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Chapter 1 – Malta 1804
If I needed someone to slit a throat or steal a purse, Eaton thought, I would come here to find him.
William Eaton had arrived early for that evening’s rendezvous with the British agent, Burton Grey. Grey had picked a bad place for their meeting—the Sedum Tavern—in a bad part of Valletta harbor. In the daytime, the square was a fish market. At night, other things were bought and sold.
The lengthening shadows cast by a fading sun played across the centuries-old weathered stone buildings fronted by awning-covered stalls. Eaton stood, unnoticed, in a boarded-up doorway, his cloak pulled tight against the damp cold rolling in from the harbor. With the approach of twilight, merchants were shuttering their shops and their customers were fleeing the square. Eaton watched as patrons entered the tavern: sailors from the ships of twelve nations crowding Valletta’s harbor, dock workers, pick pockets, thugs, cutthroats, and whores. A bright-eyed rat looked up from his supper of fish scraps on the shop table next to Eaton. Eaton nodded a greeting: paying a visit to your two-legged cousins, I suppose? Above the doorway, rust stains like dried blood streaked downward over the stone from a crude iron hook in the wall. I wonder what has hung on that hook, Eaton thought. Fish—or men?
Eaton looked at his watch, then eased quietly from his hiding place into the tavern and stood in darkness near the door. He pulled back his cloak to free his pistol, his eyes passing carefully over those patrons he could see in the candle-lit gloom. A few moments later, his aide Eugene Leitensdorfer came through the door, spotted Eaton, and joined him by the entrance.
“Come,” said Leitensdorfer, “ I’ve arranged for a place where we won’t be disturbed.” He led Eaton through the crowded tavern to a small private room to the right of the bar. They settled in behind the deeply scarred, stained wooden table. “We can talk in confidence here, but with the doors open, watch whoever enters,” Leitensdorfer said. Eaton nodded, then left the table to go to the bar, returning with four wine glasses.
As he sat down, their English contact arrived at the tavern. Leitensdorfer went to him, spoke briefly and led him back to their table. Without waiting to be introduced, the Englishman greeted Eaton with a brief, diffident nod. “Mr. Leitensdorfer and I share an acquaintance, sir. But you would, I assume, be William Eaton?”
“Your servant, sir,” said Eaton, coolly matching the Englishman’s neutral tone. “Mr. Grey, I believe we may call you?” As Eaton rose to greet Grey, he noticed their disparity in size. He looks like a terrier, Eaton thought—or a ferret. I will need to handle him carefully.
“Grey will do quite admirably for our purposes; my real name obviously does not concern you,” said the Englishman, sitting down wearily. “Is there anything drinkable in this hovel?”
“I would be surprised if there were,” said Eaton. “So I took the precaution of bringing a bottle with me: a 1783 Leacock and Spence Madeira. I trust you will find it acceptable,” he said, knowing that it was, in fact, superb. Gesturing at the table, he continued, “We have paid for glasses. May I pour you one?” Grey picked up the bottle, inspected the label, and then nodded.