~~ Chapter 8 ~~

With the ease of long habit, Dick fired a new grappling line as he disengaged the one on which he was swinging. He was still about a mile behind Matt and the taxi, but he was gaining ground rapidly since he could "fly straight." As he swung around the buildings, he remembered something he meant to ask Barbara.

"Babs? Could you check something for me?"

"Like what?"

"You've still got those copies of Charles Hammond's photos?"

"Yeah."

"I was just wondering ... Could you age that little Vietnamese girl about thirty years and compare her to the visual of the suspect?"

"Funny you should mention that," she said, and he could hear the smile in her voice. "I just finished doing that very thing. It's not a perfect match, but I'd said it was very close. I think Rosie is our suspect."

"Thanks, sweetheart," he said, smiling. "I'm not sure how useful that will be, but it might make a difference down the road." Looking ahead, if he squinted just right, he could make out the form of Daredevil leisurely swinging through the night. "Matt, I think I'm about a hundred yards behind you. Any indication that they're not going to O'Reilly's apartment?"

"Nope," Matt snorted. "After O'Reilly gave the address to the cab driver, he and the woman have concentrated on their attempts to perform mutual tonsillectomies."

Dick snickered in response, and he could hear Barbara's giggle in his earpiece. "Mutual tonsillectomies, huh? I can see how such an important medical breakthrough would require a lot of ... practice."

"Oh, they're practicing diligently, all right," Matt replied, with a laugh. "Whoops, medical research time is over. They're at O'Reilly's apartment."

Dick could see that Matt was landing on the roof of the apartment building. A few seconds later, he joined the man in red just in time to see O'Reilly and the woman disappear into the building. While Matt monitored the couple's progress up the stairs to the third floor, Dick climbed down the side of the building to perch on the ledge of O'Reilly's bedroom window. After making sure the ledge was sturdy enough to support their combined weights, he whispered to Matt that it was okay to come down. In his ear, Barbara whispered that she was being summoned by the JLA, so she would talk to him later.

Now came the part he had been dreading. Sure enough, through an opening in the drapes, he could see their target and their suspect ripping each other's clothes off. He sighed.

"Hey, at least you can close your eyes," grumbled Matt.

Dick snorted softly in reply. He began paying more attention as the action shifted over to the bed. Without warning, the woman's behavior changed. She pushed O'Reilly down onto the bed and moved into a kneeling position over him, straddling his legs. She began swaying from side to side in motions that were both sinuous and erotically graceful. Dick was able to catch a quick glimpse of O'Reilly's face -- his face, which had been vacantly passionate before was now simply vacant. He turned to Matt.

"What're their heart rates like?" he whispered.

Matt scowled. "All of a sudden, hers is so low, I'd almost swear she was asleep. His on the other hand, just hit the roof."

"You'd never know it from his expression," said Dick, as perplexed as Matt.

As he watched, the woman's movements became more and more violent, although O'Reilly never reacted. Even when she finally allowed him to join with her and his body had tensed in climax, his expression remained blank. As he sank back down into the bed, she remained in a kneeling position above him.

"This should be it," Dick whispered to Matt, who nodded.

The woman began swaying again and pulled out one of the hairclips that held her thick hair back from her face. Dick gasped as the small enamel and silver pin became a huge knife, with a cobra's head for a pommel. She held the knife in both hands and raised it high in the air.

Immediately, Dick broke the window and leapt into the room with Matt right behind him.

"Hold it, lady!" he yelled, hoping to distract her. It worked; she turned to look at him. Unfortunately, as soon as Dick looked into her eyes, he found himself unable to move. He watched her leave O'Reilly and idly noted that her pupils were now vertical slits like a cat's or ... a snake's. As she stalked toward him, now holding the knife in her right hand, he could hear Matt yelling for him to move. In the back of his mind, a little voice that sounded an awful lot like Bruce also yelled for him to move, but moving would take a lot of effort. It would be easier just to stand here and ... **THUD** Matt crashed into him, breaking his eye contact with the woman, freeing him from her thrall.

She screamed hoarsely in anger, and suddenly she dropped the knife to the floor and changed from a woman into a large, black and gold cobra. She turned to Matt. "How dare you interfere with my prey!" she hissed. Dick could see that she was trying to hypnotize Matt the same way she had him, but was obviously unable to make eye contact. Dick took advantage of her distraction and grabbed O'Reilly, who was beginning to regain his senses, and shoved him out of the bedroom. "Get out of here and call the police!" Dick shouted at him and closed the door.

When he turned back, he saw that Matt had managed to get a grappling line around the cobra's "neck" and was attempting to choke her. Dick leapt on the back of the cobra and wrapped his legs around her neck, adding his strength to Matt's. She moved back and forth violently, and Dick thought she was trying to shake him off. Then he saw her tail reach for Matt. Like the cobra she resembled, she moved quickly -- too quickly for even Matt to dodge. She wrapped her tail around Matt and threw him against the wall; he hit hard and lay stunned. Then she used her tail to pluck Dick from her back and brought him around to face her. This time, he avoided making eye contact as he fought to free himself.

"It'sss ssso much more enjoyable when the prey ssstrugglesss," she hissed as she bent over him.

Without warning, she screamed again, this time in pain, and Dick found himself falling to the floor. He looked up to see that a large man with a broadsword had severed the cobra's tail. The man, who had reddish-gold hair and wore a tan colored jumpsuit, faced the snake fearlessly. Before she could attack again, Dick watched with horror as the swordsman, with one swing of his blade, lopped the cobra's head off.

~~~~~~~~~~

"That's when the weird stuff really started!" he told Barbara as they sat on her couch later that night. She had contacted him just as the police were arriving, so he promised he would explain everything when he came over. He finally got to the clock tower around 1:30 am, and she fed them both a very late dinner.

"A snake-woman and a mysterious guy with a sword aren't strange enough?" she asked, sarcastically.

He snickered. "Not even close! As soon as the cobra's head was cut off, she changed back into our girl Rosie, who dropped to the floor unconscious. Mysterious-guy then salutes me with his sword and says 'Dza devlesa.' I hear Matt groan as he comes to, and I turn to check on him. When I turn back around, sword-guy is gone."

"Dza-what?"

"Dza devlesa. It's Rom for 'God go with you.'"

"A mysterious guy with a sword who speaks Rom and disppears," she repeated, puzzled. "Do you think sword-guy pulled a Bat-style disappearing act on you?"

"I don't see how he could. I was between him and the window. Here's the next strange thing, though. When I asked Matt what he thought of the guy, Matt didn't know what I was talking about! He didn't detect the guy, nor did he hear him."

Barbara whistled softly in response.

"Yeah. Then Rosie regained consciousness and started crying. While I was trying to get her calmed down, Matt tracked down O'Reilly and brought him back inside to get dressed. When he walked back in, we hit pay dirt. Rosie confessed to everything -- the attack on O'Reilly and the four murders." Looking down at his empty cup, he interjected, "Hang on, I'll get us some more coffee."

When he came back, he sat down, handed the two mugs to Barbara, and casually lifted her into his lap. She grinned and handed him his mug. "Much better!" he sighed.

"Okay, where was I? Oh yeah. Rosie, who managed to get to the U.S. as one of the 'boat people', got involved with some sort of really freaky cult about three years ago. Her 'inner guide' convinced her that all her problems in life were the result of being abandoned by her 'daddies.' The guide suggested that what she needed to do was to eliminate the 'false' children of her daddies, and then the daddies would love her and take care of her."

"That's sick!" Barbara exclaimed.

"She claims that once she agreed to all this, the guide told her when and where she was to meet each victim. From the moment she met the victim, everything then became dream-like. Then she would wake up, and she would be naked, in a strange room with a dead man, and blood all over her hands, but it wouldn't bother her. This time, though, when she 'woke up,' she realized everything she had done, and it horrified her."

Barbara frowned. "And you believe her?" she asked skeptically.

"Maybe," shrugged Dick. "The main thing, in my opinion, is that she told the same story to the cops when they showed up. She knew details about the three New York murders that only the murderer would. Plus, she had the murder weapon. That should be enough to get Clancy completely off the hook."

"Great!"

"Yeah. Matt figures she'll be released in a few days, so I'm going to try to head back there to pick her up, depending on my shift schedule."

"Before you head anywhere, Former Boy Wonder, we are heading off to bed! I'm tired, and you look wiped out." She scooted off his lap and into her chair. As she rolled out of the room, she paused and turned her head. "Well? Are you coming?"

Dick grinned and got up to follow her into the bedroom.

~~~~~~~~~~

The next morning, Dick rode his motorcycle over to Wayne Manor, enjoying the bright summer day. Over breakfast, Barbara mentioned that Alfred had called and wanted to see him before he went back to Bludhaven. He drove up to the side entrance nearest the kitchen, and rapping on the door, walked inside.

Alfred walked out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dishtowel. "Master Dick! It's so good to see you, young sir!" he smiled.

"Hi, Alfred," Dick replied. "I was planning to come by to see you anyway, but your message to Babs last night sounded very mysterious. What's up?"

For one of the few times Dick could remember, Alfred looked a little hesitant. He wiped his hands some more and seemed to come to a decision.

"Why don't you come with me to the breakfast room, and we can talk."

Dick followed the older man into the large sunny room and sat where Alfred motioned him. Alfred disappeared into the kitchen for a moment and then returned bearing a tea tray and cups. Still silent, Alfred poured a cup for himself and Dick and then sat down across from him.

"Master Dick, would it be safe to say that you experienced something ... odd ... last night?" he finally asked.

Dick gave a short laugh. "I think 'odd' is a bit of an understatement, Al. It was bizarre."

"May I ask in what way, sir?"

Dick summarized the case and everything that had happened. "The thing I find really weird is the guy with the sword. He showed up just in time to rescue me, spoke Rom, and then disappeared. And I'm the only one who saw him," he finished. "The other weird thing was the way I felt." He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. "I didn't tell Babs, but when I first saw him, I was more scared of him than I was of the snake-woman! He was just so big and so ... bright. Then, he spoke a phrase I remember my dad using a lot, and suddenly, it was as if he was family. I just don't get it."

One of the brightest smiles Dick had ever seen suddenly appeared on Alfred's normally reserved face. "That is truly wonderful, Dick! Truly wonderful." His smile became a grin at the look of puzzlement on Dick's face. "Let me explain, young sir."

He took a deep breath. "For years, I have been watching as Master Bruce, and then you, and others have gone out each night on Master Bruce's ... crusade. Early on, having to sit by and wait, fearing I would hear that one of you had been hurt or ... killed nearly drove me mad. Then I realized that there was something I could do. Each night I find a few quiet moments and pray. Most nights, my prayers are simple ones asking that all of you be given strength and wisdom and that you would return safely. Sometimes, I may pray about a specific case. Last night, though," Alfred stopped and shook his head in wonder. "Last night I received an almost verbal command to pray for you specifically and extensively. I also received a verse: Ephesians 6:12, so I stopped and looked it up."

A tentative, almost shy smile appeared on Dick's face. "I never knew you prayed for us, Alfred."

Alfred ducked his head a bit as he got up from the table. "I was always somewhat ... reluctant ... to discuss that part of my 'duties' with anyone, especially Master Bruce. It was wrong of me, perhaps, but I was not sure how he would take it." He walked over to the buffet and brought back a large book that was lying on top. Dick could see that it was Alfred's well-used Bible. He opened to a marked page and began reading in his wonderful, stage-trained voice:

"For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places."

He put the book down and continued. "After reading this verse, I became gravely concerned, so I prayed earnestly for your safety. After some time had passed, I felt a sense of peace and ... comfort. Another verse came to me, although this passage was more familiar: Psalm 91:11-13. And after what you have told me, I cannot think of anything more apt."

He flipped to another marked passage and read:

"For He will give His angels charge concerning you,
To guard you in all your ways.
They will bear you up in their hands,
Lest you strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread upon the lion and cobra,
The young lion and the serpent you will trample down."

~~ The End ~~