The Fog Man

The Fog Man

Arthur Ryan had grown up on the fog-bound slopes of Mount Davidson, and he knew every twist and turn of the winding streets that climbed to the foot of the park crowning San Francisco’s highest peak. He didn’t need to be able to see where he was going. His feet knew the way, and he liked to think of the fog as his element. His ex-wife thought it was a bad joke when he said he felt most fully alive in a fog, but he didn’t see what was funny about it. No one joked about scuba divers who were happiest groping along the bottom of the ocean.

There were a lot of things he loved about San Francisco, but his favorite was the sight of a bank of fog beginning to curl over the top of the mountain like a wave and descend until his whole neighborhood was engulfed. When he saw that, he knew it was going to be a good day.

Which is probably why he had started returning to the old neighborhood every morning. It had been too long since he’d had a good day.

Arthur no longer lived in San Francisco. He no longer even worked in San Francisco. Since his divorce, any money he had went to his ex-wife and ex-children, who didn’t want to see him. Three months ago, he had had to move in with his mother, sleeping on the couch in her one-bedroom apartment in San Bruno. He had always thought the expression “a fate worse than death” was an exaggeration. Now he knew what it meant.

Each morning, he showered, shaved, dressed, and left “for work” before his mother awoke to begin her litany of complaints about his ne’er-do-well father and how she had never imagined Arthur would take after him, since he was the spitting image of her father, an honest, hard-working man. She didn’t know that he had lost his job, a fact that was getting harder and harder to conceal as the balance in his savings account melted away.

Instead of driving to his ex-job downtown, he would go to Forest Hill, park in a quiet spot, and then head up toward the mountain. The fog. After he crossed Portola and passed the old market where his mother once did her weekly shopping—now an upscale emporium of over-priced organic twaddle—his pulse would slow. He could breathe more deeply. He was home.

The first time he followed this impulse to return, he got real relief.  He walked the familiar streets, letting the fog condense on his clothes, hair, and face, until he could have been crying, and no one would have noticed. Maybe he even did choke up as he passed the house where he had spent his childhood. It was a little three bedroom that his father had bought when this development was built in the 1960s… and which he had sold, shouting with glee, when its value rose astronomically to $700,000 dollars.

For people like his parents, this had been as good as winning the lottery. They thought they were set for life, but it took his father less than a dozen years to spend it all and die of a heart attack. Probably from looking at his bank balance.

And now these houses—unchanged, looking exactly the same—were going for way more than a million. For humble little houses for middle-class families where the kids shared a bedroom, crowded around the table at meal times, and there was only room for one TV. They were nothing special, but high up as they were, perched on the mountainside, with views across the city and the bay to the distant Mt. Diablo, they were priceless. Even back then, when he was a boy, people called them million-dollar views, but none of them ever imagined that could become literal.

No, this neighborhood had been a backwater then. The kids owned the streets and the woods, racing up and down the paths through the eucalyptus trees, playing tag, war, cops and robbers. Arthur and most of his friends had gone down the hill to St. Brendan’s in their red blazers and learned what little the nuns could teach them when their minds and hearts were forever roving elsewhere.

There was no sign of any kids now. Arthur had looked. And the more he roamed that multimillion-dollar neighborhood, the angrier he felt. At his father who’d squandered his birthright, so now he was on the verge of homelessness. At his employer who gobbled profits as fast as they came in, and let employees go. At his wife and children, who’d replaced him with a new, flashier model, as if he were a car to be traded in and forgotten.

It was so impossible to understand how he had gotten where he was from here. How this place could never again be where he belonged, when he knew every crack in the sidewalk. Every tree was an old friend. Every path had been a guide to what he was sure was his future.

He was not an impulsive man—that much he did inherit from his grandfather—but he was very bitter, so he didn’t question whether the plan he came up with as he roamed the fog was a good idea or not. Like one of those jumpers on the Golden Gate Bridge, he felt he had nothing left to lose. So, he jumped.


It was on a Monday, when Cynny O’Hare finally gave in and offered to help her new friend Bridget Mattison. Bridget had talked through lunch break and again that evening on the phone throughout the hour when Cynny would have preferred to be doing her before-bed yoga and meditation. Any hints that she threw out regarding the length and repetitiveness of these conversations went unnoticed by Bridget. She was in a panic, even though nothing had actually happened.

Yet. And that was her point.

Bridget and her husband had recently moved to San Francisco from New York City to take jobs at the same company where Cynny worked. They’d also recently bought a house in the neighborhood where Cynny and her boyfriend lived. A house, Bridget had raved for days, a real house, not an apartment! But it was up on Mt. Davidson, and no sooner had they gotten settled than The Fog Man attacks began.

Over the past month, a dozen young men and women had had their briefcases, backpacks, or purses stolen while walking the neighborhood’s winding narrow streets. None of them had been injured, but their combined losses had already added up to nearly $50,000; and the police had been unable to stop what seemed, as far they could tell, to be a one-man crime wave.

The attacks took place on foggy mornings or evenings and were carried out by a lone man who appeared suddenly and vanished again before his targets quite understood what had happened. “Shadowy,” was the most specific description of the thief who seemed able to disappear at will. The media had taken to calling him The Fog Man, which only made him sound like a comic superhero. That hadn’t helped to keep the public calm.

“The odds of The Fog Man picking on you are very low,” Cynny told Bridget, as she did her leg lifts.

“But how can you know? He seems to be everywhere, and the last woman attacked was only two blocks from my house.”

“That’s good. Lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place. Maybe you should vary your route to the bus stop. Or maybe not.”

“Cynthia, you aren’t listening. I’m frightened. You know how completely I lose my sense of direction in this god-awful fog. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s terrifying to me.”

Cynny sighed and switched legs. “So…  you want me to walk to the bus with you?” Her house was only a few blocks away from Bridget’s, but she preferred to commute alone and listen to an audiobook. She had enough of talking to her work colleagues during business hours.

“Could you? I mean, would you?”

“Sure,” said Cynny, with regret. She was in the middle of a Scandinavian bloodbath, but she’d been brought up to love her neighbor, so she said, “What time do you want me to be there?”


Before she went to bed that night, Cynny called her dad and asked him for advice about The Fog Man.

“What did The Detective have to say?” asked her boyfriend James, as she climbed into bed. She snuggled down into the covers and turned out the light. From there, they had a view of the sparkling curve of the Bay Bridge, and it was their favorite place to talk.

“He said not to be afraid—The Fog Man never hurts anyone—but to avoid carrying valuables and a backpack. Also, to remember everything he’s taught me.”

“What did he mean by that?”

“I don’t know. How a kick a man where it hurts, I suppose.”

“You wouldn’t,” said James, grimacing.

“I would,” said Cynny, with a grin.

“Do they have any leads on who this guy is yet?”

“He wouldn’t say. But when I asked him what kind of person lurks in the fog for a living, he laughed.”

“What kind of laugh?”

“I think I’d call it a knowing laugh.”

“Hey, do you suppose your father is The Fog Man?”

“No,” said Cynny, hitting him with her pillow, and they went on to further intimacies from there.


The next morning, Cynny did not take her father’s advice. Overnight, she’d begun to fantasize about catching The Fog Man herself, so she went out into her tiny garden, put half a dozen bricks into an empty backpack, and slung it over her shoulder. In her mind’s eye, she envisioned slinging this tempting item at The Fog Man and knocking him to the ground, thereby striking a blow on behalf of San Francisco women and victimized women everywhere, as well as solving the crime singlehandedly. Alternatively, he would run off with the backpack and get nothing but a backache for his trouble.

The fog was exceptionally thick that morning with visibility reduced to only a few steps in front of you, but she found Bridget’s house with no difficulty. It was part of a row of attached houses from the 1960s, which, in her opinion, was not quite “a real house.” Not that she would say this to her friend.

Bridget stood shivering under the front door lamp and nervously stepped out to meet her. She carried her laptop in a handsome leather briefcase with the strap diagonally across her chest.

“Ready?” said Cynny, as if they were embarking on more of an adventure than a day of work in one of The City’s high-risk start-ups.

Bridget bit her lips and nodded. “I’m so glad you were able to come,” she said. “I spent the whole night wondering whether we could move to the East Bay. You know, when the realtor showed us this house, it was a crystal-clear day. I never imagined it could be like this.”

“Think of it as snow,” said Cynny, pointing out the beautiful swirling patterns of the fog in a streetlight.

“I left New York to get away from snow,” said Bridget, and Cynny gave up. It was not her job to cheer Bridget up. Only to get her to the bus in one piece with her briefcase. Personally, she had always loved the fog, but then, she was her father’s daughter.

She strode along and Bridget scrambled beside her, clutching the strap of her briefcase with both hands. It was only a few blocks to the 36 Teresita bus stop. A brief and bracing walk.

As much as she secretly hoped they would encounter the mysterious assailant, Cynny was completely unprepared for the moment when the fog seemed to thicken and take a new shape as one grey-gloved hand grasped her backpack strap and another simultaneously pushed Bridget to the ground. Bridget screamed, and Cynny turned to catch the merest glimpse of a figure moving swiftly away.

With only a quick glance at Bridget, who was already getting to her feet, red-faced with outrage, Cynny took off after the man.

From a block away, she could no longer see him, but she could hear his footsteps running down the street, and she knew she had only a couple of minutes to catch up with him before he reached the entrance to Mt. Davidson Park.

Cynny had already guessed that this must be his escape route, so when he disappeared into the woods, she paused just long enough for him to imagine that she had given up—that he was home free.

Unfortunately for him, he would be wrong about that. Cynny’s father had grown up in this neighborhood, playing in these woods, and he had taught his children every route to top of the mountain. On many a Sunday afternoon, she and her brothers had raced each other to the towering concrete cross at the summit—and cheating by going off the paths was par for the course.

She almost laughed, recalling that her father had told her to remember what he’d taught her, as she listened carefully to determine the direction her quarry had taken. Then she plunged into the woods after him, and the fog dampened every sound, including their footsteps. As she climbed the path through the eucalyptus trees, the sound of her own breathing seemed louder than anything else.

The Fog Man twisted and turned continually upward. At a fork in the path, he dropped her backpack; and, when she came to it, Cynny skirted around it, picking up speed to make the last stretch before the trees thinned, and they reached the mountain top. She was sure she could see him now, weaving through the trees, like the wisps of fog, but more solid. Unfortunately for her, her focus on his speed and surefootedness proved to be her own downfall.


Arthur was gasping so hard he didn’t realize right away that the girl was no longer following him. An unexpected terror had driven him up the mountain with his single thought to get away, because when he had grabbed this victim’s backpack, she had turned, and he had seen her face. A face he knew.

Over the years, he had met Cynthia O’Hare at school reunions, baseball games, and Fourth of July picnics, where the dispersed families of the old neighborhood got together. She was older now, not a little girl or a teen anymore, but still unmistakably the daughter of Brian O’Hare. His old buddy, with whom he’d drunk his first can of beer sitting on the steps of the cross at the top of the mountain. Detective Superintendent O’Hare of the SFPD, as he now was.

This was a very bad turn of events. When Arthur had first read about The Fog Man he was taken aback by how his very invisibility had made him visible. In the news. A topic of discussion in grocery lines.

Even his mother had heard of him, and the crime wave in their old neighborhood made her glad they’d moved away. For the first time in years, she had complimented his father, describing his decision to leave San Francisco as foresight. “Money is the root of all evil,” she told Arthur as she turned off the nightly news report. He had said nothing. His usual response to his mother’s pronouncements.

But now, shame evaporated his secret enjoyment of being cast as a superhero, rather than an unemployed, divorced, middle-aged guy. Shame that was so intense it overtook him when he finally stopped running and huddled down behind a clump of bushes. Shame that made him sweat even more than the cooling of his body. His stomach heaved, and he feared he might vomit, as he realized he had answered his own question. He’d gotten where he was because he was every bit as much of a fool as his ex-employer, ex-wife, and ex-children thought he was. And when it came out what he had done, his ex-mother would undoubtedly agree.

Up until now, he had been able to view his victims with detachment, as nothing more than the people who’d stolen his rightful space in the world. Who had grabbed too of much life’s riches and deserved to have their load lightened. He hadn’t felt sorry when they wailed about being robbed into their cell phones, if they were lucky enough to still have them. The fog would enclose them so quickly, he never thought of them again; and his fond hope was that the experience would make them decide to go back wherever they came from. But Cynthia was another matter.


When her right foot caught on a tree root, Cynny heard the snap of her ankle as she twisted and fell. The pain was so sudden and intense that before she could even summon up the words to describe what happened, she had blacked out. For how long, she had no idea, but the damp from the ground and the settling fog had thoroughly chilled her by the time she opened her eyes again.

With a great effort, she lifted herself up on her elbows and felt in her pockets for her phone, but it wasn’t there. It must have fallen out as she tumbled to the ground. Now she was alone in the woods with no way of calling for help. A whimper escaped her as she sank back down onto the thick bed of eucalyptus leaves that covered the ground.

On a weekday morning, it could be hours before anyone came through this part of the park. But maybe, she thought, Bridget would call for help when Cynny didn’t return to join her. Or maybe not. She might have rushed for the bus and could, at that very moment, be rattling on downtown, thinking about her latte order.

Maybe Bridget would be worried when Cynny didn’t show up for work. Or maybe not. She worked in a different department, and they seldom crossed paths during the day.

It didn’t help to face the fact that the mess she was in was entirely of her own making. She tried to remember why she had imagined she should be the one to singlehandedly catch The Fog Man, and couldn’t. Had her life as a highly paid digital media designer become so devoid of concrete experience that she needed to resort to vigilante heroics to prove she was still human? As if to emphasize the folly and stupidity of this very idea, the swelling in her ankle made her foot, encased in its neat leather boot, feel like it was about the explode.


When Arthur had huddled in the bushes long enough to be certain Cynthia really wasn’t coming, he began to wonder why. She had nearly caught up to him and seemed to sense every turn he made before he made it. But he knew the message of a close call.

“If you are lucky, God will give you a warning,” Sister Angela used to tell them when they were caught doing pretty much anything that boys do. “If you aren’t, He won’t.”

He knew without a doubt that the sight of Cynthia O’Hare’s face as he tore off her backpack was his warning; and a powerful new sense of direction pulled him to his feet, as he swore to himself that he had received the message and would swallow it whole. As he stripped off his gray clothes and mask, he threw them down and covered them with rocks, dirt, and dead leaves. He never wanted to see them again.

Underneath The Fog Man’s clothes, he always wore a blue track suit, which was damp with sweat. But that was OK. In it, he looked ordinary enough. In fact, he looked like who he was—Arthur Ryan—but today he felt like a man coming out of a coma. A man born again. If he weren’t fully aware of the stash of stolen property in his mother’s storage unit, he would swear the last four weeks had only been a dream.

As he began to walk slowly down the mountain, his brain was hard at work trying to rationalize away his crimes. His stealing, he thought, was symbolic. Metaphorical. He had never wanted the things he stole. Never tried to sell or trade them. It was only from reading the newspapers that he learned how much they were worth. Back then, that had made him chuckle, as if his act of revenge was making an impact. Once he even imagined that he would keep going until he had accumulated a million dollars’ worth of stuff, and then he would buy back his old house. Now, he began to shake as he considered how mad that sounded and how long his prison sentence would be if he couldn’t somehow undo what he had done.

The morning was advancing and the fog had begun to burn off. As it lifted, shafts of sunlight broke through, illuminating the floor of the woods. That’s why he noticed the red coat in the leaves. And not only the coat. The body.


Cynny had been lying in the leaves for what felt like a very long time, thinking her situation was a good test for whether prayers really were answered. So far, skepticism and ridicule were carrying the day. Then she heard the rustle of footsteps and opened her eyes to see a man in a blue track suit slithering down the slope toward her. If this were a scene from the book she was reading, he’d be about to do something unspeakably more terrible to her than what had already happened.

Then she recognized him and realized with relief that she was not about to face a horrible death. Maybe there was a benevolent God after all.

“Mr. Ryan?” she said. This was the last person she expected to see. One of her father’s old boyhood friends. The one her dad said had taught them all to steal one beer at a time out of their parents’ fridge, since everyone knew parents couldn’t count.

“Cynthia? Cynthia O’Hare?” He appeared surprised to see her too. “What happened to you?”

“I was, uh, taking a walk, and I missed my footing,” she said. “What are you doing here?”

“I go for a run every day. Can you stand up?” he asked, looking at the way her boot had stretched around her right ankle. When she shook her head, he bent and picked her up in his arms, surprisingly like the way it happened on TV.

I’m being rescued, Cynny thought, and suppressed the urge to laugh. Instead, she leaned her weight against his warm chest, aware that, despite the pain in her ankle and the ruin of her good boots, this day was turning out to be far more exciting than she had ever imagined.


As he made his way down the narrow, wooded path, Arthur felt his load become heavier, and he was sweating, but he didn’t mind. He took care to keep his stride even, not to stumble. Cynthia’s face had been alarmingly white with pain and shock when he found her, but her color was beginning to come back. He could see that.

His shoulders and back ached, and he realized that running around the woods was not enough to keep fit. He really should go back to working out every day. He had to stop wallowing in self-pity, and get on with his life. Do something useful, for God’s sake.

When they reached the entrance to the park, he set her down on a tree stump and took out his cell phone to call for an ambulance.

“They’ll be here soon,” he told Cynthia. “You won’t have long to wait.”

“Thank you, Mr. Ryan,” she said, gazing up at him with an expression that made him look away at the thinning fog. The brightness of the blue sky, when it appeared, was always a shock.

“I’m very grateful to you for finding me. Rescuing me. I don’t know what possessed me to take a walk up the mountain, when I should have been going to work. I just went a little crazy, I guess. Have you ever done anything like that?”

Arthur nodded. He could hear the siren of the ambulance as it wound up the streets from Portola. “Sometimes the consequences are surprising,” he said.

“And has that made you more careful?” she asked.

He glanced down and met her eye. “It has,” he said, as an ambulance with its flashing light rounded the last corner and came toward them.

Arthur was relieved until he saw that it was followed by a police car. Then he thought he might faint, but somehow, he held his ground. Whatever was going to happen next, he hoped it would be quick.

Two EMTs jumped out with a stretcher, but Brian O’Hare, who leapt out of the police car, reached his daughter first.

“Cynthia, Cynthia,” he said, gathering her in his arms. “What am I going to do with you?” Then he turned to Arthur and put out his hand. “Artie. What a miracle that you were on hand to save my impetuous daughter.”

“It was nothing,” said Arthur, feeling the blood rush back into his head.

Brian squeezed his hand, as if he were giving him a secret handshake, and Arthur understood that it was better not know how he managed to reach the scene so quickly.

“Not nothing,” said Brian. “And you know I’d do the same for you.”

Then he turned back to Cynthia, who had been strapped to a stretcher and was being loaded into the back of the ambulance. “I’m right behind you,” he told her, and, with a wave to Arthur, he got into his squad car, and they were all gone.


Two days later, Cynny opened the newspaper to read as her Uber driver dealt with the rush hour traffic into downtown San Francisco. Her leg in its knee-high cast was stretched out on the back seat, and she had her new backpack propped behind her like a pillow.

She skimmed the paper until she found what she was looking for. The headline “Stolen items recovered” was followed by a story saying the crime wave plaguing Mt. Davidson seemed to be over, since everything stolen by The Fog Man had been found covered with a tarp at the base of the cross at the summit.

Detective Superintendent Brian O’Hare said the find had not yielded any evidence about the perpetrator’s identity. While reluctant to call the case closed, he said he guessed that the return of the items meant The Fog Man would not be back.

When asked for his reasons, O’Hare had said simply, “Instinct and experience.”

He left out the detail that Cynny had found most interesting when he told the family the story of the discovery over dinner the night before: On the steps to the cross, next to the stolen goods, someone had left a candle burning brightly in a glass jar decorated with St. Nicholas. The patron saint of repentant thieves.


About the Author

Alice K. Boatwright is the award-winning author of the Ellie Kent mysteries and other fiction, including COLLATERAL DAMAGE, three linked novellas about the impact of the Vietnam War. Her short stories have appeared in Calyx, Penumbra, Stone Canoe, Mississippi Review Online, America West and elsewhere. "Yesterday's Muse" was published by BULL in November 2020. Her latest book, IN THE LIFE EVER AFTER (Ellie Kent mystery #3), was published in the fall of 2023.


Photo by Sheng L on Unsplash