His name is Claude Levitte but everyone calls him Big Claude. For a decade he has run a parfumerie on the rue Vauborel: a straggling business that prospers only when the cod are being salted and the stones of the town itself begin to stink.
But new opportunities have arrived, and Big Claude is not one to miss an opportunity. He is paying farmers near Cancale to butcher lambs and rabbits; Claude buckles the meat into his wife’s matching vinyl suitcases and carries them himself by train to Paris. It is easy: some weeks he can make as much as five hundred francs. Supply and demand. There is always paperwork, of course; some official up the chain catches a whiff and wants a percentage. It takes a mind like Claude’s to navigate the complexities of the business.
Today he is overheating; sweat trickles down his back and sides. Saint-Malo roasts. October is here, and bright cold winds ought to pour off the ocean; leaves ought to tumble down the alleys. But the wind has come and gone. As if deciding it did not like the changes here.
All afternoon Claude hunkers inside his shop above the hundreds of little bottles of florals and orientals and fougères in his vitrine, pinks and carmines and baby blues, and no one enters, and an oscillating electric fan blows across his face to the left, then to the right, and he does not read or move at all except to periodically reach a hand beneath his stool and grab a handful of biscuits from a round tin and stuff them into his mouth.
Around four P.M., a small company of German soldiers strolls up the rue Vauborel. They are lean, salmon-faced, and earnest; they have serious eyes; they carry their weapons barrel-down, slinging them over their shoulders like clarinets. They laugh to one another and seem touched underneath their helmets with a beneficent gold.
Claude understands that he ought to resent them, but he admires their competence and manners, the clean efficiency with which they move. They always seem to be going somewhere and never doubt that it is the right place to be going. Something his own country has lacked.
The soldiers turn down the rue St. Philippe and are gone. Claude’s fingers trace ovals across the top of his vitrine. Upstairs his wife runs a vacuum cleaner; he can hear it coursing round and round. He is nearly asleep when he sees the Parisian who has been living three doors down exit the house of Etienne LeBlanc. A thin beak-nosed man who skulks outside the telegraph office, whittling little wooden boxes.
The Parisian walks in the same direction as the German soldiers, placing the heel of one foot against the toe of the other. He reaches the end of the street, scribbles something on a pad, turns one hundred and eighty degrees, and walks back. When he reaches the end of the block, he stares up at the Sajers’ house and makes several more notes. Glancing up, glancing down. Measuring. Biting the eraser of his pencil as though uneasy.
Big Claude goes to the window. This too could be an opportunity. Occupation authorities will want to know that a stranger is pacing off distances and making drawings of houses. They will want to know what he looks like, who is sponsoring this activity. Who has sanctioned it.
This is good. This is excellent.