Catwoman soulstealer, p.17
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       Catwoman: Soulstealer, p.17
 

           Sarah J. Maas
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  Harley only slung an arm around Ivy’s shoulders, both of them grinning like fiends for the camera. Selina positioned herself a few inches away and crossed her arms as she said, “Now.” Light flashed before and behind, the camera snapping away as the vault exploded open.

  Well, a small explosion. Something akin to Selina’s own electromagnetic pulse machine—a secret formula, Harley had declared when Selina asked about it. And then started to tease about cats and curiosity, and Selina had blocked her out entirely.

  Small doses with Harley. She could deal with her, enjoy her, in small doses.

  “You really think the paper will want this photo?” Ivy asked as the smoke cleared, waving away the gray cloud with a gloved hand.

  Selina scooped up her duffel, striding into the lingering smoke.

  “Who wouldn’t want it?” Harley said.

  Selina scanned the dim vault, night vision kicking in. No word had reached the press about Shrike. She couldn’t decide if that was a good or bad thing.

  She wondered how soon Nyssa and Talia would hear about it. Start to ponder.

  Send someone else to test her.

  “The papers,” Selina declared, striding to a safe-deposit box, easily picking the rudimentary lock, and dumping the jewels right into her bag, “will eat this up. And even better, the fancy folk of Gotham will think we’ve moved on from their parties to banks, and they’ll start up the galas again.”

  Harley frowned, waving away the smoke. “I could use another tiara.”

  Selina unlocked another box and snickered. “What about this?”

  A glittering emerald necklace draped from her hand.

  Harley’s eyes went wide as saucers.

  Selina chucked it to her. “For getting the vault open.”

  Harley caught the necklace. “My mom would love this,” she breathed.

  It was the first she’d mentioned of her mom. And even though questions might lead them down a rocky road, Selina couldn’t resist asking, “You two close?”

  Harley pocketed the necklace. “She’s my favorite person in the world.” A wink toward Ivy. “Aside from you, Vee.” Harley jerked her chin toward Selina, pigtails swaying. “You close with your mom?”

  No. Never. Not once. Selina shrugged. “She’s not worth mentioning.”

  It was the truth. Harley’s eyes softened, the expression unbearable.

  Sparing Selina, Ivy cut in, hauling wads of cash into her duffel, “So we’ll be hitting up more parties after this?”

  Selina wished her helmet weren’t on. If only so she could give Ivy a grateful look. But she only said, “Don’t sound too disappointed.” Selina moved from box to box, leaving the papers and random junk, scanning for any hint of jewelry. “Poor Batwing won’t know where to hunt us.”

  Ivy hummed. “What do we do about him? No way we downed him for good.”

  Selina kept her voice mild. “We can deal with him when the time calls for it.”

  “We should use his insides to hang him from a lamppost,” Harley added, going back to picking the locks and hauling valuables into her bag. Selina didn’t think she was exaggerating.

  “We should use him to find out who Batman is,” Ivy mused, zipping up her own bag. “They work together. He might tell us.”

  “Torture? Nice,” Harley said.

  “I have methods that might convince him to talk,” Ivy clarified quickly. “Without resorting to waterboarding.” Those natural toxins that had gotten the people at that gala to hand over their jewels, no doubt.

  But Selina cut in before they could travel farther down that road, “He’s not part of our plans. We avoid him.”

  “Why?” Harley’s smile slipped into something a little dangerous.

  “Because he’ll take care of the other bosses and gangs for us. Keep them out of our way. Bring him down, and we’ll have every gang and boss crawling out of the sewers to stake their claim on Gotham. But if he continues to hold back the tide…” She shrugged. “He saves us a headache while we continue to sweep the city of its valuables.”

  Harley didn’t look convinced as she zipped up her bag. But Ivy said, “What if he shows up at our next target?”

  Selina smiled beneath her mask. “Then we keep playing this game of ours: evade and vanish.”

  “But—” Ivy challenged.

  “Believe me,” Selina interrupted, shouldering her duffel, “toying with him, driving him nuts, is far more satisfying than killing him.”

  Harley opened her mouth, but Selina held up a hand as her helmet began blaring. “We’re about to have company.”

  Footsteps. Not guards—no jangling keys or the usual indicators.

  Ivy pulled two baseball-sized flowers from the belt at her hips, the golden petals unfurling. Waiting.

  Selina freed the bullwhip at her side as the helmet continued to give her a feed.

  “Eight individual gaits—heavy,” Selina murmured to Harley and Ivy. “Likely male. Coming as a group, not in a line. Entering the room in—”

  “Look what the cat dragged in,” sneered the tall, reedy man in the center of the group.

  All wore stained dark clothes that had seen better days. Criminals. No doubt from some low-level group. She could pick up on no signifiers of their allegiance.

  “An oversized fern,” the man said, stepping into the chamber. Ivy stiffened, flowers opening wider. A leer toward Harley. “And a washed-up skank.”

  Selina ground her teeth, reining in her temper. If Ivy could knock out a few of them with those flowers, and Harley could detonate those small bombs…it’d even the odds.

  Not great, but she could deal with the remainders. Even if taking down a group of some gang boss’s men might be a complication in her plans.

  Despite the insults, Harley stepped forward, pouting. “Is that really how you’re going to be, Ralph? I haven’t seen you in, what, a few months, and suddenly you gotta call me names? And my new friends, too?”

  Ivy remained fixated on the men, flowers and vines at the ready. But Harley cut Selina a swift glance, the words clear in her blue eyes.

  Trust me.

  Trust her to do what? Get them killed? A few minutes, and they’d be sprinting out of here. If the cops didn’t get here first.

  Harley took another step, throwing that glance Selina’s way again. Trust me.

  It went against every bit of training, every instinct.

  She didn’t remember the last time she’d trusted anyone. Other than herself.

  Ivy warned Selina, the words barely audible, “Follow her lead.”

  Selina sized up the men. Harley’s welcoming grin.

  Harley knew who these men were—well enough to understand that violence would either not work, or land them knee-deep in shit.

  Trust me.

  Her heartbeat a staccato, Selina did.

  Ralph sneered at them again. “You and your new friends haven’t been paying up. Makes some of us…mispleased.”

  “Not a word,” Ivy muttered under her breath. Harley made a slicing Shut up motion behind her back.

  Harley twirled the end of a braid around her finger. “Honeypie, you know we’ve just been waiting to accumulate enough good stuff to hand over our due.”

  Oh hell no. Like hell she was giving these creeps her money, this money—

  “Boss wants it now,” Ralph said. The other men behind him pressed in. He pointed at Selina. “He wants her to kneel.”

  Selina’s hand didn’t stray from the bullwhip. Harley shot her a warning Be quiet look before turning that grin on Ralph again. “Then why don’t we head over there?” Harley patted her duffel. “I’ll make the delivery in person.”

  Ralph considered.

  “Come on, Ralphy,” Harley crooned. “Your girl and I go way back.” She pointed with a thumb toward Selin
a. “Kitty’s new in town. She doesn’t know the rules.”

  Selina bit her tongue. She knew their rules. And she was making her own now.

  “Give us the bags, and we’ll head over.”

  “You’d better be sure to tell Falcone I say hi.” Harley pouted.

  Falcone.

  The name cracked through Selina.

  These men…they were Falcone’s?

  They had to be new, because she didn’t know their faces or names.

  Ralph pointed a handgun at Harley. Ivy tensed, those vines writhing.

  “Tell the freak,” Ralph said, snarling toward Ivy, “to keep her plants away.”

  Harley began walking toward him. Toward the gun. “Here’s the goods.” She handed over her bag to the man beside Ralph. “Let’s get going.”

  To Selina’s shock, the men parted a path for Harley. A curl of her fingers at her back was her only sign. Follow. Hurry.

  Shouldering her heavy duffel and snatching up the camera and tripod, Selina trailed her, Ivy at her side.

  More guns pointed toward them as they walked up the stairs.

  “Do you know what’s the worst part of living a life of crime?” Harley asked as she got to the top of the stairs that would lead into the main hallway, turning to peer down at the men following with guns aimed at their backs.

  Selina reached her side, Ivy a moment later. Just in time to see Harley punch the red button next to the stairwell door.

  “Not knowing who to trust,” Harley said, and the six-inch-thick metal door slammed shut.

  Sealing the men inside.

  The gunfire against the door was muffled, the shouts of the men Harley had trapped inside distant.

  “And this was better than fighting?” Ivy demanded, backing away from the heavy door and the red panic button that had saved their asses. The flowers in her hands had sealed again, and she swiftly pocketed them.

  “It was, if you consider the fact that Ralph had a bomb with him that could have wiped us out.”

  “No, he didn’t,” Selina said, turning toward the hallway that would take them to the back exit. “I would have seen it.” She tapped her helmet.

  “Trust me, he did. Those clothes? Just to mask the hi-tech cloaking material Falcone stole off the black market. One throw and we would have been toast. He’s probably debating using it on this door. We should hurry.”

  Falcone had such things in his arsenal now.

  Unacceptable. On so many levels.

  But…Harley had saved them. Selina shouldered her way out the back door and into the empty alley. Not even a lookout. Falcone needed to recruit smarter cronies.

  “Thanks, Harley,” Ivy said quietly.

  Harley waved it off. “Falcone will be furious when he gets word of what we did.”

  Selina stalked down the alley, sirens already wailing in the night. Falcone had grown in power. Not anywhere near the global network and bottomless resources of the League, but enough to potentially grow beyond a local menace. “We’ll deal with Falcone,” she said, more to herself than them. But added after a moment, “Thanks, Harley.”

  Harley only grinned.

  Three weeks later, Selina was just entering her apartment building, trying not to limp at the ache in her leg.

  One of Harley’s little devices had been a bit too successful tonight and Selina had taken a chunk of concrete right in the thigh. The suit had kept the shrapnel from breaking the skin, but she’d bruised bone, likely. Ivy had said as much after she’d insisted on checking the injury. Even Harley had apologized for it.

  But Holly Vanderhees didn’t limp, and as Selina rode up the elevator from the basement parking garage, she gritted her teeth at the way her heels made every part of her injured leg throb. There was no way she could have entered the building wearing her battle-suit, and even though peeling it off in the alley to change into her current long-sleeved dress had been an effort of will…she’d done it.

  The elevator paused at the lobby, and Selina plastered a bland smile on her face, hoping whoever was getting on wouldn’t notice the sweat dampening her hair at one a.m.

  She saw the bruises first. The swollen eye and lip. And within the span of a heartbeat, she was reaching for Luke Fox.

  She halted before she could touch the sleeve of his gray zip-up athletic jacket. Luke blinked with his good eye, his every movement pained and tired, and stepped inside the elevator.

  “What happened?” she demanded. If one of Gotham City’s petty criminals had hurt him—

  “I had a fight tonight.”

  “Who attacked you?”

  Luke leaned against the wall of the elevator, his face utterly mangled—looking worse, no doubt, in the fluorescent lighting. “No. Boxing. Semipro.”

  It was her turn to blink. He hadn’t been attacked, then. “Who won?”

  A low, rasping laugh. “I did.”

  So the muscles truly weren’t all for show. She didn’t want to imagine the bruises beneath his clothes. Selina swallowed. “Why do you fight?” He had more money than God, and if she hadn’t been near starvation all those years ago, she never would have set foot inside a ring.

  “It…helps,” he said, and refused to clarify.

  Helps. He’d been in the Marines. Maybe the fighting helped him with whatever he still needed to sort through. She half wondered if Batwing himself had been a soldier, too. If he fought crime for a similar reason.

  The elevator reached their floor, silence settling between them.

  She’d gone overseas as well. And while Luke had been fighting for this country…she’d been learning how to break it.

  Was here to do just that, to destabilize and undermine.

  A heavy, hollow weight settled in the pit of her stomach, but she kept her steps slow as they walked out of the elevator. “Can I help you get cleaned up?”

  He shook his head, but winced at the movement. “I’m fine.”

  She scanned his body—the sweatpants, the jacket that hid his battered body. “Let me get you some ice.”

  She’d stolen his car, his painting, lied to his face….It was the least she could do. If he hadn’t been a rich boy, she would have said he was a good man. A rare man.

  Luke said, “Thank you.”

  And for a heartbeat, she was back in that dirty, dangerous hallway—as he tried and failed to pull out his keys.

  His fingers were bloody, swollen. She caught the keys before they could hit the ground, saying nothing as she fitted them into the lock, opened the door, and flicked on the lights.

  “Ice pack is in the lowest drawer on the left side of the freezer,” he managed to say before slumping onto his couch, his knuckles smearing blood onto the dark leather.

  Selina readied the ice pack, leg protesting with every movement, and brought over some paper towels to wipe up the blood. He leaned back against the cushions, pressing the ice pack to his eye, saying nothing while she dabbed at the leather.

  Only when she rose, jaw clenched so tightly to keep in her grunt of pain, did he say, “Why were you out so late?”

  “I had a date,” she lied.

  He went still. “With whom?”

  Props for good grammar. She tossed the bloodied paper towel into the trash under the sink. “I get the feeling that the moment I tell you, you’ll use that Wayne Industries database to look up his records, so…pass.”

  “That’s assuming I care enough to do so.”

  Well then.

  “Feel better,” she said a bit tightly, heading for the door.

  “Holly—”

  But she was already gone. Even though she hated herself for it, Selina lingered by her own door for a moment longer than necessary, just to see if he’d come after her.

  He didn’t.

  * * *

  —

&n
bsp; “Let’s blow up the stage where they’re hosting that kiddie beauty pageant.”

  “Jesus Christ, Harley!”

  “What? Not while the kids are on it, obviously. But those contests are gross.”

  Selina wasn’t sure how she’d gotten here. She’d given Ivy a call to say that tomorrow they were hitting up another target, but instead of agreeing and hanging up, Ivy had invited her over. To hang.

  So here she was. Wearing her suit and helmet. In a lab teeming with plants that Ivy had constructed in the mammoth greenhouse adjacent to the abandoned grand hall of Robinson Park.

  The entire place was something out of a dream: Trees grew from the floor itself, rising right through the glass ceiling, their thick leaves providing a roof. Paths lined with blooming flowers wended between the dense underbrush of dangling vines, ferns, and trickling streams. A few birds called sleepy good-nights to each other.

  Selina could have sworn that some of the zoo animals they’d freed the other week during one of their Merry Band of Misfits adventures now lurked between the trees and oversized roots, eyes gleaming in the dark.

  The air was sweet, warm—not quite comforting. The scent of fresh earth all around. A beautiful, if unsettling, place.

  A lab-slash-apartment, apparently, from the little open grassy area tucked against a far stone wall that they now sat in, a rare spot of the greenhouse that hadn’t been overwhelmed. Ivy and Harley sprawled on what seemed to be a sofa constructed of velvety moss, Selina perched on what she could have sworn was an oversized toadstool.

  But at least the living furniture all faced the ancient TV screen currently playing some slasher flick.

  How Ivy managed to create electricity and get cable out here was the least of her concerns.

  “If there are children at the pageant,” said Selina, wincing as she rotated her still-aching leg before her, going through a few of her gymnastics warm-ups that she could do while sitting down, “we don’t risk it.”

  Harley rolled her eyes. “Aren’t you going to take off your helmet?”

  “No.”

  The two women swapped glances. “You ugly or something?” Harley said, eyes full of challenge.

 
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