"The result is a thriller that intrigues and provides historical context. Berry is the master scientist with a perfect formula." Associated Press
One of USA Today's "Five Books Not to Miss!"
A deadly race for the Vatican’s oldest secret fuels New York Times bestseller Steve Berry’s latest international Cotton Malone thriller.
The pope is dead. A conclave to select his replacement is about to begin. Cardinals are beginning to arrive at the Vatican, but one has fled Rome for Malta in search of a document that dates back to the 4th century and Constantine the Great.
Former Justice Department operative, Cotton Malone, is at Lake Como, Italy, on the trail of legendary letters between Winston Churchill and Benito Mussolini that disappeared in 1945 and could re-write history. But someone else seems to be after the same letters and, when Malone obtains then loses them, he’s plunged into a hunt that draws the attention of the legendary Knights of Malta.
The knights have existed for over nine hundred years, the only warrior-monks to survive into modern times. Now they are a global humanitarian organization, but within their ranks lurks trouble the Secreti an ancient sect intent on affecting the coming papal conclave. With the help of Magellan Billet agent Luke Daniels, Malone races the rogue cardinal, the knights, the Secreti, and the clock to find what has been lost for centuries. The final confrontation culminates behind the walls of the Vatican where the election of the next pope hangs in the balance.
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Tuesday, May 9 Lake Como, Italy 8:40 A.M.
Cotton Malone studied the execution site.
A little after 4:00 P.M., on the afternoon of April 28, 1945, Benito Mussolini and his mistress Claretta Petacci were gunned down just a few feet away from where he stood. In the decades since, the entrance to the Villa Belmonte, beside a narrow road that rose steeply from Azzano about half a mile below, had evolved into a shrine. The iron gate, the low wall, even the clipped hedges were still there, the only change from then being a wooden cross tacked to the stone on one side of the gate that denoted Mussolini's name and date of death. On the other side he saw another addition — a small, glass-fronted wooden box that displayed pictures of Mussolini and Claretta. A huge wreath of fresh flowers hung from the iron fence above the cross. Its banner read EGLI VIVRÀ PER SEMPRE NEL CUORE DEL SUO POPOLO.
He will always live in the hearts of people.
Down in the village he'd been told where to find the spot and that loyalists continued to venerate the site. Which was amazing, considering Mussolini's brutal reputation and the fact that so many decades had passed since his death.
What a quandary Mussolini had faced.
Italy languishing in a state of flux. The Germans fast retreating. Partisans flooding down from the hills. The Allies driving hard from the south, liberating town after town. Only the north, and Switzerland, had offered the possibility of a refuge.
Which never happened.
He stood in the cool of a lovely spring morning.
Yesterday, he'd taken an afternoon flight from Copenhagen to the Milan–Malpensa Airport, then driven a rented Alfa Romeo north to Lake Como. He'd splurged on the sports car, since who didn't like driving a 237-horsepowered engine that could go from zero to sixty in four seconds. He'd visited Como before, staying at the stunning Villa d'Este during an undercover mission years ago for the Magellan Billet. One of the finest hotels in the world. This time the accommodations would not be anywhere near as opulent.
He was on special assignment for British intelligence, working freelance, his target an Italian, a local antiques dealer who'd recently crept onto MI6's radar. Originally his job had been a simple buy and sell. Being in the rare-book business provided him with a certain expertise in negotiating for old and endangered writings. But new information obtained last night had zeroed in on a possible hiding place, so the task had been modified. If the information proved correct, his orders were now to steal the items.
He knew the drill.
Buying involved way too many trails and, until yesterday, had been MI6's only option. But if what they wanted could be appropriated without paying for it, then that was the smart play. Especially considering that what they were after did not belong to the Italian offering it for sale.
He had no illusions.
Twelve years with the Magellan Billet, and a few more after that working freelance for various intelligence agencies, had taught him many lessons. Here he knew he was being paid to handle a job and take the fall if anything went wrong. Which was incentive enough not to make any mistakes.
The whole thing, though, seemed intriguing.
In August 1945 Winston Churchill had arrived in Milan under the cover name of Colonel Warden. Supposedly he'd decided to vacation along the shores of Lakes Como, Garda, and Lugano. Not necessarily a bad decision since people had been coming to the crystal Alpine waters for centuries. The use of a code name ensured a measure of privacy, but by then Churchill was no longer Britain's prime minister, having been unceremoniously defeated at the polls.
His first stop was the cemetery in Milan where Mussolini had been hastily buried. He'd stood at the grave, hat in hand, for several minutes. Strange considering the deceased had been a brutal dictator and a war enemy. He'd then traveled north to Como, taking up residence at a lakeside villa. Over the next few weeks the locals spotted him out gardening, fishing, and painting. No one at the time gave it much thought, but decades later historians began to look hard at the journey. Of course, British intelligence had long known what Churchill was after.
Between him and Mussolini.
They'd been lost at the time of Mussolini's capture, part of a cache of documents in two satchels that were never seen after April 27, 1945. Rumors were that the local partisans had confiscated them. Some say they were turned over to the communists. Others pointed to the Germans. One line of thought proclaimed that they had been buried in the garden of the villa Churchill had rented.
Nobody knew anything for sure.
But something in August 1945 had warranted the intervention of Winston Churchill himself.
Cotton climbed back into the Alfa Romeo and continued his drive up the steep road. The villa where Mussolini and his mistress had spent their last night still stood somewhere nearby. He'd read the many conflicting accounts of what had happened on that fateful Saturday. Details still eluded historians. In particular, the name of the executioner had been clouded by time. Several ultimately claimed the honor, but no one knew for sure who'd pulled the trigger. Even more mysterious was what had happened to the gold, jewels, currency, and documents Mussolini had intended to take to Switzerland. Most agree that a portion of the wealth had been dumped into the lake, as local fishermen later found gold there after the war. But as with the documents, no meaningful cache had ever come to light. Until two weeks ago, when an email arrived at the British embassy in Rome with an image of a scanned letter.
From Churchill to Mussolini.
More communications followed, along with four more images. No sale price had been arrived at for the five. Instead, Cotton was being paid 50,000 euros for the trip to Como, his negotiating abilities, and the safe return of all five letters.
The villa he was after sat high on a ridge, just off the road that continued on to the Swiss border about six miles away. All around him rose forests where partisans had hidden during the war, waging a relentless guerrilla campaign on both the fascists and the Germans. Their exploits were legendary, capped by the unexpected triumph in capturing Mussolini himself.
For Italy, World War II ended right here.
He found the villa, a modest three-story rectangle, its stone stained with mold and topped by a pitched slate roof set among tall trees. Its many windows caught the full glare of the early-morning sun, the yellow limestone seeming to drain of color as it basked in the bright light. Two white porcelain greyhounds flanked the main entrance. Cypress trees dotted a well-kept yard along with topiary, both of which seemed mandatory for houses around Lake Como.
He parked in front and climbed out to a deep quiet.
The foothills kept rising behind the villa where the road continued its twisted ascent. To the east, through more trees sprouting spring flecks of green, he caught the dark-blue stain of the lake, perhaps half a mile away and a quarter of that below. Boats moved silently back and forth across its mirrored surface. The air was noticeably cooler and, from the nearby garden, he caught a waft of wisteria.
He turned to the front door and came alert.
The thick wooden panel hung partially open.
White gravel crunched beneath his feet as he crossed the drive and stopped short of entering. He gave the door a little push and swung it open, staying on his side of the threshold. No electronic alarms went off inside. Nobody appeared. But he immediately spotted a body sprawled across the terrazzo, facedown, a crimson stain oozing from one side.
He carried no weapon. His intel had said that the house should be empty, its owner away until the late afternoon. MI6 had not only traced the emails it had received but also managed to compose a quick dossier on the potential seller. Nothing about him signaled a threat.
He entered and checked the body for a pulse.
He looked around.
The rooms were pleasant and spacious, the papered walls ornamented with huge oil paintings, dark with age. Smells of musty flowers, candle wax, and tobacco floated in the air. He noticed a large walnut desk, rosewood melodeon, silk brocade sofas and chairs. Intricate inlaid armoires with glass fronts pressed the walls, one after the other, each loaded with objects on display like a museum.
But the place was in a shambles.
Drawers were half opened, tilted at crazy angles, shelves in disarray, a few of the armoires shattered, chairs flung upside down to the floor, some slashed and torn. Even some of the drapes had been pulled from their hangings and lay in crumpled heaps.
Somebody had been looking for something.
Nothing broke the silence save a parrot in a gilded cage that had once stood on a marble pedestal. Now the cage lay on the floor, battered and smashed, the pedestal overturned, the bird uttering loud, excited screeches.
He rolled the body over and noticed two bullet wounds. The victim was in his mid- to late forties, with dark hair and a clean-shaven face. The villa's owner was about the same age, but this corpse did not match the description he'd been given.
Hard and loud.
Then heavy footsteps.
Somebody was still here.
The hiding place he sought was located on the third floor, so he headed for the staircase and climbed, passing the second-floor landing. A carpet runner lined the stone risers and cushioned his leather soles, allowing no sound to betray his movement. At the third floor he heard more commotion, like a heavy piece of furniture slamming the floor. Whoever was searching seemed oblivious to any interruption.
He decided on a quick peek to assess things.
He crept ahead.
A narrow green runner ran down the center of the corridor's wood floor. At the far end a half-opened window allowed in the morning sun and a breeze. He came to the room where the noise originated, the same room he'd been directed to find. Whoever had beaten him here was well informed. He stopped at the open doorway and risked a quick glance.
And saw a stout bear.
Several hundred pounds, at least.
The source of the crash was evident from an armoire that lay overturned. The animal was exploring, swiping odds and ends off the tables, smelling everything as it clattered down. It stood facing away, toward one of the two half-open windows.
He needed to leave.
The bear stopped its foraging and raised its head, sniffing.
The animal caught his scent, turned, and faced him, snorting a growl.
He had a split second to make a decision.
Normally you dealt with bears by standing your ground, facing them down. But that advice had clearly been offered by people who'd never been this close to one. Should he head back toward the stairs? Or dart into the room across the hall? One mistake on the way down to the ground floor and the bear would overtake him. He opted for the room across the hall and darted left, entering just as the animal rushed forward in a burst of speed surprising for its size. He slammed the door shut and stood inside a small bedroom, a huge porcelain stove filling one corner. Two more windows, half open, lined the outer wall, which faced the back of the villa.
He needed a second to think.
But the bear had other ideas.
The door crashed inward.
He rushed to one of the windows and glanced out. The drop was a good thirty feet. That was at least a sprained ankle, maybe a broken bone or worse. The bear hesitated in the doorway, then roared.
Which sealed the deal.
He noticed a ledge just below the window, about eight inches wide. Enough to stand on. Out he went, flattening his hands against the warm stone, his spine pressed to the house. The bear charged the window, poking its head out, swiping a paw armed with sharp claws. He edged his way to the left and maneuvered himself out of range.
He doubted the animal was going to climb out.
But that didn't solve his problem.
What to do next.CHAPTER 2
The knight lowered his binoculars.
What a strange sight.
A man standing on a narrow cornice on the third story of a villa, with a bear roaring out a window, clawing at him.
He stood on a promontory about a quarter mile north of the villa, looking down through spring trees. He'd seen the Alfa Romeo driving up the road, a steady, precipitous, corkscrew climb, and took notice when it turned into the villa's drive. When he'd focused the binoculars on the driver who'd emerged he'd immediately noticed that it was the same man from Menaggio, the one asking questions around town yesterday evening. He'd managed, outside a café, a quick snap of a picture from his cell phone, and had been able to learn an identity.
Harold Earl "Cotton" Malone.
Formerly of the United States Justice Department, once attached to a special intelligence unit called the Magellan Billet. A naval commander, pilot, fighter-jet-qualified, with a law degree from Georgetown University. Malone worked at the Judge Advocate General's corps before being reassigned to the Justice Department, where he remained for a dozen years. Not yet fifty years old, he'd retired early and now owned a business. Cotton Malone, Bookseller, Højbro Plads, Copenhagen.
An intriguing change of careers.
Malone possessed a distinguished reputation as a competent intelligence operative, one who still occasionally offered his services out for hire. What he'd not been able to learn was exactly why this American of obvious skills and talent was here, in Italy, asking questions about things that only a few people in the world would know.
He turned from the chaotic scene below and stared at the villa's owner, hunched on the ground, wrists tied behind his back, ankles likewise restrained. A gag prevented the portly Italian from uttering a sound. An associate stood off to one side, keeping a watchful guard.
"You've proven to be quite a problem," he told his prisoner, who watched him with petrified eyes.
He'd arrived at the villa two hours ago. The groundskeeper had appeared without warning and his associate had shot him. He would have preferred no bloodshed, but it had been unavoidable. The villa's owner was already up for the day, dressed, about to leave. The idea had been to catch him before that happened. He'd asked the owner a few obligatory questions, hoping for cooperation, but no answers were forthcoming. Several more attempts at reason also failed, so he and his associate had brought the fat Italian up here, into the woods, still on the villa's grounds, where a measure of privacy among the trees offered an opportunity to make his point clear. As if two bullets into the groundskeeper had not been enough to impress the point.
He stepped over and crouched down, the musk of the cool morning filling his nostrils. "I imagine you now regret making that call to the British embassy in Rome."
A nod of the head.
"You just need to tell me where the letters are that you wanted to sell."
Supposedly, in 1945, after Mussolini was captured, the contents of two satchels found with him had been inventoried by Italian partisans. But no one seriously believed that any list created by them was accurate. He'd read their entries, which documented little to nothing of interest. Most likely that perfunctory effort had all been for show and the valuable stuff had never made it on the list in the first place. Nor had anything on the actual list ever surfaced in the years since.
And this Italian might hold the answer as to why.
"You're going to tell me all about those documents from Mussolini."
Of course the villa owner could not answer and he had no intention of removing the gag.
Not yet, at least.
He motioned and his associate grabbed a coil of rope lying in the leaves. High above stretched several stout limbs. He studied them, finally deciding on one about ten meters off the ground. It took his associate two attempts to toss one end of the coil over the limb. Then he dragged the villa's owner to the rope. He resisted, but with both hands and feet bound the effort proved futile. The Italian wiggled on the ground as his associate tied one end of the rope to the wrist bindings. With both hands his man then grabbed the end of the rope draping down from the limb and tightened the slack enough to tug on the Italian's arms.
Which telegraphed the whole idea.
Once hauled off the ground the man's arms would be extended upward from behind, at an angle that human joints were not meant to experience. The pain would be excruciating, the body's weight eventually dislocating the shoulders.
"You understand what I can do to you?" he asked.
The villa's owner gave a vigorous nod.
He reached beneath his jacket and found his revolver. "I'm going to remove the gag. If you call out, or even raise your voice, I'll shoot you in the face. Is that clear?"
The man nodded.
He freed the gag.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Malta Exchange"
Copyright © 2019 Steve Berry.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The pope has died and a conclave in convening. But, one cardinal may change the course of history. An ancient sect, knights and secrets are all it takes to bring in Cotton Malone. Cotton is once again on the trail of a mystery. He is searching for letters written between Churchill and Mussolini during WWII. This opens a can of worms and leads to murder and mayhem. I have been a fan of Steve Berry for quite a long time. His book The Amber Room still ranks as one of my all time favorites. However, his past couple of books have been lacking for me. As a matter of fact, I could not even finish the last one. This one, however, is a little better. Notice, I said “a little”. This book’s subject matter is much better because it is a religious mystery with a little bit of WWII sprinkled in. Plus, this one takes you all over Italy and that is a great historical setting. No one does historical research like Steve Berry. He has wonderful history in with action and intrigue. However, I am ready for Cotton to retire. Cotton does not have the allure for me as he did in the past. I feel now that all the books read the same. After that being said….if you have never read Steve Berry, do not let this review stop you. He is a very good writer. I am just ready for something different. I received this novel from Minotaur Books via Netgalley for a honest review.
When Cotton Malone and Luke Daniels both end up on the island of Malta, the race is on to discover (or protect) some major secrets in The Malta Exchange. Malone is on the track of legendary letters between Winston Churchill and Benito Mussolini. Daniels is chasing down information on a cardinal who has left Rome to find an ancient document on Malta that could affect the election of the next pope, even as the cardinals are gathering at the Vatican for a papal conclave. Both will encounter the Knights of Malta, an ancient group in existence for over nine hundred years, although the former soldier monks have now become a humanitarian association. The knights also have an internal organization known as the Secreti, who are determined to keep the 4th-century text a secret. As all the players return to Rome, the action intensifies. Cotton and Luke have become entangled in the schemes of a rogue cardinal, an historic group of knights determined to protect a secret from the past, a papal conclave, a slice of World War II history and the future of the Roman Catholic church. Steve Berry never disappoints. There is plenty of historical info, thrilling action and a just plain good read in The Malta Exchange.
This was my first introduction to Cotton Malone (main character) and to Steve Berry's writing. Berry provides plenty of well-timed backstory to ensure I didn't ever feel like I missed the first novels in this series. I really enjoyed all the authentic references throughout the novel, and its very obviously well researched. Berry's writing perfectly blurs the lines between fact and fiction, and I recommend this book at anyone who likes to wonder where reality stops and the writer's imagination begin.
Normally I love Steve Berry’s books. This one is the exception. Plot and characters were thinly written and seemed secondary to his diatribes on religion and numerous, lengthy history lessons. Honestly, the book was just plain boring. Not worth the money.
Steve Berry once again provides a great combination of actual and fictional history
Fast paced novel with lots of twists.
The result of this its got me back to reading a Concise History of the Catholic Church by Thomas Bokenkotter. Not bad for a retired engineer.
Well written. Keeps you in suspense until the very end.
I love Cotton Malone and am glad that he still takes me on an adventure even tho’ he has retired from the Magellan Billet. Just like every other Steve Berry book, this plot is complex and thought provoking. He weaves fact and fiction together seamlessly. This book won’t disappoint.
this was an easy book to put down, because I had trouble following the characters and the locations. I love the history, however, and will get back to it. The murder and mayhem seems a bit contrived. I read all Berry's earlier books as plots, history and characters were all very interesting. However, when Cassiopeia showed up, I lost interest. I thought it a silly name for a supposed heroine and quit reading his books as long as she was in the story. I was hoping the break up would be permanent, but apparently the mention of her in the earlier part of the book sort of spoiled it. Not a book I would recommend to my book discussion group.
This series just keeps pulling you in and getting better if that's even possible. I always read Steve Berry because of all the intrigue. Thanks, Net-Galley for the book.
Love Steve Berry and the Cotton Malone books, except this one. It was boring. To much unnecessary filler. Couldn't read more then the first 100 pages, wouldn't hold my attention.
The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry (Cotton Malone #14) For those of us who love Steve Berry, you will not be disappointed. The time is the present. Pope Francis has died. A conclave to select his replacement is about to begin. Cardinals are beginning to arrive at the Vatican, but one has fled Rome for Malta in search of a document that dates back to the 4th century and Constantine the Great. Orphan twins Kastor and Pollux Gallo are conspiring to have Cardinal Kastor Gallo be elected the next Pope at the conclave. They have recruited a few mercenaries from the Knights of Malta to do the deed. The head of the Entity--The Vatican's Secret Service--Cardinal Spagna, has a flash drive with all the indiscretions that have been committed by the corrupt Cardinals. He hands the drive to Kastor so he can use it to bribe the guilty parties to vote for him at the conclave. Kastor has been in Malta since the death of the Pope, looking for Nostra Trinita - a document from Constantine that sets up the Church as a political entity with religion as a way to control the populace. Aided by Cotton Malone they look for clues and decipher its location. Luke Daniels, an agent of the Magellan Billet, and Laura Price, a Maltese secret service agent are also involved. It all deals with Mussolini's assassination--the way the book opens--and what was believed to be in his possession, a way to control the Church, which is assumed to be Constantine's gift, the last bit of the Trinita. This book has it all: a Vatican conclave, nefarious and corrupt cardinals, another cardinal vying for the top spot, rogue Maltese Knights, turncoat British agents and of course Cotton Malone, Stephanie Nelle and Luke Daniels, along with an assortment of other intriguing and colorful characters. Narrated from the third person point of view, its a fascinating and easy read. The characters are alive and very real. The detailed research and how Mr. Berry combines it all to fit perfectly keeps you interested from start to finish. I had trouble putting it down. I also loved the jab taken against the Catholic Church and how it tries to control the populace. It was Constantine goal to use the Church as a way to keep the empire under his rule (The Council of Nicaea, 325 A. D): "First, establish a consistent doctrine called the New Testament with select gospels that speak to a universal belief, which was precisely what the bishops had done at Nicaea. Then decree that all other beliefs are heretical, unworthy of consideration and all who don't believe will be excommunicated. To further enforce dogma, create the notion of sin, adding that if it's not forgiven, the soul will be sent to eternal damnation in flames. Never mind that the Old Testament mentioned any such place. Just create one in your New Testament, then use it to create loyalty and obedience. The fastest way to ensure a constant laity is to proclaim that every person is born with the sins inherited as punishment for Adam's fail from grace. To purge that 'original sin' a person must submit to baptism, performed only by a priest ordained by the church. A failure to rid that sin damns the soul to hell. To keep people dependent on the church for their entire lifetime, create more sacraments. Holy Communion for children, marriage for adults. Last rites on the dead. A womb-to-grave influence over every aspect of a person's life, each milestone dependent solely on adherence to church doctrine. Along the way, th
Love Steve Berry's books, love Cotton Malone but found this book boring, could not get into the story. Usually I cannot put down a book still I am finished but this one took me a week to read. Yes, it is historical.
The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry is the latest entry in the long-running Cotton Malone series. Berry packs this thriller/mystery with action from beginning to end as Cotton and protégé, Luke Daniels, solve a current international dilemma that has ties to Churchill and Mussolini but is centered in the early history of the Roman Catholic Church. While I prefer my thrillers to be driven more by character, Berry’s novels demonstrate his mastery of historic fact and his artistry in blending fact with fiction. You cannot help but be intrigued by the history while you are carried forward by the action. Many thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for the opportunity to read the eARC in exchange for an honest review. PS - This is probably worth 3.5 stars!
Mixing the contemporary with the historicsl is the authors trademsrk and he suceeds beautifully in this book highly recommended
Congratulations on another superb book. A thriller with deception, twists, and turns that will leave you with a raised eyebrow intertwining the past and present together in a way very few authors can negotiate. Bring on the next book Mr. Berry!
I checked my website (https://www.kheniadis.com/) and it looks like I’ve never reviewed a Steve Berry book, even though I’ve read 10 in the Cotton Malone series. The only reason I can come up with is because they are such a fast read, that by the time I think of it, I’ve already read another book, and am totally lazy, and don’t want to go back and write a review. To which I say, “Shame on me!” Berry is such a wonderful writer, that I should write reviews to let others know about this great series. Whenever people at the library ask me what they should read, I ask them what they have read that they enjoyed. If they mention, Dan Brown, then I always tell them that they must read Steve Berry. And it’s totally sexist, but if it’s a guy, I will mention Berry. I told my step-dad about this series, and he’s read them all, and has really enjoyed them. What I enjoy about the Cotton Malone series is the great action scenes, the fast pacing, and how Berry incorporates historical fact with fiction. In this book almost all of the historical references are real, with only a few made up to help solidify the story. If history textbooks were written like this, kids in school would love to learn. If I was a teacher, I would have the kids read one of Berry’s books, and then the textbook on the same subject to fill in anything else. Since Berry does such in depth research into whatever topic he’s writing about, and often has visited the places, the detail he gives to the scenes are amazing. There will be some books where I skim through scenes because the scenery and architectural descriptions are either not good, or so lengthy and boring, but never Berry’s books. His depictions of the architect and surrounding scenery is amazing. The only thing that pulled me out of the story was when Luke Daniels, agent for the good guys, started thinking about another of the characters romantically. The scenes were written well, but I just wanted to get back to the action. If you couldn’t guess already, I highly recommend this book. And if you haven’t been reading the Cotton Malone series, you may want to start with the first book, The Templar Legacy.