"Cotton Malone is on the hunt for a document that could change history..."
Reviewed by Magdalena Johansson
Posted March 21, 2019
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
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.
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‚Äôs 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.
Tuesday, May 9
Lake Como, Italy
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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, 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.
The animal caught his scent, turned, and faced him, snorting
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
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.
Re: Cotton Malone is on the hunt for a document that could change history...
How can I pick out the best product from those listed on
(Bill Jackson 11:42am July 1)
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