The Malta Exchange

Cotton Malone Series Book 14

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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.



“Not to miss.”
— USA Today


“Enthralling . . . Fans of Dan Brown will have fun, and some may prefer Berry’s action-oriented hero to Brown's cerebral Robert Langdon.”
— Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)


"Thrillers abound, but Berry has the lock on making history zing with breathless suspense and galloping action. Malta and the Vatican are superb settings for this ecclesiastical extravaganza.”
— Library Journal (starred review)


"What makes his novels stand out is the level of research to make the foundation of the story solid and then adding some mayhem and chaos. After shaking them all together, the result is a thriller that intrigues and provides historical context. Berry is the master scientist with a perfect formula for the bestseller lists.”
— The Manila Times


"The Malta Exchange is another typically savory mind snack that fully satisfies our hunger for terrific reading entertainment . . . The legendary David Morrell practically invented thrillers like this, and Berry has gone the master one better by once again finding within history a diamond in the rough he polishes to brilliance."
— Providence-Journal


"A gripping novel with an exciting twist at the end. The Malta Exchange is a thriller in the class of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons.
— The Sun Daily (Malaysia)


"The intrigue is intense . . . Thriller fans will have their violence fix, but the real fun is in learning about the inner workings of the church, its history dating all the way back to Constantine, and the troubled past of Malta . . . This one will appeal to Dan Brown fans and anyone else in the mood for a page-turning yarn.”
— Kirkus Reviews


"This is Berry’s 14th Cotton Malone adventure. The Malta Exchange will be hard to top, but let’s hope there will be many more."
— Florida Times-Union


"Trust and loyalty are merely optional in Berry's fun and engaging tale. Elements of the story echo Dan Brown and Berry's first Cotton Malone adventure, The Templar Legacy. What makes his novels stand out is the level of research to make the foundation of the story solid and then adding some mayhem and chaos. After shaking them all together, the result is a thriller that intrigues and provides historical context. Berry is the master scientist with a perfect formula for the bestseller lists.”
— Associated Press


"An adventure that leaves you breathless. A plot that pulls you in and does not let you go for 393 pages. An influx of historical characters. An invitation to look inside the Vatican. You name it, this book has it . . . a ride you will never forget. From rogues, to murderers, to icons to secrets revealed, this is one story that needs to be on the big screen as fast as possible.”
— Suspense Magazine


"The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry is a thriller where religion meets murder. Readers who love thrillers would be delighted to read this new book in the Cotton Malone series.”
— Times of India


"Fast-paced, full of danger . . . Berry has a way of making his made-up history feel as though it might have happened, and Cotton continues to be a likable action hero who is always packing a surprise or two. Solid entry in a solid series."
— Winnipeg Free Press


"Fun, action-oriented novel.”
— Jacksonville Journal-Courier


"Berry structures this plot with intelligence and populates it with heroes and villains. What results is a tale of corruption and ambition, courage and aversion. Berry again produces a novel that at once entertains and also raises deep and disturbing questions.”
— Richmond Times-Dispatch


“The events unfold at a breakneck pace . . . [Berry] is very good at the historical-conspiracy thriller. He’s a skilled writer — much more so than Dan Brown, to whom he’s often compared — and a more dexterous plotter than many of us contemporaries. Fans of the series will give this one an enthusiastic thumbs-up.”
— Booklist


"Berry, whose storytelling bona fides have won him millions of readers, structures this plot with intelligence and populates it with heroes and villains. What results is a tale of corruption and ambition, courage and aversion. A student of history who expertly blends fact with imaginative and fully plausible fiction, Berry again produces a novel that at once entertains and also raises deep and disturbing questions."
— Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star


“[In the audio version] Scott Brick is a masterful narrator, raising the tension in the action scenes while keeping the listener engaged in the historical segments.”
— AudioFile Magazine Exchange


"No one sells over 24 million books without understanding how to hook a reader. Over the past 17 years, and now with his 18th novel, The Malta Exchange, Steve Berry has mastered the art of page-turning. . . . Readers of Steve Berry know the drill by now. You’ll come for the hero’s derring-do, but you stay for the history. . . . I’m sure [the Maltese will] be raising a few glasses of Cisk lager, the national beer, in thanks to Steve Berry’s new thriller.”


"The Malta Exchange is a real treat for fans of the stellar Cotton Malone series, as well as a top-notch historical puzzler for those who have not yet experienced Berry's favorite character.”


"Steve Berry's unstoppable protagonist Cotton Malone is still going strong in book 14, The Malta Exchange.”
— Amazon Book Review


"The pulse-pounding new thriller featuring Cotton Malone. Perfect for fans of Dan Brown, Sam Bourne and Scott Mariani.”
— (United Kingdom)




“It’s a real page turner.”


"Bestseller Steve Berry delivers yet another remarkable thriller in The Malta Exchange.”


"The Malta Exchange is right up there with everything by Steve Berry and supplies readers with the expected history lesson and scavenger hunt reminiscent of a Dan Brown novel. It reads fast and has the right amount of action and suspense to keep fans of historical thrillers glued to the page.”


"Think The Da Vinci Code on steroids, and you’ve got The Malta Exchange. Filled to the brim with nonstop action, spine-tingling suspense, and a twist that readers won’t soon forget, Steve Berry’s latest thriller is the finest work of his career.”
— The Real Book Spy (the


"Steve Berry is the king of historical fiction with his Cotton Malone series. This is book number 14 and he never disappoints the reader. Cotton is one of the best characters in novels today. The stories, settings, and action that Steve does is just outstanding. He goes to the locations he writes about and really does his research. I look forward to my yearly visits with Cotton and I only wish I didn’t have to wait so long between novels."


“Essential thriller read. Having an action-oriented plot and interesting characters, which is again present in this new installment of Malone series is another plus. This book is highly recommended for readers of Dan Brown books and fast-paced thrillers."





Tuesday, May 9
Lake Como, Italy
8:40 a.m.



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—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 VIVRA PER SEMPRE NEL SUORE DEL SUO POPOLO.


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 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.


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.


Also in this series: