The Tudor Plot: A Cotton Malone Novella by Steve Berry
SEVEN YEARS AGO
Cotton Malone hated surprises.
And this one was no exception.
He’d arrived at Buckingham Palace ten minutes ago, bypassing a throng of tourists crowded around the front fence by motoring through a guarded side gate. Now he sat in a green silk upholstered chair and watched as the two men who’d brought him left the room. No one had spoken during the trip across town and he was beginning to wonder. He’d been in England less than two days and now, for some unknown reason, he was about to see the queen.
His waiting room appeared to be an office—the flocked wallpaper a mixture of pinks and blues, the ceiling adorned with cream-colored ornamental molding. A white marble fireplace consumed one wall, the deep-blue-and-gold carpet outlined by a parquet floor. A desk sat catty-corner to the windows, stacked with paper, neat and orderly. He thought perhaps the room belonged to someone on staff, the space elegant but not regal.
The door opened and a man in a three-piece wool suit strolled in, followed by a wheelchair that contained Victoria II. Malone had many times seen the queen on television and in photographs. Never, though, had she been pictured handicapped, and the sight was disconcerting.
Victoria had reigned his entire adult life. She was the only English monarch most Americans knew. Her face was wizened, her color drained, her body frail. Though her hair remained a familiar shade of silver, fashioned in her trademark layered bob, he noticed an oily sheen on her forehead and skin flaking at the sides of her nose. This, the stooped posture, and an expression that seemed frozen in place evidenced how Parkinson’s now controlled her muscles. The one glimmer of hope was the radiant glow that seeped from her green eyes.
He came to his feet.
Victoria was being pushed by her husband, Prince James, the Duke of Edinburgh.
“Please, Mr. Malone, do sit,” Victoria said. “I apologize for the wheelchair, but within the palace I find it much more convenient. Unfortunately, walking has become a chore—and, besides, I don’t think pretense is called for.” She threw him a smile. “I have brought you here under the most suspicious of circumstances. I could well understand if you were even angry with me.”
“It would be difficult to be angry with so gracious a lady.”
“And a flatterer. The reports on you were correct.”
He wondered what reports she was referring to, but kept his mouth shut.
James stepped forward and faced him, a tall man with a beefy countenance. “It’s good of you to be here, Mr. Malone.” The prince offered his hand, and he felt the power in the older man’s grip. “We have a problem that we hope you might assist us in solving.”
The third man, younger, wearing the three-piece suit, stood behind the desk. Apparently, this was his office. James motioned toward him. “My private secretary, William. He’s the one who found you.”
Malone acknowledged the man with a slight nod of his head, which was returned.
Victoria glanced at her husband. “Do tell him, James.”
The prince cleared his throat before saying, “Two days ago an individual contacted the palace and asked for a meeting. He said there was something of the utmost importance to the nation, and our family, that he needed to discuss. It concerned our son, Richard, and, our grandson, Albert. Beyond that he offered nothing but riddles. We were scheduled to talk in this office. Today. But that man died yesterday.”
“Died? Or was killed?”
“Unfortunately,” Victoria said, “that is hard to say. A car accident. But at a most inopportune moment, would you not say?”
“Depends on which side of that opportunity you’re on.”
James nodded. “Our thoughts exactly.”
“You said he spoke in riddles. What kind?”
“He talked of Arthur. Sent us information from ancient journals.”
“As in Pendragon? Camelot? The Round Table?”
The prince nodded. “Exactly.”
“Tell me, Mr. Malone,” Victoria said. “Do you fancy yourself a believer in Arthur?”
He shrugged. “I’ve read quite a bit about him. The Dark Ages are one of my favorite periods. But who knows? One thing I’ve learned is that all legend is based on some fact.”
“It’s a story,” James said. “Concocted by Thomas Malory. Who, by the way, has a lot in common with our dead messenger. Both were thieves, Malory the worst kind for his era since he robbed churches.”
Malone knew Malory’s bio. The scribe had spent a lot of time in and out of prison before being granted a royal pardon. But he was curious. “Your messenger was some sort of felon?”
“He was a newspaper publisher,” the queen said. “Of some infamous repute. He steals people’s privacy, their secrets, true or not, and publishes them for the world to know.”
He caught the bitterness. “So why exactly was I brought here?”
He’d come to England on assignment for the Magellan Billet. Three years ago the American embassies in Greece and Egypt were targeted by a terrorist named Peter Lyon, a South African who blamed the United States for the destruction of apartheid, a rise of black rule, and an overall dilution of the white race worldwide. He was also a nefarious arms dealer, particularly dangerous because of his personal wealth and close association with many fanatical elements. The two embassy attacks had taken the lives of a dozen marines and six State Department representatives, including the deputy ambassador to Greece. Civilian casualties had topped 100. The Justice Department quickly linked Lyon with the killings, and four of those involved, all on Lyon’s payroll, were captured last year by a team of Navy SEALs.