars. Of course he'd save him. Why give up on a good thing?
Her phone buzzed in one of the pockets of her belt, making her jump. She fumbled it out and checked the screen. A smile stretched across her lips, visible under her half-face mask. She had a call!
The Rez-Q Me app, gaudy yellow and pink, was flashing up a location about ten minutes from where she was. Someone was in trouble. No one else was nearby.
She jumped up from the ledge and shimmied down the drainpipe to hop onto her scooter. Zipping in and out of traffic, she followed the blinking light on the Rez-Q Me app, praying that no one else would get there before her.
"George's not come home," the woman said, clasping her dressing gown tight. She lived in one of the surprisingly many housing estates that dotted the East end business district, this one somewhere in Tower Hamlets. An old, brown-brick block of flats, her apartment was on the third floor, accessible by an outside stairwell and a long external pathway, past doors with peeling paint. "He always comes home."
"I see," Papercut Girl replied in her deep, scratchy Hero Voice, making sure her mouth was set in thin, serious line. "Can you tell me where he usually likes to hang-out?"
"He stays local, I'm sure of it."
"Can you be more specific?"
The woman pursed her lips. "It's hard to know where he goes. He comes home sometimes smelling of smoke - the kebab shop down the way, maybe? They've got one of them barbecue things."
"That's very helpful, ma'am," Papercut girl said, recording the information in Rez-Q me. Everything had to be recorded. "And what does George look like?"
"He's big. Ginger. Green eyes."
"Uh-huh. Go on."
"He's got white socks."
"Er... OK. Good. Anything else?"
"His tail is quite fluffy, though. Not like a Norwegian, but, y'know, more fluffy than the rest of him."
Papercut Girl looked up from her phone. "His tail?"
She tried the Kebab shop first. They had an area around the back for the bins with a small smoking area for the staff, made up of white plastic lawn furniture and a tatty awning.
Swearing internally, she called out George's name in a low voice, trying not to attract the attention of the staff inside. Nothing. Of course there was no reply. She knew cats. They didn't come for anyone, let alone a stranger. But she'd accepted the job. Rez-Q Me was ticking away in her belt pocket, counting up how much time it was taking her to complete the mission, how far she had to travel to do it. Gathering stats for its mysterious algorithms.
She checked around the garden furniture and down the side of the building, hissing the bloody cat's name. Nothing. He wasn't here. Unless... She eyed the bins, her heart dropping.
With extreme reluctance, she edged over to the industrial sized dumpster. The smell hit her from about five feet away. Why the hell didn't I fork out for the full-face mask? She slid the orange lid back, the stink of rotting meat and vegetables hitting her full in the face, making her gag and pull back. He couldn't be in there, she knew he couldn't. The lid had been closed.
But... if he was... She'd forfeit her stars if she didn't find him.
Taking a deep breath and covering her mouth with her sleeve, she peered over the edge of the dumpster, into the mess. Her free hand hovered for a moment above a the various black bags piled up inside... and then she started moving them aside, ignoring the way they squelched.
Five minutes and one burst bag later, she gave up. Well, that and she was chased away by a very irate man in a white apron. Apparently, even with her costume on, rummaging through someone else's bins was a frowned upon activity. Who knew?
Papercut Girl pulled out her phone and checked the app. Fifteen minutes spent. She was still in the green zone, but time was ticking. Right, then. If she were a cat, where would she be...?
She was just making a mental list of all the worst possible places where a cat might, invariable, secrete itself, when a voice jolted her out of her gloomy introspection.
"Jeez, P.G., what is that smell?"
She spun around. Standing behind her was a tall, well-built man in a full-body, dark brown Lycra suit with a golden 'v' running from his collarbone down his chest, ending in a point at his waist. He had a full-face mask - show-off - and a calf-length duster jacket with an old-fashioned wide belt, and heavy, lace-up boots. The whole outfit probably cost more than she made in a month. Why he even bothered with the app was beyond her; dressed like that, he could surely afford to go Premium.
"Ah, Musket Man, my old rival," she said in her Hero Voice. "Be gone, I've no time for you this night."
"Have you been working at the docks? You smell... very organic." She couldn't tell what his expression was under his mask, but his tone of voice was somewhere between amusement and horror.
Papercut Girl deflated somewhat, dropping back into her normal voice. "I'm on a case."
"Me too. What you got?"
"I'm not telling you. Get lost."
He folded his arms, tilting his head. "That's not very friendly. What would Fireforce say?"
"Probably something witty and lame," she said, mellowing slightly. "He was out tonight."
They started walking together down the street, past parked cars and lines of houses worth more than Papercut Girl cared to think about. Most of them were narrow, one-up-one-downs. Back home, they'd have been worth a pittance. Here, they were probably north of £800,000 each.
"I saw on the news," Musket Man replied. "He dropped Dizmal off at Scotland Yard, then whizzed away."
"Yeah, I thought that, too."
Scotland Yard wasn't in the jurisdiction of the Square Mile; they'd have to transfer Dizmal to one of the City of London Police stations. One of the less famous police stations. For all his, admittedly excellent, crime-fighting, Fireforce certainly knew the importance of publicity. Papercut Girl thought about mentioning that she'd seen him in real life apprehending the super-criminal, but decided against it. She didn't want to fraternize with the competition.
"Do you think he started out like this?" Musket Man asked, gesturing vaguely at them both. "On the app?"
"Hah. I doubt it," she replied, a large dose of bitterness in her voice. "Look at all those clever gadgets he has - not way he didn't go Premium from the first moment." Damn it. So much for keeping her cool, quiet exterior.
"Yeah. I expect you're right. Hey, do you want to-"
An orange shape streaked across the road in front of them.
"George!" cried Papercut Girl.
"George!" cried Musket Man.
They stared at each other. And then Papercut Girl shoved Musket Man hard, and took off after the cat. She ran up the road, following the cat as he cut down a side-street and then across a small, communal garden. She could hear Musket Man behind her. That bloody woman - you're only supposed to call out one hero at a time! That's the rule!
She looked around her. Where had George gone? Where had he-
A high-pitched mew split the air. Oh, for the love of... She walked over to the tree, where George now sat on a high branch, claws gripping the wood, a steady, alarming sound emanating from him. Shit. She glanced over her shoulder. Musket Man has entered the garden, spotted her. Double shit.
Flexing her hands, she looked up at the tree. At least it was an old one, the trunk thick. She took a few steps back and then ran it, jumping at the last second to launch herself off the ground, landing a fair way up the tree. She clutched on with her hands and feet and began to climb, grateful for the hours she spent at the gym and the local Kiddies' Fun Zone, after it was closed. Say what you like, but climbing, crawling and jumping across the children's jungle-gym, rope swings and monkey bars was some of the best training she'd ever had.
She reached the branch George was clinging to at the same time Musket Man reached the tree.
"Very impressive," he called up to her. "How're you going to get him down?"
Papercut Girl settled herself onto the branch and glared down at him. "I'll grab him and bring him down."
Musket Man said nothing, but his stance radiated a we'll-see kind of tone. He sat himself down on the grass, cross-legged.
Bollocks to him. Papercut Girl reached out her hand to George. "Here, George, here," she said in her sweetest tone of voice. She realised she should probably have spent a little more time practicing that, rather than her Hero Voice. "C'mon George. Come to, er, mummy."
"You're not his mummy," Musket Man said conversationally.
"Shut up. Come on, George. Don't you want to go home?"
The cat hissed at her and moved further along the branch.
"See?" Musket Man said. "He knows you're lying to him."
She ignored him, instead inching her way along the branch, her thighs holding her steady. George glared at her with wild, green eyes, his fur standing up on end like a punk who'd been at the egg-whites. Slowly, she brought her hand forward, brushing her thumb against her forefingers. "C'mon, little fella, c'mon." The cat retreated again, now perilously close to the end of the branch.
"Uh-oh," Musket Man said in a sing-song voice from below.
Papercut Girl turned her head to swear at him at the exact same moment George decided to jump forward. A very busy, very painful few moments passed in which Papercut Girl had to balance herself and an angry, frightened cat on the branch, the cat in question existing in some complex state where he was both trying to escape from her and hold onto her for dear life. Four paws clutched at her with razor sharp, tiny daggers. Her suit, made of a thin and only semi-durable Lycra, was so-far holding off the worst of it. At least, until George decide to scrabble up her body to her head.
In addition to the cat's keening yowls of panic were added Papercut Girl's own howls as his claws caught her exposed lips and cheeks, leaving stinging, fine cuts behind them. The irony was not lost on her, nor, it seemed, on Musket Man.
"Maybe you should change your name to Catcut Girl?" he said from below, between bouts of laughter.
"Oh, just... shut up. That doesn't even make any sense. Besides, all the 'cat' names have been taken."
George settled on her head, a ginger ushanka-hat. Thankfully, her costume seemed to be holding up and she was only in a very marginal amount of pain from his claws in her scalp. Small mercies and all that. Besides, she had the cat! The mission was hers!
"Well done," Musket Man called form below, jumping to his feet in one movement and slowly clapping his hands. "Now, how are you going to get down?"
"Same way I got up."
But when she moved, George went rigid, his claws extending to their full capacity, breaking through the thin material of her head covering. "Holy fucking shit balls!" she screamed, halting her movements immediately.
"Language. Heroes aren't allowed to swear." Musket Man pulled out his mobile phone, the familiar yellow and pink logo shining in the darkness. "I could report you to Rez-Q Me for that."
"Oh... get lost."
"I could," he said, putting his phone back in the pocket of his duster, "Or we could help each other out. Team up."
Papercut girl stared at him, wide-eyed. Which, of course, he could see. Her mask, unlike his, had two holes for her eyes.
"Don't look like that," he said. "It makes sense. We're always working the same areas. We'd get twice as much done. More stars."
George settled again on her head. Papercut Girl sat absolutely still. Maybe he - Musket Man that was, not George - had a point. She wasn't getting anywhere on her own. She'd been at it for almost a year now, and only had a seventy-five star rating. There was a lot of competition in London.
"Go on," she said, careful not to move any part of her except her mouth.
He rubbed the back of his head. "Um. That's I all have, really. Team up. Get more stars. Get you and George out of that tree."
Papergirl considered. If she did join up with Musket Man, she'd have to spend time with him, which was annoying. She'd come to one of the biggest cities in the world to not spend time with people. It was easy to be alone amidst ten million people; in a town of fifty thousand, however, everyone seemed to know your business. But... he was right. They were always working the same places, often stealing Missions from each other - which was fine when she did it; the natural cut and thrust of the market-place. When he did it, it was a downright dirty disgrace and the reason why neo-capitalism was ruining the world. Plus, he obviously had some kind of financial backing to afford that suit. Maybe, if they were team mates, he might give her a cut.
"Fine," she said. "Team mates."
"Great!" He pulled out his phone and tapped at the app. A moment later, she felt her own phone vibrate in her belt. George murmured, but didn't move. "All done," he called up.
Papercut Girl rolled her eyes. "Good, good. Now how do we get down?"
"Jump. I'll catch you both."
"Jump." He held his arms out in front of him. "I'll catch you. Come on, team mate. Trust me."
She was pretty sure she'd rather trust the tree to miraculously grow a wooden staircase, but what choice did she have? So, reaching up to put gentle hands on George, who responded by putting not-so-gentle claws into her head, she jumped.
"Poor littel fella," Musket Man cooed as he rubbed George's ears. The traitorous cat was nuzzled up against his chin, his big ginger body relaxed in his arms. "Did the mean girl scare you?"
"I bloody rescued him!"
They walked the remainder of the way back towards George's owner's house in silence, except for George's chainsaw-like purr. Papercut Girl knocked on the door, and a moment later the woman opened it, her face flooding with relief when she saw George.
"There he is, there he is," she babbled, taking the cat from Mustket Man's arms and planting kisses on his furry head. The cat looked somewhat longingly back at Musket Man, but allowed the affection. "Thank you both so much," the woman said to them in between kisses.
"It was our pleasure," Papercut Girl said in Hero Voice. She'd need a hot lemon tea after tonight. "Anything for the fine citizens of this city."
"Yup," Musket Man said added, offering a lazy salute. "Cats rescued, stolen bicycles recovered, tyres changed. You name it."
She kicked his ankle. "If ever you need anything, don't hesitate to call me."
"Us," Musket Man said.
"Oh... yeah. Right. Us."
"We're the London Liberators, at your service."
Papercut Girl swung round to face him. "The what?"
"The London Liberators, our team name."
"No it isn't."
"Yes it is. I registered it when I teamed us up on the app."
He was only saved from a punch in the face because the cat owner was present. Swallowing her anger, Papercut Girl turned back to their Rez-Q. "...The London Liberators... You can call us whenever you need help."
The woman nodded, her attention firmly focused on her cat. Without a word, she shut her front door, leaving the two heroes standing on the gangway.
"Well, that went well," Musket Man said. "I feel all warm and fuzzy."
"Oh, shut up. No wait, don't shut up - London Liberators? Are you serious? Alliteration?"
They started walking back down to the ground floor.
"Alliteration is a staple," he said. "All the best heroes use it."
"All the old ones, you mean."
"Classic heroes, then," he corrected.
Whatever he might have said in reply was drowned out by a loud buzz. Papercut Girl scrambled for her phone. The yellow and pink Rez-Q Me logo was gone; instead, the screen was showing a little spinning disc... it was thinking.
"Our stars," she said, eyes fixed on the screen. Her lips and cheeks stung from cat scratches, she was bleeding gently from the same, and her legs were killing her. The woman had to give them a good rating, she had to.
Five stars appeared on the screen.
"Yes! Yes! Get in! Top marks! Top bloody marks!" Papercut Girl swung round and beamed at Musket Man. "Do you see that? Five stars!"
"She only paid us twenty quid, though," he said, much less enthused.
"So what? A few more ratings like that and we'll be able to go for better Missions. Look at it!" She held her phone up. "Five stars!"
Her phone buzzed again. She turned it back so she could see it. One of the stars disappeared, and then another. Three stars shone in the centre of her screen. A message popped up below: time penalty -1 star. Negative attitude -1 star.
"Negative attitude?" Papercut Girl growled. "Negative attitude? That bitch. I'll go back there and skin that bloody cat and make her wear him as a hat. Negative attitude my arse!"
"And time delay," Musket Man said.
She turned on him. "That's your fault. You slowed me down. And I'll bet the attitude penalty was your fault, too. What was all that about finding lost bikes, anyway?"
He shrugged. "You know it wasn't anything either of us did. They always pull that stunt. Means they can get away with paying less. You should have seen it coming when she only threw us £20."
Papercut Girl glared at him. And then she sighed. He was right, damn and blast him. It had happened to her before, and she was always 100% professional when talking to Rez-Qs. The time thing was just added insult to very real, claw-induced injury.
Her phone buzzed again. Halfheartedly, she looked at it, wondering what else could go wrong that night.
Team bonus +1/2 star.
Three and a half stars. They whizzed 'round in a circle on her screen before flying up to the right hand corner, adding to her overall score. Seventy-eight and a half stars. At a hundred, she'd get a little achievement badge, and access to a whole new set of Rez-Qs. She couldn't stop the smile that split her face.
Maybe teaming up wasn't such a bad idea, after all, even with that God-awful name.