The Jackal's Share

by Chris Morgan Jones

The Jackal's Share

Hardcover, 322 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $26.95 | purchase

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Corporate espionage, art smuggling, and murder mark the second novel from the author of The Silent Oligarch. Ben Webster, former journalist and current corporate spy, has been hired to clear the reputation of an Iranian-born philanthropist, but as Webster follows the man's trail through London, Dubai, Marrakech and Tehran, he finds more danger than redemption.

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Excerpt: The Jackal's Share

CHAPTER ONE

For somebody so elegant, in such harmony with the world, Darius Qazai wasn't difficult to spot. In a slow, stately progress he made his way through the church, shaking hands, stooping to offer his condolences, every word heartfelt, every gesture correct, until one by one the congregation settled and Qazai, his face set between solemnity and quiet grief, took his seat in the first pew. It was an immaculate, sober performance and Webster, watching closely from the back, wondered whether it was sincere or merely smooth, and whether he really welcomed the opportunity to find out.

In the still air around them Bach softly rose and fell. A sombre rumble as everyone stood, then a pair of hymns: 'The King of Love My Shepherd Is,' 'Thine Be the Glory.' Webster sang serviceably now, if a little low, but the church was full and his uneven bass lost inside the swell of sound; above the multitude soared the pure, clear chords of the choir, and beside him he could just make out Hammer's reedy tenor. He sang, paying little heed to the familiar words, and as he looked about him at the inclined heads, dappled with evening light from the stained glass, wondered who all the disparate mourners were. Near Qazai stood the dead man's clients, glossed with the unmistakable sheen of the truly rich: light tans, pristine shirt collars, distant gazes, discreet black hats on the women's heads; across the aisle, the dead man's family, his widow, his two teenage sons, all in morning dress; and the rest – an irregular group of English, Americans and Iranians in tweed jackets and patterned shawls and corduroy suits, a little unpressed – these, Webster guessed, were antiques people. There must have been three hundred mourners altogether.

The priest said some words, another hymn was sung, and the time came for the first address. As Qazai crossed to the pulpit and climbed its dozen wooden steps Webster noticed how fluently he moved and how carefully his expression suggested respect, as if to calm any fears that his presence might overwhelm the occasion. Standing ten feet above the nave he paused for a long time, his arms locked on the lectern, drawing his audience in, his hair and beard pure white and cropped short, his eyes sky-blue and alight with confidence.

Webster had seen that light before, in those who had achieved everything they had set out to achieve, who were satisfied that they had few, if any, peers. In another it might have looked like arrogance but in Qazai it sat easily, as fact. He spoke only when he sensed that he had everyone, and when he did his voice, though deep, carried effortlessly to the last pew, where Webster crossed his hands over his order of service and listened. ' "In death's dark vale I fear no ill, with thee, dear Lord, beside me".' A moment's pause. 'Stirring words. In death's dark vale.'

He took a long breath, as if to steady himself. 'Cyrus Mehr was a great man. A great man and a great Iranian. A man of courage, honour, and fine sensibility. A man who has left behind him a legacy that will outlive us all. I am honoured to have known him.' Qazai continued in this vein for a little while, full of fine words, before turning down the rhetoric and sketching his relationship with his friend.

They had met at a sale of pre-Islamic art over twenty years earlier, at the tail end of that foul war between Iran and Iraq, and had talked about 'the twin perils of war and ideology' that then endangered the most precious artifacts of ancient

Persia. 'A mutually beneficial professional bond' had resulted, by which Qazai seemed to mean that Mehr, through his dealership, had sourced antiques for him throughout the Middle East, so that over time the two men had grown closer, dealer and client had become friends, and when Qazai had set up his foundation Mehr had been the natural choice to be its head. For a decade now, under his courageous leadership, the Qazai Foundation for the Preservation of Persian Art had been a source of hope for all those who would see truth and beauty triumph over violence and oppression.

Webster was half impressed, half wary. For all its sentimentality and the odd moment of bombast, this was an elegant speech, as effortless and steady as the man's promenade through the church half an hour earlier. But Qazai had the statesman's assumption of authority, and to Webster looked like his least favourite kind of client – the kind that wholly believes what he says.

'Cyrus Mehr, then,' Qazai went on, 'was a great man. A man of principles in a world that has eroded them. A man who stood for something.' He paused. 'Something important.'

Looking around the church and up at the vaulted ceiling, as if drawing inspiration from the gods, he took another long breath, and when he spoke again there was a new intensity in his face. 'It has been two months since my friend Cyrus was murdered.

Since he was brutally taken in the country of his birth which, despite everything, he continued to love. As many here still love it. As I still love it. And still we do not know who killed him; still we do not know why it was done. The Iranian government will not tell us, though I believe they know only too well, for they have long ago forgotten the value of a human life.

'They say that he was smuggling, that he was murdered by his criminal friends. This, everyone here knows, is a nonsense. Cyrus was a defender of beauty, and of truth, and in today's Iran, to defend those things will get you killed. A land of ancient poetry has been destroyed, and its rulers become mere peddlers of terror, and hatred, and above all fear.

'But I will tell you this, friends of Cyrus, friends of mine.' He paused once more, and in that moment the zeal in his eyes seemed to glow through the mask. 'Cyrus Mehr did not die in vain. Cyrus Mehr stood for something, and his life meant something. Something beautiful, and true, and yes, worth dying for. For Cyrus, the vale of death will not be dark.'

Qazai bowed his head for a second, and when he looked up again Webster thought he could make out a tear glistening in his eye. If this was all performance, he was some performer.

From The Jackal's Share by Chris Morgan Jones. Copyright 2013 by Chris Morgan Jones. Excerpted by permission of The Penguin Press, a division of Penguin Group USA.

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