Catwoman soulstealer, p.9
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       Catwoman: Soulstealer, p.9
 

           Sarah J. Maas

  Still, he’d never ordered a drink faster—only to wind up next to Holly at the bar.

  He’d seen that creep CEO she’d been dancing with. They’d match perfectly.

  He’d given his mom her champagne, then made a beeline for his friends, standing together by the window, as they usually did. As the three of them had done at every school party and event while growing up.

  Their own little unit, inseparable. Even if Mark, who he’d known since seventh grade, had been secretly in love with Elise for years. But Elise, who was likely the closest thing Luke had to a best friend, had no idea.

  Elise, golden-skinned and dark-haired, smiled at him as he approached, but didn’t pause her arguing with Mark.

  Mark, however, seemed unaware of anyone else in the ballroom with Elise in front of him, only occasionally breaking his focus to drag a hand through his blond hair.

  That focus, however, finally broke when Mark turned to Luke. “You’re quiet tonight, man.” A frown crossed his face, his brown eyes fixing on Luke with a piercing intensity different from the way he’d been looking at Elise. “Everything okay?”

  Elise sipped from her champagne, watching Luke over the rim of the glass. While Mark was usually direct, Elise knew when to observe, when to wield silence as effectively as words.

  After a heartbeat, she said to Luke, “You kind of look the way you did that time in junior year English when Mr. Bartleby said we had to compose love sonnets for the midterm paper.” Genius, Luke might be; poet, he was definitely not.

  Mark tipped back his head and laughed. Luke smiled, throwing Elise a grateful look for the deflection as he admitted, “It was the worst grade I ever got in my life.” A sorry C-minus. “I think Bartleby deliberately marked it down because of the face I made when he announced the assignment.”

  “You and me both,” Mark said, nudging him with an elbow. “Though I still think I deserved more than a C. My poem was epic.”

  “You both deserved exactly what you got,” Elise retorted. “For writing a poem about your love of donuts,” she said, jerking her chin at Mark. She then pointed at Luke. “And a sonnet about your love of not writing sonnets.”

  Luke and Mark rolled their eyes. “We were robbed,” Mark declared. Elise, of course, had aced the assignment.

  Luke surveyed his friends. Mark and Elise had been the only ones who’d really supported him when he’d declared he was enlisting. When Luke had said he didn’t want to go to college, to deal with more of the same in the Ivy League circuit, and instead wanted to do something. Wanted to serve.

  Even when their other friends had pretended to understand, even when Luke knew they thought he was making a bad choice, Elise and Mark had encouraged him. When he was overseas, they had written to him and video chatted.

  Both had been there the day after he’d come back. Mark had cried when he saw the still-healing wound slashing down Luke’s ribs. Elise had taken out her phone and started to research physical therapy treatments.

  They never asked about the PTSD, but they knew. And though he wasn’t ashamed of it, he remained deeply grateful they let him bring it up on his terms. That it mostly remained out of their friendship dynamic for now. Glad to have some semblance of things being the same.

  “Things are fine,” Luke said, meeting Elise’s weighing stare. She seemed to read the truth in the words, and gave him a slight nod. Luke gave Mark a grin. “One gala into the season, and I’m bored to tears.”

  Elise put an affronted hand on her chest, gold bracelets and rings glittering. “You mean to tell me that our highly intellectual debate about the top ten reality show breakups isn’t enough to entertain you?”

  Mark scowled at them both but couldn’t hide the amusement from his face.

  Neither could Luke as he said, “If you two were at every event, it wouldn’t be so bad.”

  “You couldn’t pay me to go to more than three of these a year,” Mark said. Elise murmured in agreement. “I’m all for giving to charity, but does a party have to be involved as well? My parents don’t even bother to go anymore.” He waved a callused hand to the sparkling room around them. Mark had always been into crew—still took out a boat at least once a week on the Sprang River. “They told me this summer that I had to go now. That they’d done their time, and now it was my turn to represent the family.” And deal with the socialite crowd, Mark didn’t need to add.

  Luke and Elise cringed in sympathy. Her own parents weren’t here, but that was because her mother, heiress to a fishing empire in Venezuela, had business to attend to. If the Marvez family was in the country, however, they attended all of these events, right alongside Luke’s parents, who had become good friends with them over the years, actually.

  “Poor baby,” Elise said, patting Mark on his broad shoulder. “Such a hard life, dressing up and drinking other people’s booze.”

  “Such a hard life,” Luke joined in, chuckling, “eating free food and going home with a fancy gift bag.”

  Mark flipped them off. Elise and Luke returned the gesture.

  Behind them, a cluster of old ladies gasped as they passed by. Mark only lifted his champagne in salute.

  They waited until the horrified women had passed before stifling their laughter.

  “Never changes,” Elise said, watching them go, her dark eyes bright.

  But Luke found Mark studying him again. While Luke might have counted Elise as his closer friend, Mark had been the one who’d often shown up to physical therapy in those initial weeks, and then accompanied him to the PTSD therapy whenever Luke wanted company. The offer was always there: on hard days, when Luke didn’t want to make the trip alone, one call to Mark and his friend would pick him up.

  “But you’re doing good, though?” Mark asked again.

  “If he says he is, then he is,” Elise countered. Mark waved her off, refusing to take his attention off Luke.

  They’d always looked out for each other, but since he’d come home, Mark and Elise had taken being protective to another level. It warmed something in Luke’s heart—made enduring their bickering worth it. “I’m doing well,” Luke said to his friends. “I really am.”

  Mark seemed satisfied this time, and fell back into arguing with Elise about which reality contestants were likely to break into a brawl on the current season of their favorite show. Luke listened for a minute, smiling, and drained his second glass of champagne. His last.

  He needed to be sharp tonight. There had been a number of small robberies these past few weeks. Gotham City’s elite who’d all lost valuables while out in public at dinners and parties.

  Luke was willing to bet his inheritance that the city’s newest thief would be here. That the thief was already among them, the season kickoff gala too big of a payday to resist.

  He prayed it was true. If they didn’t arrive, it’d mean going to the next gala. And the next. To watch for a pattern. Note the faces and names of attendees.

  He had set the trap. And it would only be a matter of time before the thief fell for it.

  Selina had only risked five minutes with the painting during the gala.

  On the arm of a beautiful oil executive, she’d strolled into the long hall where the painting of a nondescript bowl of fruit hung on the far wall. It had been roped off, with a bored-looking security guard a few steps away to make sure no one took photos or got too close.

  The oil exec actually knew a thing or two about art, and she’d rattled off various techniques the artist had used. Selina had nodded, leaning in as though she were studying the details. Instead, she’d been eyeing up the size and weight of the small painting.

  Her heartbeat had pounded through her, but she’d managed to subtly suggest to the woman that perhaps they could return for another viewing of the painting in a day or so. And the exec had turned to the guard and asked just how long this painting would be on d
isplay.

  Only through the weekend, ma’am.

  Confirmation that Selina had to move tonight.

  She had made sure that more than a few people, a frowning Luke Fox included, saw her swaying precariously as she headed to the bathroom toward the end of the night. And never emerged. At least not in that golden dress.

  The security guards, tired and eager to head home, quickly checked the bathrooms upon leaving. None bothering to look up, at where she’d stretched herself out over the top of a stall.

  Only when silence had fallen, and she had given enough time for even the few remaining security guards to have settled into heavy boredom, did Selina slip from the bathroom.

  Stashing her bag with her League suit and matching helmet in the bathroom’s utilities closet had been the hardest part—the riskiest.

  She’d done it during a daytime visit yesterday, hauling them inside with an oversized tote, waiting in the bathroom nearest the gala hall until it was empty and she could pick the lock on the closet door. She’d buried both helmet and suit at the bottom of a giant box of toilet paper, tucked it beneath another box of the stuff—surely they wouldn’t go through all of it in twenty-four hours—and sent up a prayer to whatever ancient gods were watching that the janitors wouldn’t find it.

  They hadn’t. And now, the museum dark and quiet as a tomb, Selina slipped through the shadows of the various galleries, a thrill creeping through her veins with every movement.

  Ancient statues watching on, she filtered the sounds that the receivers on her helmet picked up: a coughing guard five galleries away, a gurgling fountain in the center of the Egyptian hall, birds’ talons scraping on the fogged glass roof.

  The glass panels of the built-in goggles gave her perfect night vision, turning the world into greens and yellows. Nothing but art and shadows. Each of these paintings was valuable, but stealing one of them was not the statement she needed to make.

  But first: the security system.

  She’d hacked into the museum’s network to draw up the blueprints for the building—had memorized them meticulously. Knew that there was a centralized room, in sublevel one, that controlled every switch. Knew it was staffed by two guards at night, thanks to a memo she’d found in the email servers, each with panic buttons on hand.

  Too risky. And shutting down the entire security system increased the risk of a guard in another part of the museum noticing the lack of little red lights.

  So she’d picked her grid. Combed through the blueprints to find where the alarm wires ran through the building and the carefully hidden hubs where one might access them.

  Another clever puzzle to solve. One that set her blood thrumming.

  Selina silently eased through the hallways of the museum, counting her steps to the nearest locked wall panel. She’d easily cleared half a million in valuables tonight. But that ten million from the painting…one hell of a payday.

  Scanning the halls around her, Selina stopped before an almost invisible panel built into the wall. She’d eyed it twice now while walking through here at the gala, using each step and glance to figure out its lock.

  Selina pressed on a section of the utility belt slung across her hips, a little compartment opening up to reveal an assortment of lockpicks and clever, useful things. Selecting one, keeping an eye on the hall around her, she slid the pick into the lock.

  Idiots—for leaving this panel here. Though it made her life easier.

  With a click, the panel swung open, revealing a network of switches and wires. Her helmet scanned them, providing her with the feedback she needed to narrow in on the wire to disable.

  No cutting. That’d trigger the entire system.

  But rerouting the alarms…Selina pulled another device from her belt—a cord with a USB on one end and a smaller port on the other. She fitted the latter end into the small slot at the base of her helmet, then slid the USB end into the security panel itself.

  Instantly, data whirred by. Security feeds, routes…Her Death Mask sorted through it all. And began creating a false loop of data for the several halls ahead. So that even when she entered it, crossing over trigger beams, the loop of old data would keep playing for the main computer. Along with the video footage from the mounted cameras.

  When it was done, she unhooked the cord and closed the panel.

  One guard lay ahead. Stationed just to the left of the open doorway down the hall. She’d seen him these past two nights. Half asleep, nodding off at least twice an hour.

  A crack of her bullwhip would wake him up. She smirked at the thought.

  On silent feet, Selina approached the hall, flexing her clawed fingers.

  She would disable him—not kill him. The man wasn’t involved in this. Didn’t deserve anything worse than a headache.

  Taking a small, bracing breath, she neared the corner. The inhale before the storm.

  Quiet as death, Selina swept around the corner, angling for the guard who she knew would be standing just two feet to her left.

  But her fingers closed on open air.

  The man was already down. Unconscious. No sign of injury except for some sort of shimmering green powder on the lapels of his uniform.

  Selina whirled, knees bending, a hand going for the bullwhip at her left hip while her goggles scanned the room—

  A soft female laugh flitted from a darkened corner. The corner where the Fox painting would be.

  “You know,” the stranger said, stepping into a shaft of moonlight leaking in through the glass roof above, “I was hoping you’d be a woman.”

  Selina rose to her full height and kept her claws unsheathed as she stalked toward the young woman standing on the other side of the gallery.

  In the dim light, the woman’s red hair was blood-dark, her skin moon-pale. A pretty face smiled above a green bodysuit with countless pockets. Young, around Selina’s own age—nineteen or twenty.

  “Happy to please,” Selina said, her voice raspy and warped thanks to the League’s standard voice-modifier. She jerked her head to the small painting the stranger was standing in front of. “But I think that belongs to me.”

  “Technically,” the stranger said, vibrant emerald eyes flickering with amusement as she gestured to the painting a few feet behind her, “it belongs to Luke Fox.” Her hands were covered with dark green gloves. No—vines. Those were closely wrapped, thin vines all along her fingers. Organic, living organism, Selina’s helmet supplied.

  Impressive.

  The woman angled her head, her heavy curtain of red hair slipping over a slim shoulder. Small white flowers seemed to be woven throughout. “And technically, I was here first.”

  “You only got here first,” Selina said, sliding the bullwhip free and letting it unspool to the marble floor, “because I was disabling the alarm. It’s mine.” She hadn’t used that tone since those days in the East End. Enforcing Mika’s rule.

  The stranger snorted; some of the flowers in her hair closed. As if they were alive, too. “Do you know that there’s a species of dung beetle that just waits for other beetles to create their reserves and then takes them? It happens all the time in the animal kingdom, actually. It’s called kleptoparasitism.”

  Selina smiled, even though the stranger couldn’t see. “You’re Poison Ivy.”

  With the living plants on her, there was no one else the stranger could be.

  Selina had heard and read the rumors: mad scientist who specialized in plant-based weapons and toxins. That she had no allegiance to any criminal organization, had outright refused to be recruited, and only sought to save the planet. By whatever means necessary. The more outlandish stories claimed that Ivy had become plant-based herself.

  Perhaps reality wasn’t so far from the myth.

  The vines around Ivy’s wrist began writhing, as if they were small snakes, readying for a strike. “An
d you are?”

  She’d dealt with posturing plenty, both in the Leopards and at the League. So Selina prowled across the parquet floor, aiming right for that painting. Getting a sense of whether the other woman would hold her ground, whether she’d cede direct access to the painting. “No concern to you.”

  Selina got within three yards of Ivy before the young woman sidled a few feet away from the painting. And the reach of Selina’s bullwhip.

  Still, Ivy lifted her chin and said tartly, “I’ll be taking that painting, thank you.”

  Brave woman. Selina snickered, halting three feet from the painting. “To fund your save-the-rain-forest bullcrap.”

  A low hiss—one that sounded like it came from something other than Ivy’s mouth. Selina’s helmet ran another scan and only the same generic readout: living organism. Ivy demanded, “You know how much money was at that gala tonight? For what? This museum? These dead, lifeless things?” Ivy gestured around them, vines shifting.

  “So sad,” Selina clucked, knowing precisely what beast she was prodding. Or plant, she supposed. “Just awful.” She studied the fruit-bowl painting, hardwired to the wall. Exactly as it had been earlier. Separate from the alarm system. It’d start shrieking the moment she touched it. Selina sheathed her claws but kept the whip clenched in her left hand. She’d planned three escape routes, anticipating the guards’ layouts. But Ivy added another variable.

  Selina asked without looking over at Ivy, “You buy that exterminator-at-the-ball getup at the Halloween store?”

  Ivy chuckled, drawing Selina’s attention to her left. Ivy’s head bobbed as she surveyed Selina’s League battle-suit, the night-vision lenses, the receptors on her helmet. “Yeah, but now I wish I hadn’t passed up the sexy cat costume.”

  The corners of Selina’s mouth twitched upward.

  First rule of disorder: find some interesting company.

  Ivy kept within range of the painting even as Selina stood directly before it. “You allied with any of the gangs or bosses?”

 
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