Steve Berry Excerpt: The Bishop’s Pawn

The Bishop's Pawn by Steve Berry is the 13th book in the Cotton Malone series (available March 20, 2018).

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.


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.”

More laughter.

“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.

7:58 A.M.

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.


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.


Copyright © 2018 Steve Berry.

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Steve Berry is the New York Times and #1 internationally bestselling author of a dozen Cotton Malone novels and several standalones. He has 20 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 on the Smithsonian Libraries Advisory Board and was a founding member of International Thriller Writers, formerly serving as its co-president.

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