Rules of Fog
by Robert W. Walker & Jerry Peterson
story inspired by the fog and medical examiner Dr. Jessica Coran of the Instinct Series files
Jessica Coran lifted the lungs from the dead man’s chest cavity. As she did, she marveled at the shredded condition
of the pair of sacks now like pizza dough without cohesion, threatening to slip through her gloved hands. The lungs,
pockmarked with countless rents and tears where membrane walls had caved in, was the worst she’d seen in her twenty-five
years of autopsying questionable deaths.
guessed that this one had chained smoked five, maybe six packs a day, the sort unfazed by the Camel Tax, undeterred by reason
or facts or statistics. Jake Helspenny, the paperwork said, nickname’d “Smoke.” Coran guessed he’d
lived in a perpetual fog of cigarette exhaust and carbon monoxide. He’d traded breath for addiction.
auburn hair tied back and tucked beneath a surgical cap, Jessica stowed away a fact that Smoke Helspenny’s lungs told
her: he’d’ve been dead inside a year or two had nothing untoward happened. But what had happened?
ex-marine had been found dead in Arlington National Cemetery, once General Robert E. Lee’s family homestead, confiscated
by the US government as “payback” Lee’s having commanded the Southern armies in the War Between the
States – Arlington, a cemetery consecrated to the dead of all wars, where heroes slumbered within sight of the tomb
of the Unknowns.
examined Smoke’s liver. She concluded it had been in less peril than his lungs, but not by much. The man had been
also been a heavy drinker. The organs never lie, she thought. The condition of a man’s organs
at death stood testament to his life and frequently his character. Often the sum of the injuries a man did himself damn
near outweighed the thing that killed him.
Helspenny’s epitaph: He’d come out of the Marines a broken man, missing far more than his left leg, right hand,
and a piece of his skull and brain from what his wife called “the incident” in Iraq.
had met the woman before she had begun the autopsy, had interviewed her – a buxom blonde, whose once pretty features
sagged from forehead to jowls, telling the tale of a rough life alongside Smoke.
that Jake’d gone through in Iraq,” the woman – Katherine Helspenny – said, “tooth-to-nail fightin’,
facing death every day, acceptin’ the death of buddies—brothers.”
An Arlington homicide detective –
Kyle Jensen, in possession of his gold shield for less than a year – had been with the wife. He’d pushed
Coran, the Commonwealth of Virginia’s medical examiner, to do the autopsy rather than assign it to one of her juniors.
“Sounds like he was a good marine,” Jensen had said to Mrs. Helspenny.
was.” Katherine Helspenny dabbed at tears. “But Jake never got over being the only survivor in his
squad. Had nightmares. . . . Now this.”
studied the woman. “Do you know anyone who’d want to harm your husband?”
a soul, except Dooley.”
Jensen, a thin, wiry youngish George Carlin-type, swiveled. “Dooley, ma’am? You didn’t mention
a Dooley before. Who’s he?”
by the nickname Spider. It was always Smoke and Spider in their time in the Marines. . . . Dooley blamed Jake for walking
out of ‘the incident’ that killed all the others.”
and Jessica exchanged looks of concern.
Helspenny pulled at a her wedding band, as if by habit, but it wouldn’t come off her pudgy finger. “Yes, Smoke’s
so-called best friend, Dooley was.”
turned to Jensen. “Looks like you’ve got a lead. Find Mr. Dooley and you may well close your case.”
the wife said. “What do you mean ‘maybe.’ Dooley hated Jake.”
to kill him, his old war buddy?” Jensen asked.
‘buddy’ business was a long time ago. People change. Dooley sure did.”
put up a hand. “Never mind that, Mrs. Helspenny. Do you know where I can find this Dooley.”
not sure. Somewhere out in the cemetery, in the fog.”
not likely still out there.”
wanders among the graves – reads the headstones, searching for men from his old outfit, the outfit Jake was in before
motioned for Jensen to step aside with her. “Were you in the military?” she asked.
go out to Quantico, get someone to pull up Dooley’s service record. That might get you a lead on where this guy ended
person bustled in, a stubby little man named Roth – Mrs. Helspenny’s lawyer. Moments before, on seeing the
corpses on gurneys parked in the autopsy room, Roth had run for the men’s room and retched. “Theopolis,”
he said, picking up on the end of Jessica’s and Jensen’s conversation. He mopped at his face with a lavender
handkerchief. “Theopolis Alexander Dooley is the man’s full name.”
sure?” Jessica asked, a slight smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
she said, “there can’t be two with that name in the record dump. Your job just keeps getting easier.”
wound himself up, to earn his fee. “This woman’s suffered long enough.” The lawyer waved a hand
in the direction of Mrs. Helspenny. “Dr. Coran, I expect you to get on this autopsy right away, and I expect you
to give it your top priority. Anything less and you can expect to see Mrs. H and me on the Today Show with Katie
it was Jensen who raised a hand. “Back off,” he said. “I’ve been told Dr. Coran doesn’t respond
well to threats.”
are rules – protocol,” Jessica said, her hands braced on her ample hips.
Katherine Helspenny asked.
office’s policy book says we don’t autopsy a body unless there’s clear evidence of an unnatural death. The
detective told me on the phone, before the three of you came here, that when he examined the deceased at the cemetery, there
were no gunshots, no knife wounds, no signs of a struggle, nothing but a body slumped over a grave stone.”
pushed into Jessica’s personal space, his face inches from her. “Mrs. H found her husband dead in Arlington
cemetery. She’s convinced this Dooley character lured Jake there to kill him. That’s premeditation!”
right, the body’s here somewhere. I’m willing to do a preliminary, but if I don’t see any obvious
indications of murder . . .” Jessica turned palms up, as if to say ‘that’s it.’
Roth’s face hardened. “We don’t want a preliminary, we want a complete autopsy, down to examining the man’s
last whisker.” Roth tried a mock softening of his voice, adding, “Look, we were told you’re
the best, and that you deal in unusual cases. This is an unusual case, doctor. The man was killed in the most famous
cemetery on the planet.”
explains your interest in the case—potentially high profile, she thought but said, “Be that
as it may, counselor, the Commonwealth doesn’t just start cutting on a corpse without some probable cause, some indication
of foul play.”
Roth, angry, took to pacing like an Irish setter in heat, his long, flowing gray mane whipping about.
thought she’d won the argument, but then Mrs. Helspenny shouted, “You government types’re all alike!
Took us forever to get the VA to deal with Jake’s depression, his panic attacks, the living pain in his stump, all of
it. Maybe if you’d stepped in earlier – maybe he’d never’ve felt compelled to…to go out
there to find Dooley.”
placed an arm about the distressed wife and helped her into a seat. Jensen offered her a stack of napkins, and she began
blowing her nose. The wife looked up at Jessica. “Took us even longer to get my Jake’s pension, and
they give it out like it was some kinda fund he had no right to, like he didn’t have it comin’.”
held up both hands as if under attack. “Please, Mr. Roth, Mrs. Helspenny, let me put this as simply as I can. Until
I’m satisfied that Mr. Helspenny died a questionable death, he stays on ice. I did take a quick look at him, and I’
didn’t find a mark on him to suggest murder.”
you have my word,” Mrs. Helspenny said.
that’s not enough, ma’am.”
is rules, huh?” The woman’s glare cut wounds in Jessica.
you, the rules may seem a bit absurd, but they are in place for a reason.”
protocol first,” Roth offered up, “before the wishes of the surviving spouse?”
what you really need to do a full autopsy is a go-ahead.”
didn’t respond, and her silence only fueled Roth’s ego and tongue. “Well, by damn,” he said, his nostrils
flaring wide, “I’ll get you your go-ahead. I know your superior.”
for you, counselor, so why don’t you just do that?”
Lord, hasn’t anyone ever been murdered in a National Park before?” Mrs. Helspenny asked.
shrugged. “Many times. The most egregious are the young women and girls who go missing, their bodies are
found in shallow graves.”
happened in Arlington – ever,” Jensen said. “Hey, I looked it up on Google. No one in the history
of the cemetery has ever mugged, raped, or murdered within its confines.”
Google says so, it must be true,” Jessica said. Google. She didn’t know whether to laugh at
that one or cry.
went on, an enthusiasm building in the detective. “You see, I belong to a Confederate reenactment group. Relieves tension.”
soldier, no real consequences.”
by that you mean no one gets hurt – ”
what I mean,” Jessica said. “All the battlefield dead get up after it’s over and walk off to the nearest
bar for lite Bud.”
it’s fun. How about you join me some weekend? You’d look great in the uniform.”
was that a pass? A bit obvious. She frowned rather than smiled. “My interest is in the
genuinely sincere dead, detective.”
if I went to one of those things, I’d stand with the North.”
look just as good in a blue uniform.”
I’ll make myself clearer. I’m not interested in those who feign death. I’m too busy with the
real thing, detective.”
next day, Roth and Mrs. Helspenny stood in Jessica’s office, a court order in hand. She read the paper and the attachments
from the agency holding jurisdiction over Arlington National Cemetery, the National Park Service. Everyone had signed
off. Including Dr. Sven Rouric, her new boss who’d promised to maintain a hands-off approach along with a great budget,
if she left FBI work for the State of Virginia. The twirp had reneged.
order cited Helspenny’s war service as the basis for directing this case to the head of the line. “We take care
of our men in uniform and those who were in uniform, even in death.”
pointed her unwelcome guests to the waiting room, then got into her scrubs and went into the autopsy room.
it had come to this. Smoke’s chest cavity open before her, the internal organs removed,
weighed, examined, commented upon for the record. Jessica next sawed away the top of Helspenny’s skull, exposing
the brain, and she reached in to lift the lesion-ridden gray matter from its cradle. She then weighed the body’s
most important mass of tissue which once held electro-chemical sparks transporting hopes, dreams, aspirations, imaginings,
language, reasoning, rationalizations, mores, ethics, cultural biases, notions of goodness, evil, love, anger, sentimentalities,
prejudices, lessons learned, knowledge gleaned, experiences at negative and positive poles, passions overflowing, small and
large hatreds, and final betrayals. All silenced now. Dull and unresponsive, the organ of sentience dead
to the touch.
probed the occipital lobe, and a strange, nearly imperceptible yet filmy fog rose from the tissue, as if the room’s
bright incandescent lights had somehow vaporized some portion of the brain fluid. Absolutely strange and mystifying,
something Jessica had never seen in all her years in an autopsy room. But something tickled at her own brain –
a memory. She had read about this in the literature, no, in the textbook written by her mentor, Dr. Asa Holecraft, at
the University of Tennessee.
had called it rare, a phenomena of undetermined origin, never captured save in anecdotal fashion. When asked in class
one day to explain it, he could not. Holecraft summed it up as illogical and out of the ordinary, but said he has seen it
twice in his 40 years as a medical examiner.
was alone in the room with Helspenny’s body, and the bodies of six others waiting for her attention, so there was no
one to verify what she’d seen. She glanced up at the video camera, wondering if the ghostly wisp of fog had been
caught by the rolling tape.
clicked on the intercom connecting the autopsy room with a waiting room. “I’m finding absolutely no wounds to
the body,” she said to the microphone.
Roth, Mrs. Helspenny, are you there?”
voice came back. “Look closer,” he said. “Mrs. Helspenny suggests you look at the base of the brain.”
Is Detective Jensen out there? Is he with you?”
called his office before we came in, talked to his lieutenant. Said Jensen hadn’t come in…mentioned something
about the blue flu going around.”
. . . Now where’s that coming from?”
seemed to be speaking to Mrs. Helspenny, whose voice she heard in the background – indistinct. She and Roth were
going on about something, and Roth hadn’t cut off the intercom.
yesterday,” Roth said, “you two were insanely in love, the deepest most – ”
I don’t wanna hear it.” Mrs. Helspenny’s voice came through clearly now.
listened as she examined more closely the brain of the dead ex-marine, fascinated by the “Desperate Housewives”
we should take a walk, get some air, get some perspective on things,” Roth went on. “You seem in a fog.”
What fog? I’m fine.”
there it was, a small, near invisible hole at the base of the brain, the hole no larger than as ice pick, so filled in with
ice crystals that she hadn’t noticed.
came over the intercom, causing Jessica to drop the brain. She rushed from the autopsy room to the waiting room and found
Roth splayed out on the institutional gray-green carpet, blood leaking from the back of his skull. Over him, an ice pick in
her hand, stood a grinning Mrs. Helspenny.
did it,” she said, “Dooley! I tol’ ya, tol’ ya all. Tol’ Jensen! And I tol’ this fool
Dooley’d strike again if nobody stopped him.”
do you mean, stop Dooley?” Jessica asked.
dropped the ice pick and went to her knees. “Can’tcha look? Can’tcha see? Don’t you all see
now it’s happened? Spider Dooley killed my Jake! Killed him at the grave.”
realized she’d held tight to her scalpel. Keeping the ice pick in sight, Jessica knelt beside Roth. She checked
his pulse. Nothing. He was gone. She clenched the scalpel more tightly, chilled by a feeling that there were three
people in the waiting room yet alive – she, Mrs. Helspenny, and a third who had no corporeal body.
Jake at his grave,” Mrs. Helspenny keened.
grave?” Jessica asked as calmly as she could muster. “Who’s grave?”
damn it! Dooley’s grave.”
dead? Buried in Arlington?”
you people! Of course, he’s under Arlington’s sod. Killed in action, same action Jake got hurt in.”
the incident in Iraq?”
you said Jake met Dooley in the cemetery. You said Dooley was angry with Jake because he survived—”
all the others died, yes!”
came in the fog.”
me for asking, but who is Dooley to you?”
father to my child.”
sat back on her heels. She meant to keep Mrs. Helspenny and herself calm, just as she’d been taught by the FBI.
in death,” Mrs. Helspenny said, “he blames Jake to this day. And when Jake came home from the war, and he took
me to his bed – made me his wife – he tried to take Dooley’s place – looking after his dead friend’s
wife, he said – he never could, no matter how he tried.”
Helspenny – Katherine, why are you so sure it was Dooley?”
whispered to me from the fog. Told me to come to him.”
you, you mean?”
shared haunting. Rare, but it happened, Jessica thought. “Is that why Jake was at Dooley’s
came angry. Knew I’d be there.”
followed you into the cemetery?”
knew I’d be in the fog at the grave.”
he found you at Dooley’s grave?” The headstone Jensen had failed to read. Some detective.
was kneeling at the grave when – when Dooley came.”
how? He’s dead, Mrs. Helspenny.”
like he’s made of fog.”
left Jessica fishing for words. In the silence Jessica heard the soft whirring of the electric motor in the ceiling
fan stirring the air overhead. Finally, Jessica asked, “Did Dooley possess you, take you over?”
Helspenny nodded once deeply. “An’ it did his dead heart so much good,” she whispered.
with the ice pick, yes.”
pick?” Jessica asked, glancing toward the bloody pick on the carpet beside Roth’s body. She had a taped
confession thanks to the intercom being open, thanks to this entire conversation being piped into the autopsy room where her
recorder drew every sound that reached its microphone to the tape, to be preserved. Jessica wondered, would the confession
hang the woman or send her to an asylum?
did it,” Mrs. Helspenny said, her voice rising above a whisper, above the sound of the ceiling fan.
held firm to the scalpel in her hand as she studied the woman. “You loved him very much, didn’t you?”
a helluva thick fog,” Mrs. Helspenny said, shivering at the memory.
then it came to Jessica, the week that Jake ‘Smoke’ Helspenny had been killed – murdered – there had
been a weather system stalled along the eastern seaboard, every morning fog so thick you could shovel it, from Baltimore through
Washington, down to Richmond, and as far as 120 miles inland. She remembered it well. The fog had made her drive in
from the farm hell. But by 11AM, it was gone, except for wisps in the valleys and hollows closer to the mountains.
ever take time to truly stare into fog,” Mrs. Helspenny asked, “I mean really watch it? Just sit and watch
it, watch it move inside itself?”
hadn’t, yet she said, “Yes, I have.”
a strange life in it, like the life of a breathing, invisible angel, like the way a gas lamp appears to breathe.”
think there’s an energy, a force that’s gotta obey its own rules – ”
like natural things all have rules, like gravity and such, yet fog has supernatural rules maybe – maybe makes ’em
up as it goes – and that morning I run off from Jake, I watched the fog too long, I think.”
Helspenny – Katherine, do you mind if I call Detective Jensen?”
she heard the question. Jessica doubted she had because Mrs. Helspenny said, “I saw Dooley come riding inside
that fog when it rose from the earth over his grave.”
your child, a son or a daughter? Where is your child?”
in the fog.”
he lost in the cemetery?”
the reason I went to Dooley.”
what happened to Little Dooley?”
face twisted in anguish. “That bastard, Jake, he’ll never hurt no child ever again.”
is this going? Jessica wondered. “What did Jake do to Little Dooley, Katherine?”
broke his neck.” Tears rolled down the woman’s cheeks, streaking her makeup.
tears rose in Jessica’s eyes, too. “Katherine . . . Katherine, I have to ask. Why did Dooley attack Roth?”
said I should give myself up, but Dooley didn’t like that idea.”
yourself up to who, Detective Jensen?”
Dooley heard Detective Jensen say this case’ll make his career. So Dooley whispered that Jensen was using me.”
saw Jensen last night? Where?”
house – came to my house. There was fog and Dooley was there.”
didn’t – ”
Katherine, with Roth, there was no fog in here.”
there was! Moment before you came in there was. Place was full of fog. Came spilling out the vents.”
Jessica knew there was no fog, she glanced around to assure herself. No fog, no spilled coffee, no crushed-out cigarette
butts, nothing out of the ordinary save for Roth lying dead on the carpet.
stanched, Mrs. Helspenny tilted her head to one side, then the next as she peered at Jessica. “Dooley says you’re
going to hurt me. Is that true?”
why would I?”
never lied to me, not like Jake, or Jensen, or Roth. Are you lying to me?”
always said if we married, we’d make our own rules.”
weren’t married to Dooley?”
Helspenny, distracted, rubbed at her forehead. “Fog, makes its own rules,” she said.
makes its own rules . . . rules of fog. These phrases, these concepts of a confused mind rolled over in
Jessica’s mind. “Katherine, we’re going to need some help here,” she said, motioning toward
Roth’s body. “I’m just going to . . .” Jessica turned away for a moment, picked up a napkin,
then knelt to retrieve the ice pick. She took care to not smudge the fingerprints or touch the blood. As Jessica rose,
she Mrs. Helspenny clamped one hand over the other, the hand twisting, pulling, as if it were in a tug-of-war.
can’t fog be controlled or quantified or figured like other things?” the woman asked to the ether. She twisted
toward Jessica, pleading, “Did you know I was a math teacher at the high school? I try to figure these things out, but
they don’t figure. I can only tell you . . . Dooley’s back!”
wheeled in the direction the woman stared, her face blanching white.” Mrs. Helspenny rose up and, as she did, she plunged
a hand into a pocket. When the hand came out – a fist – it held a second ice pick that now rose high, the
woman screaming, “You’ll never hurt me now!”
spun back as the hand and pick hammered down at her brain, but mercifully, the pick entered Jessica’s twisting shoulder
instead. She responded, sweeping up with her scalpel, slicing through the woman’s clothes, cutting a gash across
Helspenny, shocked, paused.
continued around. She kicked out her foot, catching the mad woman behind her ankles, upending her. Mrs. Helspenny’s
windmilling arms could not stop her fall, and she struck her head on a sofa table, the sound like a gunshot. The mad
woman had gone silent and lay now in a heap on carpet.
her chest heaving, her lungs sucking for oxygen, stood there uncertain, her hand going to her shoulder. A clean, bloodless
wound beneath her lab coat, but the pain was significant. Then came a movement somewhere in the room. The movement
caught her eye but it was neither Mrs. Helspenny or Roth, but from near a vent to the side – an escaping gas.
Helspenny, after she came to, talked, rambled on and never stopped, and Jessica could not help but wonder if it was Mrs. Helspenny’s
defense against Dooley returning in the fog. The insanity claim put forth by her court-appointed lawyer held at a hearing,
and the judge ordered the woman to the state asylum.
repeatedly visited Katherine there. Sat with the woman for hours, listening, trying to make sense of it all. Had
she snapped on learning that Jake had killed her child? The words rolled forth from the woman non-stop, most of them
little more than nonsense and as disconnected as a Charles Manson monologue. But some words, some phrases meandered
through her discourse again and again . . . “It was the fog. . . . Fog’s got rules. . . . Got to figure the rules
psychiatrist assigned the case told Jessica Mrs. Helspenny had gone to scribbling mathematical formulas and algebraic equations
with crayon and on table paper. “Papers the walls of her room with it all,” he’d said, shaking his head.
asked, “Can I see her room?”
timing,” Dr. Koontz replied. “She’s in group session with my colleague on the case right now, so she’ll
led the way.
wandered about the otherwise plain room, studying the scribblings while Koontz looked over her shoulder, frowning. Finally,
Jessica asked the psychiatrist, “May I take a few of these with me?”
be analyzed by experts, former colleagues still with the FBI.”
don’t think there’s much worth analyzing, but I see no harm in it.” And he randomly pulled down three
sheets and gave them to Jessica.
former associates at Quantico studied them as diligently as Jessica before they sent her a one-page report that could have
been summarized in three words – nonsense, mathematical gibberish.
moments in her car or her office, and not so quiet moments in the autopsy room, Jessica replayed the case, Mrs. Helspenny’s
torment, and came over time to fear that she was approaching a precipice beyond which lay insanity. She came to speak
little of the case and told no one of the smoky residue that had rises from Jake Helspenny’s brain, and somehow found
life in the ventilation system; she dared not mention the slit of milky fog that wisped away through the waiting-room vent
like a witch up the chimney.
maintained a habit of, at 5:45 p.m., going home to the farm, to her husband Richard, sure that the stability of both would
keep her steady, secure. Yet, when the weather conditions were right, when the dew point and the temperature converged,
when the air was utterly still, fog would engulf her and Richard’s farm, and she would stand at the window and stare
until some movement, like that of a scurrying insect, drew her gaze. The movement might be as brief as a swirl in the fog,
and it was gone, or had it been there at all? Was it illusion, the mind playing tricks on itself?
fog this night was so thick that Jessica could not see the horse stable less than fifty yards from their home.
came up behind her. The start she felt melted when he quickly grabbed her up and wrapped his arms about her shoulders.
“Jess, why do you stare out like this? All it does is make you one bleak, gloomy Gus.” Richard’s
rich voice, firm and sure, had a reassuring quality she’d grown to expect and want.
melancholy, uncommunicative, Jessica thought. It’s the fog.
heaven’s sake, talk to me,” Richard said. He kissed her behind her ear. “Tell me what’s
going on. Have I done something wrong?”
touched his hand, caressed it. “No, just something troubling about fog.”
that Helspenny case, you’ve been this way about the damn bloody fog. It never once bothered you before.”
sorry, Richard. I can’t explain it, can’t put it into words.”
the words ‘frustrating as hell.’”
She pulled herself from his arms and
walked away. “Rules of Fog,” she muttered.
I’m going to bed.” She could feel his eyes on her back as she walked off.
again, Jessica knew she’d never shake off the Helspenny case, not fully ever, no matter how much time passed.
Nor could she share the details with Richard, the person she loved most. It was, as he’d said, frustrating as
hell. But it was also as if she had deciphered one of the rules of fog. She’d done so one dreary night standing
over the tombstone of one Dooley there in cemetery fog. She’d seen no ghost rise from the earth, had seen no spectral
face in the stones, nor shapes in the fog, but she thought she’d caught a whisper ride past on the wind. Perhaps
one of the rules of fog, and since then, she’d chosen to live by it: Silence is peace.
Award-winning author and graduate of Northwestern
University, Robert W. Walker, created his highly acclaimed Instinct and Edge Series between 1982 and 2005. Rob has since written his award-winning
historical series featuring Inspector Alastair Ransom with City for Ransom (2006),
Shadows in the White City (2007), and City
of the Absent (2008). This history-mystery hybrid straddles the Chicago World’s
Fair circa 1893, and has had enthusiastic reviews from Chicago historians and the Chicago
Tribune, which likened “the witticism to Mark Twain, the social consciousness to Dickens, and the ghoulish atmosphere
to Poe!” Rob’s most recent book is Dead On, a PI’s tale of revenge.
story writer and novelist Jerry Peterson taught speech, English and theater, then worked in communications for farm organizations.
He followed that with a decade as a reporter, photographer and editor for weekly, semi-weekly and daily newspapers. Peterson
left daily journalism to become a graduate student at the University of Tennessee/Knoxville. There he collected stories he
incorporated into short stories and novels set in the Great Smoky Mountains. Peterson wrote nine novels that failed to see
print, then a tenth – Early’s Fall, a crime novel set in 1949 Kansas. Five Star, an imprint of Gale/Cengage,
published it last year.