Join Our Newsletter

Read a sample mystery every week


...or Read FREE Stories on Your Phone
The Black Scarf
About the Author: Cay Rademacher, born 1965, is a German author and journalist who lives in France. He has so far published about 20 novels in Europe, most made it on the bestseller-list in Germany. Two were translated and published in the USA by Minotaur Books, New York: Murderous Mistral and Deadly Camargue. Three in the UK by Arcadia Books, London: The Murderer in Ruins, The Wolf Children and The Forger. The Murderer in Ruins and The Forger were both shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger Award.

Whenever I had to stop at a barrière de péage, one of the many toll stations on nearly any French highway, a vague form of uneasiness took hold of me. I am not one of those who panic before a closed gate, because the toll-ticket has suddenly vanished somewhere under the dashboard, or the automatic cash register refuses my credit card for unexplained reasons and I have no coins and the line of cars behind me grows longer and longer … It’s something else: a barrière de péage is a gate to another world. Don’t laugh, because behind every barrière de péage stretches not just a highway, but a parallel universe in the middle of our own, a universe with distinctive laws and impenetrable boundaries. You can’t, for example, quit a highway where and when you like. Have you ever noticed that all rest areas on French highways are entirely surrounded by high, solid fences? Impossible to leave your car there and just walk away. Highways are giant traps. Once in, you can only leave by another barrière de péage. And sometimes you can’t leave at all, never, ever …

It had already been a long day, when I finally entered the A7 highway at Avignon, heading south. It was late afternoon and a decidedly untypical day for Provence in June: thundery, sweltry—the tropics, not your hot and dry Midi of Southern France. The sky was an ocean of liquid lead, huge, black clouds coming in like a monstrous fleet. Lightning glew here and there, orange flares in a gloomy blanket which covers the entire world. There may have been thunder, too, but I couldn’t hear it, speeding with all windows closed, awaiting the deluge. But I drove and drove and not a single drop exploded on my windshield.

The clouds were sinking lower, parallel to the evening sun, as if they had been shades, exactly calibrated to shield me from the light. At the end, these huge clouds seem to land directly on the tarmac. I rushed into them, total blackness, lightning everywhere, but strangely, still no drop of rain yet. For a second or two I wondered about the nature of this specific meteorological phenomenon. Clouds sink, because they are heavy with water, don’t they? So, even if they, for whatever reason, won’t liberate their rain, they should at least soak my car with water when I drove it into them like a bullet through a mountain of wet cotton wool. But I didn’t need to turn on the wipers. Thunder rolled again over the highway, finally so near, it made the side window to my left tremble for a moment. I could no longer see the lights of the cars driving before or behind me. For how long already? I couldn’t say. I felt suddenly tired, unbelievable tired.

So I stopped at the rest area of Sénas, wanting to wait out this damned thunderstorm, it must explode any time now. Once the black clouds had rained themselves out, the air would be clean again, breathable, no longer humid and heavy, or so I hoped.

Sénas was not much to see: a parking area, the usual small grey painted shack for the restrooms, some garbage containers, a few cypresses and Aleppo pins scattered on the small green strip between tarmac and fence. The one strange thing was my solitude: I seemed to be the only driver who had stopped here, no other car, no truck to be seen, though you rarely have a completely unoccupied rest area on a French highway at any given time on any day, even Christmas. At least you should meet some drivers from Bulgaria or Lithuania on their long journeys through Europe, preparing BBQs next to one of the huge tires of their trucks or filling twenty-liter plastic jerrycans with fresh water from the tap at the restroom. But, no, I was alone in Sénas.

I stared through the windshield into the dim light and wondered if I shouldn’t just succumb to my tiredness. Fold down the backrest and nap, maybe for half an hour, mon Dieu. But maybe this was dangerous? Alone in a car, alone at a rest area. I was not quite sure, but I thought to remember having read stories about people who had fallen asleep at rest areas, even well occupied ones, and then their cars had been plundered or, worse, they had been murdered.

Probably tiredness still would have won the fight over anxiety, I already had my eyes half closed, when, suddenly, I saw a kind of movement on the fringe of the rest area, a shadow, even darker than the darkest clouds.

A silhouette.

A woman.

This story appears in our JUL 2024 Issue
(Visit Amazon for a print version)

Buy JUL 2024 Issue

Buy It Now

Digital Subscription

Price $24.75 Cdn

You will immediately receive the current issue.
Future issues are emailed on the 1st of each month.

Reader Discussion

Add Your Comments

Read stories on your phone