Catwoman soulstealer, p.6
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       Catwoman: Soulstealer, p.6
 

           Sarah J. Maas

  She didn’t use guns on people. Ever.

  She’d allowed Nyssa to teach her how to wield them, but she’d kept her thoughts on the matter to herself. Never mentioned how she’d seen them used to such detrimental effect and destruction, how she’d seen them bring such pain and sorrow into the lives of those in the East End.

  So it was a good thing Nyssa wasn’t here. And a good thing Selina had so many other weapons in her arsenal.

  But for this task…

  Selina counted down the seconds. Knew it was coming.

  Her finger shifted slightly on the trigger as she aimed the rifle at the top of the eleven-story GCPD precinct building. The most important building in this city, by her account.

  The door to the precinct roof flung open, and two men rushed out.

  Selina allowed them to get close to the object they sought. The giant spotlight.

  She allowed them to turn it on, the beam of light spearing into the sky, the bat icon dark against the bank of clouds. She allowed them that one moment of calm before she fired.

  The rifle’s kickback was a punch to the shoulder, but the shot was a whisper thanks to the silencer. The crack of shattering glass and metal and the shouts of the two officers were not.

  Selina fired again a heartbeat later, her careful planning and the scope’s night vision allowing the bullet to fly perfectly.

  The glowing power source on its lower left side shattered before the bullet embedded in the brick wall of the stairwell entrance.

  More shouts and cursing from the men, now whirling in her direction.

  But Selina flicked the safety back on the rifle, shouldered the weapon, and prowled for the stairs, little more than a shadow against the night.

  This time, someone would come looking.

  Hopefully, they’d want to play.

  Luke had been surprised to see Alfred’s name light up his cell at three a.m.

  Mostly because they’d never once called each other, though Bruce had given Luke his butler’s number in case of emergency. The sort that involved Bruce either never coming home again or needing a discreet pickup. Thankfully, Luke had never had to make a call, but if Alfred was calling…

  The call, like the man on the line, had been polite but firm.

  “Hey, Alfred,” Luke said, instantly awake and sitting up in bed.

  “Good evening, Mr. Fox,” came the dry British voice at the other end.

  Luke set his feet on the cool wooden floor. “Is Bruce all right?” Better to get down to business. Alfred, at least, seemed just as disinclined to make small talk.

  “Yes. His mission is going well.”

  He knew the butler would say no more than that. Luke scanned the city skyline beyond his bedroom windows, struggling for the right response. “Glad to hear it.”

  A lengthy pause. Luke winced a bit. But Alfred just said, “Commissioner Gordon sent a message through the usual channels to say that he needs to speak to one of the Bats flapping around this city.”

  Luke wasn’t stupid enough to ask if the phrasing was Gordon’s or Alfred’s. “Anything to worry about?”

  “The commissioner claimed that it was an urgent matter.”

  That didn’t sound good. There was a private line between Gordon and the Batcave precisely for these sorts of situations. A line that now forwarded to Alfred’s own inbox while Bruce was away on a mission of such secrecy that he hadn’t even told Luke what he was up to.

  Their goodbyes were as quick as their hellos, and Luke had found himself relieved when the phone call was finally over.

  It had been a quiet night until now. Too quiet. He’d even headed to bed early for once. He certainly hadn’t filled the night with a date with one of the women his mom was constantly trying to set him up with. No, he didn’t date at all. Not when he was still climbing back toward the person he’d been; not with all the responsibilities Batwing bore. And then there were the inevitable questions, along with the threat he’d pose to anyone associated with him if the truth about his identity ever came out.

  Five minutes later, he’d donned the comfortable weight of his suit and slipped through the streets of Gotham City while a thunderstorm unleashed itself overhead.

  And now, as he dripped water onto the tiled floor of Gordon’s dim office, the pale, middle-aged GCPD commissioner frowned up at him, his auburn mustache twitching. Not at all surprised to see him emerging from the shadows. “Good of you to join me.”

  Luke waited, his face hidden beneath his mask. The low light danced on the bluish silver of his armor, the bat-symbol across his chest glowing faintly.

  Alive—the suit he wore hummed and ticked faintly with life, each inch of it made by Luke in that lab, designed and modified and tweaked to his liking. Full of hidden surprises for Gotham City’s worst.

  “Where’s the other guy?” Gordon said at last, brown eyes narrowing beneath his thick-rimmed glasses. “Haven’t seen him around for a while.”

  Luke approached the desk, his suit clinking softly. Bruce had been the one to suggest the particular metal—his father the one to supply it. “He’s on a covert op.” No need to let Gordon know that he had little idea what it entailed.

  “Is he now.”

  Luke angled his head, the single sign of his impatience. Yeah, Bruce and Luke worked with Gordon. Had an agreement to make sure the GCPD locked up the criminals they nabbed, and provided backup when needed. But they didn’t answer to the police. Luke himself still chafed when he had to work with the GCPD. What he’d seen just now after slipping through the precinct’s roof access had only reinforced that sentiment. He’d nearly made it through the halls unnoticed when he’d spied the black kid, no older than fifteen, handcuffed to a bench in the corridor outside the holding area. Soaked through, his clothes clinging to his thin frame. The kid’s face was carefully blank, even if the tapping of his foot on the tile floor revealed the nervousness undoubtedly coursing through him. Rightfully coursing through him, considering the words Luke heard a second later as he ducked into a shadowed alcove.

  What’d you nab him for? The question had come from an officer passing by.

  Unaware of Luke’s presence mere feet away, the cop who had undoubtedly brought the kid in had answered, dabbing at the sweat on his ruddy face. Pot possession.

  Caught in the act? the first cop had asked, pausing.

  The ruddy-faced cop had smirked. Does it make a difference?

  The question, the cop’s words, had Luke’s blood roaring in his ears.

  His parents had explained to him from a young age that the world wasn’t always fair, had explained how—regardless of their wealth—there was a very specific way he needed to interact with the cops. They had told him it was for his own protection. That sometimes the police got ideas in their heads that had nothing to do with him but affected him anyway. Him and kids who looked like him.

  Like the kid on the bench. As Luke snuck another glance at the boy, he wondered if the kid had been taught the same.

  Luke emerged from the hall shadows and walked over to where the boy was seated.

  The cops, almost at the end of the hall now, halted. Swore as they spotted him. He and Bruce never revealed their presence inside the precinct. Never.

  What would those officers say if they knew the color of the skin beneath his suit? It hadn’t escaped Luke’s notice just how many of the guys behind bars looked like him, but he knew that the real criminals—the ones who truly posed a threat to Gotham City—those guys didn’t look like him at all.

  Luke had made sure to calm his raging heartbeat, the anger simmering in his veins, before he said to the kid, You good?

  Slowly, the kid’s head lifted. He scanned Luke from head to toe, starting to shake a bit, his jeans dripping onto the floor, but he said nothing.

  So Luke asked again, signaling he was a frien
d, especially with the cops gawking and yet not daring to come closer. You good, bro?

  The boy still said nothing. But his eyes went wide—wide as saucers as the question settled in. Luke gave him a slight nod.

  He turned to the cops at the end of the hall. Get this boy a blanket. He’s soaked through.

  The cops blinked at him, the ruddy-faced one’s skin going white as death. Then he hurried away. Luke waited until he returned, blanket in hand. Until it was around the kid’s shoulders.

  Luke had marked the man’s badge—his name and ID number—as he ran past. And as Luke finally left the hall, he dialed up one of the best lawyers in the city, who just so happened to be one of Luke’s old prep school friends. She asked no questions, only promised to be at the precinct in twenty minutes.

  Luke was still trying to shake off the encounter, to steady himself, as he asked Gordon, “Why not use the signal tonight?”

  “Because it’s gone.”

  Luke blinked, even though Gordon couldn’t see it. “Explain.”

  Gordon stiffened a little, the older man sweeping his sharp gaze over Luke.

  He’d stood in front of his own damn mirror enough to know how he appeared in the suit: more machine than man. Especially with the eye lenses that glowed the same pale blue as the bat-symbol across his chest. No sign of the human beneath—the way he preferred it. No way to guess who he was, who he loved. And against his enemies…The Jaws effect, he’d decided: it was way more petrifying not to get a glimpse of what lurked beneath the surface. To let the mind imagine the worst.

  Gordon laid a metal tray on his desk. An object rolled and hissed within its borders—a bullet.

  “Someone shot it out tonight. Right as we went to signal to you.”

  Luke approached the battered, paper-covered desk and plucked up the bullet. “What was the crime they didn’t want me involved in?”

  Gordon’s jaw tightened. “We don’t know for certain that they’re connected, but the Museum of Antiquities was hit tonight. Someone stole an Egyptian cat statue, valued at one-point-three million. We arrived within five minutes of the alarms going off, saw no trace, went to light up the signal, and then…out of nowhere. Two shots fired, sniper-style. One to the light, the other to the power source.”

  Luke held up the bullet to the light on Gordon’s desk. “I’d bet the burglary is tied to whoever stole the half million in jewelry last week. And the ten-carat diamond from the Gotham Museum.” He rolled the bullet between his fingers. “But those two jobs were done without triggering an alarm.”

  Gordon removed his glasses and cleaned them on his askew tie. “And?”

  Luke opened a panel in his left arm, revealing the command pad of his suit. He punched in a few orders, and the lenses on his eyes shifted, magnifying the bullet in his palm, giving him a read of irregularities and dimensions. “And,” he went on, “tonight they triggered the alarms. And then left a calling card behind.” He lifted the bullet between two fingers. “Self-made. ID-less. Sleek.” He dropped the bullet in the tray with a faint ping. “Fired by a far more elegant weapon than the usual suspects.”

  Gordon put his glasses back on. “It doesn’t match any of the ammo used by the main gangs. Harley Quinn is skilled in ballistics—she’s got a sniper’s aim. But not access to this kind of ammo.” Luke nodded, and Gordon mused, “Poison Ivy doesn’t use traditional weapons, and we haven’t heard a whisper from the Riddler in months.” The man scratched his head. “You think someone new is in town?”

  Luke glanced toward the rain-lashed windows of the empty precinct office. He did. “A jewel and art thief. The first two crimes were in plain daylight. It’s almost as if tonight’s burglary…” He again picked up the bullet, weighing it in his hand.

  “Was their way of saying that we weren’t catching on fast enough and they were dumbing the game down for our benefit?” Gordon finished.

  Luke snorted. “Yeah.”

  Which was…interesting. He’d seen the reports on the thefts. No one harmed. Just obscenely expensive things being stolen. And if they’d shot out the Bat-Signal, then they knew precisely what sleeping dragon they were poking.

  Or sleeping bats, he supposed.

  “Can I take this?” Luke held up the bullet.

  Gordon adjusted his glasses. “Sure. We’ve run our tests. Keep it.” Gordon jerked his chin toward the door in silent dismissal. Luke bristled at the order but leashed his temper. “And besides,” Gordon added, dragging a hand through his silver-streaked brown hair, “I’m not so convinced they wanted to get the attention of the GCPD.”

  Exactly.

  Dusty, long-sleeping parts of his brain started to fire up. He’d been a ballistics expert overseas, and this bullet, this new thief…

  Come find me, the bullet seemed to say.

  And maybe it was the lightning in the air, or the end-of-August heat, but Luke was inclined to take up the invitation.

  * * *

  —

  Selina leaned against the carved oak doorframe and watched the antiquities dealer jot down another calculation on his pad of paper.

  He’d been examining the Bastet statue for twenty minutes now, the golden lights of his ornate office dim save for the spotlight of the examination lamp over the statue. She’d lingered at the doorway of his office for the entirety of that time, dressed head to toe in black, her face obscured by her Death Mask and the low-hanging hood of her sweatshirt.

  Such dramatics, the man had said when he let her in the back door.

  She’d said nothing, opting for the power of silence and the bullwhip hanging from her side to convey any threats she might need to make. It had been minimally difficult to find the dealer, even considering how so much of the antiquities market existed in murky zones of ownership. A statue stolen outright from the Museum of Antiquities was a different matter, of course, but she’d done her research. Knew this man would find a way to make sure the statue vanished and money appeared in its place.

  The man at last lowered the loupe from his eye, pulled off his latex gloves, and ran a hand over his bald, pale head. “Well, it’s certainly real.”

  Selina crossed her arms over her chest, waiting.

  His dark, beady eyes narrowed. “You do realize I’ll have a great deal of trouble hiding the trail if I’m to sell it. That sort of discretion won’t come cheap.”

  “Name your price.” Even with the helmet’s voice modified, she kept her voice low, raspy. Her sister might have been the one who loved the theater, but Selina had picked up some tricks of her own these past few years.

  The man scanned the statue again, then her. “Nine hundred thousand.”

  “It’s worth far more than that.”

  “I told you: discretion comes at a cost. There are ownership documents to forge, private methods of shipping to a buyer….Those things add up.”

  Selina didn’t flinch. “I’ll take one-point-two.”

  The man straightened in his green leather seat. “You’ll take nine hundred, since you’ll be hard-pressed to find another dealer who’d even touch a stolen item like this. Especially one so publicly taken.” Another sweeping glance, as if assessing whether she had done the stealing or not.

  She didn’t offer him any clues. Only braced her feet slightly farther apart on the blue Aubusson rug and countered smoothly, “You’ll be hard-pressed to find another piece like this anytime soon, since the Egyptian government has cracked down on the antiquities market.”

  The man interlaced his fingers and set them on the antique wooden desk. “One million.”

  She met his stare. “One-point-two.”

  “One million, and that’s the best you’ll get.”

  Selina prowled toward the desk, her steps swallowed by the thick rug. She folded up the statue in its velvet wrappings and placed it into the slim wooden box she’d brought with her.
We’ll see if the London dealers agree with that statement.”

  She turned on a heel and strode for the office door, beginning a silent countdown.

  Five. Four.

  She neared the arched doorway. Three. Two…

  She stepped one foot over the threshold.

  “Wait.”

  * * *

  —

  She made sure the money had been wired into the offshore account before she left the man’s shop.

  It was more money than she’d ever dreamed of having—had never even considered having that much money. But it was still not enough, not for all the plans she’d crafted.

  Selina didn’t immediately head back to her cold, clean penthouse.

  As if her feet had some magnet of their own, she stalked through the quiet, rain-slicked streets, keeping to the shadows. It wasn’t hard: as she neared the slums, the streetlights became few and far between.

  It was in one of those pools of shadow that she finally stopped, gazing at the dark labyrinth of buildings ahead.

  There was no point in striding into the maze of streets of the East End. In going all the way toward that apartment complex.

  There was no one living there worth seeing, anyway. And certainly no home left to visit.

  For a heartbeat, something in her chest tightened. Something that she’d buried down deep.

  The money now in that offshore account seemed to rise up and loom over her shoulders.

  What that money could do for so many dwelling here. What lives it might change. Save.

  Later. That would all come later. This game was only in its opening movements, and there was much left to do.

  Still, Selina lingered on the edge of the East End for a while longer.

  The next morning, Luke’s dad picked up on the second ring.

  It was Friday, which meant Lucius Fox was currently sitting at his shiny CEO’s desk, in his shiny CEO’s office, working on notes for Monday’s board meeting before heading out early for a quick nine at the club.

 
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