Murder. Betrayal. Revenge. The intrigue of international trade in antiquities. Jackson and Nellie, once husband and wife, now clash over the best road back from heartbreak and injustice. That road takes them from Manhattan to the far reaches of western China and tribal Pakistan.
Passion And Peril
It starts with murder in Manhattan. Before long Nellie Mackenzie and Taylor Jackson find themselves in Asia, at opposite ends of the Karakoram Highway.
Nellie is headed north through tribal Pakistan, where vengeance killings are a way of life. Jackson is headed south along the desert routes of western China, where smuggling national treasures is a capital offense.
Nellie and Jackson are antiquities dealers. They were once husband and wife. Now the unsolved murder lies between them.
Making their way across the vast historic landscapes of 1990s Central Asia, their companions are murderers, lovers, and a treasure trove of Tang Dynasty statuary. Everyone on this modern Silk Road is seeking justice for betrayals they’ve suffered. No one knows where their sense of honor will take them. Death lurks at every turn.
New York City
A day in February, 1992. Catherine Denforth was shot in front of Sotheby’s Auction House.
She and Jackson had stayed after the auctions to finish the paperwork on their sales and purchases. “Masterpieces in Islamic Art” was an important auction for the couple. For one of their customers, they sold three pieces well over the estimate and picked up a couple of bargains for a customer in LA. They were happy. Business was good and, after months of tension between them, they were warming up to each other again.
Jackson stepped away to look around the corner for a cab. A rat-tat-tat cracked the air. When he turned, Catherine was in a heap. As he fell across her, he saw only the blankness in her eyes.
Mideast & Europe
March, 1992. Nellie was in Dubai when she heard of the shooting. She was trying to arrange a shipment to a Munich antiquities dealer but got caught up in a hassle over the provenance of some of the pieces. An Iraqi expatriate and competitor with her Munich dealer had decided that some statuary had been stolen from the National Museum in Baghdad. What a mess. She was mired in paperwork and going crazy with a parade of pompous officials.
But that was her job— guaranteeing the unfettered passage of art and antiquities from buyer to seller. And moving things through the Middle East was especially tricky these days.
“Did you hear about the murder in front of Sotheby’s?” her Munich dealer asked. “Taylor Jackson’s wife. Assault rifle. Middle of rush hour.”
“They aren’t actually married,” she mumbled stupidly.
“Police are saying it was random, but I don’t know. You hear things.”
“Lot of angry people in the world. Jackson— lot of business from the Mideast and Central Asia. Maybe crossed the wrong person.”
She was stunned. For days after the news, she found herself staring into space— staring into her past. She had been married to Jackson once upon a time— an impetuous disaster. He had deserved someone like Catherine— a Yankee aristocrat. And now she was gone. Jackson was alone.
There was no answer at Jackson’s apartment. She tried several times throughout the week. She scribbled a note and stuck it in the mail. As soon as this job was finished, she’d have money in her pocket and would go to Manhattan.
But the job got more complicated. Interpol stuck its nose in and she wound up shuttling negotiations between Damascus, Dubai, and Munich. Weeks turned into months. Still, she couldn’t reach Jackson.
“You hear these things,” her Munich dealer brought up again, months later. He was an Iranian expatriate himself, tapped into many networks. This time she had the presence of mind to ask questions.
New York City
September 1992. The first thing Jackson noticed was her legs. Restless legs, shifting from foot to foot as she huddled against the public phone. Black stockings and high heels showed all the curves and muscles. Nice lines, he thought, and perfect ankles. The heart-shaped calves made him want to guess she was Asian, but the hair below her scarf was light brown and wavy.
“What’ll you have?”
The bartender startled him away from his scrutiny. “Oh. Coffee, I guess. Black.”
The day was unseasonably cold. The chill made his hands ache and he cupped them for a few seconds around the mug as he leaned a hip against the barstool. Next to the coffee lay his unopened mail— the dreaded VISA Gold bill and the dreaded weekly letter from his dad.
The VISA bill represented the enormous line of credit he’d used as working capital back when he was actually working. It had been maxed out by the end of their last trip to Asia, where he and Catherine had invested in a trove of Korean and Japanese paintings. Then, when Catherine was killed, her family, in a vindictive rage, laid claim to the paintings and any other assets they could lay their hands on.
Her murder had left Jackson living off a stack of hundred-dollar bills he’d accumulated in a safe deposit box for cash deals— good for another three or four months. That assumed paying the minimum to VISA. In his head one sleepless night, he had calculated that, if he sent in the minimum every month, he’d be eighty when the credit line was paid up. He was a whiz at that kind of math. His father had thought he’d be a hell of a tax lawyer, but he wound up being an overeducated art dealer instead. An art dealer who hadn’t closed a deal in seven months.
He let his eyes rove the tiers of bottles behind the bar and wondered if he didn’t deserve a gin for his misery. No. When had cash flow ever driven him to drink? He looked at the unopened letter from his father. Now that might merit a shot. More nagging about his “getting back to normal” or an offer to “put a word in” about some hideous assistant professorship in art history, as if he were still in his twenties.
With a gulp of coffee he let his attention drift back to the pair of legs. Much more fun to speculate about a stranger. Now he could hear the voice that went with them. A musical voice with a foreign flavor he couldn’t place— Russian? Turkish? A voice that brimmed with nervous excitement.