In New York Times bestseller Steve Berry’s latest Cotton Malone adventure, a secret dossier from a World War II-era Soviet spy comes to light containing information that, if proven true, would not only rewrite history — it could impact Germany's upcoming national elections and forever alter the political landscape of Europe.
Two candidates are vying to become Chancellor of Germany. One is a patriot having served for the past sixteen years, the other a usurper, stoking the flames of nationalistic hate. Both harbor secrets, but only one knows the truth about the other. They are on a collision course, all turning on the events of one fateful day — April 30, 1945 — and what happened deep beneath Berlin in the Fürherbunker. Did Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun die there? Did Martin Bormann, Hitler’s close confidant, manage to escape? And, even more important, where did billions in Nazi wealth disappear to in the waning days of World War II? The answers to these questions will determine who becomes the next Chancellor of Germany.
From the mysterious Chilean lake district, to the dangerous mesas of South Africa, and finally into the secret vaults of Switzerland, former-Justice Department agent Cotton Malone discovers the truth about the fates of Hitler, Braun, and Bormann. Revelations that could not only transform Europe, but finally expose a mystery known as the Kaiser’s web.
Release date: February 23, 2021
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 400
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The Kaiser's Web
REPUBLIC OF BELARUS
TUESDAY, JUNE 11
Cotton Malone knew the signs of trouble. He should, since he lived in that perilous state more often than not. Take today. It started off innocent enough with breakfast at the superb Beijing Hotel. A touch of the Orient in a former Soviet bloc nation. First class all the way, as it should be, since he had company on this journey.
“I hate planes,” Cassiopeia Vitt said.
He smiled. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
They were five thousand feet in the air, headed southwest toward Poland. Below stretched miles of unpopulated forest, the towns few and far between. They’d come east as a favor to former president Danny Daniels, who’d appeared in Copenhagen two days ago with a problem. The chancellor of Germany was looking for someone named Gerhard Schüb. A Belarusian woman named Hanna Cress had appeared in Bavaria with some incredible information, then had been murdered, but not before uttering one word.
“Do you think the two of you could take a quick trip to Minsk and see if you can learn more about her and/or Gerhard Schüb?” Daniels had asked.
So they’d chartered a plane and flown from Denmark yesterday morning, making inquiries all day.
Which had attracted attention.
“Do you think we can get out of this country in one piece?” she asked.
“I’d say it’s about fifty–fifty.”
“I don’t like those odds.”
He grinned. “We’ve made it this far.”
They’d barely escaped the hotel after the militsiya arrived in search of them. Then they’d made it to the airport just ahead of their pursuers only to find that the plane they’d arrived in yesterday had been confiscated. So he did what any enterprising bookseller who’d once served as an intelligence officer for the United States Justice Department would do, and stole another.
“I really hate planes,” she said again. “Especially ones I can barely move around in.”
Their choice of rides had been limited, and he’d settled for a GA8 Airvan. Australian made. Single engine, strut-based wing, all metal, with an odd, asymmetrical shape. A bit squared-off and boxy would be a more accurate description. Designed for rough airstrips and bush landings. He’d flown one a few years ago and liked it. On this model the eight rear seats were gone, making for a somewhat roomy cabin behind them. Advertisements painted to the fuselage confirmed that this was a skydiving plane, and it had been easy to hot-wire the engine to life.
He watched as she studied the ground out the windows.
“It’s not that bad,” he said.
“That’s all relative.”
She was gorgeous. The Latin–Arab gene mix definitely produced some exceptionally attractive women. Add in being smart and savvy with the courage of a lioness, and what was not to love. Little rattled her save for she loathed the cold, and where he hated enclosed spaces she detested heights. Unfortunately, neither of them seemed to be able to avoid either.
“Do you know where we are?” she asked.
“I’d say north of Brest, which sits right on the Polish border. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the town, off to the south.”
He’d dead reckoned their course, keeping the morning sun behind them and following the dash compass on a southwest heading. Too far north and they’d end up in Lithuania, which could continue their troubles. Poland was where they wanted to be, safe back in the EU. The Belarus State Security Committee remained the closest thing to the old Soviet KGB that still existed. It had even kept the same shorthand name, along with the rep as a major human rights violator. Torture, executions, beatings, you name it, those guys were guilty. So he preferred not to experience any of their methods firsthand.
He kept a light grip on the yoke, which sprang up from the floor rather than sticking out of the control panel. He had excellent visibility through the forward and side windows. The sky ahead loomed clear, the ground below a sea of dense trees. A road ran in a dark, winding path among them with an occasional farmhouse here and there.
He loved flying.
A plane was, to him, like a being unto itself. Flying was once supposed to have been his career. But things changed. Which, considering his life, seemed like an understatement.
He made a quick scan of the controls. Airspeed, eighty knots. Fuel, forty-five gallons. Electrical, all good. Controls, responsive.
Below, to the south, he caught sight of Brest in the distance.
“There’s our marker,” he said. “The border’s not far.”
They’d made good time on the 120 miles from Minsk. Once inside Poland he’d find a commercial airport to land where they could make their way out of the country on the first available flight. Far too risky to keep using this stolen ride.
He backed off the throttle, slowed their speed, and adjusted the flaps, allowing the Airvan to drop to a thousand feet. He intended on crossing at low altitude, under the radar.
“Here we go,” he said.
He kept the trim stable, the two-bladed propellers’ timbre never varying. The engine seemed to be working with no complaints. A few knocks rippled across the wings from the low-level air, but nothing alarming.
Then he saw it.
Among the trees.
Followed by a projectile emerging from the canopy, heading straight for them.
He yanked the yoke and banked in a tight, pinpoint maneuver that angled the wings nearly perpendicular to the ground. Luckily, the Airvan had game and could handle the turn, but their slow speed worked against them and they began to fall.
The projectile exploded above them.
“An RPG,” he said, working the yoke and forcing the throttle forward, increasing speed. “Apparently we haven’t been forgotten.”
He leveled off the trim and prepared to climb.
To hell with under the radar. They were being attacked.
“Incoming,” Cassiopeia yelled, her attention out the windshield.
“Two. Both sides.”
He maxed out the throttle and angled the flaps for a steep climb.
Two explosions occurred. One was far off, causing no damage, but the other left a smoldering hole in one wing.
The engine sputtered.
He reached for the fuel mixture and shut down the left wing tanks, hoping that would keep air out of the line. They were still gaining altitude, but the engine began to struggle for life.
“That’s not good,” Cassiopeia said.
“No, it’s not.”
He fought the lumps and bumps, the yoke bucking between his legs. “I know you don’t want to hear this. But we’re going down.”
Cassiopeia did not want to hear that.
Not in the least.
The plane continued to buck. Nothing about this scenario seemed good. Her gaze darted to the altimeter, and she noted that they were approaching a thousand meters.
“Why are we going up?” she asked.
Cotton was fighting the plane’s controls, which seemed to resist his every command. “Beats the hell out of down. Unstrap and go back and see if there are any parachutes.”
She stared at him with disbelief, but knew better than to argue. He was doing the best he could to keep them in the air, and for that she was grateful. She released the buckle and slipped out of the shoulder straps.
The plane lurched hard.
She grabbed the back of her seat, then stumbled into the rear compartment. Benches lined either side of the open space. Other than those, nothing else was there.
“It’s empty,” she called out.
“Look inside the benches,” Cotton said.
She lunged for the right side of the plane and dropped to her knees. She grabbed the bench and lifted the long cushion, which was hinged. Inside lay one parachute. She freed it from the compartment, then shifted to the other side and opened the bench. Empty.
Only one parachute?
* * *
Cotton kept fighting.
Roll and pitch seemed responsive, but it took effort to maneuver. He had to be careful to avoid a stall. He retracted the flaps, which increased speed. Planes were judged on what they carried, where they could go, and how fast they got there. Under the circumstances, this one was doing great.
The RPG had damaged the wing and control surfaces. Fuel was spilling out from the carnage, draining part of the half-full tanks they’d had at takeoff. The engine continued to struggle, the prop not so much biting as gumming the air. The yoke had gone loose between his legs, which meant he’d probably cracked the cowl flaps on the climb. But he managed to level off with positive trim at just over four thousand feet.
All along they’d continued southwest.
No more projectiles had come from the ground, which he hoped meant they’d crossed into Poland. But that was impossible to know, as nothing but trees stretched below.
The control stick wrenched from his hand and the plane stopped flying. The gauges went crazy. Pressure and oil indicators dropped to zero. The plane bucked like a bull.
“There’s only one chute,” Cassiopeia called out.
“Put it on.”
“Put the damn thing on.”
* * *
Cassiopeia had never touched a parachute before, much less donned one. The last thing on earth she’d ever anticipated doing in her life was leaping from a plane.
The floor beneath her vibrated like an earthquake. The engine was trying to keep them up, but gravity was fighting hard to send them down. She slipped her arms through the shoulder harness, brought the remaining strap up between her legs, and clicked the metal buckles into place.
“Open the side door,” he called out. “Hurry. I can’t hold this thing up much longer.”
She reached for the latch and slid the panel on its rails, locking it into place. A roar of warm air rushed inside. Below, the ground raced by, a really long way away.
“We have to jump,” Cotton said over the noise.
Had she heard right?
“There’s no choice. I can’t land this thing, and it’s not going to stay in the air any longer.”
“I can’t jump.”
“Yes, you can.”
No, she couldn’t. Bad enough she was inside this plane. That had taken all she had. But to jump out? Into open sky?
Cotton released his harness and rolled out of the chair. The plane, now pilotless, pitched forward, then back. He staggered over and wrapped his arms around her, connecting his hands between the chute and her spine.
They faced each other.
He wiggled them both to the door.
“Put your hand on the D-ring,” he said to her. “Count to five, then pull it.”
Her eyes signaled the terror coursing through her.
“Like you told me once, when I panicked,” he said. “It’s just you and me here, and I got you.”
He kissed her.
And they fell from the plane.
* * *
Cotton had jumped before, but never in tandem clinging to another person without a harness, with no goggles, and at such a low altitude.
Once free of the cabin they immediately began spinning. A jet of burning air whipped away his voice and deafened his ears. A sour dryness scraped his throat and washed his eyes. He felt like he was inside a tumble dryer. But he had to keep his wits and hope that Cassiopeia did the same and remembered to count to five, then pull the rip cord. No way he could do it for her, as it was taking every ounce of strength he had to keep his hands locked around her body.
Their spinning lessened and he spotted the Airvan as it plunged downward. They needed to be as far away from that disaster as possible, which did not appear to be a problem.
Suddenly his head whipped back and they were both tugged hard as Cassiopeia apparently made it to five. He saw the chute emerge from the pack, its lines going taut as the canopy caught air. They were both wrenched upward, then they settled, slowly dropping downward in a now quiet morning.
“You okay?” he asked in her ear.
“I’m going to need you to reach up and work the lines and steer us,” he said.
“Tell me what to do.”
He was impressed with how she was holding up. This had to be the worst nightmare for someone with acrophobia.
“Pull hard with your left arm.”
She followed his instruction, which banked their descent in a steeper approach. He was angling for a clearing he’d spotted, free of trees. Hitting the ground there seemed far preferable to being raked by limbs.
“More,” he said.
But they weren’t moving far enough toward the target.
And they were running out of air.
He decided to try it himself and released his grip from behind her, quickly grabbing one set of lines, then the other, using his full weight to shift the canopy and alter their trajectory.
Only a few seconds remained in their descent.
He was holding on for dear life, his body twisting with their every movement, only ten fingers between him and plunging to his death. Cassiopeia recognized the threat and wrapped her arms around his waist and held tight.
He appreciated the gesture.
And kept working the lines.
They cleared the trees.
“When we hit, fold your knees,” he said. “Don’t fight the impact. Just let it happen.”
The ground came up fast.
“Let go of me,” he yelled.
And they pounded the ground.
She was pulled with the canopy. He fell away from her, landing on his right side, then rolling across the rocky earth.
And exhaled, settling his jangled nerves.
Nothing seemed broken.
Amazing that his nearly fifty-year-old body could still take a hit.
Cassiopeia lay on the ground, the canopy settling beyond her.
In the distance he heard an explosion.
Copyright © 2021 by Steve Berry.
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