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Chapter Five



The gray tiger kitten watched the box-thing follow him into the hiding room. At first it was very high, then it was level on the floor. Then it changed shape, and wonders began to erupt from it---an amazement of smells, sights, and sounds tumbling across the cold, hard floor. Curiosity seized him. It pulled him out of the safe place beneath the big hollow where water sometimes was and sometimes wasn't. Ears and tail twitching, stubby legs bunched beneath him, the kitten homed in on a fuzzy, wiggly, stringy thing. Wanting it more than anything else---needing it right now---he pounced.

"Gotcha!"

Hands descended without warning, pinching the skin above his shoulders, then raising him to dizzying heights.

"I knew you couldn't resist. No cat can resist a mess of sparkly junk."

The kitten found himself dangling in front of a face as large as himself. It wasn't the first time he'd been snatched from the brink of satisfaction. That face, the voice, and especially the hands were everywhere in his life. Usually they brought pleasure, but there was something different this time that made him wary.

"We've been invited to dinner. Both of us. The invitation was very specific: me and my most irresistible kitten. That's you. And since I make a habit of never refusing a free meal, you're going in the box."

The kitten hadn't understood a word, but he got the general idea. An instinctive expert in the swimming arts, he writhed until his claws hooked something solid, after which other instincts took over. A heartbeat later he was in free-fall.

"You drew blood!"

As nature intended, the kitten landed on his feet and scrabbling toward the door. The footing was lousy everywhere in his world. Slick bathroom tiles gave way to slick wood floors. He struck the door frame as he cornered and made more noise than forward progress down the hall.

"Get back here!"

Another thump against the door frame informed the kitten that the face and hands were on the move beneath him. He bounded for the aptly named throw rug which spun him around the corner after which he made a flat-out dive for another safe place beneath the sleeping place. The other cats in the room---his littermates and a handful of adults---understood that chaos was near, and hastened its arrival by scrambling for shelter themselves.

Cats, knickknacks, newspapers, and the ruins of last night's dinner became airborne.

Selina Kyle had no time for conscious decision-making. She lunged for the nearest flying object, caught a gooey handful of cold Szechuan chicken, and watched with horror as a Ming-dynasty porcelain cat smashed against the wall.

"I liked that," she complained. "It was my favorite cat---"

Feline heads swiveled and stared with evident disbelief.

"I could've gotten three hundred for it, so it must've been worth thousands. But I didn't sell it. I took it because I liked it and kept it because I liked it, and now it's garbage."

The cats blinked. One began grooming. Selina snatched a piece of drifted newspaper and cleaned the unappetizing veggies from her hand. The sauce was cold, but the spices still packed a wallop when she swiped them across the scratch the kitten left on her wrist. Once again her reflexes were faster than her thoughts. She had the stinging flesh pressed against her lips before she realized what she'd done, before the blob of paper and sauce ended its slide down the back of the sofa.

"Damn."

An orange tabby jumped down from a nearly empty bookshelf. It investigated the stain and withdrew, hissing.

"Double-damn."

Selina's one-room apartment wasn't large enough for seven---this afternoon---cats and cat-loving human. She grabbed the newspaper and lobbed it toward the trash can. Her aim was solid, but the canister was already overflowing. The wad bounced to the floor. With a disgusted sigh, Selina packed the soggy newspaper into the canister and scuffed the porcelain bits in the general direction of the radiator. There was a broom somewhere, and roll of liners for the canister, but she didn't feel like looking for them.

She tried. At least once a month Selina made an effort to create the sort of home she supposed other people had, but she didn't have a gift for domesticity. She had other gifts. A gift for getting into things and out of them, for taking what she needed, for thriving where others might barely survive.

Her home looked like what it was: a scavenger's sanctuary. Some of it had been stolen, some rescued from dumpsters, most of it bought from thrift shops and sidewalk vendors. Selina gathered the things she thought belonged in a home---not the home she remembered, but a never-never home where everything was bright, glittering, and safe.

Selina took a deep breath as her possessions worked their magic. She hugged herself, swaying gently. Tensions drained down her back, through the floor, out of her life. Street sounds and building sounds pierced the walls---they always did in the East End---but the apartment itself was purring and peaceful.

The gray tiger kitten poked his head out and sneezed.

Selina triangulated the sound. "There you are! You haven't won yet. Not hardly you haven't. I'm still getting my free meal, and you---you little devil---are still coming with me."

Four-pawed backpedaling was a skill the kitten hadn't quite mastered. The hands followed him into the safe place. He spread his claws into the light. He folded his ears against his head as a hand unhooked his claws one by one.

"No putting holes in the costume." Selina tapped the kitten on his nose, letting the length of supple leather fall. "I share everything else, but that's mine." She scowled melodramatically at range two inches, and the kitten cringed.

Ignoring his wails, Selina put him in the box and closed it. A paw thrust through the cracks, slashing viciously. When that failed, Selina heard him attack the corrugated cardboard. Guessing that she had about a half hour before he escaped, Selina turned her attention to getting herself ready for a free dinner at the mission.

Selina was most comfortable in the costume draped across the unmade bed. Sheathed in black, hidden behind a mask, and defended by a set of razor-edged steel claw mounted in metal caps that were, themselves, somehow built into the costume's gloves, Selina ceased to be Selina. She became Catwoman. Viewed through a mask's eyeholes, the world was simple. Past and future were unimportant compared to the wants and needs of the present. The risks were great. Selina needed only to glance at the kitten's arm stretching desperately through the cardboard to understand how great.

Catwoman had her wits, her agility, her pride, and her determination---nothing more. She lived for herself, by herself, without illusions.

Having no illusions meant, at the very least, that the costume went back under the bed. If she wanted that free meal, she'd have to face the sisters as herself. Standing in her underwear before the haphazard piles spilling out of the closet and bureau, Selina heard a stern chorus from the depths of her past.

Look at yourself... Stand up straight. Don't fidget. Dress like a lady. Act like a lady. You're not leaving this house dressed like that. You're cheap, Selina Kyle. You'll get in trouble. You'll get what you deserve. Bitch. Whore. You'll wind up in a gutter. Do you hear me, Selina Kyle? Look at me when I'm talking to you!

Selina braced for the clout she remembered much too well. In the silent safety of her home she flinched, then stiffened and smoldered.

"It isn't worth it," she murmured to the cats. "No meal's worth this much remembering. I should've slammed that door right in that nun's face."

But Selina had given her word. She donned whatever lay at the top of the heaps: shapeless pants and a slouchy sweater, a tattered photographer's vest, and military surplus boots.

"You may not look like a lady," she informed her reflection. "But you sure don't look like a whore."


Mother Joseph was waiting at the mission door. "Come in, Selina. I'd begun to think you wouldn't keep your word. Rose just got here." She reached for the box, from which scratching and mewing could be heard. "And you brought the kitten."

Selina eluded the nun's hands as she might dodge a knife in a dark alley. Trust a penguin to greet you with guilt, she thought to herself while curiosity about the other guest swelled in the wordless part of her mind.

"Aggie-Pat didn't mention anyone else," she blurted out. All the nuns had street names. Sister Theresa Carmel had been TeeCee longer than anyone remembered. Sister Agnes Patricia was Aggie-Pat; her real-life sister, Sister Magdalene Catherine was, naturally, Maggie-Cat. And Mother Joseph was known throughout the East End as Old MoJo. But not inside the mission. Selina didn't know why she'd used a street name; she guessed it had something to do with feeling like a kid and feeling angry at the same time.

Mother Joseph's expression didn't change. "Sister Agnes was asked to invite you, not read you a guest list. You do have a kitten in that box, don't you?"

Selina nodded, but held the box tight when Mother Joseph tried again to take it from her. "Why'd you want me to bring a kitten, anyway?"

Glancing back at the inner door through which other voices could be half heard, and sensing that Selina would not cooperate until she was more fully informed, Mother Joseph relented and pointed at the main stairway.

"Let's go to my office, Selina. I'll explain up there."

The satisfaction of being treated---for once---like an adult was almost enough to cancel the anxiety following Mother Joseph up the two flights to her office produced. It had been years since Selina had needed the mission's help. She'd paid everything back, with interest; she owed them nothing---but her heart started pounding anyway. When you came inside the mission, you accepted their rules. When you went upstairs it meant you'd broken some of those rules.

Good, bad, or indifferent, Selina didn't like rules, period. They made her a bit crazy. They made her Catwoman.

She was ready to explode when Mother Joseph unlocked the door and asked her to sit in one of the uncomfortable guest chairs. She got bored almost as soon as the nun opened her mouth. Selina lived in the East End, but Selina wasn't really a part of the East End community. She hadn't been born here. She hadn't set foot in Gotham until two weeks after her sixteenth birthday. Rose D'Onofreo's name wasn't familiar, nor were any of the others Mother Joseph prattled on about. The boredom began to show.

"Sometimes we use dolls to get the really troubled ones talking," Mother Joseph concluded hastily. "But with Rose, I think a cat will unlock her tongue---" She smiled at her own witicism. The smile vanished when Selina did not react. "Well, if you'll give Rose the box when we go downstairs---"

"There's a dinner in this eventually, isn't there? Roast chicken, dressing---the works, right?"

Mother Joseph rose from her chair. "Apple pie and vanilla ice cream for dessert, exactly as promised."

Aware that the nun was annoyed, but unable to pinpoint the cause, Selina followed her meekly down the stairs. When the mission stuck to saving bodies, Selina had no trouble with them. Hot meals, clean sheets, showers, and the walk-in clinic were things everybody in this neighborhood needed from time to time. But saving souls, whether with religion or psychology, was a big waste of time. If this Rose person didn't have what it took to survive... If, God help her, she needed a kitten!

"Did you say something?" Mother Joseph asked. They were at the bottom of the stairway.

Selina slumped her shoulders. "Nope." Nuns were sharp enough to hear a person's thoughts, but they weren't sharp enough to know their softhearted idea of help was worse than no help at all.

Picking Rose out from the other women in the old-fashioned kitchen was easy: she was the only one not wearing a veil. As soon as she saw the long blond hair, Selina realized she did not know Rose D'Onofreo---or know of her. When sleek limousines with dark windows came cruising the East End streets after midnight, they were looking for hair like that. Rose might have been born in a tenement bathroom, but she had uptown looks.

Not that they'd done her any good. Selina appraised the bruises on Rose's face with professional detachment. She took note of the wild-animal look in her eyes, too. A year---maybe less if the winter was bad---and that hair would be snarling in a refrigerator drawer down at the morgue.

"Hi," Rose said without making eye contact. "You're Selina Kyle, aren't you? You're Sister Magdalene's sister. I knew her when I was here. She was real---"

That was the last straw. Selina did not talk about Maggie, and these nuns knew damn well why. Her appetite was completely gone and the walls were closing in. Selina would have made a run for it, but Old MoJo was blocking the way.

"Yeah. She and I don't stay in touch."

Holding the kitten's box in front of her like a shield, Selina strode across the kitchen, defying anyone to mention Maggie's name again.

"I brought you something... . Their idea."

Selina didn't own any of the cats that shared her life. She didn't name them unless they forced her to. The kitten in the box was cute and bold, but that wasn't enough to give him a name. Rose could name him, if she wanted. Rose could do whatever she wanted. Selina told herself she didn't care, and that she could leave, but she didn't. She retreated a half-step and watched, just like everyone else.

The frightened look faded from Rose's eyes as she wrestled with the cardboard flaps. Selina expected the little tiger head to pop up as soon as the box was open. She expected Rose to melt completely in the face of its juvenile charm. Neither happened. The kitten hissed. Rose's hands flew away from the cardboard as if it had become searing hot.

A shiver raced down Selina's spine. It was the same shiver as when she pulled the costume over her arms and legs. She was uncannily alert without knowing why. Then she got a look at Rose's face. Costumed as Catwoman, Selina stalked in an unsuspecting city, but she was a thief, not a predator. Catwoman stole, and although she had killed, it was never personal. She'd never put death on someone's face the way the gray kitten put it on Rose's.

While Selina's heart thumped against her ribs, the battered blond woman saw death, feared it, accepted it, and finally invited it. Selina was forced her heart to beat normally again when the kitten---the little gray tiger kitten who'd been captured, imprisoned, and jostled beyond his feline comprehension---succumbed to his instincts. He sprang at those wide-open eyes above him.

If he'd been a gray tiger, or even a tiger kitten, there surely would have been blood and blindness in the mission. Instead the kitten went flying as Rose let out a shriek that stunned all the other women, leaving them witless while she tumbled out of her chair. Rose tried to escape, but her arms and legs would not behave. Her flailing movements, the peculiar breathy sounds she made after she stopped shrieking awoke primitive resonances:

Flee. Death comes, all-mighty and inevitable. Flee. Don't think. Don't look back. The beast of death is feeding. Flee, if you fear the beast. Flee, if you would see the sun again.

It took a special kind of stupid---not just human stupid, but civilized human stupid---to disobey that primal voice. Mother Joseph was the first to disobey. She shook off her deepest instincts with a shudder, then she was kneeling on the floor, giving orders to the others as she struggled to keep Rose from crawling under the sink.

Selina was the last to recover. The huddling nuns, Rose's mottled, terrified face---none of this was part of Selina's world. She saw the cardboard box on its side. She looked for the kitten and found him, fluffed out and panting, as far from Rose as the room allowed him to get. She gathered him against her breast. The beating of her heart calmed him.

"It's not your fault," she whispered. "It's not your fault."

Selina stayed in the shadows beside the wall until the kitten emitted a blissed-out purr and made cat-fists in her sweater. She endured the prickly claws until Catwoman's hyperalertness had subsided and she was her ordinary self again.

The sisters, led by Mother Joseph, were determined to find evidence of the drugs they blindly believed were the root of Rose's problems. Selina started to tell them that they were wasting their time, but thought against it before they'd noticed her. Old MoJo's reaction was understandable. Drugs usually were the cause of everything here in the East End---especially if alcohol was counted as a drug and growing up surrounded by it was called drug abuse. By that standard, drugs were to blame not only for Rose, but for Selina herself.

Getting a firm grip on the kitten, Selina headed for home.

You had to draw the line somewhere. If you accepted that you were a victim, you stayed a victim. Somewhere you had to stop being a victim. You didn't have to become a wild-eyed crusader; you just had to stop being anybody's victim, ever again. Batman was a crusader; whoever Batman was behind his mask, he had been a victim. Of what, when, or why Selina couldn't guess, but she was certain of her conclusions.

"Takes one to know one," she said aloud, surprising herself and the wino in a darkened doorway.

"You tell 'em, sister. Got any change? A smoke? A light?"

One-handedly buttoning her raincoat and hunching her shoulders around the kitten, Selina kept going. She didn't like being on the streets after dark---at least not without the costume. It was altogether too easy to become a victim.

Like Rose.

She was thinking about Rose and victims when she came in sight of a clutch of youths. They'd staked a claim to a lamppost with macho posturing and a pumping boombox. The kitten struggled; Selina needed both hands to comfine him. The motion---pressing both hands against her breasts---drew unwanted attention.

Selina saw herself with their eyes: a woman, alone, wringing her hands with terror. It didn't matter whether she was hideous or attractive. It didn't matter that she was the master of kinds of martial arts that won fights, not exhibitions. For an instant Selina felt the look she'd seen in Rose's eyes.

They whistled and propositioned her lewdly. One of the punks swaggered onto the street.

"You wanna dance?" He stood with his feet apart, hips slightly forward, and the bill of his baseball cap shielding his eyes. "C'mon, bitch." He took his hands out of his pockets. "You gonna get it whether you want it or not."

Everything conspired against her, from the squirming kitten to the clothes she was wearing. She didn't look like Catwoman; she didn't feel like Catwoman. And the punk was moving closer. Then a finger of ice skipped down her spine. Her gut shrank and the fear turned to rage.

"Not on your best day." The words didn't matter. Everything depended on the edge of her voice and the thrust of her glare through shadow to the place where his eyes had to be. "Not with all your slime friends helping you." Selina forgot where they were, what she held, and even who she was. She forgot that the costume was stuffed under the bed. Her rage spread across her face. Like a giant spark it leapt between her eyes and his.

She had him.

"You one crazy bitch," the punk murmured, retreating.

Selina ached to see his eyes, to hear his voice when his mouth was full of broken teeth and blood. Not this time. The kitten still squirmed. She'd have to be content with breaking his spirit for a few hours, and the hope that his peers by the lamppost would sense his injury and finish the job for her.

"Beat it, slime, while you still can."

He tugged on the bill of his cap. Maybe he thought he'd regain the advantage if he met the crazy lady's eyes. If he had, he was wrong. Selina was waiting for him. She showed real teeth through a real smile and started toward him, then walked on by. As she had hoped, his erstwhile companions hurled insults until she was out of earshot.

Another hundred yards and she began to relax.

Only a man can make a woman forget everything but fear.

The thought spread through her mind along with Rose's face. The punk's eyes were astonished. Like the druggers, he couldn't quite believe that a woman---a bitch---had overwhelmed him. But there was no astonishment, surprise, or disbelief in the memory of Rose's face, only fear, then a victim's acceptance of inevitable fate.




Chapter Four | Catwoman - Tiger Hunt | Chapter Six