Catwoman soulstealer, p.11
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       Catwoman: Soulstealer, p.11
 

           Sarah J. Maas
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  The thief he’d been hunting for.

  “Return the painting.” He pointed to the small satchel at her right hip.

  “Say ‘please,’ ” she crooned, that helmet of hers making her voice low, raspy.

  His suit fed him the details: her suit was equipped with surprises. But cloaked—as if the material itself was built to avoid scanning. A stealth suit.

  Only the bullwhip was made of natural materials, unequipped with anything but what met the eye.

  A signature weapon, no doubt. Definitely no signs of any affiliation with Gotham City’s criminal organizations.

  Luke braced his feet slightly farther apart, centering his weight better, before he demanded, “What’s your name?”

  Her head angled. She remained silent.

  “You clearly know mine,” he said, adding a hint of charm to the words. “I should know yours.”

  She was slender but stood with a sturdiness that spoke of iron-hard muscle beneath. She’d made the jump without any assistance from her suit beyond those claws.

  Metal-shredding claws. God.

  “Let’s use Ivy’s little nickname,” she drawled, and Luke could have sworn he heard laughter in her voice. “Every good criminal in Gotham has a call sign. Let’s add this one to the mix.” She examined her claws as if she were looking over a manicure, her bullwhip swaying in the wind. “Catwoman. Has a nice ring to it.”

  “Give back the painting.”

  She patted the satchel at her side, then asked, “Where’d you come up with Batwing? Was it because Batman was already taken?”

  “This can go one of two ways. Either you—”

  “Give back the painting right now, or you take it from me?” A sound that might have been a click of the tongue. “Isn’t it wrong for a big, tough man to threaten to hurt a woman?”

  Holy hell. “I think you lost the right to ask that question when you took the painting.”

  “A girl has got to eat.”

  “Find another profession.”

  She stalked toward him, a few steps. Certainly closer than most of Gotham City’s worst dared get. Close enough for him to make a grab for that satchel if he could brave the reach of the bullwhip.

  Exactly why she did it. A taunt.

  “If you want stealth,” she observed mildly, “then that night-light on your chest isn’t very helpful.”

  Luke ground his teeth, the sound amplified in his helmet. “It’s a symbol.”

  With every word, he sized her up, calculating the space of the roof, the way he’d seen her move, the weight of the painting in that bag.

  “And symbols have power,” she recited. “I forgot how boring you self-righteous do-gooders can be.”

  Luke released a slow breath, counting backward from ten. Temper. His temper was his downfall, Bruce had said. Controlling it was key.

  Well, Bruce wasn’t here.

  As she stretched out her free hand and touched the tip of a claw to the center of the glowing bat-symbol on his chest, Luke lunged.

  Or he tried to.

  He’d aimed for her arm, intending to whirl her around and pin her to the brick facade of the doorway into the building below. But her arm wasn’t there.

  Fast. She was so fast. And she let her arm and the bullwhip be a distraction while she swept her leg.

  The world tilted—

  Luke hit the roof but rose instantly—

  Metal on metal clanged through his head, the night.

  A one-two combination right to his face, those claws now retracted. His head snapped back, and he managed to throw all of one jab before—

  She used the same maneuver he’d intended for her. Grabbed his outstretched arm, locking it, and slammed him to the ground.

  His suit cushioned much of the blow, but however he’d anticipated this night ending, it hadn’t been like this. Knocked on his ass.

  He surged upward, his suit sending him a whirl of analytics on her technique, her calculated moves based on what it had already observed.

  But she was gone.

  No, not gone. She’d moved to the corner of the roof. And was now peeling from a pole what looked to be a camera—

  She wouldn’t dare. She wouldn’t have dared to record this encounter.

  But the stranger, this Catwoman, lifted the camera in salute as she leapt over the edge of the roof.

  By the time Luke had scrambled for it, ego smarting more than his body, she was gone.

  * * *

  —

  The next morning, however, proved that the video footage was not.

  Striding into the gym at dawn and surveying the neat piles of newspapers along the greeting counter, Luke scowled at the headline blaring above the photo on the front page.

  When the Bat’s Away, the Cat Will Play

  And there he was—or Batwing was. The shot, he would admit, was brilliant. She’d likely picked a frame from her footage.

  The photo showed him in the middle of falling, Catwoman’s body the portrait of conquering queen as she sent him to the ground.

  Luke swiped up the newspaper and chucked it into the gym trash bin to land among empty cups of water and cleaning wipes.

  Not good. Not good at all.

  The message it would send to the other criminals in Gotham City was precisely why she’d leaked the photos.

  Luke knew it’d be futile to go to the newspaper to ask who’d sent them. They had an anonymous tip line. And they had clearly struck gold last night. No way they would reveal their source. Even if they could.

  Luke stepped onto a treadmill, punching it up to a flat-out run.

  He had to get her under control—and fast.

  Before the underworld of Gotham City started to stir.

  Selina didn’t mind the name: Catwoman.

  And the papers seemed to adore it, too, granting her the front-page banner.

  She was still smiling about it two nights later, especially the little tidbit about how the Fox heir had lost his painting. Maybe she’d swing by her neighbor’s apartment later to see how he was coping with the loss.

  After she completed this job, of course. She’d nearly finished hacking into the cavernous jewelry store’s security system to reroute the video cameras to play the same footage on a loop.

  If only her old social workers could see her now: a different sort of poster girl for the efficacy of Gotham City’s At-Risk Youth Program.

  Selina’s smile faded as she stood in the small security office in the back of the enormous, multilevel store that occupied half a city block, the alarms disabled courtesy of a few careful snips from her tiny wire cutters.

  A broken system—that’s what it was. What it had always been. Maggie had only gotten out because of whatever strings or cash Talia had handed over that night. How many other kids never got that chance?

  Too many. Too damn many. And while the wealthy in this city swathed themselves in jewels and cloistered themselves in penthouses that looked down upon those very slums, kids like Maggie went to school hungry, wore secondhand clothing, and knew, deep down, that no one was coming to help them.

  These are the things that you might change, Talia had told her during her weekly one-on-one sessions with each acolyte. What you will return to upend.

  And so she had.

  Not a whisper of trouble arose while Selina prowled over the shining gray floors of the dark store, passing beneath the crystal chandeliers dangling from the arched ceilings, and headed down a level into the fairly plain catacombs below.

  Navigating the warren of halls was easy; she only had to follow the path of the heavy, grated metal doors.

  But even mapping out her plan mentally didn’t prepare her for the sheer size of the vault as she passed through the last of the metal doors and into the small chamber where it lay. The
sole occupant of the room.

  Hands on her hips, Selina surveyed the sealed vault set into a solid wall of concrete, the puzzle before her.

  Try it, it seemed to whisper. As if some great, sleeping dragon lay curled behind the vault. See if you dare.

  The low hum that had been coursing through her veins earlier turned into a full-throttle electric current.

  The store had been smarter than the museum about keeping its blueprints and receipts off any kind of database. Holly Vanderhees, of course, had visited this store only yesterday afternoon, but asking too many questions about the vault would have led a trail of bread crumbs right back to her. Which meant going into this robbery more blind than she’d like, but that was part of the thrill—this moment of finding a way in. Outsmarting them. As she had from those initial years in the East End.

  Selina studied the looming vault, studied the solid wall of concrete it had been built into, an empty duffel bag dangling from her hand.

  “I’m going to do you a favor and avoid a joke about the cat being out of the bag,” Ivy drawled from behind.

  Selina arched a brow beneath her Death Mask. “Following me?”

  Ivy smirked as she approached, clad in the same getup as the other night. “I want my twenty-five percent.”

  “You’ll get it when the painting goes to market,” Selina said, turning back toward her metal opponent. “Give it a week or two.”

  “Nice spread in the morning paper,” Ivy said, coming to survey the vault at Selina’s side. “You didn’t seem the type to self-promote.”

  Selina closed the distance to the vault and ran a gloved hand over the smooth metal of the door. Diamond-brushed steel. At least six inches thick. “The media is just another weapon to wield,” she murmured. They certainly hadn’t asked questions when an anonymous email account had sent the footage of Batwing being laid out flat on a rooftop and losing the priceless painting in the process.

  Ivy hummed. “I’m sure Batwing’s humiliation was just a pleasant side effect.”

  Selina gave Ivy a sidelong glance, though the woman couldn’t see it with the helmet on. “It was.”

  Selina didn’t tell her that it was the message to other criminals that had mattered. The invitation. Instead, she asked drily, “Why, exactly, are you here?”

  Ivy tapped a gloved hand—one that truly seemed wrapped in vines, not cloth—on the brushed metal of the vault. “I want in.”

  “I work alone.” Selina set her small bag on the floor, crouching to open it and yank out a tiny electromagnetic pulse machine. She’d built it herself in one of the League’s labs—had designed it to be tiny enough to haul with her.

  She’d never tested it in the wild, though.

  Ivy leaned against the wall beside the vault, examining what appeared to be a small pink flower growing out of the material of her glove. Interesting. “Think about it: we team up, split the profits, and take on Gotham City’s finest.”

  “You ran when you saw one of Gotham City’s finest.” Selina positioned the black rectangular box of the pulse machine by the vault door.

  “How was I to know you’d hand his ass to him?”

  “So his suit filters out your plants’ chemicals, then.”

  “Let’s just say that I make a point to stay out of his way.” Ivy waved a hand. “You, though…Think of what we could accomplish together.”

  “What’s in it for me?”

  “You’d have someone guarding your back. We could hit up bigger targets. Make more.”

  “To fund your eco-terrorism plans to save the trees.”

  “To help put an end to the destruction before it’s too late, before this planet is nothing but a wasteland. Do you know that both our state and federal government have an overwhelming majority of people working there who believe climate change is a hoax?”

  “And you think attacking them is going to change that?”

  “They can’t vote to defund agencies and open up pipelines if they’re not around to do it.”

  Selina frowned up at Ivy. “Or you could make martyrs of them.”

  Ivy’s mouth tightened, her flowers winking out. “They’ve already done enough damage to the earth that there might not even be a chance to turn back. Entire ecosystems—gone. Who fights for them? Who makes sure that they get justice?”

  The same could be said of people, children especially, in the East End.

  Selina made a show of considering. “It seems like you benefit more from being around me than I do with you.”

  A flash of irritation. “I’m making you an honest offer. Less risks involved in these robberies when you can just gas the place instead of bringing the guards down.”

  “Then why don’t I just get myself some canisters of it?” Selina stepped back from the electromagnetic pulse charger.

  “Because they don’t sell my special blend at the store, honey.”

  “Oh?”

  Ivy smiled down at the vines encasing her hands, and without so much as a flicker of movement, they slithered up her wrists.

  Selina blinked. Once. Twice.

  “My toxins are organic compounds,” Ivy explained. “All plant-based, hybridized, and weaponized. Made by yours truly in my lab.” She pulled what looked to be a pink orchid from a pocket. “A signal from me, and this beauty will send you right to sleep.”

  Well, damn. Selina gave herself a moment to stifle any hint of awe in her voice before she said, “I heard a rumor that you didn’t need to bother with fancy flowers. That you can emit those toxins on your own.”

  Ivy was quiet for a heartbeat as she pocketed the flower once more.

  Then a pale emerald smoke began to drift from her—as if it leaked from every pore. It slithered and floated into the air, wending around Selina. “A friend thought throwing flowers might be a cool touch,” Ivy said as that green mist swirled between them. “But I like to do it the old-fashioned way every now and then.”

  Selina reined in a curse. How Ivy had done it, why she’d done it—this wasn’t the time for those questions. Or the right place. “It sounds like I’ll never be able to take off this helmet with you, then. Not exactly an ideal working relationship.”

  Silence. Ivy’s smoke faded as quickly as it had come.

  Beneath her Death Mask, Selina smiled. And let Ivy work for it a little more as the woman went on, “There’s never been a duo of ladies to take on Gotham City. All the bosses are male.”

  “That makes it sound like they’d want to put us down the moment we step onto their turf.”

  “You beat the shit out of Batwing.” Those vines slithered down Ivy’s wrists to wrap around her hands again, as tight as any glove. “They might think twice.”

  Selina again made a show of considering, fingers hovering over the dials on the machine’s top. “All right,” she said slowly, and Ivy grinned. “But I want one more member.”

  Ivy’s deep red brows rose.

  “I want Harley Quinn.” Selina hit the button, a low electric hum surging through the room, hollowing out her ears, even with the suit. Metal groaned.

  Ivy’s pale face went even whiter. “Why?”

  Selina set down the control box and strode over to the now-ajar vault door. “Because we won’t last long without her.”

  The flowers on Ivy’s living gloves snapped shut again. “Harley can be…unstable.”

  Selina hauled open the vault door, revealing stacks and stacks of cash. Beautiful. “Harley is not only daring when it comes to tactics, but she’s also skilled with firearms and explosives.”

  “I know,” Ivy said quietly.

  Selina pretended not to have anticipated that softness in her voice. “But what Harley also offers is her relationship history.”

  Ivy’s eyes turned to chips of ice. “You mean the Joker.”

  Selina began dr
opping stacks of cash into her open bag and asked innocently, “Is there someone else?”

  “No.” Ivy added tightly, “But he’s locked up for life in Arkham.”

  “Along with some of his most notorious cronies.”

  Ivy stormed up to her side as Selina kept depositing stacks of cash in the bag. “You’re out of your mind if you’re thinking of tangling with the Joker—”

  “I’ll be tangling with Harley. And her status as the Joker’s main squeeze”—again that ripple of cold anger on Ivy’s face, the tightening of those vines on her hands, perhaps to the point of pain—“will make any other criminals in this city think twice before crossing us. I don’t have the time or interest in dealing with their petty bullshit.”

  Ivy blinked. But she began helping to haul stacks of cash into Selina’s bag. After a moment, she said, “Harley’s always game for a little anarchy.”

  “You know her personally, then?” A casual, calculated question. And a total lie. She’d read up on both of them—their fraught relationship, their history. More than friends, yet not. The particulars of it—who wanted something more than friendship and who didn’t, whether Harley’s former relationship with the Joker played a role in that—remained murky.

  She doubted it was information either of them publicly shared. Knowing where to strike emotionally, what to manipulate, was another weapon in her arsenal. Especially when it came to assembling the team she needed. Despite Harley’s history with the Joker, she operated on her own now. Ivy, too—precisely the sort of criminals she required.

  Independent, unafraid. Why the League hadn’t recruited them yet was beyond her.

  “It’s none of your business,” Ivy grumbled. Exactly as Selina had predicted. Ivy scowled and went on. “Harley’s been restless since Batman, Batwing, and all those other do-gooders threw half of Gotham’s criminals behind bars.” Including the Joker. “But she won’t join our little crime ring without some sort of…enticement.”

 
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