Books: Baden-Powell's Beads

Books: Baden-Powell's BeadsSynopsis: Doctor David Freeman is given a strange wooden bead by a dying patient in Memphis, Tennessee, and finds himself pursued by a murderous band of Zulus, thought to be responsible for the gruesome murders of three elderly gentlemen in London, England. Homeland Security agents, Patrick Dartson and Adnan , are assigned the case and discover Freeman's bead to be one of twenty-four passed along to the world's first Scoutmasters in 1919 by Lord Baden-Powell in England. The Zulus are not content to merely steal the talisman, but feel it necessary to ritually behead the owner in order to restore the bead's power. Unclear if others are also in pursuit, the agents devise a plot to capture the Zulus alive during the beheading ritual. But this involves putting Freeman and his girlfriend, Pam Blanchard, in danger.

The tale culminates in a dramatic rescue from an abandoned gas station in Memphis during a raging thunderstorm and tornado, and sets the stage for the second of this four-book series that takes us through London, Ethiopia, and finally, Jerusalem. Though this is a work of fiction, the history of the beads is accurate.


“[Baden-Powell's Beads, a] tense thriller is the first in a series concerning the hunt for a string of wooden beads that possess magical powers… fast-paced story… Parsons writing shines during scenes at the hospital… readers will eagerly await the next book in the series… engrossing read with a Da Vinci Code-style central mystery.”
Kirkus Reviews



Sample Chapters - Chapters 1 & 2

C H A P T E R   1

South Africa
1888

Bodies of native tribesmen littered the battlefield; clouds of black flies swarmed the carcasses. Captain Baden-Powell stood amongst the dead—a stark contrast to the gory scene. Clad in a sweat-drenched British uniform of khaki waistcoat and trousers, he carefully picked his way through the carnage, his black leather ankle boots crusted with dirt and dried blood. For days he’d commanded the small army outpost, repelling the attacking natives. Now his foes lay dead, and he hoped to learn more. What had driven them head-on into overwhelming British firepower? They’d done this before at Rorke’s Drift and Blood River.

A few paces behind, camp surgeon Lieutenant D. Ernst Freeman assessed, the injured, though he could do little more than wrap cloth about gaping, torn flesh wounds. The doctor tried to chase away those who wished to plunder the dying. His pleas, and those of the wounded Zulus, fell on unsympathetic ears as native tribesmen helping the British poured onto the battlefield and slaughtered those still living—the soldiers unable, perhaps unwilling, to stop them. Dr. Freeman carried a Zulu sword—more like an Arabic scimitar, really—captured in the early days of the conflict; its beveled edge finer than the sharpest Toledo blade. He’d become adept at guillotine-type amputations using the heavy, monstrous weapon.

Baden-Powell shook his head at the futile efforts of the doctor, but knew it pointless to interfere.

As he watched, the doctor, with surgical precision, slashed from overhead, through the mangled knee of a downed Zulu warrior, cleanly separating the ruined leg from its owner. Then, with speed and strength belying his diminutive size, he wrapped the gaping stump with the loin cloth from another dead body—all accomplished before his patient had time to object or cry out. With words of assurance the frightened Zulu had no way of understanding, Dr. Freeman moved on to the next.

Beneath his overgrown mustache and pith helmet, Baden-Powell grinned with pride at the stalwartness of his fellow officer, then turned his attention back to the battlefield. 

Nearly naked brown bodies, still clutching spears and shields, lay atop one another, cut down by British bullets. Their faces wore the painted masks of battle. A few bodies lay torn apart, struck by Baden-Powell’s lone cannon. Before him, one poor soul pulled along the ground, the lower half of his body mangled, entrails snagging on scales of parched, crusted land. Baden-Powell ended the man’s misery with a merciful shot to the head, then returned his sidearm to its leather holster. At the blast, Dr. Freeman glanced up, his eyebrows pinched together and lips creased. Upon seeing the condition of the executed man, his features softened, and he nodded once, then returned to his ministrations. Those scavenging the bodies skulked away from the British officers. They’d harvest plenty elsewhere on the battlefield.

A hyena bolted at the noise, then circled back, its blood-soaked snout hanging low to the ground. Baden-Powell let his hand drop away from his sidearm, resisting the urge to put a bullet through the filthy beast. Each had his job to do.

The battle had raged for days. Baden-Powell never doubted the outcome: the very idea a bunch of savages could defeat Her Majesty’s forces—unthinkable. His men hadn’t shared his confidence. They’d nearly exhausted their ammunition. The number of natives willing to take a British bullet seemed endless.

Convinced the leader’s body lay out here somewhere, Baden-Powell continued his search. The South African sun beat down on the veldt, as it had for millions of years. Shadows of vultures swept the landscape. Buzzing insects disturbed the deathly quiet. Sweat rolled down his face and neck. As he studied the bodies, he marveled at their similarity—tall and of similar build, skin color, hair, face paint, lack of fat—nearly identical.

Baden-Powell’s mind wandered as he picked his way through the carnage. He wasn’t sure what inspired men to follow him. His soldiers had done exactly as commanded, triumphing over vastly superior enemy numbers. Some of his authority came with rank, surely not his slight stature, and he wondered about Chief Dinizulu and why the Zulus followed him to certain death. Shaka, Mzilikazi, and Dinizulu’s father, Cetshwayo, had such power. What set them apart? Perhaps he might find a giant; a freak of nature; a physically awe-inspiring specimen who led through fear and brute strength. Had this chief led the charge on the first day? Probably not. His body would be among those killed last, but dead on this field it would certainly be.

Baden-Powell paused to observe a pack of jackals 50 meters away. With enough here to feed them and their cubs for weeks, they wandered—scavenging. The largest froze. His head dropped, ears and tail lowered, as he backed away from a pile of bodies. The other jackals stopped their meanderings, and they, too, retreated from this peculiar mound of dead natives.

B-P, as he was informally known, signaled to the doctor, then drew closer to learn what spooked the jackals. He approached the curiously arranged stack of bodies. Each slain warrior’s hair lay in dirty, long braids to at least shoulder length, imparting a Medusa visage, unlike any Zulus he’d seen before. All lay supine with white, oval shields facing outward, creating a turtle-back in the middle of this killing field. Had they died this way, or had others stacked them after death? B-P felt it too: something different here—something sacred.

With effort, he rolled one of the bodies off the pile, then another. Neatly arranged at the bottom of this fleshy grave stretched the body of Chief Dinizulu: better fed than the rest, his headdress constructed of otter skin and ostrich-plume feathers, his body arranged as if for burial. He looked at peace, lying on his back, his shield neatly atop, arms with cow tails tied above the elbows, and legs with similar décor above the knees. The chief’s closely cropped hair stood in contrast to his guards’.

B-P removed the shield, revealing the ugly, lethal chest wound. At his side, Dr. Freeman shook his head and muttered a few words of hopelessness. Around the chief’s neck and body curled a string of elaborately carved beads. B-P knelt to look closer and thought there must be over a thousand. Beneath the chief’s chin, two dozen beads of a darker wood stood out, set apart by a series of knots—each bead unique, about the size of a fingertip, more oblong than round. Their carvings differed and appeared old, reminding him of artwork from ancient Egypt or the Middle East—hieroglyphics, perhaps. Baden-Powell took out his clasp knife. Kneeling, he reached to cut the cord holding the beads.

Suddenly, the corpse sat upright, a long hiss escaping the mouth. B-P stumbled backwards over a body and into the arms of Dr. Freeman, who appeared unfazed. Fresh corpses sometimes moved, but that knowledge made it no less frightening. The chief remained sitting, his head turned toward them, eyes open and staring. The bead necklace unwound from the chief’s body and tumbled to the ground at their feet.

B-P recovered his composure and glanced about, straightening his coat and thanking the doctor. With one hand steadying his pith helmet, he leaned over the chieftain’s body. A gentle prod from his walking stick, and the corpse fell back. B-P gathered the necklace. The unique, darker beads felt warm to touch. He replaced the shield over the body and backed away, turning toward the outpost camp. He’d examine these 24 beads with his magnifying glass when he returned to headquarters. These weren’t trinkets, but something unique. He felt as though Chief Dinizulu had passed them to him.

As he and the doctor approached the outpost, an aide ran to say General Smyth wanted him immediately. With one last look at the battlefield, B-P coiled the strand of beads and slipped them into the large outside pocket of his waistcoat. Taking the doctor by the arm, he hurried to the general’s tent. Inspection of the beads would have to wait.

*

1919

Baden-Powell returned to England from the Boer War a hero, with ticker-tape parades held in his honor through the streets of London. An ordinary man would’ve retired and spent his remaining years with his wife and children, but not Baden-Powell. During the Boer War, he’d defended the small village of Mafeking using, at times, the boys of the village for vital support tasks. He returned to England to find the boys in his own country lacking direction and purpose.

On July 29, 1907, B-P and a friend took 22 boys camping on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour off the coast of England—the first unofficial outing of what would later become the Boy Scouts.

Now a dozen years later, B-P wrapped up his first Scoutmaster training camp at Gilwell Park, near Chingford in Essex. He rummaged through his trophies and souvenirs, trying to come up with something suitable to give the 19 men who had become the first official Scoutmasters. Mere certificates seemed neither appropriate nor adequate. He searched through his trunk of African relics.

His time on the Dark Continent strongly influenced his work with the Scouts. He recalled how every morning during that first campout on Brownsea Island, he’d summon the boys to duty with a Matabele koodoo horn obtained during the Boer War. He reverently lifted the old horn from the trunk.

How long had it been? Thirty years? How he missed the South African countryside; nothing quite like it anywhere in the world—a freedom and rawness that liberated his soul. Grassy savannas punctuated with brave, widely scattered acacia trees. Herds of magnificent beasts painted against the backdrop of snow capped mountains. Populations of people eking out an existence, melting into their surroundings rather than scarring the raw land to suit their needs. Many times he talked with his wife, Olave, about returning there to live out their remaining years.

Deeper in the trunk, beneath some old uniforms, he found a cloth bag tied with a drawstring. He opened the deteriorating bag and poured its contents into his hand: the beads. He’d forgotten about these beads. Holding them brought back emotions and memories of the battlefield and the Zulus—brave, brown warriors who fought for their land with crude weapons carved from nature. He lifted the smaller strand he’d strung so long ago, the special darker beads that had hung from Chief Dinizulu’s neck. Twenty-four, as he remembered. That would do it.

After returning the other items to his trunk, he took the beads to his study. He’d never placed them about his neck—never actually worn them. He opened the strand and held it before his face, slowly bringing it closer. His heart nearly beat out of his chest, a drumbeat increasing in tempo—chanting of warriors and pounding of bare feet. Sweat trickled down his temples; his breathing rapid and shallow. He saw Chief Dinizulu’s head turn toward him and mouth a warning.

Startled, he dropped the beads to his desk. Almost immediately, his head cleared. He inhaled deeply and tried to slow his heart, though the drumbeat continued. Using the neckerchief he’d designed to be worn with the Scouting uniform, he dabbed the sweat from his face.

He opened the clasp knife he’d carried since the Boer War and slit the leather thong, spilling the beads into his empty letter box. The drums silenced and the feeling of urgency dissipated. He separated 19 of them and threaded each individually onto soft leather thongs, all the while prepared to halt this activity immediately if the auditory apparitions returned. They did not.

He studied each bead. Though similar in size, each sported different carvings, lending credence to his thought that the beads had not originated with the Zulu in the Ceza bush of South Africa. Shaking these musings aside, he placed each necklace in its own envelope labeled with a different attribute of a Scout: Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent. Nineteen beads, 12 attributes; some beads would have a mate.

As he concluded his work, he had an overpowering feeling he was wrong to separate the beads. They seemed to call to each other, the whole being more than the individuals. Rubbish! He shrugged it off and placed the envelopes in his satchel.

*

The next day, 19 new Scoutmasters broke camp and assembled on the campsite for the closing ceremony. He thanked them for their willingness to devote time to the betterment of the country’s boys. He told a few humorous stories of his work with young men in South Africa. Finally, with all in good moods and laughter dying down, B-P addressed them as the unique assemblage they were.

“Men, there will never be another group like this. You are the first of what I hope will be a long tradition of leaders to mold our youth, making the world a better place. As a symbol of this bond, I’d like to present each of you with something unique.”

Clouds rolled in from the west and chilled the men. A light drizzle threatened, but did not dampen their enthusiasm.

“As you know, thirty years ago I had the honor of defending the Crown’s interests in South Africa. I encountered many strange and wonderful things and peoples during that time. The Zulus formidably fought all who dared trespass on their territory. Their leaders appeared to be ordinary warriors, yet commanded the unquestioned loyalty of members of the tribe. One such leader, Chief Dinizulu, courageously led his men against us in battle until he and all his followers lay slain. I found his body on the battlefield—under rather peculiar circumstances, I must say.”

The image of the chief’s face disrupted his thoughts, though he quickly dismissed this and refocused on the task at hand.

“Around his body circled a necklace of intricately carved beads, which I suspect originated from another place and time. I’ve kept this necklace packed away and found it only last night, as I searched for something to pass on to you to commemorate this occasion—twenty-four special beads, different from the others.

“I would, therefore, at this time, like to present each of you with what I believe to be a very special token of leadership. I will keep five, binding me to this group. You will each receive one of these beads, which I hope you will wear during special Scouting activities and, when the time is right, pass it on to your successors. Treasure and protect them, for they are unique and irreplaceable, as is each boy under your care.”

He lifted the small, dark satchel at his side. “I’ve taken the liberty of naming each bead to represent one aspect of the Scouting Credo. Please do not read anything into the name chosen for your bead. I will pass them out randomly. The man receiving ‘Clean’ should not think himself any cleaner than his neighbor.”

To that, there followed uproarious applause and laughter. The 19 men queued at the podium. B-P received them in turn and, opening each envelope, placed the talisman around each man’s neck, whispering the name of the bead in his ear. He did not admonish them from divulging which bead they received, but he suspected each new Scoutmaster would keep it to himself.

The skies darkened, and the winds picked up. The temperature dropped noticeably, and B-P whisked the men off to shelter just before the cold, biting rains began. He shuddered and cursed the ill effects this inclement weather had on his aging joints. Though the men’s spirits were not dampened, B-P could not shake the feeling he’d done something dreadful. Rubbish!

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C H A P T E R   2

Langley, Virginia
2005

“He doesn’t look that tough.” Patrick Dartson wiped the sweat from his face and threw the towel toward his bag of gear just off the mat. His partner, Adnan Fazeph, shrugged. A cool spring breeze blew through the open hangar doors on the abandoned military airfield. Winter had not yet released its hold on the nation’s capital. “What is he? Five-eleven? Two hundred? I got him by a good two inches and at least twenty pounds.”

Just off the mat on the far side stood a wiry, ordinary, middle-aged man peering at them through dull eyes, his expression one of boredom. His nose angled twice before flattening onto his upper lip. Gray-flecked stubble matted his cheeks and chin. His close-cropped hair receded to the top of his head. He inhaled deeply, then blew it out, pulling his sweatshirt over his head, revealing a muscled chest of matted hair patches. The flesh of his torso was a twisted array of old scars: slashes from knives, pocks of bullet wounds, burns where no hair grew. One long, midline surgical scar stretched from his sternum, around his navel, and disappeared into the top of his sweatpants.

“Jesus.” Patrick stared at his opponent. “How is he still alive?”

Adnan glanced toward the man, then quickly turned away. “Some say he not. Pain is part of him. Make him very dangerous. He no care if live or die.” Adnan’s practiced Middle-Eastern accent did little to hide his concern. “I think maybe you call this off. Is bad idea.”

Three brutally large Marines in sweats stood to the side, nightsticks in hand. Their job was not to ensure a clean fight, only to prevent serious injury…or worse. A fourth, the biggest of all, stood in the center of the mat, arms folded across his chest, head swiveling between the contestants, a whistle dangling from his lips. This ritual battle was not required or even encouraged, but it dated back many years. Most top field agents in the covert branches of government had at least tried.

“Watch my back and make sure those goons over there don’t interfere.” Patrick tilted his head from shoulder to shoulder, stretching his neck muscles, then slipped in his mouthpiece. “He can be beaten.”

“Maybe, but no one has yet,” Adnan said. “A guy named Rapp at CIA fought him to draw. Both carried to sick bay. Took weeks to recover. I think maybe you no look like movie star in few minutes.”

The history of Patrick’s opponent was one of great speculation among those who served near the nation’s capital. A veteran of multiple covert missions in hot spots around the world, he’d been permanently restricted from all future work after escaping from a Taliban prison where he’d suffered months of inhuman treatment and torture. He had neither friends nor family and lived secretly, under guard it was rumored, somewhere in the hills around D.C. and was brought over from time to time for training purposes such as this. He was known only by a moniker: “Granite.”

Four GI’s, who’d been playing basketball on the far side of the hangar, wandered over, more interested in the pending combat than in their pick-up game. One tucked the basketball under his arm. The absence of the noise of ball on hardwood and sneakers squeaking added to the mounting tension. One of them pointed at the man facing Patrick and whispered to his buddy. His eyes widened, and the pace of the group picked up. Soon they stood a respectful distance from the mat, but with an unobstructed view.

The huge, muscular Marine in the center of the mat blew his whistle and stepped out of the way. No rules were discussed. None existed. His three comrades separated and assumed positions on the other three sides of the square.

Adnan stepped in front of Patrick. “Never let up. He can take a beating.”

Patrick said nothing, but instead glared at his opponent and channeled his anxiety into focus. The scarred man walked partway onto the mat and stood flat-footed, arms at his side, his bored expression replaced with one of calm confidence.

Patrick bounced on the balls of his bare feet and wiped the sweat from his brow, working his mouth to adjust his protective guard. He danced toward Granite and extended a closed hand, expecting the traditional fist-bump. Granite stood motionless, as though Patrick did not exist.

Okay, Patrick thought, if that’s the way you want it. With the next bounce off his feet, he sprang into the air, spinning with legs extended. The heel of his right foot caught Granite squarely on the jaw. Patrick landed in perfect position, ready to defend or lash out. Granite staggered only slightly and slowly turned his face back toward Patrick, blood streaming from the corner of his unprotected mouth. With some concern, Patrick noted that the man’s arms had not left his side, either for balance or defense, his expression unchanged, as if nothing happened. His tongue slithered toward the blood stream, then darted back inside as he worked his jaw. The damaged corner of his mouth turned up in a sardonic grin, though his eyes remained lifeless.

Heeding Adnan’s warning, Patrick spun the opposite direction, landing another blow to the opposite cheek. Granite reacted as before, slowly turning his head back to center.

This time, Patrick spun low to the ground. If he couldn’t knock him down, he’d kick his feet out from under him. His sweeping leg caught nothing but air, and instinct told him to roll to the edge of the mat—fast. Milliseconds later, the thud of Granite’s feet landing hard on the padding reverberated inches from his left ear. Patrick shot to his feet. Granite’s demeanor was unchanged. What is he doing?

Patrick stepped closer, faked with his foot, and shot an extended arm toward Granite’s exposed neck. Again, he caught nothing but air. Instinct and training told him to escape. He dropped and rolled away, just under the lashing blow of Granite’s fist. A second attack should have landed, and Patrick braced for the impact, rolling one more time before bounding upright. None came.

The scarred man stood 10 feet away, wiping the slowing trickle of blood from his mouth with the back of his hand. This time, as his head turned toward Patrick, Granite’s eyes locked on his with a crazed ferocity.

The moment of truth had arrived. To this point, Granite had been gauging Patrick’s reflexes and training, his lethal onboard computer mapping strengths and weaknesses. Apparently, he’d seen enough. With arms now raised in front of him, palms outward as though closing a church service, Granite approached, leading with his left foot, trailing his right.

Patrick was dimly aware of the cheers and taunts of the basketball players. Adnan shouted hurried commands. The Marine guards shifted uneasily.

“Hold it right there!”

The voice echoed off the bare walls and was followed closely by a pistol shot, the bullet clanging twice off the dome and steel supports of the hangar.

One of the Marine guards fired a net-gun over Granite. The other three converged on him with lightning speed. Two were thrown backwards off the mat. The third wrestled Granite to the ground, his nightstick pulled hard across the scarred man’s throat. The other Marines recovered quickly and piled on, each grabbing a limb. Only the taut netting prevented Granite from attacking with his one free arm. The Marine with the whistle worked one arm free, drew his pistol, and shot a dart into Granite’s leg, right through his sweats. Slowly, the struggles ceased.

Patrick and Adnan exchanged puzzled glances, though the look of relief on Adnan’s face was unmistakable.

Director of Homeland Security Michael Cisneros approached, flanked by two Navy MP’s, one holstering his sidearm.

“Who authorized this?” Cisneros said, his voice strong and reverberating around the old hanger, the vein at his left temple standing out. The Marines on the mat ignored him and slowly released their hold on Granite, though all remained coiled and alert. Their concern was not with Cisneros.

Patrick let out a deep breath and shook his head.

Adnan sprang forward, his hands clasped before him as though in prayer, his skinny, six-foot frame bowing repeatedly. “Thanks be to you, boss, and a blessing on your family. May your days be filled with joy and your—”

“Can it, Agent Fazeph,” Cisneros barked. “You two get your things and come with me—now!”

“I could’ve taken him,” Patrick mumbled as he reached for his gym bag.

“Yes, of course you could have,” Adnan said. “I think he was ready to give up. Next time.”

Cisneros shot them an angry glance, halting any further talk. The two agents fell in behind himand followed to the waiting limo. Cisneros ignored them on the ride back to his office, studying a brief he’d removed from his case. Neither agent spoke. The hammer would fall soon enough.

From his top-floor office not far from the Capitol, the early spring view of Washington, D.C. was spectacular: trees blossomed, grass greened, and people milled about as though released from their wintry prisons. Director Cisneros plopped into his chair and waved the two agents toward the seats opposite his desk.

“What is it with you people and that man?” he asked rhetorically.

Patrick knew he expected no answer and hoped Adnan would keep his mouth shut. His partner drew a breath, but stifled it in response to a look of reproach from Patrick.

Cisneros leaned onto his desk, hands clasped. “It’s not enough you’re on admin leave for shooting a vet in Nashville?”

“That was a justified kill, sir. The man was waving a shotgun at civilians, one of them being my father. The inquiry board—”

Cisneros silenced him with an icy glare. “You shouldn’t have been there in the first place.” He paused and reached to the corner of his desk. “But sometimes, things happen for a reason. What do you make of this?” He passed a sheet of paper across his desk. Patrick took it and settled in his chair, leaning toward Adnan to allow his partner a chance to peruse it with him.

Along the left side of the sheet was a column of symbols—24 by quick count. They made no sense, even to Patrick’s trained eye familiar with Cyrillic, Arabic, and Oriental script. Beside each symbol was typed a word, the top 12 words repeating in identical order opposite the bottom 12 symbols. He recognized these as being the credo of the Boy Scouts: Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent. A third column listed 20 names, all sounding British. Many of these names were linked by what looked to be hand-drawn lines to additional names, and these to still others, and so on—like a family tree. Three of the names to the far right were circled.

Patrick started to pass the sheet back to Cisneros, but Adnan snatched it from him and focused on the left column. Patrick could almost see his partner’s brain working. The symbols meant something to him. Shouldn’t be a surprise. Adnan’s encyclopedic knowledge had solved unsolvable riddles before.

“Mean anything to you?” Cisneros asked.

“Not really, sir,” Patrick said. “Appears to be a list of Brits with admirable attributes and nonsensical symbols.”

“Look at the names again,” Cisneros said. “Particularly the last on the right.”

Patrick held his hand out to Adnan, who made no move to relinquish the sheet. Patrick grabbed a corner and tugged, but Adnan held fast, lost in concentration. “Hey,” Patrick barked at his buddy. Adnan looked up, startled, and slowly his eyes focused on Patrick. He loosened his hold on the paper, allowing Patrick to take it. He then slipped back into whatever trance he’d been in. Patrick knew he was visualizing the sheet now permanently etched in his brain. Best to leave him alone when he got like this.

Patrick glanced at the paper. “Freeman. So what?”

Cisneros held his gaze. “We think that’s Doctor David E. Freeman the Fourth.”

Patrick hesitated only a moment, then his eyes flew open wide. “David E. Freeman the Fourth—my roommate at Dartmouth?”

Cisneros nodded. “He’s in Memphis, Tennessee—”

“Finishing his orthopedic residency,” Patrick interrupted. “Yeah, I know. Dad’s recruiting him for his practice in Nashville. Why’s his name listed? And where’d you get this?” Patrick asked, suddenly more interested.

“Came in this morning over secure lines, we think from inside Great Britain, but that’s all we know. Whoever sent this knew what he was doing and didn’t want us backtracking. That by itself earned a red flag.” Cisneros paused. “See the three circled names at the top right?”

“They’re all dead,” Adnan said, his focus now back with the group.

Patrick turned toward him and raised an eyebrow.

Adnan continued. “The three circled were recently killed—beheaded, as I recall. All of them old men living in or around London.” He glanced toward Patrick. “Don’t you keep up with the news, old boy?” he said in perfect Cockney—vocal mimicry being another of his skills.

Patrick did study the Department’s daily sumKay of current events, but Adnan took it a step further—speed-reading dozens of periodicals and somehow storing the information in his freaky brain.

“He’s right,” Cisneros said. “Scotland Yard considers these to be ritualistic killings done by a band of South Africans illegally in the country.”

Patrick leaned forward. “Do the Yardies have this list?”

“We don’t think so,” Cisneros said. “Whoever sent this seems to have purposely left them out of the loop.” Cisneros pointed at the paper Patrick held. “See the last name to the left of Freeman’s—the one connected by that shaky line?”

“Alphonse Baroni?” Patrick said.

“Checked into the VA Hospital in Memphis last night. Guess who’s his doctor?”

“Oh shit,” Patrick exclaimed. “Next you’re going to tell me we’ve got some suspicious African nationals showing up in Memphis.”

“Moses Donnelley is the other name connected to Baroni. We don’t know much about either yet, except that they fought together in World War II—out of England,” Cisneros said.

“You think my friend David is in danger? Might be a little tough picking out a group of illegal Africans from the general Memphis population.”

Adnan snatched back the information sheet and focused on the left-hand column of symbols.

“What is it, Adnan?” Cisneros leaned further onto his desk. “What do you see?” He, like all the others in the Department, gave the lanky Arab-American a great deal of respect. The agent’s intellect and deductive powers had become legendary in the six years he and Patrick had teamed together.

“These hieroglyphs,” Adnan said, continuing to stare at the paper and occasionally twisting it from side to side. He slipped into his stilted English; something he practiced often—helped when infiltrating sleeper cells. “They might tell story when put in proper order. Is now jumbled: A falling sun…a North African king…a serpent…a powerful box or container.” He pointed to a particular symbol and held the paper for them to see. “This one peculiar—drawn to show devastating destruction and death…or blissful salvation. Is interesting.”

“What was the motive for the murders?” Patrick asked.

“Unclear,” Cisneros said. “Nothing missing except…” He paused, as though unsure of what he was about to say. “…except a bead each man wore about his neck. The men were very old and infirm. It was the first thing their caretakers asked about and appeared distressed when informed the beads were missing.”

Patrick grabbed the paper from Adnan. “These symbols are bracketed in rounded rectangles, I thought for emphasis or contrast. Wouldn’t be the outline of the beads, would it?”

“Very good, Agent Dartson.” Cisneros leaned back in his chair. “I can’t believe this represents any real threat to Homeland Security, but at the moment, I don’t have any other assignments for you. What’s your gut tell you?”

Patrick and Adnan were the best of several two-man teams given wide latitude by the Department. Their job was to follow sketchy, strange leads to prevent another 9/11, using any means necessary. Cisneros had come to trust their instincts.

“I’m uneasy about this, sir, but that might be due to my personal connection to Freeman.” He glanced toward Adnan. “What do you think, buddy?”

Adnan shuddered visibly, and Patrick caught just a flash of something he rarely saw in his partner’s eyes—uncertainty. Adnan turned his gaze to the floor. “It is irrational. I cannot explain. This is no good…no good at all. With every fiber of my being, I want to turn from this.” Patrick felt his stomach knot. This was very unlike his partner, who feared nothing and could endure inhuman levels of pain without flinching. “Yet I feel we cannot ignore this. This was sent to us on purpose—to you and me. This will change things.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Patrick projected a bravado he didn’t feel, and he knew Adnan would see right through it.

Adnan shook his head and gazed at the symbols. Beads of sweat collected at his hairline

 

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