Catwoman soulstealer, p.23
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       Catwoman: Soulstealer, p.23
 

           Sarah J. Maas
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  Luke made a point not to get near enough to let her. To always have a dance partner.

  He knew he was being a jerk. What Elise would call immature man-baby bullshit, but he didn’t care.

  He had bigger things to worry about than kissing his neighbor. Or failing to.

  So Luke stood in the crowd, champagne in hand, while Gordon got up on the stage to make a toast. The time for Catwoman, Harley, and Ivy to strike would be now. When everyone was watching and the cameras were rolling.

  Yet Gordon, clad in a tux, his auburn hair slicked back for once, got through his speech about the ongoing efforts of the GCPD to build bonds with the people of this city, saluting the men and women in uniform who worked tirelessly to make it a safer place. Some of what he said was bullshit, but most of it was born out of Gordon’s genuine hope and belief that the GCPD could rise above its past and current history and become something better. Gordon paused only once to glance down at his phone, and then he saluted the assembled cops. Luke followed the crowd in lifting a glass to the officers as well.

  Luke casually followed the men and women at his table—top city officials—toward where Gordon now stood to the left of the stage, speaking quietly to those gathered. No one noticed Luke standing off to the side as Gordon softly announced, “When I tell you what I’m about to say, I want no signs of panic. You act normal.”

  Luke’s blood began to pound.

  Gordon went on, “The chemical factory in Otisburg was robbed an hour ago.”

  Catwoman wasn’t going to come, Luke realized as Gordon spoke.

  She’d taken advantage of every top cop in the city, every resource, being focused here instead. Focused here because—

  “Poison Ivy was spotted driving off with a semi full of chemicals.” Shit. Shit. Gordon’s throat bobbed. He said so quietly Luke had to lean in to hear it, “And Harley Quinn just used her extensive knowledge of explosives to blow up another wall of Blackgate Penitentiary. She’s freed key members of the Joker’s gang. His Numbers Two, Three, and Four.”

  Luke’s blood went cold.

  Gordon said, “We move now. Don’t breathe a word. They need to be recaptured before the press knows.”

  Gordon’s people began asking questions as Luke stalked toward the exit.

  Holly caught his eye as he passed, her brows rising high. As if she’d spotted Gordon’s little conference—had seen him listening in.

  Luke gave her a cold, bored stare in exchange and prowled out.

  Fast. He had to act fast.

  Because if the Joker’s top three guys were out of jail, then bad, bad things were about to happen.

  Luke knew their names, their long, long list of crimes.

  Honestly, it might have felt like a joke, taking on three guys named Smiles, Bozo, and Chuckles. But these guys were far from well-meaning clowns.

  He soared over the East End, his suit providing readouts of the people below. None matched the known height, weight, and description of the Joker’s top three men.

  His heart hammered in his chest, even as he tried to calm it. This rush, right before a fight, before launching himself into the fray. There had been some nights, when he first returned home, when this rush was the only feeling he’d had in days. It had made it easier, back then, to head out into Gotham City’s shadows. To know this adrenaline pumping through him was waiting.

  He’d found balance since then. But even now, as his wings caught an updraft and he soared…Yeah, he loved that rush.

  Loved how it expanded, as if it would fill the entire world, and then narrowed—focusing right as he saw them.

  Honing that rush directly on the three men who stalked down an alley, one with a baseball bat slung over a shoulder, one with what seemed to be a chain wrapped around his fist, and the other…What looked to be a long, wicked knife glinted in the dimness. They hadn’t even bothered to ditch their jumpsuits.

  Luke banked, checking his speed.

  Three against one—not bad odds. But these weren’t ordinary men.

  There was a dark, wet stain on the back of the tall, slender one in the center—Bozo. Not his blood, the suit told Luke. But someone else’s. The chain dangling from Bozo’s hand had blood on it, too.

  Jesus.

  Chuckles’s baseball bat, propped against his broad, meaty shoulder—those were nails sticking out of the tip. Big ones.

  Luke lowered himself, closer and closer to the opposite end of the alley. Ambushing from behind would work in his favor.

  It went against every bit of training in the ring, felt cowardly even against these men, but…It was Smiles, slender, average height, and the Joker’s Number Two, who held that large knife.

  Smiles hadn’t become Number Two because of a pleasantness of personality. No, Luke knew that nickname came from Smiles While Killing. Smiles While Robbing. Smiles While Doing Whatever Evil the Joker Commands.

  It was Smiles who Luke had to look out for. And Smiles who made him dim his suit lights to darkness, land near-silently on the alley floor, and free a Batarang from his suit. He’d modified the simple metal design in his lab. This, at a signal from his suit, would inflict as much of an electric shock as a Taser.

  One of his friends overseas had been a sniper. Luke had talked with her countless times about how she calculated distance and wind and light and movement. She’d never missed a shot.

  The three men reached the edge of the alley, still unaware of his presence behind them.

  Luke lined up his shot, then freed two more Batarangs for his second and third, anticipating how the other two might scatter.

  His job wasn’t to kill them.

  He’d seen enough of that overseas for a lifetime. Still discussed it in group therapy with the others.

  The victims of these men deserved justice—real justice, through a court of law. Not vigilantism. And as screwed up and evil as these men were…they had some right to a trial, too.

  Luke fired the Batarang at Smiles’s wiry frame.

  But the Joker’s Second must have heard the buzz of the electric charge.

  Faster than Luke had expected, Smiles grabbed Bozo and whirled, the Joker’s Number Four pressed against his chest.

  A human shield.

  The Batarang hit Bozo right in the chest, stunning him. The chains jangled as they hit the concrete, Bozo following them. Utterly unconscious.

  As Luke had anticipated, Chuckles whirled toward his companion, rather than run for cover. Luke fired his second Batarang, right where he’d calculated.

  Chuckles and his baseball bat thudded on the ground.

  Smiles sized up the alley, his pale face gaunt and sneering. “Come out, come out,” he whispered, his voice high and reedy. A poor imitation of the Joker’s natural bone-chilling voice. “No one likes a party pooper.” He beckoned with his long knife. It glinted, catching the light of the streetlamp.

  One against one: much better odds.

  Luke stepped out of the shadows, letting the insignia on his chest flare brightly.

  Smiles grinned crookedly, dancing on his feet—an uneven, unbalanced move. Something he’d seen plenty of people do when they thought they knew about boxing. It only served to make his center of balance unwieldy. “Catch me if you can,” Smiles whispered, and sprinted away.

  Let him run. Luke was already dialing the GCPD. He had learned early on that he risked losing two unconscious criminals if he didn’t make sure they were secure before going after a third on the run.

  It was a matter of a few minutes to get Bozo and Chuckles tied to a lamppost, sirens sounding from a few blocks away.

  Good.

  With patrol cars swarming down the block, Luke leapt into the skies, scanning the streets below.

  It had been five minutes max. But a great deal could happen in five minutes in Gotham City. There were sewer entrance
s everywhere—the preferred route of many of the city’s worst.

  There. Sprinting toward the docks, that knife shining in the dark.

  Smart, yes, but untrained. Unaware that the glint was a dead giveaway.

  Smiles turned a corner in the labyrinth of dockside warehouses. Heading for the small marina. Luke banked right and landed in the shadows just north of his route.

  Only to discover that Smiles had found a way through the warehouses, rather than around them.

  As Luke landed, the alerts on his helmet flared, and—

  He ducked, falling back as Smiles slashed at him.

  Not fast enough. The knife dragged along his side. Sundering metal plates. And flesh.

  Luke swore, shutting out the pain, despite the warmth of blood filling his suit.

  On an unarmored person, that blow would have gutted them like a fish.

  Smiles smirked at the blade, the blood on it. “You know how much this DNA will sell for?”

  Luke’s blood leaked from him. Dangerously fast.

  He had to end it now.

  “Too bad you won’t find out,” Luke said, and moved.

  His suit insignia flared, bright as the flash on a camera bulb. Blinding Smiles, throwing him off-balance—

  Luke barreled into him. Slammed a palm into his elbow, forcing his fingers to splay and drop the knife, then blasted his fist into Smiles’s face in a decimating right hook.

  Bone crushed and blood sprayed.

  Luke wasn’t done yet. As Smiles reeled to the right, Luke swept his leg out, turning the criminal’s already uneven balance against him.

  Smiles went crashing to the wooden planks, groaning.

  Luke was on him in an instant, his Batarang firing right onto his chest.

  Smiles slumped against the planks, nose leaking. Unconscious.

  Luke didn’t dare pause and let his adrenaline wear off. Not with a wound leaking down his side, not with the pain barking through him at every movement.

  He managed to make another call to GCPD before he hurled Smiles’s knife into the dark river, sending his own DNA washing away, hoisted the slim criminal over a shoulder, and carried him out of the docks. Here, any manner of lowlife might easily find him.

  Luke gritted his teeth with every step. But he made it.

  And when Smiles was chained to a post office box, whimpering into consciousness as cops began arriving on the scene, Luke managed to leap to a nearby rooftop.

  Gotham City had never seemed so large. Endless. He’d have to make it home before he could risk pausing to catch his breath. He could barely focus enough to land and tuck in his wings.

  And find her waiting for him.

  Catwoman let out a sultry laugh. “Did you wait for me at the gala tonight?”

  He had. And she’d made a fool of the GCPD on a night in their honor.

  Luke lunged for her.

  But his body chose right then and there to remind him that it had its limits. And they had been reached and then some tonight.

  His step forward turned into a sway back. Back, back, back as darkness closed in.

  Clawed hands reached for him as the drop off the roof loomed.

  * * *

  —

  Luke barely remembered how they got there.

  How he didn’t wind up shoved off that roof and splattered on the street below.

  Everything was veiled in a pain-filled fog. The slice to his ribs must have been deeper than he’d realized. He had the vague sense of being half carried. Of a slender body holding him upright, helping him down and over things…But he had no idea where he was when she led him into a small, yet clean, apartment. Dark and quiet. All he knew was that it wasn’t his apartment. A shiver skittered down his spine.

  The bedroom she shut them in was also neat and tidy. Pretty, but not fancy—no sign of wealth in the aging paint, the chipped dresser. The mattress she plunked him on groaned softly beneath the weight of him in his suit.

  She’d given him something before they’d started walking, he remembered. A shot injected through the small sliver of skin between his neck and shoulder. Adrenaline—or a compound like it. It had steadied him enough to move. And now it seemed to be kicking in more. Clarifying things.

  A small light clicked on, dusting Catwoman’s black suit in its golden glow.

  She took a seat beside him and said, “Either I can patch this up for you here, or I can take you to the hospital.”

  Luke managed a half smile. “You offer me another option now?”

  She didn’t answer, instead opening a small pouch in her utility belt to remove what seemed to be bandages, a sterile needle, and thread. Along with two vials of what had to be antiseptic and some local numbing agent.

  “You know how to use that stuff?”

  “A skill I picked up at the League,” she said, bending to examine the gash visible through his armor. “Can you remove this?”

  Luke hesitated. The helmet and the suit were separate, but taking off the suit required more movement than he could muster right now, and being prostrate before her, his brown skin exposed—well, it’d certainly narrow any potential list she had for who Batwing might truly be. There were plenty of black guys in Gotham City, but ones who might have access to tech like this?

  She didn’t wait for him to decide. The drug she’d given him or perhaps his blood loss made him unable to react fast enough, to block her, as she flicked a steel claw free and carefully sliced away sections of bloodied metal. Carving out a hole in his suit, as easily as she’d sliced that circle in the glass display case at his family’s estate.

  Luke watched, his head heavy, while she removed the overlapping metal scales, setting them on the bed. “You’ll have to take those with you, or else the DNA might be a problem,” she advised.

  She was right. If someone analyzed it and matched it against the Marines database, his cover would be completely blown.

  Catwoman adjusted something in her helmet’s lenses as she examined the wound. “No signs of foreign objects inside,” she said, more to herself than to him.

  “Your helmet can tell you that?”

  “Among other things.”

  He hissed as she dabbed the antiseptic onto the slice down his ribs. And just to keep himself from thinking about what she was going to do with that needle and thread, Luke asked, “Where did you get that suit?”

  She stabbed him with a syringe, numbing the area. “I made it myself.” Perhaps she had a shred of pity for him, because she went on, as if to distract him from the stitches. “I’ve always loved science and technology.” A rasp of laughter, muffled by that helmet. “I won a state science competition when I was a kid. It probably put me on the League’s radar long before I even knew they existed.”

  He tucked away those facts. State—she’d likely grown up in America. He opened his mouth, then shut it. Admitting his own passion for science would only let her gather facts of her own on him. “That suit must have taken forever to make.”

  “The base model belonged to the League.” Her needle glinted as it rose and fell. Luke shut out the strange sensation of thread passing through numbed skin. “I modified it to meet my specifications.”

  “Like the cat ears and claws.”

  Another rasp of laughter. “Like those.”

  “Why the cat stuff?”

  “Why the bat stuff?”

  She had him there. “It was part of a larger theme.”

  “Your…colleague’s theme, I assume.”

  Luke avoided the urge to shrug, considering she currently had a needle in his skin. “Really, though: why the cat motif?”

  Another few passes of the needle and she was done, tying off the stitches. Luke dared a look—and found a neat, precise line down his ribs. She leaned back, gathering up the needle and remaining thread i
n the plastic case they’d come in, along with the various needles and wipes. She handed them to him, and Luke blinked.

  Right. They were covered in his blood. His DNA. And yet—there she was, handing it over. Dousing her own gloved hands in sanitizer once again, wiping away any trace of him from her.

  “I had a stupid nickname at the League,” she said at last. “So I took back the symbol for myself. Decided I liked it. The other assassins had their own personal touches, so I made this”—a wave of the hand to encompass her claws, her eared helmet—“to reflect my own.”

  “It’s impressive work.”

  “Did you make your suit?”

  The answer to that might lead to too many questions—and answers. “Parts of it.” Not a lie, not entirely. Some of the tech had been made by others. Like the robots in the lab.

  Her head angled, and Luke followed the line of her vision to his side. Not on stitches she’d made, but the scars he realized were showing.

  The tail end of the big scar that sliced down his chest, ending right near the bottom of his ribs.

  He didn’t move as she traced a claw over it, leaving his skin prickling in her wake. He waited for the question about it, building the lie on his tongue: one of the underworld cronies had given it to him, not that piece of shrapnel that tore through his body. His very existence.

  Instead, she asked, “Who hurt you tonight?”

  The question was icy. The coldness not directed at him, but at whoever was behind the wound. As if she’d hunt him down and hurt him for it.

  Luke was grateful for the mask covering his face as he blinked in surprise. He managed to say, “You should know. You freed him.”

  She went still for a heartbeat. “You caught him.”

  “I caught all of them.”

  Silence.

  She stood, stalking to the windows and shutting the curtains over the blinds. Cutting off the streetlight. Then she opened up a drawer, fished out what seemed to be two sweaters, and shoved them in the crack between the door and the floor. She still managed to navigate the way back to the bed, as if she’d mapped the entire room already.

 
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