Summary: Nightwing goes on the trail of child serial killer. In the process he comes to face to face with a forgotten episode in his own past.

Dedication: I'd like to dedicate this story to the memory of Dannell Lites who early on became a cyber-friend and beta-read this story and several others for me. Her incisive comments and critical feedback were always blessedly honest and finely attuned to not just what I wanted to achieve, but more importantly, what was 'right' for the characters. She was a good friend, a wonderful writer, and I will miss her. Our cyber-world will surely be a far dimmer place without her illuminating presence.--Syl Francis, October 2002

Warning: This work is rated M for mature language and situations! The subject matter may be offensive to some and is definitely not recommended for younger readers!

Disclaimer: All the characters are owned by DC Comics and Time/Warner; this is an original story that does not intend to infringe on their copyright. Feedback is welcome!

Copyright May 1999


Child Snatcher

by Syl Francis

"Man is worse than an animal when he is an animal." (Rabindranath Tagore)


Prologue

Eight-year-old Danny parked his bicycle right outside Browne's Stop and Go. His excitement was almost palpable. Today was Wednesday, and that meant that Browne's would have a new shipment of comic books. Danny had been waiting all month long for the latest issue of Daredevil!

"Hi, Mister Browne!" Danny said as he walked in. "Are they in?"

Browne smiled distractedly; he was busy with a customer.

"In the back, Danny!" Browne replied, waving his hand towards the rear of the store where the magazines were displayed. Browne liked Danny. He was a regular customer and a nice, well-behaved boy, but Browne didn't have time to chat at the moment.

The hours between 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. were usually the store's busiest period. People rushing home from work, stopped to buy what they needed to make it to the end of the week and the next grocery shopping day.

Danny smiled his thanks, impatiently pushed back his dark bangs, which always seemed to fall over his eyes, and hurried towards the back. As he made his way to the comics rack, Danny didn't notice a pair of malevolent eyes following him.

"That'll be ten ninety-six, sir," Browne said. "Sir?"

The customer turned immediately and handed Browne fifteen dollars. Browne took the money.

"Okay, sir, that's ten ninety-six out of fifteen dollars. Your change is--" He stopped, startled. His customer had suddenly grabbed his purchases and was already walking out without waiting for his change.

"Wait! Sir! Your change! Sir!" Browne ran outside. He saw his customer jump into the passenger side of a dark van with tinted windows. Browne tried waving, but soon gave up.

Automatically he checked the license plate. He could just barely make out the first three letters: XLJ. The last three figures were obscured.

"Talk about weird." Browne shook his head then hurried back inside. When he stepped in, Browne saw that Danny was waiting for him.

"This is gonna be the best issue yet, Mister Browne," Danny said, his dark blue eyes lighting up excitedly. "I hope when I grow up that I can be a superhero just like Daredevil!"

"But Danny," Browne said. "Daredevil is only make-believe. Wouldn't you rather be a real superhero like Superman or the Flash?"

"I guess they're okay, too," Danny said shrugging his shoulders. "But DD is way cooler!"

Browne smiled.

"You're the expert, Danny!" Browne said. "I only sell 'em. I don't read 'em!"

Danny shook his head. He just couldn't understand how anyone could work with comic books and never read them. What a waste!

Along with the latest Daredevil, Danny also bought a root beer, a bag of tortilla chips, and Gummi Bears.

"Looks like you're all set for a quiet afternoon of reading and snacks, Danny," Browne said.

Danny smiled.

"Today's my Mom's day pick up my baby sister at the daycare. I promised her I'd go straight home from school, but I hadda get Daredevil first."

Danny's voice suggested that were some things in life just too important to be put off. He shrugged.

"Mom won't mind . . . Too much. I hope." Danny gave Browne another bright smile. Noticing another customer standing patiently behind him, Danny hurriedly collected his purchases and headed out. He paused at the door, his back to it, and called out happily.

"See you next week, Mister Browne!" Next week, the latest issue of Captain America would come out.

Browne smiled in turn. He really liked Danny and hoped the boy wouldn't get in too much trouble with his mother for not going straight home.

Oh well, what harm could there be in stopping here first? The store was only a half-mile from Danny's neighborhood, Blud Acres. Browne was sure that Danny's mother would understand. He'd hate to lose his favorite customer.

"Take care, Danny!" Browne called, waving goodbye. "What a great kid!" He added as he turned to his next customer.

That was the last time anyone saw Danny alive.


Chapter One

The multi-agency task force rivaled that of the Atlanta Child Murders. This was week ten in what had turned into a nightmare for the parents and children of Bludhaven. In those ten weeks there had been four disappearances, all of boys between the ages of six and ten, all in broad daylight, and in each case, no eyewitnesses.

The nude bodies of the victims were later found dumped off the highway near and in the Gotham River Gorge, which ran along the evergreen tree-lined exclusive area of Bludhaven Heights. In each case, the remains were placed in a black plastic garbage bag.

The child kidnappings were what the FBI termed "low-risk victim, high-risk crime." Low-risk victim because the children were too small to put up any real resistance; high-risk crime because the kidnapping occurred in broad daylight and in the child's own neighborhood. In one case, the victim was snatched from his own front yard.

The relative youthfulness of the boys taken indicated an unknown suspect, or UNSUB, in his mid-twenties to late-thirties, white, of above average intelligence, probably unemployed or employed in a menial job. The profile fit that of a male, with a low sense of self-esteem, and problems dealing with relationships with his peers.

Dr. Lauren Winters, the BHPD criminal profiler surmised that what the Bludhaven police department had was an individual who had long fantasized about having sexual relations with little boys. He'd probably molested little boys before, and probably had prior convictions for child molestation. He might have even served time for it; however, it was unlikely that he'd killed before, or at least, he hadn't been caught before.

Something recent in his personal relationships, a recent stressor, perhaps the loss of a job, a divorce or break-up had set him off. Perhaps he'd been serving time in prison and was only recently released.

The profile suggested that the UNSUB probably cruised the streets for hours on the hunt, looking for likely victims. The children taken were probably targets of opportunity. In each case, if a car had driven by at the moment that the snatch was about to take place, or if someone had just happened to walk by, then in all likelihood, the child would not have been taken. In each case, the victim was probably just at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The UNSUB obviously had a vehicle of some sort, because he had to have some way of approaching his victims and transporting them to wherever he was holding them, and later to wherever he was dumping them.

A dark van, the vehicle of preference for child kidnappings nationwide, was seen in the vicinity of where the first victim, eight-year-old Danny O'Brien, was taken. The police had a partial tag, but so far, nothing had turned up.

Whoever the UNSUB was, the viciousness of the crimes, the premortem wounds inflicted on the children, bespoke of a monster who enjoyed torturing his victims prior to killing them.

The postmortem disposal of the remains, bathed thoroughly to eliminate forensic evidence, indicated a person who was methodical and had thought long and hard on just how to carry out his reign of terror. By disposing of his victims in garbage bags, the killer was showing that, once they were dead and he'd taken whatever pleasure he could from them, the boys were nothing more than garbage to him. He was still demonstrating his domination and contempt for his victims.

Autopsies indicated that the victims were alive for several days after their kidnapping. In at least two instances, the victims had been alive until shortly before their bodies had been found. In one case, the child had been alive as shortly as eighteen hours before.

The knowledge that the victims were alive and suffering horribly in the hands of this monster galvanized the task force to Herculean efforts . . .


"That's it, Cadets. Do I have any questions?" Captain David MacCauley looked out at the sea of fresh, young faces. A twenty-year veteran with the BHPD, MacCauley was Chief of the Violent Crimes Division and officer in charge of the special taskforce investigating the Bludhaven Child Murders, as the case was now being called by the local media.

Was I ever that young, MacCauley wondered.

A few hands went up. MacCauley called on each cadet and tried to answer his or her questions patiently.

"What makes you so certain that the UNSUB is white?" a young African-American police cadet asked.

"It's been our experience that most serial rape/killings are personal, not racist or politically motivated. Also, we've found that the perps tend to stay within their own racial lines. Again, this is a personal action. Therefore, we can expect that the killer or killers would select a type of victim with whom he'd feel most comfortable."

"What makes you so sure that the UNSUB is male?" asked a pretty young female cadet.

"Despite what you may see on television, most serial killers are male. Only on extremely rare occasions do we have a female perpetrator. And then they're usually associated with mysterious deaths in hospitals or nursing homes. Usually what they deem to be mercy killings. If a woman is involved in the murder of a child, it's usually her own."

MacCauley paused, then added almost gently, "Also, the semen samples taken from the bodies are a sort of giveaway." The female cadet blushed furiously at her mistake, and at her fellow cadets' laughter. MacCauley raised his hand for quiet.

"That's okay, cadet. Remember, there's no such thing as a dumb question." The young cadet smiled gratefully, but couldn't bring herself to look him in the eyes again.

MacCauley paused and looked around once more.

"Are there any further questions?"

Another hand went up. MacCauley noticed that it belonged to the only cadet who'd taken notes during his briefing. MacCauley made it clear at the start that the cadets would not be tested on the information they were going to discuss. He'd smiled ruefully as they all immediately closed their notebooks.

All, that is, except this one. He nodded at the cadet to proceed. As the young man spoke, MacCauley had an eerie feeling that he'd seen him or spoken to him before.

"Sir, Cadet Grayson," he said by of introduction. "Has a DNA analysis been run on the semen samples and do they match a single UNSUB? Also, do we have any matching DNA fingerprints on file?"

MacCauley studied the young cadet admiringly.

"Those are two excellent questions, Cadet Grayson," MacCauley said. "However, there are certain details of the case that we cannot release at this moment. I'm sorry." MacCauley smiled. Then, his eyes hardening, he addressed the assembly again.

"Ladies and gentlemen, it's been my experience during twenty years on the force, with ten of those years serving in the Violent Crimes Division, that there is no bottom, no lowest point, to which an offender can stoop."

MacCauley paused to gauge the effect of his words. He had the cadets' undivided attention. "Good," he said to himself. "It's about time someone kicked them in the teeth with a taste of reality! How many of these kids joined the force for the 'glamour'?" he wondered sardonically.

"When you think you've seen the worst possible example of depravity committed by one human being against another, something worse comes along. This child murder case is the worst I've seen in my career. I'm only sorry to say that tomorrow another case will come along that will top it."

MacCauley could've heard a pin drop in the classroom. The cadets' youthful, wide-eyed stares showed him that many were suddenly reevaluating their career choice.

"Are there any further questions?" He paused for a beat, and when no more hands went up, MacCauley smiled and nodded his head.

"Very well. The purpose of this briefing wasn't just to help you see how the BHPD is currently handling this terrible case, or to give you a break from your PAIs' instruction on how to properly conduct a 'routine' traffic stop."

MacCauley's quip broke the tension in the classroom and was met with brief laughter. The Police Academy Instructors were currently trying to impress on the cadets that there was no such thing as a routine traffic stop. Each stop was potentially dangerous.

"I asked your PAIs to allow me to speak to you today, because quite frankly, we're at a dead end. I ask each of you to keep your eyes and ears open. Anything that you see or hear, no matter how insignificant a detail, that you feel might lend some insight into helping us solve this case will be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time, ladies and gentlemen."

As MacCauley began to gather his notes, Cadet Grayson approached him. MacCauley gave him a questioning look.

"Yes, Cadet Grayson?" he asked. MacCauley scrutinized the young man. Again, he felt that there was something palpably familiar about Grayson.

"I was curious about the possibility of there being two suspects, rather than one," Dick asked as preamble. "It seems that would make sense especially if the children are being snatched in broad daylight and not far from their own homes. One would do the snatching, while the other drove the getaway vehicle."

"Excellent observation, Grayson," MacCauley said impressed by the young man's keen insight. "That's something we've already discussed. We feel fairly certain that there are two perpetrators, with one being the dominant, the other one the follower. Some of the guys on the case have dubbed them 'Batman and Robin'. You know, leader and sidekick."

Dick managed not to let his startled reaction to the detective's words show.

"Yes, sir," he said instead, holding onto his temper. "I think I know exactly what you mean. Thank you for answering my question." Dick turned as if to leave, but MacCauley stopped him.

"Wait! Cadet Grayson, have we met before?" he asked curiously.

Dick tensed immediately. Uh-oh, he thought. Take it easy, Grayson. We could've run across each other in the corridors here at the Academy. Play it cool, he told himself.

Dick shrugged his shoulders and shook his head as if trying to place MacCauley.

"I'm not sure, sir," he said, giving MacCauley his most guileless smile. "Maybe we've passed each other here in the hallways?"

MacCauley nodded his head, unconvinced. He'd noted immediately how the young man had tensed suddenly at the question. MacCauley decided to let the matter drop for now.

"You're probably right, Grayson. Keep your eyes and ears open!" MacCauley gathered his materials and left the room.


The wall in the Cadet Lounge was decorated with the smiling faces of Bludhaven's missing and murdered children. Bright eyes and gap-toothed smiles looked down on Cadet Grayson. Daniel Patrick O'Brien and three other boys smiled innocently at the world.

In each case the child was taken less than a mile from his own home. Danny's bicycle and the purchases he'd bought were found in a ditch less than 500 yards from Browne's Stop and Go.

The eight-year-old smiled down with lively blue eyes. Dick noted a light smattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose and wavy almost blue-black hair that flopped carelessly over his eyes. Danny had been a top student in his third grade class at Saints Peter and Paul. He was an altar server and wanted to grow up to be a superhero.

Studying the wall, Dick felt an icy hand grip the pit of his stomach. He looked into each boy's eyes. Four sets of piercing dark blue eyes stared back, almost accusingly. Dick stepped back and took in all four photos at once. He looked from to another, slowly at first, then faster. He walked to Danny, then to Jimmy. Nicky. Ryan. It couldn't be true.

But it was.

The boys were dead ringers for each other.

"He's looking for a particular type," Dick murmured, awed at his discovery. "He's looking for the same boy, over and over again."

Dick realized that this was another little piece of information that Captain MacCauley held back during his briefing.

Dick scrutinized the four photographs closer. There was something else, right here in front of him, but he couldn't place it. He finally shook his head in frustration. He decided to let it go for now. Whatever it was, it would come to him. Sooner or later.

"I'll find him," Dick silently promised the smiling faces. "Whatever it takes. I'll find whoever hurt you and took you from your families."


"Oh, man, Mikey, I don't like this!" Tommy whined. "I don't think this is such a good idea, man!"

Bludhaven was crawling with cops. BHPD, Feds, County, and State cops were everywhere! The TV news guy said that the task force assembled was the second largest in US history.

"Shut up, Tommy!" Mikey said.

He was scanning the school bus stop for his next prize. It had been almost eight days since the last one, and Mikey was beginning to feel what he called the itch. The itch came on slowly. It usually began in the middle of the night and worked up to fever pitch by midday. With his need almost ready to explode, Mikey knew that it was time...

Time for another houseguest. The last one hadn't lasted long, and that made Mikey unhappy. He'd done everything for the ungrateful brat! He'd fed him, made sure he had enough water to drink, clean sheets to sleep in. But had he shown the least bit of gratitude? No!

He'd cried every time Mikey tried to show him how much he loved him. Mikey was forced to hit him! He hadn't wanted to, but the brat made him! Mikey tried to make it up to him. He'd even helped him go the bathroom just to show him how much he loved him.

But in the end, Mikey was forced to take him to the punishment room, just like all the others...

"There!" Mikey said. Tommy looked in the direction Mikey was pointing. He saw a small, dark haired boy, about five or six, holding something carefully in one hand, as if afraid it might break, and lugging a heavy backpack in the other. The boy crossed the street at the crosswalk, and Tommy and Mikey followed him with their eyes. When the little boy turned the corner, Tommy started the van and Mikey jumped out to follow on foot.

Mikey felt the familiar adrenaline rush. In just a few more moments, he'd have his newest pet. Mikey walked with single-mindedness. He hurried to turn the corner and immediately caught sight of his prey. He was about to run up behind him and blitz him when a woman called, waving.

"Billy! Billy!"

The little boy waved back.

"Mommy!" Billy called excitedly, crossing the street and running up to his mother. "Guess what? My front tooth fell out during recess!" He held out the object that he'd been carefully holding in his right hand.

Billy's mother gently took the prize in her hand and inspected her son's gap-toothed smile. She leaned down and kissed him on the forehead, giving him a big hug.

"Oh, my! Look at that," she said smiling. "I guess we'll have to expect a visit from the tooth fairy tonight!" Laughing, mother and son turned to walk home together. They lived in a nice, well-manicured apartment complex.

Mikey witnessed the whole episode from behind a tree across the street. He could feel his rage growing. He wanted to kill the whore. How dare she interfere with his prize! The boy belonged to him! Mikey owned him, heart and soul. Mikey had half a mind to walk up to them, grab Billy, and kill the bitch who'd stolen his prize.

He'd be rescuing Billy wouldn't he? After all, all women were whores. They hurt little boys with electric cords and locked them in dark closets without food or water, didn't they? They made little boys wash in their own pee if they wet their beds, didn't they?

Mikey was about to go after them and rescue Billy, when Tommy drove up to him in the van.

"Come on, Mikey," Tommy said. "Get in! We've gotta blow!" Tommy was looking around nervously, expecting any one of those cops to suddenly turn the corner and stop them on suspicion.

Mikey nodded and reluctantly climbed in the van.

"Okay, Tommy," Mikey conceded. "We won't take him today. But we'll be back."

I'll be back, Billy, he promised silently.

As they drove back to the abandoned building they'd converted into their living quarters, Mikey remembered Dicky, the first and only prize that ever got away. Dicky was the most beautiful boy that Mikey had ever laid eyes on, then or since.

From the first moment he'd seen him, Dicky's raven hair and dark, piercing blue eyes were forever seared in Mikey's psyche. Mikey knew then that he'd never rest until he possessed him.

He'd had him, too. Mikey was about to show Dicky how much he loved him, when the Batman stole him, probably to take him for himself. Mikey remembered that soon afterwards, Batman had a partner that he called "Robin." Mikey saw immediately how much Robin resembled Dicky, and more importantly, he noticed how Robin's acrobatic moves were exactly the same as the ones that Dicky had executed in his presence.

Yes, Mikey knew. Dicky, the one who got away, became Robin, the Boy Wonder. Mikey swore that he'd get his prize back.

Sooner or later.

That's all Mikey fantasized about in the ensuing years while serving time in Blackgate Prison. He'd dreamed about what he'd do to Dicky once he got out of prison, in order to show the boy how much he still loved him and forgave him for leaving.

Of course, Mikey had to punish Dicky for what he did. But Dicky would understand. After all, you only hurt the ones you loved. Isn't that what Mommy always used to say?

Mikey grinned happily. He wondered if Dicky could hear him calling to him. He was practically sending him a telegram. If he knew Dicky, he'd catch on eventually.

Then he'll come looking for me, Mikey told himself. Dicky will return to me of his own free will. All I have to do is sit back and wait.

And keep sending him human telegrams.

End of Part 1