(Note: this is the third in a four-part “investigation” of strange cycling stories from Orange County, California. I’m at a coffee bar with five others: Mike, Joe, Brian, Lenore, and Jo.)
Joe’s sardonic comment about the Italian’s connection to Mike’s story added levity to the serious turn we’d taken by treading on the fringes of the unexplained. But the atmosphere was still uneasy
I was about to suggest we take a break (and gently hint that it would be good form to buy another drink to help the place keep the lights on), but Lenore put her hand up to stop me.
“I’m so relieved to hear somebody admit experiencing something like this. I was up there last week, with Brian.”
We all looked at Brian, who looked uncomfortable, but nodded, Yes. I wondered if Lenore had bullied him into coming. He looked so withdrawn.
“It happened to us, too, fog and all. I didn’t recognize the rider, but I was struck by the feeling he was paying for sins I didn’t know about, and that he wasn’t going to find peace until he made it to the top…and I think he was doomed never to quite get there.
“But that wasn’t the first time for me, dealing with stuff like this. That happened on Pelican Hill.”
Lenore stood, like she had too much emotion welling inside her up to sit still.
“I’d gone up to Pelican Hill to visit the ghost bike marking where a rider was killed by a hit-and-run driver, right at the curve where you can see from Dana Point to Palos Verdes, and Catalina if it’s a really clear days. It was one of those days.
“Her name was Emily Parkwood… I knew her, not well, though. She would ride with my bike club once in a while. We were bike friends, but that was it. She had a wonderful laugh. I liked her smile.
“I rode from home, it didn’t seem right to drive up there. I needed to feel the gravity of the situation, and being on the bike gives me time for my thoughts, my awareness always seems stronger.
“I followed the route I imagined she’d taken: up Newport Coast from where she lived, a right on Pelican Hill, and then another climb until the road bends left and you drop toward the ridge above PCH. A motorcycle cop half-hiding in a side street pointed a radar gun at me. I was flying. My eyes were streaming tears, from the wind, mostly, and then I was past the gated compound on my right and I could see the ocean. I saw the ghost bike, a shimmering white thing leaning on a “No Parking” sign at the end of a small hedge.
“I braked and came to stop. Someone had put up a sign on the bike, wiht her name and “We miss you, Emily” written. There were a few flower bouquets on the ground, adding color to the overbearing starkness of the bicycle: tires, rims, spokes, bars and saddle, all white, lifeless, bloodless.
“I couldn’t look at it for long, but I couldn’t leave yet. There was between the hedge and the edge of the drop, with enough room behind it to sit and not see the memorial. Or be seen. I rolled my bike over and laid it down.
“I smoothed the dirt with my shoe and sat, cross-legged. I was lost in my thoughts. A light breeze murmured in the surrounding brush, the flower bouquets trembling and whispering. I imagined I could hear surf and smell the saltwater.
“The quiet ended with a car pulling up, rudely and noisily. Doors slammed, From behind me I heard footsteps. I figured it was her friends, I couldn’t see a random car stopping, even out of curiosity. People who live on Newport Coast don’t have time for curiosity unless money is involved.
“Then there was laughter, harsh and grating. I was stunned, and I stood to look. There were two men standing in front of the bike, finding some perverse humor in the scene. The shorter of them of them kicked over a vase with roses, breaking the glass and scattering the flowers. I must have gasped, because they turned and noticed me. The taller one smiled, a cruel leer, really. He raised his arm. Not to hit me, but to curl his hand up and gesture, one finger extended ahead, thumb up. He raised it higher, to his eye, and squinted. He was letting me know he was aiming at me. His friend chuckled. “One rider down. Want to be next?”
“They knew I couldn’t do anything. And that was enough, I guess. They went back to the car. As it pulled away I saw a deep and long scratch on the right front fender.
“It got quiet again. I was angry at them, at myself, for Ellie, and at everything that in my mind conspired to allowed things like this to happen.
“I heard a motorcycle approaching. It was the cop I’d seen earlier. I didn’t rush to him. He stopped and looked at me for a few moments, then he turned off the bike, eased himself off the saddle and came over to me.
“Are you alright?” His tone was soft, and more caring than the just-the-facts ma’am officious attitude I was expecting. Aside from his voice, he was everything you expect in a motor cop. Husky, tall riding boots. Leathers, a blue stripe on the pants. A glossy helmet, and soulless mirrored aviator glasses. He had a Newport Beach police shield on one shirt pocket, and “Sgt. Dunsel” envgraved on the name badge pinned on the other.
“I found myself rattling off what had happened, more factually than emotionally, but even I could hear the catch in my voice. When I finished, he said, “Wait here.” He walked back to the motorcycle, started it, and took of.
“I waited. I had no reason not to. After a while I noticed sirens, I figured they were from the Fire Station at the top of Newport Coast. There were more sirens, I peered over the embankment and saw an engine and a Paramedic unit racing toward Newport Coast from Corona del Mar. It got quiet again.
“About a half-hour passed, I think. I heard the purr of a motorcycle coming back up Pelican Hill. It was Sgt Dunsel. He pulled over to the curb, idling, but didn’t shut down the bike. I walked over to him, close enough to touch him. But I didn’t. The engine rumbled softly.
“He reached to me and touched my arm. “It’s over,” he said. “Don’t worry about a thing.” I nodded. He put the bike in gear and rode back up Pelican Hill. I watched him until he disappeared around the bend.
Lenore looked drained. Brian got up and came back with some water. She thanked him, and drank some.
Brian said, “Tell them the rest.”
“That’s the odd thing,” Lenore said. “I saw a story in the paper the next day about two guys dying in a car crash on Newport Coast. They went over the edge and into the ravine between the two places that Pelican Hill road loops into Newport Coast Road. The car flipped and exploded. The EMTs couldn’t do a thing except watch them burn.
“According to the report, the only witness was a guy they passed. He said they came up behind him going really fast. As they went by, he said he could see the driver’s face, and he looked terrified, like he was being chased by a demon. The witness said he thought they were being chased by a motorcycle. The police, as they say, are investigating.
“I couldn’t let it rest, though. I know an officer who works in Newport, and I went to talk to him. At first I didn’t tell him everything, just that I’d seen the two guys and what they’d said. He took lots of notes. then he went and got the incident report, but he wouldn’t let me read it. But he told me that the investigation was pretty well over.
“It seems there are traffic and security cameras at the intersection and at the resort across from the end of Pelican Hill. There’s footage of the car, coming up from PCH at a normal clip, and then suddenly burning rubber and running the light, going around the witness’ vehicle, still accelerating as it began to fishtail, spin, and hit the curb. It disappears as it flips and drops out of view, and then there’s the lick of flames and some smoke.
“He closed the folder. I asked him about the motorcycle the witness thought was chasing the car. He said that there was no motorcycle on any of the footage and that the guy imagined it.
“So I told him about Sgt. Dunsel, mostly with the idea that he’d pass along my thanks for his kindness. My friend got a funny look on his face, and said, “Who?”
“I described the officer, and his bike, and how I saw him, everything I could remember. He was really listening. But he didn’t write anything down.
“When I finished he picked up his desk phone and made a call, but he made sure I couldn’t listen to what he was saying. When he hung up he asked me if I’d mind talking with one of his investigators in a few minutes. I said I didn’t mind.
We ended up in a basement level interrogation room. My friend led me in. There was a rectangular table with chairs on either side, like you see in the old movies. There was a guy sitting on one of them, no folders, no paper no pen. Just a small manila envelope, about the size a dentist uses to give you back a tooth or broken crown. He motioned me to sit. “Please call me Jim,” he said, and then looked at my friend and said, “You can leave now.”
There was a camera on a tripod pointing at me from behind me, and its record light was on. He got up and stopped. It.
“Tell me your story,” he said. I repeated what I’d said upstairs to my friend. It was all I had.
“We think we know so much,” he muttered to himself after I’d finished. The he looked straight at me. He said there was no Sgt. Dunsel on the Newport Beach Police Department. Now, or ever. He paused. But I knew he had more to tell me.
“Here’s the rub, then,” he said. “We did have a Sgt. Rogers. He was a motor cop. His daughter was killed crossing the street near their house, Hit and run. No one saw anything. We never arrested a suspect.
“Rogers was devastated. When our detectives put it in the cold case file he tried investigating on his own. Naturally, we stopped him. We let him keep working, but made him take a desk job.
“He wanted his old job back. Said he felt worthless working in the office. He started calling himself “Sgt. Dunsel.” Someone finally figured out it was an obscure Star Trek reference, about a person who had a title but served no useful purpose anymore. I never figured him for a Trekkie. Who knew?
“He took early retirement as soon as we could offer it to him, and I think a few rules may have bent to help it along. Rogers’ wife had left him by this point. We hoped he’d leave and start a new life. But he stayed in the area, in his old house. West Costa Mesa, as I recall. A few of his old motor buddies kept in touch for a while, but he wanted no part of it. I heard he kept looking into his daughter’s death.
“Our chaplain knew a pastor at the church he used to attend, and got a call two years ago that Rogers was in a bad way and in a hospice. On a whim he visited Rogers. Surprisingly, they actually had a good conversation. “I know I’m going to die,” he told the chaplain, “But I know in my heart I’ll never be at peace until I’ve finished my job.” We saw his obit in the Daily Pilot two days later.”
“I looked at Jim, and said, “So that’s it?” He folded his hands together and didn’t say anything. I got up to leave, and as I turned away he said, “There’s something else.”
“I sat back down. Jim unfolded his hands and stared at me intently. “You’re not the first person to report running into a Sgt. Dunsel. Without exception it always is connected to a hit-and-run. I can’t explain it, and we’ll never acknowledge it officially.
“I did some checking after I was told about your story, the part about meeting Sgt, Dunsel, before you came down here. Our logs are really good, and every patrol car and bike has continual GPS communications for confirmation. It just takes a second to query the database. We didn’t have any motor officers assigned to Pelican Hill Road that day. The GPS tracking confirms that not one unit even drove through there within four hours of when you had your run-in.”
Jim stood up from his chair, laced his hands together and stretched, arching his shoulders. He held the tension briefly, then released his hands. He sat down again.
“I know our guys went through the crash scene with a fine tooth comb,” he said, ”and I’m satisfied that we retrieved every shred of evidence related to that car losing control and crashing. But I went there the next day to walk it, and try to look at it from a different perspective. I had some weird feeling. I started at he bottom, where all the cameras are. I hiked the half-mile to where the car flipped. I didn’t find anything.
When I got back to my car and started it I saw a warning light that the fuel door was open. I don’t know how it got open, it’s supposed to latch when you lock the doors. I’d had to unlock the car a moment earlier. It’s not just a warning light, there’s a voice you can’t turn off that keeps nagging at you to close it. So I got out and went to shut the fuel door. It wouldn’t close. I looked inside and saw there was something blocking the hinge.”
Jim pushed the small envelope over to me, and said, “I think you should have this. I can’t begin to think how to deal with keeping it.”
Lenore stopped. Brian got up to give her water, but she waved him off.
She reached down to her purse, and fished out a small envelope. She undid the metal clasps, opened it. and shook the contents onto the table.
It was small white piece of plastic. We saw it had a pin you might use to attach it to your uniform. She flipped it over, to the side that said “Sgt. Dunsel.”