The biggest problem with money was that somebody else always had it when you needed it. Selina Kyle had little interest in money, except that she needed it to pay the rent, feed herself and her cats, and purchase those few essentials of modern life that could not be scrounged from the streets. Since arriving in Gotham City on her own at the age of sixteen, she had acquired money in a variety of ways, none of which was entirely legal or recognized as a career by the census bureau.
Selina took risks.
She'd woken up in a hospital more times than she cared to remember and, after one particularly brutal assault, she'd finally understood that in the East End, the grimy neighborhood she called home, only the predators survived.
So Selina Kyle became a predator---the Catwoman.
As Gotham City's colorful predators were measured, Catwoman was small time. On those rare occasions when the police or media took note of her exploits, they usually credited them to someone else. This lack of recognition neither displeased not disappointed her. Felines were as aloof as they were fierce and independent, and cats---the plain ordinary alley cats from whom she took her name---survived by staying out of the way of the larger beasts whose environment they shared.
As Catwoman, Selina prowled her East End neighborhood, keeping it free of the lesser sorts of human vermin and earning the tolerance of her neighbors much as a prehistoric cat gained a warm, dry place by the fire in exchange for keeping the family cave free of mice and rats.
Selina and Catwoman shared a predictable life that left Selina as close to happy as she could imagine. Indeed, Selina's life fell short of purring bliss in just one small way---
Every so often, she needed money.
Every so often, Selina left her familiar territory---her neighbors never had the cash she needed, even if she had been willing to steal from them---and, dressed in inconspicuous mufti, stalked more affluent prey.
Every wilderness had water holes where a predator could lie in wait for its next meal. There were two types of water holes in the cityscape beyond the East End. The first type were freshly renovated buildings where slumlords-turned-renovators prepared traps for young, upwardly mobile professionals, naive newcomers who surrounded themselves with the best their money could buy, and knew precious little about security. On occasion Catwoman entered their porous domains to remove undefended jewelry and other small objects. Unfortunately, everything she took had to be fenced---a process that rarely produced more than ten cents cash for every dollar of swag, and exposed Selina to scrutiny from both sides of the law. All in all, she preferred to eliminate the middleman and steal cash.
Cash, in great abundance, was readily available at the second type of water hole: abandoned buildings where semi-nomadic drug gangs plied their trade. Selina roamed the sidewalks for several hours before she found the gutted, grafittied brownstone that would be this month's stalking ground.
A customized crimson 4 x 4---the current vehicle-of-choice among Gotham's appearance-conscious gang members---was parked in front of the target building. It had oversize wheels, a chrome-plated rollbar, and more top-mounted lights than a precinct cruiser. It also had a customized sound system and four sullen-faced attendants. It pumped the street full of what passed for music, which, by the time it reached Selina keeping vigil in a partially renovated building up the block, had been reduced to a thudding, monotone bass.
The owners of the 4 x 4 belonged to one of a handful of gangs doing the drug business in Gotham's marginal neighborhoods. A long step down from the million-dollar enterprises that kept Commissioner Gordon and the municipal police busy, the gangs waged ceaseless, brutal wars with each other. Abandoned buildings were the fortresses from which these hardened men oppressed a few unfortunate city blocks and sold their merchandise to a petty kingdom of hustlers and users. Once a day couriers brought the drugs in; once a day they took the money uptown.
Inconspicuously perched on a windowsill, Selina held her breath when another mobile sound system cruised up the street. She didn't know if the noisy black vehicle belonged to friends of the stationary crimson one or to mortal enemies. Elaborate greetings and gestures were exchanged; there was no gunfire. Selina let her breath out with a sigh. The black vehicle double-parked. Its speakers quieted. An exchange was made: a crate of money left the building, a crate of drugs went in.
Catwoman's teeth showed through Selina's smile as the black vehicle fired up its sound system and roared away. Her money worries were as good as over.
She went inside and, using a lumpy grocery bag for a pillow, she curled up for a nap while the gang converted its fresh supply of drugs into cold, untraceable cash. The smile was replaced by a clenched-jaw snarl: the bass was just erratic enough to keep her awake. The fresh-painted walls surrounding her glowed yellow, amber, then red as the afternoon crept to an end. Streetlights flared; the sound never relented. Selina shed her street clothes and pulled the sleek, black catsuit over her body. Its hood and mask fit snugly around her head without dulling her senses.
She approached the building cautiously. The gang was undoubtedly armed with automatic weapons and keeping a lookout for the enemies it knew it had. The swaggering gangsters had little practice with the powerful weapons they brandished readily. They were almost as likely to shoot themselves or their friends as they were to shoot an enemy---especially a nearly invisible enemy whose specialty was hand-to-hand, close-quarters combat.
Ghosting down the trash-filled stairwell, Catwoman spotted the gang's upstairs lookout slouched against an empty window frame. A state-of-the-art assault rifle was propped against the peeling wall beside him. She knew the make of the rifle and that the paint was peeling, because they and the lookout were illuminated by a cool, flickering light. His attention was focused on the light on the windowsill in front of him; he had no idea there was someone perched on the bannister one flight up.
Catwoman gathered herself for the pounce. He'd never reach his fancy weapon; never know what hit him.
She froze instead.
A flicker of movement on another roof had drawn her attention. It was not repeated. There wasn't much for her memory to chew on, just the knowledge that something large and dark had been there and was now gone. That, however, was enough.
He was working the area and he was reason enough to scratch her plans, to head instead for shelter and stay there.
He was Batman.
Catwoman didn't fear the Dark Knight the way most criminals did. She wore a costume herself and was not impressed by his mask, his cape, or mystique. She'd eluded him before---even bested him---but he was a man obsessed with narrow definitions of right and wrong and it didn't pay to cross his bows---even when she needed money and had found the perfect people from whom to take it.
The lookout and the rest of the gang were safe---at least from her. But Batman's presence cast a strong, lingering spell across the jagged roofs. It prodded the lookout, who leaned forward, studying the roof where nothing untoward could be seen. His hand groped along the wall, seeking the rifle. He turned around. He looked up---
He went for the handgun partially concealed in his pocket.
The cards had been dealt; the hand had to be played.
Catwoman launched herself downward. Her hands locked around his neck. Her knees struck his chest. For a split second they were motionless, with him flat against the wall and her weight balanced against his collarbones. Then there was a snap, scarcely audible in the relentless music. Self-defense. Catwoman sprang away, landing on the balls of her feet. The lookout sank slowly to the floor, his head slumped to the side.
The motto on his T-shirt proclaimed "I'm too BA-AD to grow old."
Catwoman emptied his pockets and popped the heavy gold chain from his neck. He wasn't carrying enough to cover the rent, and once his unconscious body was discovered, this gang would blame another gang and the whole neighborhood would go into vengeace frenzy. He wouldn't remember after being knocked out. If Selina didn't get her money tonight, she could forget about getting it from anywhere around here for at least a week.
She leaned out of the window. There were no brooding silhouettes hunched along the rooflines. Maybe he was gone. He wasn't necessarily hunting her prey. Heaven knew there was enough crime around here to satisfy them both. And she needed the money. Catwoman made a fist but stopped an inch short of smashing the flickering light with it.
A hand-held videotape player---trust the gangs to have the newest techno-toys. Trust their taste in videos to be slasher-porn.
Catwoman plucked the earphone cord from its socket and was astonished by the strength of the internal speaker: the woman's desperate screams made the unit vibrate in her hand. There were knobs and buttons all over the unit. She pressed and twirled and was about ready to heave the thing into the night when the flickering blacked out and the screaming finally stopped.
Maybe she'd keep it. She stared at it, wondering if she'd ever use it, wondering what she could get for it. Catwoman couldn't waltz into a pawnshop with an ugly gold chain and a techno-toy, but Selina could. Added to the gold and the wad of cash she'd taken from the lookout's pockets, there might be enough---if Selina bargained hard. But if she bargained hard, the fence would remember her, and neither Catwoman nor Selina liked to be remembered.
Damn Batman for complicating her life!
A possible solution swept into her mind, washing away her anger: If Batman heard the screaming videotape, he'd drop everything and investigate. By the time Batman knew he'd been had, she'd have her money and be safe back home. It might work. She wrestled the unconscious lookout to the windowsill and let his body drop to the alley below. To her ears the crash was deafening, but if anyone else heard, they mistook it for a glitch in the sound system. Besides, the half-filled dumpster he landed in both softened his landing, and muffled the noise.
Returning to the apartment where she'd ditched her clothes, Catwoman deciphered the unit's myriad controls. Like any techno-toy worthy of its nameplate, it had more functions than it needed: a digital clock, a timer... A timer that could start the tape player at a preset moment. She fiddled with the controls, tested her theory, then grinned with smug satisfaction as she set her mousetrap---bat trap---on the fire escape.
The screaming would start in ten minutes---just when she'd be putting her foot through the drug gang's door. If he was anywhere in the neighborhood, he'd come a-running. He'd know he'd been snookered, but he'd never know why or by whom.
Catwoman's smile disappeared. Batman needed to know why and by whom. She wanted to paint a message on the wall with bloodred paint, but the workers had been careful and she had to settle for a thick carpenter's pencil. When the message was complete, she reset her trap beneath the handwriting and left to get her money.
The stairwell was empty. The gang didn't know they'd already suffered a casualty. Keeping to the shadows, Catwoman descended to the second floor, where voices could be heard through the din and smells of kerosene and pizza were heavy in the air. A corridor door was open, throwing large shadows on the wall a few feet away. Catwoman studied the shadows, marking the number and locations of her prey: three that she could see, two that she could not.
Up the street, out of hearing, the techno-toy screamed.
Catwoman burst into the room at an angle, slamming into the guard by the door before he knew there was a problem. She stunned him with a punch to the solar plexus, then propelled toward the center of the room. The advantages of surprise and purpose belonged to her and she used them fully, taking out two more---the first with a chop across the windpipe and the second with a roundhouse kick to the chin---before the last two had a chance to bellow for reinforcements.
The street-side music finally stopped, replaced by shouts and staccato gunfire. There wasn't time to wonder who'd fired from where, or at what. Catwoman dove across the room at the larger of her remaining targets. He was reaching into his pocket, but he hadn't drawn a gun, nor had his companion. She seized her target by his shirt and spun him around, keeping his body between herself and the door while she rammed her knee into his crotch one, two, three times. His legs buckled, his eyes rolled back. He was deadweight, and crashed to the floor when she let go.
Less than a minute had passed since Catwoman burst into the room.
She leveled her gaze on the fifth punk---there were more thundering up the stairs; she'd worry about them when they came through the door---and observed, peripherally, that the kerosene lamp by which the gang had conducted its business had fallen over. Fuel glistened on the lopsided table and dripped over the edge. She didn't see flames, but flames were inevitable; the knife moving toward her was not.
First things first. Claws extended, Catwoman reached for the hand that held the knife. He got lucky---or maybe he knew something about fighting. Whichever, she clutched air.
"El Gato Negro!"
"Black Cat! Black Cat!"
The punks---her prey---saw the costume, but their prejudice kept them from seeing the shape inside it. They never understood that they were being slaughtered by a woman.
Surging inside the knife wielder's reach, Catwoman clouted him under the chin with a sweeping forearm then smashed her elbow into the side of his head as he went down. She looked straight into the eyes of the newcomer in the doorway. There were times for silence and there were times for bloodcurdling shouts. This was one of the latter. Her piercing war cry nailed the punk where he stood. The gun slipped through his fingers.
He didn't try to retrieve it. He and his companions beat a raucous retreat from the flames.
Catwoman watched for a heartbeat. The fire was spreading fast, but it was still less important than the money. She spotted a grease-stained, crumpled paper bag. When it was full, she headed up to the roof.
Selina was back home and out of the costume inside of twenty minutes. She began counting her money. There were three piles. The smallest would go into the poor box at the Mission of the Immaculate Heart: payment on a very private debt. The middle pile would keep her well fed and content for another month. The largest pile she shoved into a plain brown envelope.
Reaching under the sofa, she retrieved an old ballpoint pen. She printed in a neat, anonymous hand: Wilderness Warriors.
The Warriors were a small group of activists dedicated to the notion that if the few remaining wild predators---the big cats, the timber wolves, the eagles, the grizzly bears, and the killer whales---were protected from the greatest predator of all---Homo sapiens---the wilderness and the world would be saved. They were one of many charities clanging the mission bell for Planet Earth, but Selina liked their name and the lion silhouette they used as an emblem, so she sent them her monthly surplus and told herself that the end justified the means.