The first case of New York Times bestseller Steve Berry’s iconic hero, Cotton Malone.
History notes that the ugly feud between J. Edgar Hoover and Martin Luther King, Jr., marked by years of illegal surveillance and the accumulation of secret files, ended on April 4, 1968 when King was assassinated by James Earl Ray. But that may not have been the case.
Now, fifty years later, former Justice Department agent, Cotton Malone, must reckon with the truth of what really happened that fateful day in Memphis.
It all turns on an incident from eighteen years ago, when Malone, as a young Navy lawyer, is trying hard not to live up to his burgeoning reputation as a maverick. When Stephanie Nelle, a high-level Justice Department lawyer, enlists him to help with an investigation, he jumps at the opportunity. But he soon discovers that two opposing forces—the Justice Department and the FBI—are at war over a rare coin and a cadre of secret files containing explosive revelations about the King assassination, information that could ruin innocent lives and threaten the legacy of the civil rights movement’s greatest martyr.
Malone’s decision to see it through to the end —— from the raucous bars of Mexico, to the clear waters of the Dry Tortugas, and ultimately into the halls of power within Washington D.C. itself —— not only changes his own life, but the course of history.
Steve Berry always mines the lost riches of history —— in The Bishop's Pawn he imagines a gripping, provocative thriller about an American icon.
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About the Author
Steve Berry is the New York Times and #1 internationally bestselling author of the Cotton Malone novels (The Bishop's Pawn, The Malta Exchange), among other books, and several works of short fiction. He has 25 million books in print, translated into 40 languages.
With his wife, Elizabeth, he is the founder of History Matters, which is dedicated to historical preservation. He serves as an emeritus member of the Smithsonian Libraries Advisory Board and was a founding member of International Thriller Writers, formerly serving as its co-president.
Read an Excerpt
Two favors changed my life.
The first happened on a warm Tuesday morning. I was cruising on Southside Boulevard, in Jacksonville, Florida, listening to the radio. A quick stab at the SEEK button and through the car speakers came, "Why does New York have lots of garbage and Los Angeles lots of lawyers?"
"New York got first choice?"
Laughter clamored, followed by, "How do you get a lawyer out of a tree?"
No one seemed to know the answer.
"Cut the rope."
"The other day terrorists hijacked an airliner full of lawyers."
"That's awful. What happened?"
"They threatened that unless their demands were met they would begin releasing one lawyer every hour."
"What do lawyers and —"
I turned the radio off. The disc jockeys seemed to be having fun, lawyers apparently a safe object of ridicule. Hell, who was going to complain? It wasn't like gay jokes, Polish jokes, or anything even remotely sexist. Everybody hated lawyers. Everybody told a lawyer joke. And if the lawyers didn't like it, who gave a damn?
Actually, I did.
Since I was a lawyer.
A good one in my opinion.
My name, Harold Earl "Cotton" Malone, appeared as one of thousands at the time who held a license within the State of Georgia, where I'd taken the bar exam six years earlier. But I'd never worked at any law firm. Instead I was a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, assigned to the Judge Advocate General's corps, currently on duty at the naval station in Mayport, Florida. Today, though, I wasn't acting as a lawyer. Instead, I was doing a favor for a friend, a distraught husband going through a divorce.
A favor I was beginning to regret.
The wife, Sue Weiler, possessed the cunning of a dictator and the boldness of a stripper. She'd spent yesterday parading across Jacksonville from apartment to apartment. Four in all. Men she'd met here and there. Fast sex with no strings. While sitting outside Apartment Number 3 I'd seriously wondered if she might be a nymphomaniac, as she certainly possessed the appetite.
Just past 5:00, after a surprisingly brief visit at Apartment Number 4, she folded her long slender legs into a sparkling new Cadillac and headed onto a busy boulevard. The car was a rosy shade of white, so pale that it looked pink. I knew the story. She'd specially ordered the car to enrage her estranged husband, the stunt entirely consistent with her taunting personality.
Last night she'd headed straight to an apartment complex on the south side and Boyfriend Number 5. A month ago she'd done the same thing and, being the pal that I was, I'd followed her then, too. Now the soon-to-be-ex-husband's lawyer wanted pictures and, if possible, video to use in divorce court. My buddy had already been socked with temporary alimony, part of which was going to pay for the Cadillac. Proof of adultery would certainly stop all alimony. Especially since Sue had already twice testified that she possessed no lovers or hardly any male friends at all. She was an accomplished liar, and if I hadn't seen the truth myself I would have believed her.
A light rain had fallen all yesterday afternoon, and the evening had been typically hot and humid for Florida in June. I'd spent the night rooted outside the apartment of Boyfriend Number 5 making sure Sue didn't slip away. Fifteen minutes ago she'd emerged and sped off in the Pink Mobile. I speculated where she might be headed. An apartment complex out at the beach and Boyfriend Number 6, a title insurance agent with the advantage of forty pounds more muscle and twenty fewer years than her husband.
The morning was bright and sunny, the roads filled with commuters, Jacksonville traffic always challenging. My metallic blue Regal easily melded into the morning confusion, and following a nearly pink Cadillac presented little difficulty. Predictably, she took the same series of twists and turns across town until her left signal blinked and the Cadillac veered into another apartment complex.
I noted the time.
Boyfriend Number 6 lived in Building C, Unit 5, with two assigned parking spaces, one for his late-model Mazda, the other for a guest. I'd discovered those details a few weeks ago. Half an hour from now, allowing plenty of opportunity for them to climb into the sack, I'd find a good spot to grab a little video and a few snapshots of the Cadillac beside the Mazda. In the meantime I'd wait across the street in a shopping center parking lot. To pass the time I had a couple of paperback novels.
I flipped on my right blinker and was just about to turn into the shopping center when a Ford pickup shot by in the left lane. I noticed the cobalt color, then the bumper sticker.
MY EX-WIFE'S NEW CAR IS A BROOM.
And knew the occupant.
My pal, the soon-to-be-ex-husband.
I'd last talked to Bob Weiler at midnight, calling in the bad news, none of which he'd liked. Him being here now meant only one thing — trouble. I'd sensed a growing resentment for some time. The seemingly blasé attitude the wife took to her husband's jealousy. A delight in emotionally building him up, then enjoying while he crashed before her eyes. An obvious game of control. His for her affection, hers for the pleasure of being able to dictate his response. But such games carried risks and most times the participants could not care less about the consequences.
Bob's pickup, in defiance of some substantial oncoming traffic, flew across the opposite lanes, tires squealing, and shot into the narrow drive, barely missing the carved cedar sign proclaiming the entrance to The Legends. I aborted my right turn, changed lanes, and, taking advantage of some rubberneckers, followed. Traffic momentarily blocked my approach, and by the time I finally made the turn into the complex Bob was a good ninety seconds ahead of me.
I headed straight for Building C.
The truck was stopped, its driver's-side door open. The pink Cadillac sat parked beside the Mazda. Bob Weiler stood with a gun leveled at his wife, who'd emerged from her car but had yet to go inside. I whipped the steering wheel to the right and slammed the Regal into park. Groping through the glove compartment I found my Smith & Wesson .38 and hoped to God I didn't have to use it.
I popped open the door and slid out. "Put it down, Bob."
"No way, Cotton. I'm tired of this bitch playing me for a fool." Bob kept his gun trained on Sue. "Stay out of this. This is between me and her."
I stayed huddled behind my open car door and glanced left. Several residents watched the unfolding scene from railed balconies. I stole a quick look at the wife, fifty feet away. Not a hint of fear laced her gorgeous face. She actually looked more annoyed than anything else, watching her husband intently, the look reminiscent of a lioness surveying her prey. A stylish Chanel purse draped one shoulder.
I turned my attention back to Bob Weiler. "Put the gun down."
"This bitch is milking me while she screws whoever she wants."
"Let the divorce court handle her. We've got enough now."
He turned toward me. "The hell with courts. I can deal with this right now."
"For what? Prison? She's not worth it."
Two shots cracked in the morning air and Bob Weiler let out a groan, then his body crumpled to the ground. Blood poured from a pair of holes in his chest. My gaze darted toward Sue. Her gun was still raised, only now it was pointed at me.
Another shot exploded.
I dove into the Regal.
The driver's-side window, where I'd just been crouched, exploded, spraying glass on me.
She fired again.
The front windshield spiderwebbed from the impact but did not splinter. I snapped open the passenger-side door and slid out onto the pavement. Now at least a whole car was between us. I sprang up, gun aimed, and screamed, "Drop the gun."
She ignored me and fired one more time.
I ducked and heard the bullet ricochet off the hood. I came up and sent a round her way, which pierced Sue's right shoulder. She recoiled, trying to keep her balance, then she dropped to the pavement, losing a grip on her weapon. I rushed over and kicked the pistol aside.
"You no-good piece of crap," she yelled. "You shot me."
"You're lucky I didn't kill you."
"You're going to wish you did."
I shook my head in disbelief.
Wounded and bleeding, but still venomous.
Three Duval County Sheriff's cars with flashing lights and screaming sirens entered the complex and closed in fast. Uniformed officers poured out, ordering me to drop my gun. All of their weapons were pointed my way, so I decided not to tempt fate and did as they asked.
"This bastard shot me," Sue screamed.
"On the ground," one of the cops said to me. "Now."
Slowly I dropped to my knees, then lay belly-first on the damp parking lot. Immediately my arms were twisted behind my back, a knee pressed firm to my spine, and cuffs snapped onto my wrists.
So much for favor number one.
I sat in a white, windowless space made of concrete block. Interestingly, no one had read me a single constitutional right, nor taken a fingerprint, snapped a mug shot, or made me change into an orange jumpsuit. Instead, I'd been led into the Duval County jail and locked in a holding cell all by myself. I stared up at the walls and ceiling, wondering where the microphones and cameras might be hidden. The trip into town from the apartment complex had taken half an hour in the patrol car, my hands cuffed behind my back. Taking advice that every arrestee should heed, I kept my mouth shut, only providing a name and phone number for my commanding officer.
Sue Weiler had been taken away in an ambulance and, if the level of her shouts was any indication, her wounds were not life threatening. Bob Weiler died before his body hit the ground. There'd been a slew of witnesses, so trying to find out what happened would be a mess. What was the old Russian saying? He lies like an eyewitness? The deputies had not appreciated my staunch support of the constitutional right to remain silent. But too bad. I was still processing. Never once had I even struck someone in anger. Instead, I'd bypassed all of the various and sundry misdemeanors and gone straight to felony aggravated assault, shooting another person.
And I felt no remorse.
I'd also witnessed someone die.
Another first, which tore at my gut.
Bob Weiler was a friend.
The silence around me was broken by an occasional disembodied voice, the hollow echo of footsteps, and the soft whine of machinery. The jail was not unlike the many I'd visited before, each in their own way forlorn and depressing. My cell was about six by eight with a metal bench and a toilet with no seat. A single opaque window, recessed into the block wall at shoulder height, was protected by a steel grating. I'd never been a guest in a jail before, always a visitor. Being locked behind bars was definitely different. No freedom. No choices. Your autonomy surrendered to strangers. Certainly all of the powerlessness and petty humiliations designed into the building were intentional, there to sap away courage and strength, the idea being to replace any positives with a docile helplessness.
I knew I should call Pam, but I wasn't in the mood to hear her moralizing. She'd told me more than once to stay out of the Weilers' business, but you didn't turn your back on a buddy in trouble.
At least I didn't.
My own marriage hung in jeopardy, the warning signs all there. Short tempers, quick judgments, zero patience, lack of interest. Something Clark Gable once said had come to mind of late. Love is heading toward your house, knowing that on the other side of the front door is a woman listening for your footsteps. Pam quit listening two years back when I did something stupid and forgot that marriage was suppose to be monogamous. I'd violated her trust and hurt her deeply. I'd apologized profusely, and she'd supposedly forgiven me. But that was not the case. And we both knew it.
I'd screwed up.
And changed a wife into a roommate.
A clang disturbed my thoughts, then one of the corrections officers appeared and opened the cell door. I took the cue and rose, following the woman down a sterile tile corridor. Her rhythmic stride, slow and steady, would have pleased any drill sergeant. Cameras bristled like gun emplacements over every door. A strong chlorine odor tickled my nose.
I was led to another brightly lit, windowless space, this one not a cell but an interrogation room, equipped with a long metal table and six chairs. Most likely for lawyers and clients. A woman waited. Middle-aged, thin, attractive, with short, light-colored hair and a confident face. She wore a smart-looking wool-skirted suit. She would eventually become one of my closest friends, but on this day we were perfect strangers.
My first impression of her was never in doubt.
And not local.
"My name is Stephanie Nelle," she said.
The corrections officer left, closing the door behind her.
"What are you? FBI?"
She smiled and shook her head. "I was told you were intuitive. Give it another shot."
I tried to think of a clever retort, but couldn't, so I simply said, "Justice Department."
She nodded. "I came down from DC to meet with you. But an hour ago, when I showed up at the naval station, your commanding officer told me you were here."
I was in my second year of a three-year tour at Mayport. The base sat a few miles east of Jacksonville beside a protected harbor that accommodated aircraft-carrier-sized vessels. Thousands of sailors and even more support personnel worked within its fences.
"I'm sure he had nothing good to say about me."
"He told me you could rot here. It seems he considers you nothing but a problem."
Which, believe me, I'd tried hard not to be. I'd served at bases in Scotland, Connecticut, and Virginia. I knew the word was out I was a maverick, tagged with stubbornness, arrogance, even a little recklessness, with an occasional confrontation with authority. But by and large I toed the Navy line, and my service record was exemplary. Next up for me was sea duty, which I wasn't looking forward to. At least three years' worth, if I ever wanted to advance to commander. Pam, God bless her, followed me to each duty station, finding a job, making a home. Which made my past idiocy even worse. We'd talked about her going to law school. She had an interest and I liked the idea. Or having a baby? Maybe one of those, or both, might save us. Bob Weiler's death had brought into sharp focus the horror of divorce.
I slid one of the chairs away from the table and sat. The sleepless night was catching up to me. My visitor remained standing.
"Nice aiming out there," she said. "You could have killed her, but you didn't."
I shrugged. "She didn't appreciate the favor."
"Your first time shooting someone?"
"Does it show?"
"You look a little rattled."
"I watched a friend die."
"That would do it to anyone. Sue Weiler wants to press charges against you."
"Yeah. Good luck with that one."
She chuckled. "My thought, too. I was told you can handle yourself under pressure. It's good to see the intel was correct. You flew fighters, right?"
That I had. For a while, at least. Until I was talked into a career shift by friends of my late father. Two admirals and a captain who seemed to have made it their life's mission to look after me. My father would have been flag-rank-eligible by now, too, if not for his submarine sinking with all hands lost. No bodies had ever been recovered, little known about the mission. In fact, the whole thing was stamped classified. I knew that because I'd tried, without success, to access the court of inquiry's investigative report. I'd been ten when the men in uniforms came to the house and told my mother the bad news. Nothing about it made sense then, and it would be many more years before I learned the truth.
"I read your personnel file," she said. "You specifically requested flight training, and your skills were top-notch. Mind telling me why the shift to law?"
I trained my eyes on her like gun barrels. "You already know the answer to that question."
She smiled. "I apologize. I won't insult you like that again."
"How about you get to the point."
"I have a job for you."
"The Navy has first dibs on my time."
"That's the great thing about working for the attorney general of the United States, who works for the president of the United States, the commander in chief. Jobs like yours can be changed."
Okay. I got the message. This was important.
"The job I have in mind for you requires skill and discretion. I'm told you possess both qualities."
I decided to do a little testing on my own. "Was it the two admirals or the captain who told you about me?"
Excerpted from "The Bishop's Pawn"
Copyright © 2018 Steve Berry.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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