Catwoman soulstealer, p.4
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       Catwoman: Soulstealer, p.4
 

           Sarah J. Maas

  “Do you know what it means to be three weeks away from eighteen in Gotham City?” Talia leaned forward, resting her arms on the metal table. There was a slight accent to her words, some rolling purr.

  “I can buy lotto tickets?”

  Again, that hint of a smile. “It means you will be lucky if the judge tries you as a juvenile. It’s your third strike. You’re looking at bars no matter what. The question is whether it’s kiddie prison or the big girls club.”

  “Where. Is. Maggie.”

  The question was a roar in her blood—a screaming, thrashing demand.

  Talia leaned back in her chair and slid a paper-clipped file toward Selina. “Your sister is at a group home. In the Bowery of the East End.”

  Oh God. If their apartment complex was garbage, then the Bowery was the entire dump. The gangs in that area…Even Falcone didn’t mess with them.

  Selina set her bound hands on the file Talia had pushed over, the photo of a grimy, cramped bedroom atop it. Maggie’s new bedroom. She turned the paper over, fingers curling.

  “Lord knows who is running that home,” Talia mused, flipping through the rest of Selina’s file.

  “Are you trying to piss me off so they can add assaulting a grade A asshole to my rap sheet?”

  The question was out, low and growling, before Selina could reconsider.

  Talia laughed, a light and silvery sound. “Do you think you could do it? Handcuffed?”

  A faint click sounded in answer.

  Rotating her free wrist, Selina dropped the straightened paper clip onto the metal table. A sleight of hand—turning over that photo of Maggie’s foster home to distract the eye while she palmed the paper clip. And then used it and some careful angling to spring a handcuff free. She’d bought a pair a few years ago to use for practice, to learn how the locking mechanism worked. For precisely this sort of moment.

  Talia smiled again, full and wide, and let out a satisfied hum. “Clever girl.” She jerked her chin toward Selina’s free hand. “I’d suggest putting it back on. You know how uptight the police can be about such things.”

  She did. And she knew that even if she unlocked the other cuff and pummeled this woman’s face in, she still wouldn’t make it out of this holding room or the precinct.

  Selina clicked the handcuff back around her wrist. Leaving it loose enough that she could free herself again, should the need arise.

  Talia watched every movement, head angled to the side, dark hair shifting. “I’m here to offer you a bargain, Selina Kyle.”

  Selina waited.

  Talia closed her file. “I run a vocational school for young women like you. Physically skilled, yes.” A nod toward the cuffs, the bruises on her face. “But smart most of all.” She placed a hand on the file. “I’ve got chart after chart of your grades. Your exam scores. Do your little kitty-cat friends know you’re top of your class and that you aced all statewide exams?”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She’d made sure the Leopards never heard about it as well. Being good in the ring with the bullwhip and gymnastics was about as much talent as she’d let show. Selina leaned forward a bit. “Acing tests doesn’t win fights.”

  Another laugh, this one low and sultry. “You know, if your frequent absences didn’t bar you from graduating this year, you might have been able to have your pick of scholarships.”

  College wasn’t a possibility. Not with Maggie to look after.

  “This school of mine, though,” Talia said, tracing a nail over the surface of the file. Like a long red talon. “It would be a new start. And a better fit than juvie. Or prison.”

  With every passing minute she spent in here, Maggie was in that disgusting home, breathing in filth and dirt.

  “The catch, before you ask, is that my school is located in the Dolomites of Italy. And your sister cannot come.”

  Selina blinked, processing what the woman had said. A school in Italy. No Maggie.

  “If you come with me,” Talia went on, “I can make this record”—a tap of the hand on the file—“vanish. Forever.”

  Selina studied the file and then Talia’s beautiful face. These offers didn’t come without major strings.

  “I don’t give a shit about the record,” Selina said. “I want Maggie out of that house.”

  Talia blinked, the only sign of surprise.

  “I want my sister put in a single-family foster home. With good people who are willing to adopt her. Somewhere in a cushy suburb. No gangs, no violence, no drugs.”

  Silence.

  Selina added softly, “And I want you to make sure my mother is never able to get her hands on Maggie again.”

  The lights above hummed. Talia’s hand scraped over the rough surface of the file folder as she slid her hands into her lap. “You’re in no position to make demands.”

  Selina leaned back in her chair, refusing to break the woman’s dark gaze. “If you want me so badly for your human-trafficking club, you’ll do it.”

  Talia burst out laughing. There was no joy in the sound.

  Selina rolled her shoulders and waited.

  Talia chuckled once more before tossing her sheet of hair over a shoulder. “I’ll make it happen.”

  Selina didn’t let her shock show.

  “There is one more condition,” Talia said, rising from the table.

  Of course there was. Selina monitored her every breath.

  “We leave tonight,” Talia said. “And you will not get to say goodbye.”

  For a moment, Selina didn’t hear the words, or the hum of the lights, or the click of Talia’s beige heels as she strutted for the door. She heard that damned Carousel song.

  And Selina was still hearing it as she said, voice thick, “Take off the cuffs.”

  * * *

  —

  The tarmac of the private airport was empty.

  Empty save for the sleek white jet idling just off the runway, its steps already lowered to reveal a near-glowing wooden interior.

  The perfect match to the Aston Martin that Selina had just vacated. Talia was already striding toward the plane.

  Rubbing her wrists, Selina stalked after the woman, glancing toward the glittering city skyline to their left. The eastern horizon was just beginning to lighten. Dawn.

  Her body ached. Everything ached. Not just bone and flesh.

  Selina shoved down the thought as she took in Gotham City. The light and the shadow.

  A cool wind whipped at her face, dragging strands of her hair free as she caught up to Talia’s side just before the woman began to ascend the steps into the private plane. A flight attendant waited at the top of the stairs, a tray with two glasses of champagne fizzing in her hands.

  “Is this your plane?” Selina asked as Talia braced a hand on the stair rail and set a well-heeled foot on the first step.

  “It is.”

  This school, then…Selina again glanced toward the city’s horizon. To where she prayed Maggie was being shuttled through the streets to the trees and open air and quiet of the suburbs.

  She swallowed, trailing Talia up the narrow steps of the plane. The private plane.

  “Are you a Wayne or something?” The Waynes did plenty of charity work, and a fancy Italian school for wayward young women didn’t seem beyond them.

  Talia let out a low laugh and didn’t bother to turn as she reached the top stair, swiped a flute of champagne from the flight attendant, and said, “No. My family name is al Ghūl.”

  She was a ghost. A wraith.

  Selina reminded herself of that little fact as she stood atop the stairs of the private jet, squinted into the blinding midday sun glinting off the hangars of the exclusive airfield, and got a faceful of late-August Gotham City stink.

  That, at least, hadn’t changed in the past two year
s. But as for Selina herself…

  The four-inch beige heels that clipped so nicely against the steps as she descended were just the start of the changes to her. The long golden-blond hair, the manicured nails, and the suntanned skin were the next. And then there was the perfectly tailored cream-colored linen suit, steamed for her by the flight attendant thirty minutes before landing. The portrait of unthreatening, carefree money.

  No sign of the girl who’d ascended the stairs of this plane two years ago, bloody and battered. No sign of the girl who’d clawed and fought to keep her sister safe, keep her as healthy as could be expected—especially with Maggie now well cared for, living in a pretty house in the suburbs.

  No sign of that girl at all.

  Indeed, the resources of the League of Assassins had made these first steps back into Gotham City so much easier, clearing a path for all she’d arrived here to do. The League was bigger, more lethal, than any criminal organization in this city. A near myth. They answered to nobody and nothing, a veritable force of nature. Their goals were so much larger than financial profit. No, the League dealt in power—the sort that could alter countries, alter the world. The smart criminals were the ones who got out of their way. The smartest were those who bowed.

  Selina took a slow, bracing breath, flexing her fingers against the slight tremor that rippled down them. No space for fear, for doubt, for hesitation. Not with so many eyes watching.

  Photographers sporting long-range cameras snapped photos through the nearby chain-link fence.

  Selina shoved away any lingering trace of nerves and offered a sultry, sly look in their direction, her broad-brimmed black hat—the crowning piece of her ensemble—blocking half her face. She did the photographers an even bigger favor and removed her sunglasses as she stepped off the stairs and turned toward the awaiting black sedan.

  And just because she was finally back in this shit-hole city, finally back in this place that had been both hell and home, she flashed them a wave and a smile white and bright enough to light up the Gotham City skyline.

  Snap, shutter, snap.

  Had those photographers even thought to question the anonymous tip about socialite Holly Vanderhees coming to town after a lengthy stay in Europe? Or were they too afraid of looking foolish to ask who this person was who’d just descended upon Gotham City?

  The information she’d leaked through their computer systems had been brief but detailed. Her family had investments everywhere. Old money. Parents: deceased. Siblings: none. Net worth: billions.

  Selina reached the sedan and the driver holding the door open for her. It took years of training to hold back her nod of thanks, to make herself ignore the urge to meet his eyes in a minimal greeting.

  He didn’t dare introduce himself. Didn’t do anything. Well trained not to be a presence but an instrument.

  Even now, after all she’d been taught and instructed to do, it made her stomach churn.

  A lie. This is all a lie. The East End bred me, raised me. The words sat on her tongue as she ducked into the car. This is all a lie.

  But she didn’t need to speak a word to him: he already had the address of the Old Gotham City penthouse Holly had leased for the as-yet-unknown length of her stay. Likely through gala season, she’d informed the real estate agent, who’d nearly fainted at the commission of a lifetime.

  Butter-soft leather cushioned her when she slid into the rear seat of the car, the driver making sure her waxed golden legs were fully inside, Birkin bag nestled in the seat beside her, before quietly shutting the door. Air at seventy degrees, two chilled bottles of water in the lowered tray beside her, a smart tablet anchored to the back of the front passenger seat, packets of lemon-scented face towelettes tucked into the mesh netting beneath.

  Not that she’d use them. Why ruin the makeup she’d carefully applied before landing? The barely-there foundation, matte dove-gray eye shadow with a swoop of eyeliner, and bold flamethrower-red lips.

  She’d refused to acknowledge the slight trembling in her hands while she’d done it—the hands she’d had to shake out multiple times before they were steady enough to precisely apply her eyeliner and lipstick.

  Being nervous before a mission didn’t help anything. She reminded herself of that over and over. Even if she’d already gone through every breathing technique she’d been taught.

  The driver got in, turning on the radio to the station she’d requested: classical. As a soon-to-be patron of the Gotham City Opera, she at least had to appear interested in it.

  Appear to be many things, since the driver was sure to talk. Just as the flight attendants on the plane were sure to talk. Money bought nearly everything, but silence was never a guarantee. In Gotham City, loyalty was bought and sold as fast as any stock on the market.

  Loyalty couldn’t exist in a place like this. She’d learned that, too, these past few years.

  The car pulled out of the private airport, the heavy gates parting to let them through. Selina stroked a hand down the silky-smooth leather of the Birkin beside her. The bag, the shoes, the clothes, the jewels—all were loaded symbols. Literally. And also passports, veritable golden tickets into the circles of society who dwelled above those eking out a living on the streets of Gotham City.

  Nature is all about balance, Nyssa al Ghūl, her mentor and personal instructor during her time in Italy, had once purred to her. Tip too far in one direction, and it will always find a way to right itself.

  Gotham City had been tipping too far toward the rich and corrupt for a long, long time. She’d come home to right it once more.

  The car wove through a grid of streets before merging onto the highway that would cross the Gotham River and take them downtown. As they sped over the Brown Bridge, the southern tip of Gotham City spread before her, packed with the glittering high-rises that pierced the cloudless summer day like lances. And lording above them all: Wayne Tower. Every citizen of the city could likely sketch the building from memory. A symbol of welcome, the postcards claimed.

  That tower was a symbol of anything but.

  And when she was finished here, the world would see that, too.

  She peered out through the gaps in the steel beams of the bridge toward the muddy-blue waters of the Gotham River. How many bodies would be swimming in it by the time she was finished here?

  Gotham City was primed to fall. All it would take was a little encouragement.

  What fortunate timing that the sanctimonious Batman was currently gone—no sign of him for weeks now. And that Batwing, along with a few others, was barely holding back the tide of lowlifes seeking to take advantage of that absence.

  She snorted softly. What ridiculous names they gave themselves, these vigilantes.

  Selina lifted her gaze from the river to the shining metropolis approaching with every heartbeat. To the darker, shorter buildings of the East End smudging the horizon.

  Home. Or it had been. She hadn’t let herself consider it her home in a long while. Refused to contemplate where home might be, if such a thing could ever exist for her now.

  The brutal training at the League of Assassins had taught her many, many things. Had killed that street-raised, desperate girl, leaving her somewhere at the bottom of a ravine in the Dolomites. Had drained that girl away into nothing, along with the blood of the men who Nyssa and the others had taught her how to bring down—how to punish.

  You will bring empires to their knees, Nyssa had once sworn to her after a particularly grueling demonstration on how to get men to talk. A kernel of promise while she’d puked her guts up afterward.

  No, home did not exist anymore. But it was worth it. She’d come here to make sure it had all been worth it—the training, the unspeakable cost. She would not fail. Not this most vital mission.

  So Selina loosed a settling breath and beheld the sparkling city as she reclined in the cushioned seat of
the car.

  And finally, at long last, she allowed herself a little smile.

  Let Gotham City enjoy its final days of summer.

  The nightmare was always the same.

  Blinding sun, heat so dry it choked the air out of his lungs, and a flat plain of sand and scrub spreading to the horizon.

  And then the roar. The screaming. The exploding sand and metal.

  The blood and chaos. Gunfire.

  A world away—a different world, different life. A different hell.

  Because for Luke Fox, hell wasn’t fire and brimstone. It was friends he’d laughed with in the morning at the canteen winding up in body bags by lunch.

  Night after night: this dream, this moment.

  A year had passed since he’d returned to Gotham City, and Luke was still crawling back toward who he’d been before.

  Whoever that person had been. Whoever had been ripped apart that day, along with the flesh of his ribs, where the Kevlar hadn’t been covering him. As if the enemy they’d been dispatched to put down had known precisely where to strike with the IED that went off beneath the tank lumbering ahead, sending shrapnel tearing through the air.

  Through him—and his soldiers.

  Had it been worth it? The grueling training and the three years in the Marine Corps. Had he made a difference?

  They were the questions he asked himself over and over. That haunted every step, every breath. The questions that drove him each night into the streets of Gotham City.

  Luke blew out a breath, his muscled chest rising and falling as moonlight leaked in through the windows, highlighting the jagged line along his ribs, the scar stark against his brown skin. He scanned the sky, his penthouse apartment offering an unobstructed view of downtown Gotham City.

  No bat-shaped sigil lighting up the night.

  Luke couldn’t decide if he was disappointed or not.

  He glanced at the clock beside his bed. Only two hours ago, he’d crept back into his apartment after a quiet night of patrolling. Apparently, the August heat had made even the worst of Gotham City decide to stay indoors.

 
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