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The Malta Exchange

The Malta Exchange, March 2019
Cotton Malone #14
by Steve Berry

Minotaur Books
Featuring: Cotton Malone
416 pages
ISBN: 1250140269
EAN: 9781250140265
Kindle: B07D2BV7LW
Hardcover / e-Book
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"Cotton Malone is on the hunt for a document that could change history..."

Fresh Fiction Review

The Malta Exchange
Steve Berry

Reviewed by Magdalena Johansson
Posted March 21, 2019

Thriller Spy

Ex-Justice Department operative, Cotton Malone has traveled to Lake Como, Italy in the hunt for some legendary letters between Winston Churchill and Benito Mussolini that disappeared at Mussolini's death. It is said that these letters could re-write history if they were ever found. However, for Malone will this little treasure hunt quickly lead to something bigger when he gets involved in a hunt for a document that dates back to the 4th century. A document that could change history for the Roman Church and not everyone wants the document to be found.

I had hoped to have read all the previously published books before I started to read THE MALTA EXCHANGE, however, time got away from me. On the plus side, I do still have three unread books left to read. The Cotton Malone series is one of those series that I have kept reading through the years. It's just the last couple of years that I've gotten a bit behind, but each book can be read stand-alone. And I can't recommend this series enough if you like reading well- researched adventures thrillers.

As for THE MALTA EXCHANGE, as an ex-theologian student it was interesting to read a story where the Catholic Church and the Knights of Malta were heavily involved with. I have to admit there were moments when I thought that Steve Berry was a bit too eager to impress the readers with his historical research. I mean I love history, but I also don't want to drown in it when I'm reading a fiction book. However, besides that, THE MALTA EXCHANGE is both fascinating and engrossing. And the ending is really memorable.

Learn more about The Malta Exchange

SUMMARY

The next in New York Times top 5 bestseller Steve Berry's Cotton Malone series involves the Knights of Malta, papal conclave, and lost documents that could change history.

The pope is dead and Cardinals are arriving at the Vatican to open a conclave to pick his successor, but one prince of the Church has fled Rome to 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, letters that disappeared in 1945 and could now re-write world history. But someone else is after them too and, when Malone obtains then loses them, he’s plunged into a hunt involving the Knights of Malta, a 900-year-old organization rife with division and currently being steered by the Secreti, a sect within determined to affect the coming conclave.

With the help of Luke Daniels, Malone races both the Knights and the clock, across Italy to Malta, and finally to Rome, behind the walls of the Vatican, where the election of the next pope hangs in the balance. Bestseller Steve Berry delivers yet another remarkable thriller in The Malta Exchange.

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

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 a 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 was 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‚ÄĒa 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 VIVRA PER SEMPRE NEL SUORE 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 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 horsepower 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 antique 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.

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 to not 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 crystalized 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.

Letters.

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 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 personal 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 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 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, like with the documents, no meaningful cache had ever come to light. Until two weeks ago, when an e-mail 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 hid during the war, waging a relentless guerilla campaign on both the Fascists and 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-storied 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 a half 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 saw a body sprawled across the terrazzo, face down, 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 e-mails it had received, but they'd 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.

None.

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 turned upside down flung 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.

Something clattered.

Hard and loud.

From above.

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, which was the same room he'd been directed to find. Whoever had beat 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.

Not good.

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 fit 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 down 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.


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1 comment posted.

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