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By fmleighed All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Scifi

Good Morning San Francisco

There’s a man in the middle of the road, Delaney realized sleepily, cooling coffee cupped in her gloved hands.

At the crossing of Folsom and Main, she stood with the other early morning commuters on their way to work. So far, it seemed she was the only person to have noticed the man, but people would see him soon enough; traffic was starting to get edgy.

The man–she couldn't help but think of him as crazy–was walking through the gridlock of cars as it wasn't even there, face turned up toward the sky.  Even from here, she could see the pain that flashed across his features, his body emitting a swaying haggardness.  She had to wonder if he was homeless; certainly he wasn't sane, standing in the middle of one of the busiest intersections this side of the Bridge.

But he didn't look homeless.  Dressed rather well in a charcoal gray peacoat and dark jeans, he cut a sharp figure as he weaved through the mess of orange taxis and shining black town cars.  The usual honks of traffic only increased as they realized that the obstacle blocking their path was a person.

As the honks increased, the other commuters near Delaney figured out what was going on, and excited whispers started circulating through the throng waiting to cross the street.

“He’s insane," she muttered, echoing the thoughts of the crowd.

"Tell me about it," someone said nearby. Delaney laughed quietly.

She was about to say something else, but paused as the man stopped walking, fixing his gaze on a particular spot above him.  Delaney glanced up too, but she couldn't see anything.

"Why are you doing this to me again?" he shouted suddenly, startling everyone around her.  "You keep sharing tragedy after tragedy, sending me covert messages, trying to manipulate me again and again.  I thought it couldn't be worse after what you did, how you betrayed my trust.  But why am I even surprised.  You will resort to anything to get what you want, even hurting your own son.  Even your flesh and blood.  How dare you even try."

Everyone glanced up as one, standing in stunned silence.  The traffic light had changed, but it was left forgotten, even the angsty cab drivers disregarding it.  Because there truly wasn't anything in the sky.  Not even a plane.  Who the hell was he even talking to?  The man paced the street, arms spread in unmistakable outrage, but the remainder of his words were lost as the wail of sirens echoed between the buildings.

Flashing red and blue lights reflected off the glass-fronted offices as police cars, a firetruck, and a paramedic van pulled up and over the sidewalks to get to the center of the intersection.  For a moment, it seemed like the man wasn't going to acknowledge them, but his frantic pacing stopped and he lowered his arms in resignation.

Realizing that the fun was over, the rest of the crowd began to disperse, heading back to their monotonous lives.  But Delaney couldn't look away.  She watched as the man noticed the situation he was in, and with a final, heartbreaking glance at the sky above him, took a slow step forward towards the closest police cruiser.

The officers were jumpy, coming slowly out of their cars.  While they hadn't yet drawn their weapons, many hands hovered over their loaded holsters.  Delaney prayed that things wouldn't get violent.  San Francisco did not need another shooting, not so soon; preferably not ever again.

I hope they're not too hard on the guy she thought, heart going out to him.  He seems to be having a terrible day.

It was nearly impossible for her to stand by and watch everything get worse.  Twitchy cops, heavy traffic, and a man who was very likely mentally ill didn't equate into a good scenario.

Surprising herself with her tenacity, Delaney took a step forward with the vague intention to claim the man as her cousin and take him to San Francisco GH.  What the hell was she doing?

This is not a smart decision, she told herself sternly, willing herself to stop.  You don’t even know who the guy is, and running into help someone when there’s law enforcement involvement definitely does not fit into the realm of “common sense”.  Even so, the poor guy looked so resigned, so forlorn, that it took everything she had to not rush into the middle of the street and do something.

She knew she was stupid for wanting to help.  She knew that, but something had always drawn her to those in need, like balloons and static electricity.  It heart ached to see people suffer.

A staccato ring shattered her thoughts, and, checking the contact info, Delaney muttered a string of swear words as she hit ignore .  Guilt sank low and heavy in her stomach, and she almost regretted not taking the call.  It certainly wasn't professional of her.

With an exasperated sigh, more at herself than anyone else, Delaney threw a glance back at the man in the road.  He was going to go quietly with the police.  That was okay, then.  She felt somewhat reassured, tension in her core draining away.  She hadn’t known it was there until it was gone.

Rainwater from the night before splashed under her feet as she took off in a run for the nearest BART station because, goddamnit, she was going to be late for work.  Again.

Eli didn't make a sound as the local law enforcement warily approached.  With labored breathing, he realized that he had probably been acting like a total psychopath.  His eyes slid to the sky again, and while there wasn't any visible evidence of the rift that he knew was there, he felt a wave of sympathy pass through him, leaving him dizzy.  Well, he decided, that's probably all I'm going to get.

"Hello, officers," he said, holding up his hands.  "I'm so sorry about all of this."  His voice had a crisp lilt to it, vaguely English.  He’d long stopped trying to get an American accent right.

"You're going to have to come with us," he nearest officer said.  Officer Muller, according to his badge.

"Yeah, no problem," Eli said, giving a sad smile.  “I’m sure I can explain everything to your satisfaction."

They cuffed him, escorting him to the cruiser, someone mumbling his rights, obviously surprised that he wasn't behaving erratically.  Well, they had every right to be surprised, since he had just been holding up traffic, yelling at thin air.  Eli silently cursed himself for his irrational behavior.  Ridiculous.  What good had struggling been; it would only force him out of this city faster than any of the others.

Officer Muller opened the cruiser door, and Eli gave the man a nod of thanks before climbing into the car without assistance.  The door shut behind him, and the warm heater was nothing short of bliss.

Forty-five minutes later, after being unloaded from the cruiser and stuck in an interrogation room that smelled faintly of cleanser, Eli was left alone.  Cold seeped through his jacket sleeves where he rested his elbows on the metal table, and he briefly wished he was back in the warmth of the car.  In the frigid silence, his thoughts battered him to bits; there was nothing to distract him but cold, solid steel.

Dead.  She was dead.  And he had absolutely no way of getting to her.  To her funeral.  To his family.

Oh, Ellie.

God, but he could use a drink.  Even if it was only a cup of coffee.

As if the man had heard him, the door on his left opened and Officer Muller came into the room, two paper cups of steaming coffee clutched in his hands, a black leather portfolio under one arm.  Eli glanced up at him, but made no other movement.

He kicked the door shut behind him and set the coffee in front of Eli.

"Here you go, man.  It's fucking freezing in here."

Eli nodded his thanks and took the cup, taking a long sip.  Cheap and black as tar, probably from one of those machines that just continuously brew.  But it was hot, and he was thankful Muller was a decent cop.  He could have gotten stuck with a total hard-ass.

"So, you're Eli Ashcroft, living at seven-three-two-seven Ninth Street, right?"

"That's me," Eli replied smoothly.

Muller nodded and slid Eli's ID across the table.  He took it, pulling it slightly closer to him, but not going for the wallet in his pocket.  Too threatening.

"You said you were fully willing to explain why you were standing in the middle of the road, obstructing traffic and shouting," the officer said it as a fact, rather than a question.  A stab of amusement went through him that Muller left out the fact that he had been directing his shouts to the sky.  Very tactful.

"Right," Eli said, and his face lost any good humor it had held, which wasn't much.  He felt it, felt the muscles in his cheeks slide down, felt the pain of the news strike up in him again, burning.  He tried to keep the majority of it from showing; he didn't want this stranger knowing the full story.  He couldn’t know.

He set his coffee down, controlling his face, eyes hard.

"I'm terribly sorry about all that," he said.  "My father called this morning and told me that my sister…Eleanor…has passed away.”

A shadow of concern passed over the older man's face.  "How did she die?" he prompted, voice quiet.

"Hit by a...a car.  Drunk driver."

Eli didn't tell him that the car was not quite the same thing he was picturing, and that the driver had been intoxicated by a drug unlike anything ever dreamed, this side of a rift.

"Driving while inebriated, no matter how slightly, is extremely dangerous," Muller said, shaking his head.  "What else?"

"Well, as I'm not on speaking terms with the majority of the family because of the choices I decided to make in my life, they refuse to tell me where or when they're having the funeral."  That was detailed enough, without giving anything away.

Muller stared at him a second, and Eli could see him calculating, weighing the possibility that he was telling the truth.  A second later, the decision to trust him was written on the officer's open face as he sighed.

"Damn man," he said.  "That's some bullshit."  He looked down at the folder in front of him, making a couple of quick, precise notes.  "I gotta ask, though.  Have you been drinking at all?"

Eli gave a humorless laugh.  "Not yet.  I only got the call about an hour and a half ago now, when you fellows picked me up.  You can check my phone, if you like.  It's listed under "Why's Bloody Dad Calling."

The officer pulled Eli's phone from a plastic evidence bag in his pocket, and checked the recent call list.  He registered when Muller's eyes read the name, and the man let out a bark of laughter.

"Okay, son, I believe you.  I don't think you're crazy.  You don't seem crazy, even though you were bellowing in the street an hour ago."

Eli looked at him then, blue eyes narrowing thoughtfully.  He realized that the man had a trustworthy face, not just open.  Square, sensible facial hair, trimmed but not overly so.  He looked...father-like.  The wedding ring on his finger was gold and worn to a shine.  A sudden warmth suffused his heart.

"Thank you for being so understanding.  Am I free to go?"

"Yeah," Muller said, "just one more thing."

He pulled something else out from his pocket, small, plastic, with a mouthpiece on one end.  He handed it to Eli.

"Breathe into this for me."

A breathalyzer, if a rather mundane one.  Eli gave his assent and let out a breath into the device.

"Totally normal, clean bill of health," Muller said, checking the results.  "Make sure you don't drink too much later, yeah?  And I obviously don't have to tell you this, but don't drive."

Eli chuckled, but the sound was raw, even to him.  "I can't promise I won't drink too much, but don't worry: I take BART."

Muller nodded firmly, but a hint of sympathetic humor creased the corners of his eyes as he opened the door.  “Watch yourself on BART too…you never know who you’ll run into.  See the receptionist to get the rest of your things back."  He hesitated, then pulled out a small, leather card case, clicking a pen and scrawling on the back.  He handed it to Eli.  "Be careful.  While we all do crazy things in our grief, sometimes they can get out of control.  If you need anything, call me.  Next time, if there is a next time, we'll have to look into things a little further.  Call me before it gets to that point, okay?"

Eli was genuinely touched by the man's gesture, and could only take the card with a nod of thanks.  Muller didn't appear to need any other acknowledgement, and left him to walk to the front desk alone.

Well, Eli thought.  That was close.

"This is the third time this month," Carmen said, exasperation written all over her oval face.

"I know, I'm sorry!"

"Delaney," her boss's gaze pierced her through black Armani frames.  "I can't excuse this anymore."

Delaney's heart sank, and she determinedly kept eye contact with Carmen.  This is it, she was fired.  There was no other way around it.

"I have to put you on suspension."

She felt her eyes widen, and the corners of Carmen's lips twitched.

"You were distracted by the guy in the street this morning."  It wasn't a question.

Delaney's mouth dropped open.  "How–"

"God, I knew it!  You can’t let yourself get distracted, Dela.  I know we're good friends," at this, Carmen leaned forward conspiratorially, elbows planted on the modern ebony desk, "but I can't always give you free rein here."

Delaney grinned sheepishly.  "Suspension's not so bad...I'll just be very broke, instead of regular broke.  What am I waiting on until I can come back?"

"I have to talk to HR and see what they want to do with you.  I don't know what it's going to take, but suspension for a couple of weeks with no pay should 'punish' you enough.  I hate doing this to you since you're one of my best copywriters, but I can't let this go without some form of public admonishment."

Delaney slumped back in her chair, gaze wandering to the wide windows behind Carmen's boss-lady desk.  It was early enough for the fog to still be pretty thick throughout the city, but it would burn off quick.

"Maybe this will teach me some time management," she said hopefully.

Carmen rolled her eyes and leaned back in her leather chair, pulling her dark hair over her shoulder.  "Yeah, right."

Delaney laughed, and her friend puffed up her cheeks to suppress her own smile.  "It's not even about the distraction, Dela," she said, when she had mastered herself.  "It's about how you always get wrapped up in situations where people take advantage of you."

"That's not necessarily true," Delaney replied carefully.

"What about Rachel's sister?  The one who wound up living with you for three months?"

"That was a special case."

"Shall I continue?  Don't forget Dan, Penny's classmate.  The one who called you at three AM every day, crying and drunk."

A sharp knock came from behind her, and Delaney was spared from coming up with a response.

"Carmen?  I have that phone interview from RedBook ready and waiting."  Carmen's well-dressed assistant raised a trimmed eyebrow from behind his glasses.

"Shit," Carmen groaned, but waved him to transfer the call.  "I hate these."

Delaney gave her oldest friend a cheeky look.  "No, you don't.  You love it.  You love being the big, bad, boobed boss lady."

Carmen laughed, quietly but genuine.  "Get the hell out of my office, employee.  I'll text you when you can come back to work."

"Have I told you your assistant's gorgeous?"

"Yes, I know, but he isn't interested in me or you, sweetie.  Get out of here."

Keeping her face straight, Delaney left the office  She attempted to look reasonably pissed off, seeing as she was on suspension, but almost failed when her friend picked up the phone, and in the most professional voice she'd ever heard, say "Yes, this is Carmen.  Now, what inane questions can I answer for you today?" before the door clicked shut.

God, but Carmen was such a badass.

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