Catwoman soulstealer, p.8
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       Catwoman: Soulstealer, p.8
 

           Sarah J. Maas

  He shook his head at the phone, the mess, at her, and strode off.

  Crouched on the ground, Selina watched him go for a heartbeat. Waited for him to pat his jacket and figure it out.

  He didn’t, too busy being angry about his destroyed phone to care. Selina finished gathering up her things, slung her backpack over both shoulders this time, and headed for the opposite end of the park. Mika was waiting there, Ani in tow.

  Selina cast a searching glance around the park, the streets, for any signs of uniforms or patrol cars. Found none.

  She slid the man’s wallet over to Mika, who gave her a firm, approving nod.

  As they launched into a casual walk that would take them quickly away from the area, Ani said, “I thought you were supposed to be some kinda gymnastics freak.”

  Selina said nothing. She’d been with the Leopards for three weeks now and she already knew to keep her mouth shut.

  Ani just chuckled, clapping her on the back. “Next time, do some flips and shit.”

  “Not exactly covert,” Mika countered.

  The Leopard’s Second only shrugged. “Yeah, but it’d look cool.”

  A week later, Ani had gotten her wish. They’d robbed an electronics store that required some careful, flexible maneuvering to disable the alarms and cameras. And as the only gymnast among them, Selina wound up assigned the task.

  And wound up with two hundred bucks when the night was done.

  Those first robberies had been over five years ago now. She’d learned as much from Mika and Ani as she’d learned through her own trial and error.

  But once she’d gone to the League, Nyssa and Talia had taught her far, far more.

  Bring Gotham City to its knees.

  The burglaries would begin that process. That undoing. And the cash was a wonderful addition. A bonus, as it were. All hers.

  And tonight…

  The universe had a sense of humor, Selina decided as she went to the gym to limber up, a combination of her old gymnastics warm-ups and what she’d been taught at the League. Because the big prize tonight…Well, its owner lived across the hall from her.

  She’d picked the apartment for its proximity to one of Gotham City’s richest and most popular. No one could question her credentials when she was Luke Fox’s neighbor.

  In the East End, she’d often witnessed the substandard treatment endured by so many black people in this city—and part of her wondered if Luke himself had ever faced any. Yet from all she’d seen and heard, everyone treated the Foxes like royalty.

  To her, Luke seemed like nothing more than a pretty boy used to getting what he wanted. Who probably had those muscles just to admire them in his mirror. There was no shortage of those types here in Gotham City, and now that the summer had ended and gala season had begun, all the trust fund brats and titans of industry would be returning to the city from their beach estates. Starting tonight.

  Selina strode into the gym, smiling at the news reporter on the screen above her favorite treadmill, the one that allowed her to keep an eye on the door. The news was reporting live from the museum’s red carpet in anticipation of the gala in a few hours.

  Where that ten-million-dollar painting, no larger than a sheet of paper, had just been loaned to the museum—courtesy of Luke Fox’s private collection.

  Selina smirked as she stepped onto the treadmill and tied back her ridiculous blond hair into a heavy ponytail.

  Luke Fox could afford to lose it.

  * * *

  —

  Selina had been to the Gotham Museum of Art before.

  This week, obviously, had been one of those times, while she’d scoped out the entrances, the skylights, the various windows and surrounding streets under the cover of darkness. To anyone passing by, she would have likely only appeared as a gargoyle crouched on the lip of one of the nearby buildings, or as a ripple in a deep shadow of an adjacent alley.

  Five days now, she’d monitored the museum—five days of marking the guards’ rotations, their physiques, the weapons they carried. Five days of constructing her plan, as if she were sliding pieces on a chessboard into place.

  The other League assassins relied on their tech, their fancy devices, to help them. But those things could fail. And while she’d certainly use them tonight, once the gala guests had left and Holly Vanderhees slipped into something more comfortable, Selina wanted to be able to navigate every inch of this museum blind.

  The planning was as much of a high as the heist itself. Had always been. Figuring out a way in, figuring out the puzzle of alarms and security and exits…It sparked something in her. Even now, after her training had been so thorough that it was mostly muscle memory.

  A low thrill was still coursing through her as she let the CEO of one of Gotham City’s biggest hedge funds waltz her around the ornate, cavernous grand hall of the museum.

  Step one of the plan: let Gotham City see Holly here, believe her to be one of them—while she took these hours to get a first glimpse at where the painting had been displayed, how they’d guarded it. They’d waited until just before the party to set it up in an adjacent hall, where revelers might drift, champagne in hand, to admire the work of art in solitude and reflection.

  Or some ridiculous reason like that. But it made it easier for her to get close enough to casually assess the painting. Which she’d do as soon as she finished charming the preening idiot dancing with her.

  Life on the East End had been brutal—but there, at least most people had been real. None of the labyrinths of lies and illusions these people spun with words and sparkling wealth. Yes, there had been people just as untrustworthy, but…She’d still take the East Enders over these people any day of the week.

  The CEO spun her, the world blending into a living band of color and glitter and marble. So different from how she’d first seen the grand hall of the museum, with its swooping staircases on either side, the mezzanine overlooking the entire space, the quiet, looming sense of mystery—of sacredness in every inch of this place.

  She’d been here on a seventh-grade field trip and had focused more on keeping her growling stomach from being overheard in the whisper-filled galleries than on the art itself. Then, she’d been in clothes scrounged from the donation piles, not in a golden wrap dress that cost more than the poorest of Gotham City made in a year. With matching heels.

  Those shoes now traveled across the parquet floors, the embroidered tulle and silk-crepe dress glinting in the lights of the chandeliers above and the countless candelabras throughout the packed space.

  “You’ll be going to the Save the Children Gala, I presume?” The CEO wasn’t bad-looking—for a man old enough to be her father. Too bad everything about him, his life, repulsed her.

  Selina forced her red-painted lips into a smile. “Only if you are.”

  A gleam of interest in the man’s eyes—the same gleam that she’d spotted across the hall and then encouraged with frequent knowing glances. Until he strode up to her and asked for a dance.

  Disgustingly easy. Ridiculously predictable.

  The hand the CEO had braced on her waist shifted a little southward. It took every ounce of effort to keep smiling and not to rip that hand off her. “Oh, I’ll be there, Miss Vanderhees.”

  She was beautiful, loaded, and young. Precisely this man’s type.

  Too bad his two-hundred-thousand-dollar Rolex was more her type.

  Picking him out of the crowd had been simple. No wedding ring, and he strutted around like he owned the place. He’d already known who she was, thanks to Holly’s frequent appearances at Gotham City’s finest restaurants and stores these past two weeks. And more than that: her own established source of income offered an automatic in.

  The cliché of rich men marrying their secretaries or flight attendants is gone, Talia had drawled during those early lessons. The rich on
ly trust the rich.

  Nyssa taught her the blades and the discipline. And Talia taught her everything else. About society’s masks—about the rules. How to slip past them.

  Rich men now want to marry their equals, Talia had explained. God, she’d loved to hear herself talk more than anything in the world. Other CEOs, heiresses. To consolidate power—amass more. So you must learn to play the part.

  Selina had. And that training had been just as hard as Nyssa’s.

  Nails, hair, skin, body, makeup—the first signifiers, Talia had ordered as they’d sat before her dressing table in the compound. She’d examined Selina’s short, rough nails. You will wear gloves while training and grow these out. Not too long, though. And no hangnails. She’d handed over a small pink-and-silver compact full of a pale rose cream. For the cuticles—and your lips. Apply morning and night.

  Then had come the regimen of creams and gels and masks for her face. Her hair.

  Makeup should be light but skilled. Not for the men but for the other women, who will notice immediately. Suspect you. It is to emphasize, not draw attention to yourself. If you go bold, do it sparingly. Lips or eyes—pick one.

  A different sort of armor from the ones Talia’s half sister, Nyssa, had been showing her. A different way of breaking into locked rooms than a pick kit.

  Nyssa and Talia: two sides of the same dark coin. One trained for bloodshed and battle, the other for politics and strategy. Together, they ran the League’s headquarters in Italy, overseeing the training of the young women they recruited.

  These are the weapons and passports they use against each other, Talia had purred, dusting Selina’s face with golden highlighter. So we will use them as well.

  Selina let the CEO’s hand drift a little lower, let a little corner of her mouth lift. So many eyes upon them now. Curious about the new socialite in their midst. The waltz rose, turning frenzied as it neared its end.

  She knew his attention was focused on the location of his hand. She even arched her back a little bit, as if enjoying it—encouraging his inappropriate groping. Even while her stomach turned over, her blood simmering to a near boil.

  You will learn to talk, walk, and dance like them. When you speak to the other acolytes in the dining hall, I expect you to use the same phrasings you would when speaking to a baron. When you walk to your lessons, I expect you to float as if you were in the midst of a ball.

  And the dancing? Selina had asked.

  Talia had taken her to Venice three nights later. To the Grand Masquerade Ball at Carnevale. Selina had brought a simple black gown whose back draped open dramatically. She’d also brought the black-and-gold mask Talia had given her. Just in case.

  But Selina shoved the thought of that ball from her mind as this waltz drew to its close. As the CEO’s hand brushed even lower, her own hand grazed his thick wrist.

  She held his gaze while she did it, allowed him to be too distracted by her heavy-lidded stare, her pert red mouth, to notice the watch she slid off his wrist as she pulled out of his touch. She said to the CEO, voice low and wicked, “I certainly hope I see you before then.”

  A wry little smile emphasized the words, the promise in them, as she turned away, leaving the CEO on the floor. She wished she could wipe the feel of his hands off her body, wished she could purge his musky cologne from her nostrils.

  There were indeed lowlifes here, just as despicable as any in the East End. Selina supposed these ones just dressed better.

  It certainly made the Rolex now in the hidden pocket of her dress all the more satisfying.

  She counted her steps as she approached the open marble bar, a vacant smile on her face. But no shouting followed—and a coy look over her shoulder revealed the CEO still staring at her, even while he danced with his new partner.

  Dazzle and distract. No different from that first robbery in the park.

  But so much more fun.

  With a private smile to herself, Selina leaned forward to the bartender and said—

  “Champagne—two glasses.” The deep male voice cut across the bar.

  Selina glanced sidelong at the man who’d come up next to her.

  Clad in a Marines dress uniform that fit him like a glove, Luke Fox gave her a tight smile.

  Selina gave one right back. Like hell he’d jump ahead of her in line. “Make it three,” she said sweetly to the bartender. The man nodded and swept off.

  Selina twisted to watch the waltzing crowd in the center of the room, the mingling guests now chatting, with the formal meal over. “I stayed away from the shellfish,” she said to Luke.

  He lifted a dark brow. “Wise choice.” The two words held little invitation for further conversation. Especially as he threw down a few bills for the bartender and took his two flutes of champagne in his white-gloved hands.

  Selina scooped up hers, not daring to glance at the artfully hidden pockets in her dress—to make sure the lump of the Rolex was hidden. And the Cartier bracelet from the woman she’d bumped into in line for the raw bar. And the Harry Winston ring from the witch who’d looked down her nose at Selina when they’d shaken hands.

  Selina jerked her chin toward Luke’s second glass of champagne. “For your date?” Good. Perhaps his girlfriend would console him when he got the news his painting was gone.

  He motioned with his glass toward a striking older black woman across the dance floor, chatting beside a black man she immediately recognized as Lucius Fox and an elderly white couple. Both ladies were bedecked in jewels—but the woman she was guessing was Luke’s mother wore them tastefully, paired well with her deep sapphire ball gown. “For my mother,” Luke countered, his tone still clipped and distant. He took a step forward. “Enjoy the gala.”

  So her little comment about boring old Europe earlier had irked him.

  Unable to help herself, Selina purred, “Aren’t you going to ask your neighbor to dance?”

  Luke swallowed a mouthful of his champagne before turning back. Buying himself time to come up with an excuse, no doubt.

  Selina watched him beneath her fake lashes and added wryly, “Though I suppose a dashing soldier is already spoken for.”

  “I promised someone else a dance” was all he said, back stiff. “Sorry.” He didn’t sound that way in the least.

  It was entertaining enough that Selina added, “Considering how happy you look to be here, I’m surprised you came.” Because that was one hell of a scowl as he surveyed the crowd.

  “I owed a lady a favor.”

  “The lady whose champagne you’re holding.” Only a son who truly adored his mother, she supposed, would drag himself here to please her. She made a note of it—his devotion and loyalty. A fact to be used later. Perhaps.

  Luke shrugged, his broad shoulders shifting within his immaculately tailored uniform. “I enjoy these parties.” Another lie. From the tightness of his jaw, he either hated being here—or hated Holly Vanderhees. He began striding toward his parents, and Selina sipped her champagne.

  “If a dance opens up,” she drawled to him, savoring the parting shot, “let me know.”

  Another glance over his shoulder. A bit of wariness in his eyes now.

  Gold-digger, she wanted to tell him. That’s the word you’re tossing around now. Wondering if someone with money going after another person with money counts as being a gold-digger.

  From the tight smile he gave her again, Selina knew Luke had arrived at a conclusion. One that involved keeping far away from her. One that cemented Holly as someone to avoid.

  Perfect. The last thing she needed was a nosy neighbor.

  And she highly doubted he’d be coming over to ask for a cup of sugar anytime soon.

  Another task now off her hands and her path cleared a bit more.

  Selina sipped her champagne again and surveyed the bejeweled crowd. Sensed the men c
ircling like sharks, debating how to approach her now that Luke had yielded her attention.

  People will see what they want to see, Talia had told her. Give them the illusion. Become the illusion. And never let them know, even when you are long gone. Even in your triumph.

  Selina watched a young trust-fund-looking man decide to close in on her. She offered him that little smile, draining her champagne and setting it on the bar behind her.

  The young man sauntering up, a haughty angle to his chin, wasn’t much to tempt her. But the Piaget watch glimmering in the low light, just peeking out from beneath the dark sleeve of his tux…oh, that was a beauty.

  Rich men and their watches. Another thing Talia had made her study. She’d never asked Talia how she’d learned herself. Who’d taught her. Talia had never volunteered it, either.

  So Selina had learned the status symbols that women wielded and the ones men used to declare to each other that they were as wealthy as kings.

  But that twenty-thousand-dollar watch on his wrist was nothing compared to the ten-million-dollar painting that waited for her in this museum.

  Luke Fox would certainly need a lot more champagne before the night was through.

  * * *

  —

  Luke could barely focus on the conversation he was having. He kept scanning the room, listening for any whisper of alarm. Nothing.

  His two prep school friends—Elise and Mark, now running their own joint hedge fund—were debating the merits of which reality TV show was the worst to watch. Luke drowned it out, as he often did when their conversations skewed toward the absurd. A skill both Elise and Mark took pride in. Enjoyed.

  But half listening to their banter was better than his dad not-so-subtly sending Luke to the bar to get his mom champagne, hoping he’d run into at least one of the young women of which his parents had approved.

  At least he’d avoided the few older women who stared at him like a piece of meat, whose devouring glances he’d never been able to stomach or grow used to.

 
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