Louisa Dubois Chennault was one of the most observant people her uncle, Major Jean-Paul Philippe Dubois, had ever encountered. Her big brown eyes and huge chocolate-colored ears peeking out under her Afro-puffs missed very little, and she would have fit right in – accounting for age – as an investigator when her uncle had worked at JAG and Interpol.
Sure enough, four weeks before the denouement of one of the most dangerous projects Major Dubois would ever take on in Lofton County, VA, Louisa came bouncing in on him.
“I figured it out!” she said. “You're getting ready for the Tour de Lofton! Can I come? You know there are bicycles built for two!”
“On the victory lap, Louisa, yes, you may.”
So, every day, Major Dubois and his niece trained and sat together afterward as Major Dubois shared his pictures of the route and the views that they would see along the winding roads and bike trails that went through the Blue Ridge. Louisa noticed how carefully he marked things out, especially on a route known as Jonathan's Winding.
Major Dubois was glad for his niece's company … it reminded him of why he was doing the portions of the work she was never to see.
During the time the Dubois family was moving to Lofton County – the major first, and then his parents Jean-Luc and Ébène-Cerise with his niece Louisa – the major noted a worsening series of crimes against bicyclists in Lofton County, and was dismayed to find that law enforcement in Lofton County was paying no attention. Old Sheriff John Nottingham was of the opinion that bicyclists in Lofton County were just “young liberals movin' in with no respect for drivers – some of them need to be frightened a little!”
Some of the local police weren't of that mind. Captain Ironwood Hamilton of Tinyville's police force, and his cousin Captain H.F. Lee of the Blue Ridge precinct of the county seat Big Loft's police force started going aggressively after drivers who harassed bicyclists. But outside their jurisdiction,the incidents increased and got worse in scope.
Then, Covid-19 and its restrictions arrived, and suddenly, bicyclists found themselves mostly alone on the open roads– so long as they did not ride in large groups, the sheriff's department ignored them.
But, Major Dubois, knowing human nature, waited on the other shoe to drop, and it did. The first bicyclist was forced off the road and killed on April 1, 2020. The incidences increased throughout April and May and June – serial harassment, left unchecked, had turned into serial killing.
Major Dubois had mapped the occurrences, noted the patterns – serial killers were part of his expertise at Interpol, and his final serial killer case had been what had led him to Lofton County.
To Major Dubois's chagrin but not surprise, Sheriff Nottingham dismissed the major's collection of evidence out of hand.
“Well, if they would keep their butts at home like everyone else, they wouldn't be in trouble – cussed young liberals! If I had the manpower to save them, I would – by getting all of them off the road!”
That was that. Time for Plan B, which Major Dubois shared with Captains Hamilton and Lee, who had served with him in the army. 22 “accidents,” as the sheriff's department was insisting they were, was enough.
Plan B wound around Jonathan's Winding, named for Major Jonathan Lofton who often used that indirect but scenic route to descend from his estate, Big Loft, southward 90 miles along the Blue Ridge to Fruitland, his elder brother's estate. Jonathan's Winding had been preserved and paved, with access made to the modern Blue Ridge Parkway in many places, but there were portions of it that still recalled the narrowness of the old manner of travel, portions that were still between a rock and a mile-deep place.
Thirteen of the 22 “accidents” of the spring and summer had taken place on those portions of Jonathan's Winding.
Captains Lee and Hamilton had taken their off time and done their investigative work. They too had gone to Sheriff Nottingham, and been rebuffed. Both men knew what that meant.
“But, Jean-Paul, mon frere,” Captain Hamilton said, “I know you rode in the Tour de France, but you're not 42 now – you're 52.”
“Look at me,” Major Dubois said playfully as he stood and turned around. “You know well-kept Black men scarcely age – and I've been training with Louisa!”
“You do look magnificent,” Captain Hamilton said, “and hey: ain't nobody ready for a cyclist who trains with Louisa!”
All three men laughed, but Captain Lee, grimmer of mood and deeply attached to Major Dubois, made a serious offer.
“I am only 46, and in comparable condition – let me do this in your place, Jean-Paul.”
Major Dubois shook his head with a gentle smile.
“Henri, mon frere,” he said, translating his friend's name into French, “you are forgetting your new bride. I am a bachelor, with no children, and my parents have 11 children in total, so, one or more of them will step up to see to my parents' older years if I cannot.”
Captain Lee would have said more, and the anguish on his face hurt Major Dubois to see – but then, Lee as ever reached for his marble mask, closed his mouth, and sat down, surrendering to the inevitable. The three turned their attention to details of the plan, and marked out what was to be done before getting on their knees in earnest prayer.
Four weeks later, Major Dubois put on the riding suit he had worn in the Tour de France … it still fit perfectly, and felt good to him that morning as he put on his helmet.
Observant Louisa was not to be eluded, although the major thought he had gotten up early enough.
“The Tour de Lofton starts today!” she said, and her uncle wrapped his arms around her and picked her up and kissed her cheek. “I know you're in it to win it! Go get 'em, Uncle!”
“I will, but you need to go back to bed. I love you, Louisa!”
“I'm going, I'm going – and I love you too, Uncle!”
And she bounced away, singing far too loudly for that hour of the day: “Uncle Jean-Paul, champion of the world!”
Major Dubois was glad for the tap of Captain Hamilton's horn and to get going … too much emotion would take away the edge he needed.
Day 1: Nothing happened, and that was expected … it generally took one to three days for a victim to be selected on a particular route. The three friends had done their homework, and Captains Lee and Hamilton both took their days off to lead and follow their friend closely, all the way down Jonathan's Winding. They noted who else wanted to cut in on the different access roads to and from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“We've got a banged-up truck, lots and lots of different kinds of paint on it, license plate number G1593TY7,” Captain Hamilton said from the following position. “He got on just out of Big Loft, got off just before Tinyville, and just got back on. When you consider you stopped to refresh yourself at the Tinyville rest stop and how long that took … .”
“Affirmative,” said both Captain Lee in the lead car and Major Dubois on his bike.
Captain Lee peeled off the lead position and drove up to the Blue Ridge Parkway to loop around and get behind the suspect vehicle, only to get cut off by some big rig driver who thought Jonathan's Winding would be a nice shortcut. That driver and Captain Lee and everybody on that portion of Jonathan's Winding were stuck for hours.
That gave Captain Lee time to run the license plate, and –.
“It's a fake!” he growled to Captain Hamilton and Major Dubois.
“It's probably just as well,” Major Dubois said to Captain Hamilton as the latter drove him home for the day. “Harry [Lee] had that look about him that would have made for an interesting night for whoever that truck belongs to.”
“Yeah,” Captain Hamilton said. “God knows where He is putting bad big rig drivers, for sure.”
Day 2: “Yep, banged-up truck is back,” Captain Hamilton reported. “Tailgating me in the family van, hard … but, off the road before Tinyville, again.”
“That man doesn't know yet about tailgating,” Captain Lee said, “but I'm of a mind to show him.”
“Harry, that man could just be making deliveries,” Major Dubois said. “Only one way to find out.”
Loop 13 in Jonathan's Winding … Captain Hamilton wasn't superstitious, but his knuckles were white on the steering wheel anyhow as he eased his family van up to the turnoff before Loop 13 to go up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. That banged-up truck with all the colors on the many dents was still right behind him, and, as he expected, did not follow him in the leisurely turn he made.
“All right, I'm out of the way,” he said as he paused after the turn, and kept observing. “He's driving on … and … Jean-Paul, he's coming!”
Captain Hamilton threw his van in reverse and put his siren up as he straightened out and went after the banged-up truck that had tripled its speed – the race to Loop 13 was on.
To preserve his strength, Major Dubois had coasted a long way down the winding road before Loop 13 but when he heard Captain Hamilton's warning, he started down the remaining straightway, head-out. He heard the killer gaining behind him, heedless of Captain Hamilton gaining on him. Up ahead, Captain Lee was also speeding up the road, and Major Dubois knew what he planned to do: the instant Major Dubois got past him, Captain Lee was going to block the way.
The problem was, the killer was going too fast to stop; he would plow through Captain Lee's truck like a knife through butter.
It was time for Plan C.
Major Dubois reached for the absolute limit of his strength for speed, knowing Loop 13 was really two loops – from the air, it looked like a B, looping twice around the ridge. Theoretically, the truck behind him needed to plan for that, but Major Dubois knew how to distract him – and so went airborne, leaping in a straight line over the edge of the first loop onto the second loop, landing hard but keeping his balance, and coasting to a stop a long way down the straightway after Loop 13.
Meanwhile, the 23rd “accident” occurred, and since Captain Lee and Captain Hamilton drove down the road a few moments later, Major Dubois was content to know neither of them were in it.
Since Sheriff Nottingham was a terrible listener, he was allowed to come to his own conclusions.
“Some transient riding a junker truck with a fake license plate down Jonathan's Winding too fast – fools always want to enjoy the view a bit too much – case closed!”
Meanwhile, Major Dubois and Louisa, the next week, enjoyed the view on a bicycle built for two, riding all the way down Jonathan's Winding from Big Loft to Fruitland Memorial Park on the victory lap, the roads of the county made safe for bicyclists again.
Louisa had the perfect word for the occasion, anywhere she and her uncle picked up speed and then got to coast: