MELODY

Melody

By Tracy LeCates

           

Well, that was pleasant," Cassy grumbled as she and her partner finally made their way through the dark parking lot to their cars.  The press conference had broken up almost thirty minutes earlier, and the detectives had finally managed to break away from the last of the reporters wanting statements. 

            Tom stifled a yawn.  "Don't like being in the public eye?"

            The sound of Cassy's shoes on the pavement as she approached the Boxter seemed to echo.  *Or, maybe that's just sleeplessness catching up to me,* she mused.  "Not really. Every time those vultures start shoving cameras in our faces it just means it's harder to ever do discreet surveillance. God forbid we ever have to go undercover."

            Tom eyed his Mustang appreciatively, parked a few spaces from his ex-wife's convertible.  Tonight it was more than just a classic car; it was his ticket home, to bed.  "They're just protecting the public's right to know," he replied sarcastically.  "We just arrested a man who's been raping and murdering his way through Florida.  If the press didn't protect that man's rights, who would?  And part of protecting his rights is making sure that the cops who arrested him get put on the spot in front of the viewers."

            "Nice system," Cassy agreed.  Tossing her purse into the passenger seat of her car, she reached for the door handle, and paused.  "Want to get some dinner or something? Celebrate the end of this week from hell?"

            "Love to," Tom answered, already moving towards his own car.  "But not tonight, okay?  Ten minutes into the meal I'd be face down in my linguini.  How about tomorrow?"

            "Wimp," she laughed.  "Tough getting old, huh?  You and I used to pull all nighters all the time and you never complained."

            A wide grin crept across his face.  "Yes, but not all of those all nighters were spent vertically.  Harry gave us tomorrow off for good behavior, and I intend to use it to the fullest.  I'll call you when I get up, and you can pick any restaurant in town for dinner.  Deal?"

            "Deal," she agreed.  "I'm gonna go home, take my phone off the hook and crash.  See you tomorrow."

            Tom retreated to his vehicle and started the engine, letting it warm up for a few moments, waiting until Cassy's taillights winked in the distance before leaving.  Rag-top down, the night air helped keep him awake and alert as he drove the short distance from the precinct to his apartment.  His mind and body were both begging for sleep.  *Maybe she's right.  Maybe I am getting old*, he conceded.  *Too old to stay out all night so many times in one week.*            

            His apartment soon appeared before him, like an oasis in the desert, the proximity to his bed triggering a jaw-popping yawn.  Even the sixty seconds it took to put the Mustang's top back up seemed an eternity to Tom.  Keys in hand, he made his way to his door, forcing his feet every step of the way.  He left a trail of discarded clothing from the locked door to the bed before crawling beneath his blankets, letting sleep pull him down.

Deep, dreamless slumber wrapped the detective in its embrace.                        

            BUZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

            Ryan sat bolt upright in his bed, eyes at half-mast as the sound brought an abrupt end to his sleep.

            BUZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

            Identifying the sound with a groan, the half-asleep man disentangled his limbs from the sheets and crawled from his bed.  Tom staggered to his door, softly cursing whoever had awakened him.  "Damn it, Cassy. So help me, if that's you," he grumbled, yanking open the door.

            The quiet night greeted him.  Blinking his eyes fully open, the detective visually scanned the dark area around his door and parking lot for any sign of the offending doorbell ringer.  The fingers of a warm breeze ran through his short hair, as he stood alone at his door growing more irritated by the second.  "Don't kids have anything better to do in the middle of the night?"

            "I'll find you. So help me, God, I'll find you and when I do..."  His muttered vow to make the practical joker pay for his crime against humanity was halted by a soft sound from below, and he looked down.

            "Holy…"  Tom stammered, coming awake with a jolt as the last vestiges of sleep were swept swiftly from his brain.

            At his feet was a brightly colored baby carrier.  The sound of an aged auto cranking to life across the street took his attention away from his doorstep.

            "HEY!"  Leaping over the basket he hit the ground running.  Bare feet pounded down to the sidewalk, oblivious to the small, sharp rocks digging into their soles. "STOP!" he shouted, suddenly realizing he was running half-naked through the neighborhood in the middle of the night.

            As the sound of the car's engine faded away with the wink of a taillight, the night silenced once again, save for the cry of the small infant on his doorstep.

            Heart pounding madly in his chest, Tom turned and jogged back towards his home.  Sending one last imploring look into the dark night, he gently picked up the carrier, the large bag he found beside it, and reentered the small dwelling.

            "Shhhhh…."  He pleaded as he set the carrier down on the couch and sat beside it, lifting the crying baby into his arms.  "It's okay," he whispered reassuringly.  The baby began to squall more loudly.  "Shhhhhhhh…. What's the matter, do I smell or something?" 

            The wailing escalated.  Carefully he adjusted his hold on the child, trying to remember what it was his brother did to get his kids to stop crying.

            "Okay, okay, I'm sorry. No more jokes," he promised softly.  Rising from the sofa he walked slowly around the apartment, gently bouncing the child.  "My nephew really likes this, but it makes my niece throw up.  Maybe I should put a shirt on, just in case. I don't suppose you can tell me your name, huh?"

            Tears began to subside and the wail quieted to a soft whimper as they completed the fourth lap of the apartment.  "That's better," he whispered soothingly, returning to the sofa and slowly easing himself down.  Tearful blue eyes blinked up at Tom as he got comfortable, cradling the abandoned infant close to his chest.  Running his free hand through his tousled hair, he tried to sort through the jumble of thoughts running through his mind.

            "What's your name, little one?" he asked softly.  "Where did you come from?" Glancing into the carrier he caught sight of a slip of white paper resting at the bottom. Taking a deep breath, he plucked it out and unfolded it with a growing sense of dread.

           

            Please forgive me, Tom.  I love her,

but I can't be the mother she deserves. 

Four months of trying have proved me

to be a failure.  I know you'll take

good care of her, love her and protect her. 

          I know you'll be a good father.  I hope

someday you both  can forgive me.

           

            His fingers trembled slightly as he set the note aside.  Stunned eyes returned to the now sleeping infant in his arms. "…father…?" he repeated in wonder.

            With slightly trembling hands, Tom carefully returned the sleeping baby to the carrier and sat staring blankly, forgetting for a few moments even to breathe.  "Now would be a good time to wake up from this dream," he coached himself humorlessly.

            The minutes ticked by as he rose from the couch again and paced back to his front window, peering out into the night in hopes of catching sight of someone, anyone outside - someone who would come in and tell him it was all a joke, or a mistake or... "This can't be real. This can't be happening."

            Wandering away from the window, Tom snatched up the phone and punched the first speed-dial number.  His ears were greeted by the quick pulse of a busy signal, telling him that Cassy had done exactly what she'd said she was going to do;  take the phone off the hook and go to bed.  "Sorry, Cass, but I really need you," he mumbled apologetically as he dialed her cell phone number.

            "This is Cassy St. John.  At the tone, leave a message and I'll..."

            "Voice mail. Damn, damn, damn."  As a last resort he tried her beeper number, though he knew from experience that when his ex-wife didn't want to be disturbed and wasn't on call she left the hated beeper in the living room.  "I know you know less about kids than I do, but damn, I could really use some backup here," Tom laughed tiredly.

            Resigning himself to an inevitably sleepless night, he pulled a clean t-shirt and sweats out of the laundry basket by his bed.  It had been a week since he'd been to the Laundromat, but his work schedule hadn't left him time to put away the clean clothes he'd returned home with.  

            *All the trappings of a bachelor,* he mused silently, glancing about his home.  The efficiency apartment was suitable for one adult, providing that the one adult didn't own much in the way of furniture or personal belongings.  Which, after the divorce, he didn't.  The sofa had seen better days; a few seams in the leather of the sofa were beginning to give.  The coffee table was in surprisingly good condition, considering that he ate most of his meals there in front of the TV.  Or, perhaps not so surprising considering the amount of newspapers and magazines, which littered the table, safely keeping any dishes and glasses from ever touching its surface.  The only things destroying the image of perfectly stereotypical bachelorhood were the baby on the couch, and the diaper bag beside on the floor.

            "The bag," he exclaimed, moving quickly across the room.  "Maybe there's something in here."  His tenuous hold on hope slipped away quickly as he emptied the contents of the bag onto his table.  Four disposable diapers, a small package of baby-wipes, a container of baby powder and a meager amount of formula were all he'd been left.

            "Great.  No birth certificate, no photos, no receipts, no instruction manual."

            The cry started at a low volume, an unhappy wordless noise.

            Tom rushed back to the side of the couch where he would be in the nameless baby's line of vision.  "Don't cry, don't cry. I'm right here - see?" he pleaded.  The baby continued to cry, her volume growing.  "Oh, no," he groaned.  "I think I know what that cry is about."  Carefully he lifted the squalling girl out of her carrier and laid her on the couch while he investigated the situation. "...diaper..." he quickly realized.  "Ooooookay. Diaper.... I can do this..." he mumbled to himself.  Retrieving one of the remaining diapers, he searched for the tape on the soiled one she wore and peeled it open.

            "Oh, no... We don't need that kind of stain on the couch."  Aborting the removal of the diaper, he lifted the baby from the sofa and laid her on the floor.  "Okay, wipe, and then powder," he reminded himself.  As a kid the prospect of making a little extra money on the side had been attractive, but the only method available to him at the time had not been.  The first dozen or so dirty diapers he'd encountered he'd had his mother talk him through on the phone - secretly hoping she'd come to his rescue.  Now, he was sorely tempted to call her again.

            "Wipe.... and powder... and clean diaper..." he repeated as he liberally doused the baby with powder and coughed in the fog it raised.  "White Christmas," he laughed.  The baby ceased her crying, kicking her legs happily at the attention she was receiving, no matter how awkward.  Getting the clean diaper on the squirming infant proved a challenge.  "Hold still," he begged, amused nonetheless by the innocent antics.                  

                                                            *********************

            The sun began its ascent over the horizon, tendrils of light creeping in through the windows to gradually illuminate the small dwelling.  The television droned softly as the man on the couch yawned again.  A soft laugh escaped his lips as the infant in his arms yawned almost in unison with him.

            "What are you yawning for?" he whispered.  "You're the one who got some sleep."

            The part of him that was trained for detective work slowly and methodically worked during the night; narrowing down his list of possible suspects, motives and opportunities.  Names and faces ran through his mind, dates and occasions.  *I've always been careful.*  The thought nagged at him over and over. *I've been careful. Haven't I?  Why didn't she tell me?  I'm not a scary guy, if she was pregnant she should have known she could have come to me.* 

            One by one Tom tried to place each of the women he'd dated the previous year in the situation - pregnant and for some reason choosing to remain silent about it. *Amber?*  He hadn't dated the woman, not really.  Their first night together had been their only night together, but she would have known how to reach him.  He hadn't taken advantage of her and dumped her - they'd talked the next day and he'd thought that she'd understood.  *No, not Amber. Whoever left the baby seemed to know that I liked kids, that I'd take care of the baby - someone who knew me.*

            Tom attempted to stifle another yawn and failed.  "How about you and I go make some coffee, okay?"  Slowly climbing to his feet he shuffled sleepily into the small kitchen, heading towards his one constant friend:  Mr. Coffee.  His stomach growled and the baby he held began to whimper empathetically.

            "Don't tell me; you're hungry, too?  All right.  Let me get this coffee going and I'll see what I can do about getting us both some breakfast.  Then we gotta do something about finding out what's going on around here."  Tom shifted the baby to his right arm, holding her while he measured out coffee grounds and poured water into the coffeemaker.  Retrieving the remaining contents from the bag he'd found by the door, he set about preparing something for the baby to eat.  Calmed by the sound of his voice the infant quieted again, staring up at her guardian with curious eyes.  "Well, little one, this is the last of the grub your mom left, and with the diaper supply dwindling I guess I'm gonna have to get out to the store soon.  Which means that I'm gonna have to figure out what to do with you since I don't have any way of taking you with me right now. So - we'll have some breakfast, we'll make some phone calls and we'll go from there, okay?" He laughed softly as his charge reached up a tiny hand towards his face and squealed.

            "And I think I know just who to call."

                                                            *******

            Tom found himself purposely waiting until the clock hit 8:00 and he could be certain that his captain would be in his office, not at his house before he picked up the phone. A dozing infant cradled against his chest, he reached for the phone by the couch and dialed. Frannie Lipschitz picked up on the third ring. Her cheerful voice came over the line, and Tom smiled in response. "Morning, Frannie. It's Tom Ryan."

            "Good morning yourself, Ryan. If you're calling for Harry, he's at work.  Why aren't you?"

            Tom quieted his voice to a loud whisper as the baby moved in her sleep.  "Well, Cassy and I cracked a big case and since we'd been putting in so many hours, our fearless leader gave us a long weekend.  I wasn't looking for Harry, I was looking for you."

            He heard the hesitation and could almost picture his friend wearing a suspicious look on her face already.  "What's wrong?" she asked.

            'It's - it's a long story, Frannie," Tom said, hesitating to explain over the phone. He shifted the sleeping baby in his arms, trying to balance her and the phone and his coffee cup. "I just - I need you to do me a favor, and not to ask any questions right now," he implored.

            "Are you in trouble?"

            "No, no," he was quick to assure her. "I just… I'll explain when you get here. Can you come over?"

            "I didn't have any plans for the day, aside from a little grocery shopping. Sure, I can be there in twenty minutes."

            Tom breathed a slight sigh of relief. "Thanks, Frannie. I owe you."

            "Are you sick? Is that what's wrong?" she asked quickly. "I'll bring chicken soup."

            "No, I'm not sick, though the chicken soup is always welcome." He had to smile at the instantaneous mothering. "I'll explain everything, as best I can, when you get here."

                                                            **************

            Tom finished fastening the sleeper again as the baby's eyes closed. The last of the diapers in place, he glanced at the clock again. The stores would be open and Frannie would be arriving momentarily so he could go restock. He scooped the baby up in his arms again as he heard the slam of a car door.

            "Frannie, come on in." He greeted her with a tired smile as he opened the door.

            The woman's eyes went directly to the tiny child he held. "Oh, Tom," Frannie exclaimed softly. "She's just beautiful!" The older woman set her purse down on the sofa and quickly reached to take the infant from Ryan's arms. Her fingers plucked at the pink ruffles on the sleeper as she admired the baby. "Whose little girl?" she asked.

            "Umm, well," Tom began to hedge, running a hand distractedly through his hair. "Uh, mine. I think. I mean, I assume."

            Frannie stared speechlessly at him.

            "I know. It's a shock to me too," he admitted. The weary man lowered himself into the chair by the couch and allowed himself to relax for the first time in many hours.  His sleepy eyes stayed on the little girl.  Her features were peaceful in slumber, innocent and trusting, unaware that she'd been abandoned hours ago.

            "Who's the mother?"

            The question snapped Tom back into the world again as he realized he'd been drifting, staring at the infant his friend held. "What?"

            "The mother," Frannie repeated.

            Tom took a deep breath and released it slowly. "I don't know," he confessed. "I woke up last night, someone was torturing my doorbell - by the time I got the door open whoever was there was gone and the baby was on the doorstep. There was a note," he explained, pulling out the slip of paper, handing it to Frannie as she settled in on the couch.

            "Well, the note's addressed to you," she confirmed. "But how sure are you that the baby's yours? If she's yours then why didn't the mother at least sign the note?"

            Tom shrugged helplessly in reply. His mind had been reeling all night, spinning from thoughts of the baby to thoughts of the mother and back again. Whoever she was had left the baby on his doorstep in the middle of the night. What kind of mother did that to a baby who could only have been a few months old? Suppose it had been raining? Suppose a stranger had found her there before I did? Protectiveness more fierce than anything he'd ever imagined welled up within him with startling speed.

            In Frannie's arms, the baby began to wake, yawning and squirming a little. "Well good morning -" The woman stopped in mid-sentence and glanced over at her young friend. "What's her name?"

            "Don't know," Tom replied, sliding from the chair to kneel on the floor, his face level with the baby's. His finger gently touched one tiny hand as it clenched into a fist and relaxed. "Aside from that note, all she left me were a couple of diapers and some formula. No name, no birth certificate, nothing."

            "Well, you can't keep calling her 'her'. She needs a name, even if it's just until you find out what it really is."

            He nodded, deep in thought as a smile crept across has face. The baby's miniature fingers wrapped tightly around his index finger, just barely encircling it.                                           "She does look a little like you," Frannie said.

            "You think?" he asked, eyes bright with a surprising amount of hopeful enthusiasm.

            "Well," she continued thoughtfully, "her eyes are still blue, you won't know if they're going to turn color for a while yet. But, that hair and the smile could be yours."

            "And the nose," he added quickly.

            Frannie looked at Tom, then at the baby and laughed softly. "I wouldn't know, I never saw your nose before you broke it."

            The friends sat together quietly for a while, bonded together by the child in her arms.

            "What are you going to do, Tom?" she finally asked after a long silence.

            "Well, I thought I'd ask you if you could stay with her for a little while today. She's going to need more than just some diapers and formula if she's going to stay here. She needs a crib and some clothes and toys..."

            "And Monday? When you have to go back to work? What are you going to do then? You are going to try to find her mother, aren't you?  You haven't told Harry yet, have you? What about Cassy, does she know?" The questions rattled out with increasing velocity until Tom held up his hand.

            "Whoa! Frannie, I have a lot of questions of my own, and not a lot of answers right now. I've been working all day, all night, all week, and I only got a few hours sleep  before I received the special delivery here. No one but you knows anything about this. I called Cassy during the night, but it looks she like made good on her threat to take her phone off the hook when she went to bed.  Maybe it's just as well that she didn't answer. Right now I just don't want the world to know about the baby until I get a few things settled, that's all."

            "And what am I supposed to tell Harry tonight when he asks me what I did today?"

            Tom averted his eyes. "Do you really have to tell him right now, Frannie?" he asked hesitantly.

            "Well, I can't lie to him. You don't stay married for thirty-two years by lying to each other, Ryan."

            "I know, I know," he agreed quickly. Turning large, soulful eyes to her, he pleaded, "But, can't you just tell him you were helping a friend? That's not exactly lying."

            Frannie's eyes narrowed as she shook a finger at him. "Don't you give me that look, Ryan. It won't work on me, I'm immune."

            "Frannie, please.  It's only for a few days, tops, I promise.  I just need to get used to this idea for myself before I have to start explaining everything to everyone.  I haven't even told my parents yet.  Please, I just need a couple of days."

            With a look towards Heaven for forgiveness, Frannie Lipschitz capitulated.  "All right, Thomas.  But this is just for a few days, and if Harry asks me a direct question I will not lie to him."

            "Thanks, Frannie, you're a lifesaver," Tom said with a grateful smile.  "Now, how about today?  Can you stay with her for a couple of hours while I go do some shopping?  I'd take her with me but I don't have a carseat or a stroller or anything."

            Almost overrun by his growing enthusiasm, Frannie reigned herself in. "Tom,  there's a nice couple who live two doors down from us, and their boy is too big for anything that would do for this little one. Why don't you let me see if you can borrow some of the larger items, just for now?" she suggested. "The crib at least - they're awfully expensive."

            Tom's shoulders sagged slightly as his spirits dampened.  He nodded in agreement. "Right. Sure, that would be a big help.  I'll just need to pick up some diapers, food, and supplies for her then.  And a carseat, I definitely need one of those right away."

            "Sure, okay.  Listen, Tom, I have a good friend who's a pediatrician here in town. Why don't you let me call her and see if she can squeeze you in today? You should really have the baby checked out, just in case.  And you should find out how old she is. She looks like she could be maybe three or four months, but my friend could give you a better idea.  She could also give you a couple of pointers on what you should be feeding her."

            Tom smiled gratefully. "Thanks, Frannie. That's why I called you, I needed someone who would think of that kind of stuff for me."

            Reluctantly rising from his spot on the floor, he stretched tired muscles. "I need to take a quick shower and then I'll head out.  She's been changed and fed in the last hour, so I don't think she'll need anything but a little attention," he assured her as he grabbed a towel from his laundry pile and disappeared into the bathroom.

            "Well, kiddo," Frannie whispered to the infant.  "Wherever you came from, you've got yourself one heck of a daddy."

                                                            ***********                                                             

            Be My Baby was the largest baby store in town, one-stop-shopping for everything a baby would need.  Tom stopped short in his tracks as he opened the door and his eyes took in the foreign terrain.  Off to his left were enormous racks of clothing, all divided by age and size.  Next to the racks were bins overflowing with plush stuffed animals, and shelves of shoes.  Then, there were the larger items; cribs, playpens, bassinets, bathing tubs, carriages and strollers and joggers and carriers and carseats...  His head began to spin as he realized the enormity of the situation he was now facing.  Directly in front of him the aisles of diapers and daily supplies stretched out for what seemed to be miles. 

Tom found himself wandering to the clothing first, attempting to decipher the categories and eyeballing the sizes until he reached the three to six-month-old section and stopped.  He cast a self-conscious smile at the very pregnant woman who stood just a few feet away sorting through the newborn sleepers.  Picking a frilly pink sleeper from the rack he felt the smile spread.  Soft fabric ruffles ran down the center of the tiny garment.        "Can I help you?"  The saleswoman had approached without Tom's notice.

            Turning to her with what he hoped wasn't a helpless look on his face he replied, "I hope so. I need… uh… well, I need some things. For a baby."

            The young woman eyed him with amusement.  "Well, you're in luck. We just happen to have things for babies here. My name's Jill, what can I show you?  Are you looking for a gift?"

            "No, not for a gift," he answered vaguely.  "I need a little bit of everything."

            A look of understanding crossed the woman's face and she smiled.  "I see. A new father."

            Tom returned the smile and nodded. *Something like that…*

            "Newborn?" she asked.

            "Ahhh.... ummm.... Well, Jill, what exactly qualifies as 'newborn'?"

            "How old is the baby?"

            Tom cleared his throat, holding out the sleeper he'd picked out as though in explanation.  "Well...."

              The amusement in the older woman's eyes was turning to curiosity. She'd seen hundreds of new fathers in the store every year, and though their reactions varied, this one was new.  "Four months?" she guessed as she eyed his selection.

            Tom nodded in almost eager agreement. "Yes."  I think. 

            "A girl?" she prompted.

            *Oh, good.  Here's question I can answer.*  "Yes." 

            "Your first?"

            The nervous laughter erupted before he could choke it back. "I hope so.  I mean, yes.  I, ah, I need some clothes for her, and some toys... diapers... formula, or cereal... you know, food..."

            The salesgirl's eyes began to brighten a little as though sensing a large commission in her future.  "Well, then let's start by getting you a shopping cart."

            "I was afraid you'd say that."

                                                            *********

            "Everything under control?" Tom asked as he staggered through the door. His arms were so loaded with bags and packages that he could barely see over the toppling stack.

            Frannie moved quickly to take the uppermost boxes from him before they hit the floor. "Just fine," she assured him. "What did you do? Buy out the whole store?"

            "Babies need things," he answered defensively as he dropped the rest of his packages on the chair. If my credit card had legs it would have jumped out the first available window by now.   "She can't live in that one sleeper. Where is she?"

            "Sleeping. That's what babies do, Ryan," she explained to his back as he headed toward the bed where she'd lain the baby down. Surrounded by pillows, the infant slept soundly.

            "She looks so peaceful," he whispered.

            "She is peaceful - which is why you should just let her sleep," the woman insisted, pulling him by the arm back into the living area. "Let her sleep, she's fine. She was an angel while you were gone. She's a sweet natured little thing."

            "She really is," he agreed without hesitation. "She hardly cried at all last night. Take a look at these, you think they'll fit her?" Tom began to pull things out of the multitude of boxes and bags he'd carried in. Tiny sleepers adorned with cartoon characters appeared in his hands. "The saleswoman said they'd fit a four month old, with room to grow into them - she looks about that old, don't you think?"

            Frannie sat next to him on the couch and peered into another large bag. "I think that's right," she agreed. "But you'll find out a more reasonable guess in an hour when you go see my friend. Her name is Dr. Michele Adams and she said she'd be more than happy to see the two of you. She's in the Family Medical Center over on Grove Street." Reaching into the bag, she pulled out a handful of stuffed animals; a teddy bear, a stuffed tiger, a frog and a colorful dragon. 

            "Thanks a million, Frannie."  His hand disappeared into another shopping bag and emerged again with a tiny pair of pink shoes, which fit his thumb almost perfectly.  A smile spread wide across his face.  "Oh, I got a little plastic tub thing too, which I hadn't even thought about until I saw it in the store.  You can't give a baby a shower, can you?"

            "You could wash her in the kitchen sink, but the plastic tub is probably a better idea."               

            "I got a couple of pacifiers, and a baby blanket and a few other little things, but I think they're still in the car."  One look at his friend's expression confirmed his own suspicions.  "I guess I went a little overboard.  But, she's all alone in the world, Frannie. She needs a little extra right now."

            "You're a good man, Tom Ryan," Frannie said as she rose from the sofa.  "I have to run home now, but you come by later and pick up the crib.  I spoke with my neighbors and they said you were welcome to borrow it for as long as you like."

            Tom stood to see her out.  "Thanks again, Frannie. I really appreciate the help.  I'll go see your friend, then I have to see about getting some sleep.  I'll be by later for the crib, and I'll drop the bombshell on Harry when I get there."

                                                            ******

            "Here we are, sweetie. Home, again."  Tom yawned as he carried the baby back into the apartment.  His tired body craved sleep, but he'd had more important things to do. 

            Frannie's friend, Dr. Adams had been more than helpful.  She'd examined the baby, given him an approximate age of four months, and loads of advice on parenting.  She'd instructed him in the art of baby-bathing, diapering and feeding.  Dr. Adams had also given him her home phone number, just in case he ran into any problems.

            "Whattaya say you and me take a nap, huh, kiddo?" he pleaded as he walked towards the bed. 

            Tom pulled the pillows out from under the blankets and created a three-walled safety zone on the bed for the baby before laying her down.  Stretching his tired body out beside her, he lay one hand on her tiny back and watched her through half-lidded eyes until sleep claimed them both.

            Friday afternoon passed away into evening as the exhausted man slept, his soft snoring the only sound in the apartment until the shadows crept in.  As darkness began to fall, the sound of a baby's cry disrupted his slumber.

            "…baby's crying…" Tom mumbled. "Baby…" he repeated sleepily as he sat up, reality setting in once more.  "Whatsamatter, sweetie?" he asked softly as he lifted the infant into his arms.  "Food, diaper or attention?"

            The soft cry escalated to a full-scale wail.

            "That would be a diaper cry. Am I right?"  Laying the child back down onto the bed and unfastening the new Winnie the Pooh sleeper, he discovered his instincts were correct. "Yep, it's a diaper cry. Just my luck. Well, we'll just get that taken care of." 

            Tom climbed from his bed, and retrieved his new, fully-stocked diaper bag from the living room.  Dragging out a fresh diaper and a box of wipes, he set to his least favorite task so far, speaking softly to her the whole time.  "We really need a name for you, sweetheart.  I was hoping your mother would have called by now - at least to make sure that I'd found you.  I sure would like to talk to her."  *I'd at least like to know who she was so I could read her the riot act about leaving you the way she did. *

              "How about if you and I get dressed and take a ride?" he asked, picking her up into his arms.  "We could go see Aunt Frannie, would you like that?  We could get you a crib so that you have a little room to sprawl out in?  And you can meet Uncle Harry - now that'll be a treat."                                                                            

                                                            *******

            "Do you think he'll be all right tonight? Alone, I mean?" Frannie worried out loud to her husband as he helped her clear the set out the dinner plates and silverware. "Maybe we should have had them stay over here tonight?"

            "Oh, he'll be fine. Ryan's a big boy," Harry replied tiredly. Placing their glasses on the table, he lowered himself into his chair and loosened his tie. It had been a long time since he and his wife had had a baby in their home, if only for a short while. Their nieces and nephews were almost grown already, but not yet old enough to have started families of their own.

            The house seemed suddenly quiet to the captain. He watched with a fond smile as his wife of more than three decades served dinner, just as she had every night for longer than he could quite remember. Thoughts of another baby came unbidden to his mind. Another time, another pair of detectives, and another single parent. *Rita and Chris' baby would be a toddler by now, he realized sadly. I hope she's all right. I hope she'd call if she wasn't. I wish she'd call even if she is. That kid deserves to know all about his father - what a good man he was, how much he would have loved to have raised him.*

            "You're not eating."

            The voice startled him back into the present time and place. "Sorry. It's been a long day."

            "Don't I know it. But, you were a million miles away. Where did you go?"

            A sad smile appeared on the man's face. "Just... revisiting some old friends," he admitted as he turned his attention to the meal before him and the woman across the table.

            His wife nodded in reply and Harry knew she understood exactly who he meant. The faraway look in her eyes as she'd watched Tom with the baby earlier told him she'd been had thinking of them as well.

            After Lorenzo's death and Rita's departure Harry watched her emotionally distance herself from the officers under his command. She was all too well aware of the dangers associated with the career and the lifestyle. In their younger days when Harry had been a beat-cop, and then a homicide detective he knew she'd lost many nights of sleep, and lived in fear of the phone ringing while he was at work.  The death of the young detective in his charge had brought that fear to fruition.

            It had been a surprise to him to see her relationship with Tom and Cassy develop. She didn't seem to mother them as much as she had the last team, but she'd become friends with them.

            "Do you ever regret that we didn't have children?" Harry asked.

            Frannie halted with her fork halfway to her lips and stared across the table at him.  "It just wasn't in the cards for us, that's all," she replied calmly.  "It would have been nice, but it just wasn't possible.  I accepted that a long time ago."

            "It would have been possible if you'd married another man," he reminded her softly.

            Frannie's voice was firm but loving. "Stop that. I have everything I need right here,"       she answered, reaching across the table to take his hand.  "And maybe now I'll get to be Aunt Frannie again."

            Harry sighed, giving her hand an affectionate squeeze.  "Don't get your hopes up on that.  That baby might not belong to Tom."

            "You're absolutely right.  She might not.  But I'll tell you something, Harry, I hope that she does.  Ryan adores her and he'd be a good father.  She'd be lucky to have him."

                                    *******

            *"You have to find that baby's mother!" * Harry's words rang over and over again in his head on the drive home. *"Whoever she is - wherever she is, you have got to find her.  You find her and you make sure that you are that child's father. You've been a cop long enough to know that not everything is always the way it seems!"*

            Glancing into the rear view mirror, Tom's eyes focused for a moment on the face of innocence.  The infant sat quietly in her carseat, seeming to look back at him.  Though the night was clear and warm, he had put the top on the convertible to keep the child from catching too much of a breeze.  Harry could be right, he admitted, though his heart's opinion was somewhat different than his head's.

            *"You need to check with Missing Persons and make sure that is not a kidnapped baby."  Harry advised in a harsh whisper. 

            Tom shook his head emphatically.  "The note was addressed to me, personally."

            "Your name is on your mailbox, Ryan,"  the Captain reminded him quickly.

            Tom pulled back, a slightly surprised look on his face.  "Harry, why would anyone do that? Kidnap a baby just to leave it on some stranger's doorstep?"

            "Why do kids take guns to school and open fire on the rest of the student body? I don't know, Ryan, it's a sick world - and you know that.  Come with me, we're going into the den and make a few phone calls. Right now."

            Harry took his younger friend by the arm and pulled him out of the living room, leaving Frannie to watch the infant.*

            "Told him that wasn't what happened," Tom muttered with a touch of indignation in his voice.  Pulling into the parking lot, he cursed under his breath, spotting the Boxster in front of his apartment. "Damn. Why now?"

            Cassy was out of her car and approaching the Mustang even as Tom turned off the ignition.  "Hey! I thought you'd be home relaxing.  Beautiful night out, how come you've got the top up on the car?"

            Reluctantly he climbed out of the car and faced her.  "Well, I didn't want the baby to get cold."

            "Ah, dating those nineteen-year-olds again?"  She watched curiously as Tom turned back to the open car door and reached in to fold the driver's seat forward.  Unable to see in the dark interior of the car as he fumbled with something in the back seat, she didn't see the baby until he straightened with her in his arms and turned back to his partner.

            Cassy stood staring at the baby in her ex-husband's arms.  Chubby cheeks, soft brown hair and large blue eyes, put together an irresistible package.  The little girl kicked her pajama-clad feet and looked completely at ease with the man who held her, jingling his car keys in front of her for her amusement.

"Not gonna say anything?"  Tom asked his partner with a tentative smile.

Cassy's eyes quickly moved, glancing into the dark car once more to see if there was anyone in the passenger seat. "Baby-sitting?"

Tom's answer sounded lame even to his own ears. "Not exactly." Picking out the key to the trunk, he handed Cassy the large diaper bag and moved to the rear of the car to unload the portable crib. "Carry that for me?" 

Cassy shouldered the bag and eyed him questioningly as he pulled out the folded crib with his free hand, and came around to close the trunk for him.  "So, what's not exactly baby-sitting?" she continued, following him to his door and then inside.

"Not exactly baby-sitting is a long story. A long story I've told twice already today, and wasn't looking forward to telling again until at least tomorrow." Tom set the baby down on his bed as he went about unfolding and assembling the crib a few feet away. "What are you doing here, Cass? I thought you'd be sick of seeing my face after all the time we spent together this past week."

The blonde tossed the diaper bag down on the floor by the couch and approached the sleeping area, wearing a look of growing confusion on her face. "Sick of seeing your face? We did use to live together, remember?"

Tom glanced up from his chore for an instant, a flash of humor in his eyes. "Yes, I do seem to recall something like that. And, as I recall, we spent less time together then than we do now."

"Whatever."  Casually sitting herself on the bed a few feet from the baby, she finally reached the end of her limited patience. "So, are you going to tell me who the kid is or do I have to guess?"

Hazel eyes drifted to the smaller occupant of the bed. "Normally I'd enjoy making you guess. But I don't want to sit here all night while you try.  Trust me, it would be a while before you got this one."

"So, give already!"

Tom rose to his feet and paced to the couch, leaning against its back as he faced his ex-wife with his arms crossed over his chest, and watched her face as he delivered his bombshell. "What would you say if I told you 'the kid' might be my daughter?"

Cassy was struck momentarily speechless. "I - I would say that you got a hell of a nerve keeping something this big a secret from your partner!" she finally stammered as she got up off the bed and confronted him.

"Whoa, slow down.  I haven't been keeping her a secret from you. I didn't even know about her until last night myself, so just... calm down."

"What is that supposed to mean, you didn't know about her?  Some woman was walking around for nine months carrying your child and you didn't know about it?"

Tom nodded in reply.  "That's what I'm saying might have happened.  And I don't know who the mother is, so don't bother asking.  At some point last night, whoever she is decided that the baby would be better off with me and left her on my doorstep."

Cassy's gaze traveled from the man in front of her to the infant on the bed and back again.  Her ex-husband and his child.  The child he fathered with someone else.  A sudden lump formed in her throat as she quickly tamped down on the green-eyed monster she found trying to rear its ugly head.  "That is the most irresponsible thing I've ever heard," she finally blurted out. "Both of you! You get some woman pregnant and don't even know about it, and her dumping the kid in the middle of the night? Was she some one-nighter, Tom?"

"Hold on!" Tom snapped. "Just hold on. I don't sleep around all that much.  Once or twice I've had one night stands, but they're not my style and you know that!  Even then I use protection."

"Well you obviously didn't at least once," she accused with a bitter laugh.

"Or I used it and it didn't work.  That has been known to happen, you know."

Cassy shook her head in stark disbelief and turned away from him, running a hand through her long hair.  "I don't believe we're having this conversation. I really don't.  So, what are you going to do?  Are you even sure she's yours?"

Tom recognized the tone in her voice.  She was attempting to gain control of her emotions and think rationally, which he appreciated.  What he didn't need at that point in time was a screaming match.  "No. I'm not sure.  The note asking me to take the baby was addressed specifically to me, and it said that she knew I'd be a good father.  I'm assuming there's at least a good chance that I am her father."

"You've got to call Social Services," Cassy said as she turned to face him again.

Tom instinctively moved forward, placing himself between his ex-wife and the baby.  "No way," he stated adamantly.  "They'd take her, Cass! They'd take her and put her into the system.  No way am I calling them.  She's not being abused or neglected.  She's safe and she's happy and she's well cared for right here."

"But she might not be yours," she said with quiet resolve.

"Might not be. Might not," he repeated. "Social Services is out of the question. Out. Period.  I can handle this myself."

            Cassy sighed in resignation.  Tom rarely put his foot down, but when he did, it was all the way down.  "What's her name?" she asked, moving around him to sit on the bed again.

Tom allowed himself to relax marginally.  "I don't know.  There was no name on the note.  I've been trying to come up with one, but… most people have nine months to make that kind of decision.  I've had less than twenty-four hours."  He moved to sit beside his ex, reaching over to tickle the infant who squirmed in delight.  "I thought about Margaret, my mother's name.  Or my grandmother's name, Maeve."

            Cassy's nose wrinkled in reaction to the names.  "Can't you be a little more original than that?"

            "Could name her Cassandra," he ventured with a grin.

            "Ohhhhh no you don't," she objected with a short laugh.  "You're not suckering me in that way."

            "Suckering you into what?" Tom reached over and scooped up the baby, depositing her quickly into Cassy's arms before she could object.  "What name would you pick?"

            Cassy shifted the infant awkwardly in her arms.  "I- I don't know.  I'm sure her mother already gave her one, and you should be trying to find out what it is."

            Ryan moved on the bed, closer to his ex.  "I will. At the very least I need to find out who her mother is so that I can tell her when she gets older.  But she does need a name, at least for now."

            "Have you called any of your old girlfriends?  Or any of the hospitals around Palm?" she asked, growing distracted as the baby reached for a lock of her long blonde hair.

            "Not yet.  Help me get her to sleep and we can talk about it."

            "Help you get her to sleep?  Don't they just… fall asleep?"

            Tom shrugged.  "Sometimes.  But she's had a busy day.  We went over to Harry and Frannie's to pick up a loaner crib, and I think she's still wound up.  I thought you helped your sisters with their kids when you visited."

            Cassy shot him an indignant look.  "Yeah, with Aunt stuff; tickling, and making funny faces, and buying them stuffed animals, that sort of thing.  Not diapers, and spit-up and drool."

            Rising from the bed, Tom retrieved his guitar from the corner of the room and returned to his place beside Cassy.  After a moment of thought, he began to play softly, adding a whisper of his voice to the lullaby.

            Wide blue eyes turned towards the sound of the music, completely enrapt as the infant ceased her restless movements.

            "She really likes that," Cassy whispered with a smile.

            Tom continued to play, never taking his eyes from those of his charge as her eyes began to close.  It took only one more chorus for her to succumb to sleep.

            "At least one of you has appreciation for my music," he commented quietly, setting the instrument aside.  Carefully he took her from his partner and carried her to the crib he'd set up.

            "Maybe you should call her Melody."

            Hazel eyes lit up at the suggestion as Tom lay the soft blanket over the sleeping girl and added the stuffed animals to the crib for company.  "Melody," he repeated.  "I like it."

            A quick glance at the clock elicited a groan from the man.  "Cass, can you stay here with Melody while I run down to the store?  I was so caught up in buying stuff for her this morning that I didn't get anything for myself.  I'm starving and I don't have any adult food in the house."

            "Can't you call for a pizza?" she protested almost nervously.

            "I don't want a pizza, Cass. I want real food."  Forcing an agreement, he picked up his keys and headed for the door.  "I just need a couple of things.  I'll even cook you dinner, how's that?" he asked as he edged out.  "I've got my cell phone, and I'll be back before you know it. Thanks!"

            The door closed behind him quickly.

           

                                    ******

            Tom smiled knowingly as he flipped open his cell phone.  "I've only been gone fifteen minutes, Cass."

            "I know you have, and that's how long she's been crying for.  She won't stop!" Cassy blurted out in frustration.  "How long do they do this for, anyway?"

            "Until they either get what they want, or cry themselves to sleep.  I changed her a little while ago, and she's been fed, so I don't think that's it.  I've been with her almost constantly since I found her, and now I'm gone, so she's probably just a little scared with a new person.  She'll settle down once she realizes she's in good hands."

            "Okay," she sighed.  "But if she's still crying in another five minutes I'm calling again and you're coming back."

            "All right, Cass," he agreed, feeling more than a little guilty about leaving.

            Cassy gently lifted the baby from the bassinet, tentatively adjusting her hold.  The infant's fussing gradually abated as blue eyes met.  "Shhhh," Cassy whispered. 

"Everything's going to be just fine. Your dad -" Cassy halted abruptly, catching herself using the title. "He'll be back real soon."

            One tiny hand emerged from the too-long sleeves of the sleeper, reaching curiously towards the Cassy's nose, a smile appearing on the tiny face.

            "So, that's what you wanted - a little attention. I was afraid you needed a diaper," Cassy laughed.  "Okay, attention I can do."  Moving back to the sofa, she settled in and thumbed the remote, turning to an old black and white movie.  "You and I have a lot in common, you know," she said softly as her attention returned to the baby.  "At least your mother had the guts to admit that she didn't want you, and turned you over to someone who would take good care of you.  You could have it a lot worse, you know?  She could have kept you with her, and then reminded you every time she looked at you that she'd rather not have had you around."

            The small child stared up at her temporary guardian, eyes showing complete trust, amused by the sound of the soft voice speaking.

            "You're getting your first lesson in life pretty early - don't trust anyone but yourself.  Everyone else lets you down eventually. You can do anything you want in life if you're independent, self-reliant. You just have to learn to stand on your own two feet." She stopped and chuckled softly at her own words.  "Of course, first you have to literally learn to stand on your own two feet."

                                                            *******

            Melody slept soundly in her borrowed crib as Tom finished his second plate of spaghetti, while Cassy worked on her first.  The whole situation had unsettled her in ways she wouldn't have suspected.  "If she turns out to be yours, how are your parents going to react?"

            Tom pushed his empty plate aside.  "After they get over the shock, and after I get the lecture over the phone, they'll be thrilled.  They love doing the grandparent thing."

            Cassy nodded, finally pushing away her plate, too.  "My mother loves buying things for my sisters' kids.  She loves getting pictures of them and talking about them.  She just doesn't like taking care of them," she laughed.  Her eyes followed Tom as he cleared the table, not questioning her half-full plate.

            "No, I can't imagine Evelyn doing diapers."

            "I don't think she really enjoyed motherhood," Cassy admitted.  "I think it put too much of a cramp in her style."

            Tom busied himself in the kitchen, putting leftovers into containers and straightening up.  "Did you mean it, that time that you said you were sorry we didn't have kids?" he asked casually. "Or were you just humoring me?"

            "When do I ever humor you?" she replied with a sudden yawn.  "Dinner was great, but it's past my bedtime.  I need to head home. What are your plans for the weekend?"

            "Grocery shopping.  I only got what I needed right away tonight. And I need to spend some time trying to get to the bottom of this whole thing."  *Even if I do find her, it won't change the fact that she doesn't want Melody.  She made that pretty clear when she left her on my doorstep.  And if I don't find her it's no big deal,* he reasoned silently.

            Cassy picked up her purse and keys, pausing at the crib to whisper a goodnight to Melody.  "What about Monday?" she asked.  "Are you taking the day off?"

            "I guess it depends on how things go over the weekend," he answered, moving through the living area to see her out.  "Frannie said she'd watch Melody on Monday if I needed her to.  I'll need to look into daycare at work after that.  You know - while I look for her mother," he added quickly.

            She nodded, not pursuing the subject.  "All right.  I'll see you Monday then. Call me if you need anything."

                                                            *******

            Tom's night was once again disrupted by the sound of crying shortly after turning out the lights.  Rousing himself from his bed, he made his way through the dark living room to the crib and leaned over to pick Melody up.  "What's wrong, sweetheart?" he asked softly, placing a kiss on her forehead.  The baby quieted at the touch.  "That's not a diaper cry, is it?"

            A quick check confirmed that her diaper was dry.  "What happened, did you get lonely all the way over here?"  Tom moved to the couch and slowly lowered himself down and stretched out on his back, holding Melody against his chest.  "I sleep better when I'm not alone, too," he admitted with a yawn.  "Especially in a strange place.  You've had a lot of changes in your life in the past couple of days.  But you're safe here, I promise."

            Tom's hand absentmindedly stroked the baby's back as he lay staring at the ceiling. The warmth of the small body atop his chest radiated through his t-shirt and the quiet sound of her even breathing told him she was once again asleep.  "Try not to drool on the t-shirt too much, okay?" he whispered.  "Hard for me to believe I was once as small as you, kiddo.  Or, as innocent.  Somehow when I pictured myself having kids, I always imagined a son.  Teaching him to throw a football, to skate, going to Little League games and Boy Scouts.  Girls are a little tougher on a father's nerves, I think.  But a daughter... a daughter might not mind still being hugged when she's a grown-up of twelve.  And there's lots you and I could do together, you know?" 

            Sleep pulled Tom's weary eyelids closed and images played out in his mind. Melody taking her first shaky step, and being there to catch her.  At playground; Melody laughing as he pushed her on the swings.  The beach, building a sandcastle together.   "Got your whole life ahead of you," he whispered.  "Your first day of school, homework and friends and sleepovers and dating... No... no dating.  Forget I even mentioned it."

            The images played in his mind as he joined her in sleep. 

                                                            *******

            Saturday morning dawned, warm and clear, and Tom felt better rested than he had in ages.  With the exception of one nocturnal diaper change, Melody had allowed him to sleep through the rest of the night.  "Getting used to doing stuff with one hand," he said, chatting with the baby as he went through his usual morning routines, making coffee and rifling through the refrigerator for something to eat.  "You gonna give me a hard time about having leftover spaghetti for breakfast?" he asked his tiny companion.  "No?  Hey, I'm getting to like this arrangement better and better.  Now, what are you in the mood for?  How about some cereal?"  Tom continued his one-sided dialogue as he poured himself a cup of coffee, and started breakfast preparation for Melody. 

            Finally settling her into her carrier on the table, he sat down with his coffee and a bowl of cereal for her.  Scooping out a small portion, he brought the spoon to her mouth.  "Mmmmmmm, doesn't this look good?" 

            Breakfast became a game; the object being to get the food into Melody's mouth, and keep it there.  "You're gonna make me wear this cereal, aren't you?" he finally laughed as she spit out another mouthful.  "Okay, I get the point.  We'll try to find something a little more suitable to your discriminating palate for lunch." 

            Once the spoon scraped the bottom of the bowl, Tom lifted Melody out of the carrier.  "You messy, messy kid," he laughed.  "Let's get you cleaned up and then take a drive.  We've got the whole day ahead of us."

                                   

                                                            *******

            Tom found himself staring in wonder at sights he'd never seen, though they'd been right in front of his eyes almost every day.  The park he jogged through nearly every morning looked completely different to him.  Kids of all ages were everywhere in the park; playing on the swings and jungle gyms, in the sandboxes, playing tag and shooting hoops.  He wheeled the stroller down the walkway towards benches where a few other scattered parents sat, keeping watchful eyes on wandering children. 

            Lowering himself down onto a bench in the shade, he picked Melody up out of her stroller, settling her onto his lap to look out at the other children playing nearby.  "Check those out," he whispered in her ear, turning her towards the swings.  "Those look like fun, don't they?  We could get you one of those... those baby-swing things..." he promised, bouncing her on his lap.  Melody squealed happily, bringing a smile to Tom's face.

            "Ohhhh, what a little cutie."

            Tom turned around to face the smiling speaker.  *Could there be more hidden advantages to having a baby around?*

            The tall, slender, blonde woman came closer and reached over to tickle the baby under the chin. "Oh, she is sweet! How old?"

            "Four months," he said, now more secure in the guessed age.

            "Well, she's just adorable.  What's her name?"  The woman dropped down onto the bench beside him.

            Tom's eyes lit in amusement as he watched her gaze wander from the baby to his left hand.  "Melody."  *Melody the Magnet,* he amended silently, certain that he was going to have a phone number in his pocket before the morning was over.

            "Is she yours?"

            The question shot a small arrow into his heart.  *No, I'm just watching her,* his mind said told his mouth to say.  "Yes, she is."

                                                            ******

           

            Monday morning, Tom left Melody in the capable hands of Frannie Lipschitz before heading to work. He was running late by the time he got there, but as he and his partner had nothing pressing, it was hardly a problem.

            Though he knew no one would take better care of the little girl than his captain's wife he was riddled with guilt and second thoughts all the way to the station. The weekend had passed by quickly, full of new and surprisingly exciting lessons for the single detective. 

            Saturday night had been spent quietly at home with his captive audience of one. In the infant Tom had found someone who loved the sound of his guitar and his voice as he sang, never criticizing his playing or his lyrics. He found someone who didn't care if his jokes were bad, or if he couldn't quite recall the ending to a story ended and he had to make up his own. She didn't care that he was 'only a cop', or if his apartment was tiny and his bank account even smaller. When he looked into those blue eyes all he saw was acceptance, trust and love.

Cassy glanced across the desk at her partner. He was staring at the phone again, his hand barely restrained from picking up the receiver. "Don't do it, Thomas," she warned.

            Hazel eyes flashed up in confusion. "Huh?"

            "Don't you dare call Frannie again. You've called her five times this morning."

            Concern shone brightly in his eyes as they returned to the phone on his desk. "And the last three times I called Melody was crying in the background."

            "That's because a ringing phone keeps waking her up."

            Tom picked up a pencil, tapping it distractedly against his desktop. "I shouldn't have left her. If I feel this bad about leaving her with Frannie, how bad am I gonna feel leaving her in daycare tomorrow?"

            "I tried to call you a half dozen times yesterday. Where were you?" she asked.

            A fond smile appeared on his face. "We went to the park. I borrowed a stroller from those friends of Harry and Frannie. I always thought those joggers looked stupid, you know? But, I could see doing that."

            Cassy looked mystified. "You spent the whole day in the park? What is there to do in the park for the whole day?"

            The fond smile became a mischievous grin. "You wouldn't believe the number of single women who gave me their phone numbers. That kid is a babe-magnet."

            "Tom Ryan, that's terrible!" Cassy admonished him. "Using an innocent baby to help you pick up women!"

            "Hey, I need all the help I can get."

            *Amber…?  Danielle…?* The list began to run through his head once again as though skipping on a broken record. His list of possible 'suspects'. After returning to the apartment, Sunday night had been spent looking over his calendar from the previous year, trying to remember dates and narrow down his list. He began to reach for the phone again. It's been almost an hour…

            "Have you started making those phone calls?" she asked, trying to keep him from calling the Lipschitz house once again.

            Ryan shook his head. "Not yet."

            "Thomas!" Cassy exclaimed in frustration.

            "Well, what am I supposed to say? 'Hi, this is Tom Ryan; I know we haven't seen each other in about a year but… did you happen to leave our child on my doorstep the other night?'" His eyes returned to the phone once more as his fingers found the pencil again.

            "Earth to Tom!" Cassy called after a few moments of silence, snapping her fingers across the desk at her partner.

            He sat back in his chair with a heavy sigh, running his hands over his face. "Sorry. I'm just not all here today."

            "That much I can see."

            "I just... I don't know," he floundered.  "I like kids. I've always wanted kids. I just never pictured having one this way. I always figured I'd be married for a while, and then along would come a couple of kids."

            "Like your parents," Cassy said. "The regular way. A nice wedding, a house with a white picket fence. A couple of kids and a dog."

            Tom looked across at his ex, defensiveness rising in him.  "There's nothing wrong with all that. It worked fine for my folks, and it's working just fine for my brother. I'm the only one who seems to have trouble executing the idea. Maybe this is God's way of telling me that I'm never going to have the rest of the package."

            Cassy shook her head and stood, reaching for her purse. "Come on."

            Tom found himself following as she headed for the door. "Where are we

going?"

            "To see someone, and then get some lunch."

                                                ********

            "Well, I didn't expect to see the two of you today," Sterling Morton said as he looked up and spotted the team of St. John and Ryan.

            "I didn't expect to be seeing you either," Tom told him. He shot a quizzical look at his petite companion.

            Cassy cut right to the point. "What do you know about paternity testing?"

            "Paternity testing?" Taking a seat on a lab stool, Morton looked at the detectives standing in front of him. "Paternity testing. Well, I know enough, I guess. It's pretty basic. What do you need to know?"

            Tom groaned silently as he realized what they were doing in the M.E.'s office.

            "How difficult is it to find out if someone is the father of a specific child?" she pursued.

            Sterling fidgeted with his lab coat, straightening it. "Not too difficult at all. A simple blood test is enough to rule out the possibility of someone being the father, but it isn't enough to prove paternity. For that you'd need to do a DNA test, and those take a while."

            St John nodded, seemingly encouraged. "Okay. So if you had a sample from

the man, and from the child..."

            "And from the mother," Sterling added. "And of course, it would have to be ordered by a physician."

            "From the mother?" Tom interrupted. "You'd have to have a sample from the

mother as well?"

            "Certainly. Otherwise the test is really inconclusive. Like I said, it's easy enough to rule someone completely out, but... you get samples from just the man and the child and you can't really tell anything for certain. Doing the test that way you could perhaps get a degree of probability, but that's all. Do you mind if I ask...?"

            Tom answered quickly before his partner could explain. "It's for a case. Something we're working on. We'll let you know if we need anything else." With that, he took his partner by the arm and steered her out the door.

            Donning his sunglasses in the harsh afternoon sun he headed straight for the car. "Well. That was a dead end," he declared.

            "What do you mean, dead end?" Cassy asked, trying to keep up with his longer strides. "I think it's a real possibility! Tomorrow you should take the baby to the doctor and you should have one of those DNA tests run. At least it'll give you some kind of indication."

            "Some kind of indication of what?  You heard him, it would be inconclusive at best without the mother."

            "And if we knew who the mother was we wouldn't need the test at all. So I guess we find the mother. Things are quiet today, it would make sense to start making those phone calls when we get back," she said pointedly, ending the discussion as she got into the driver's seat of the Boxster.

            "All right, all right," Ryan conceded, slamming the car door a little harder than necessary. "I'll start when we get back from lunch                                                                   

                                                                        *******

            "I think Frannie really like watching Melody today," Tom called out from the kitchen. Busily at work at the stove after a long day he was content to just come home and cook dinner for Cassy, who sat on the couch holding the baby. He stopped his dinner preparations for just a moment to appreciate the scene in front of him. A million might-have's and could-have's flashed briefly through his mind before he forced himself to squelch them.

            "That's what I thought."

            Though she responded to his statement, his partner did nothing to encourage the conversation. She was too busy making faces at Melody, and looking unbearably pleased with herself when she was rewarded with squeals of laughter.

            "She likes you," Tom called over as he bent to take the roast chicken out of the oven.

            "Of course she does. What's not to like?" His partner laughed. The laughter stopped abruptly as Melody began to cry. "Uh-oh. I don't like the sound of that cry," Cassy mumbled. "Tom, she's crying, here…" The woman stood and started to carry the crying baby over to him when she let out a disgusted groan. "Oh, God! Oh, yuck!"

            "What?" Tom laughed, reaching for the baby she was handing to him quickly when he spotted the large stain on her silk blouse. "Ooops. Guess I know what brand of diapers leaks." Hiding his amusement, he took Melody from her to get her cleaned up. "Grab a t-shirt out of my drawer for yourself.  And then grab that plastic tub by the door and bring it into the kitchen? I might as well give her a bath before bed."

            Though Melody's crying covered any grumbling he might have heard from the disgruntled woman pawing through his dresser he knew just the same that she was grumbling. "Don't take it personally, Cass," he laughed.

            "Was that one of the joys parents are always talking about?" she asked sarcastically as she returned to the kitchen, Tom's shirt hanging long on her lithe frame.

She placed the plastic tub on the counter in front of him.

            "My father always said that a person isn't a parent until they've been peed on."

            "Your father is just a fount of wisdom."

            "I'll be sure to tell him you said so."  Tom began to fill the tub with warm water as he held Melody with his free arm.

            "You sure you're doing that right?" Cassy asked.  "You're holding that poor kid like she's a football."

            Tom paused, looked down and shrugged.  "She doesn't seem to mind."  If anything, the baby looked more than content.  His free hand dipped into the tub of water

before he shut off the faucet.  "Perfect."

            Cassy stood by his side, arms folded in front of her as she watched him deposit the baby into the tub.  "Have you ever done this before?"

            "No, but the pediatrician we saw the other day walked me through a 'dry run'."

            The instant the baby's skin contacted the water, she began to move.  Feet kicking and tiny fists pounding the water, she showered the two adults.  Happy squeals followed each shower as she squirmed.

            "Kid's gonna be some swimmer," Tom laughed, squinting he saw Cassy catch another small splash in the face.

            "Yeah, I'm starting to feel like I'm going to need a lifeguard," she sputtered, backing up a step.

            Tom went into the fray with good-natured awkwardness, trying to get exactly the right amount of baby shampoo into the palm of his hand, and gently working it into her silky dark hair.  After working up a lather, he turned and caught Cassy's wrist in his hand, pulling her back to the counter. "I, ahh, I need you to pour a little water onto her head to rinse out the shampoo," he said as he placed his hands above Melody's brow to keep the water and suds out of her eyes.

            Cassy retrieved a glass from the cabinet and filled it with clean water from the tap. 

            "That's not too hot, is it?" Tom asked, halting her motion.

            "No, it's not too hot, Mr. Mom."

            "Just checking," he said defensively as she rinsed the shampoo from Melody's hair.  As the sensation of water being poured on her head registered, the baby began to splash once more, dousing Cassy and Tom.

            The couple turned away from the kitchen counter, the man laughing softly at his companion as he carried a sleeping infant out to her crib. The woman headed straight for the dresser once again to find yet another clean, dry t-shirt.

"I had no idea having a kid around would require so many changes of clothing." Through her words Tom could hear the hint of good humor.

            "Turned out to be bath-time for you too," he teased. Another pleasant discovery had been made; Melody loved baths.

            "Funny, funny," she scowled, heading to the bathroom to change her shirt behind a closed door.

            Once secluded in the privacy of the bathroom, Cassy changed her shirt and tossed the damp one into the clothes hamper in the corner. Running a little warm tap water she attempted to wash the running makeup from her face. She paused for a moment as she stared at the face in the mirror. The face of a divorced woman, happy in her own life and in her own career. On the other side of the door, she knew the man who waited for her had other hopes, other ambitions and dreams other than her own.

            While the hours they'd passed together since leaving work had been full of laughter and comfortable familiarity, they'd been down that road before - and that road had led to divorce court. *He's getting so attached to that baby. If she's not his, he's gonna get hurt.* The water continued to run in the sink as she sat on the counter, unwilling to face the scene out in the living room just yet. She groaned inwardly as she realized how easy it would be to start down that road again. She had to admit, if only to herself, that she could see herself getting attached to the child as well. *How could we possibly make a relationship work for someone else if we couldn't make it work for ourselves?*

            Tom lay Melody down in the crib and pulled the soft blanket up around her. Her new teddy bear kept her company. Visions of a house, a real home, flashed through his mind briefly. A real home, a family of his own, something he'd wanted for a long time. The last few hours had been a small scene from a life that might have been.  *That should have been,*  he corrected himself.  Perhaps even a life that still could be.  A smile appeared on his face as he turned away from the crib and faced his partner as she reappeared.

            "I wish I'd had my camera," he commented.  His expression of good humor began to fade as he saw the serious expression on her face. "Cass?"

            Firm resolve showed on her face.  "Tomorrow you and I have to figure out what's going on here.  We have to find out who that little girl's mother is and why she left her here."

            "I've been busy," he tried to explain, but he knew there was no excuse for having her that long and not picking up the phone once to try to track down the woman who gave birth to her.  "But whoever she is, she doesn't want Melody.  She wants me to have her, so I don't see what the big rush is!"

            Forcing down her sympathetic feelings, she continued, her voice rising in frustration at herself and at him.  "Tom, you're missing the very obvious here. You're probably not even her father!  People leave babies in dumpsters now, or haven't you heard?  You think it would be out of the question for someone to just dump an unwanted kid on a stranger's doorstep?  Give me a break!"

            Tom flinched at her words. "She was not dumped on some stranger's doorstep! The note was addressed to me. Yeah, okay, Cass, maybe she's not mine.  I'll accept that possibility," he admitted reluctantly.  "But, what if she is? Why is it so hard for you to accept the possibility that I've got a child? I am capable of reproducing, no matter how much time out of your day you spend trying to neuter me!"

            Cassy stood staring at him, eyes wide in surprise.  "You want that baby to be yours," she said in wonder, a touch of accusation creeping into her voice.  "That's what this is all about.  The refusal to call Social Services, the excuses about the paternity testing, you want her to be yours, and you're willing to go to any lengths to convince yourself of it."

            Tom faced her. "That's not true. There's a strong possibility that that little girl is my daughter. As long as there's even the slightest, most remote chance of that, I can't and won't turn her over to some strangers at Social Services. Period. As for the paternity testing, you heard Sterling; without the mother being tested too there's just no way of conclusively proving that I am the father."

            "No, but there's a chance the test could prove that you are not the father. But you don't seem to want to do that. So, we find the mother," Cassy interrupted, hiking herself up onto one of the stools at the kitchen counter. "We find the mother and that will clear things up. I'll start making phone calls in the morning and we'll find her. How hard can it be? She had to have given birth in the last, what, six months? We can start checking birth records and see if any familiar names pop up. If she turns out to be some old girlfriend of yours we get her to submit to a test and if it turns out you're not the father..." Her words trailed off as she saw her partner's shoulders sag almost imperceptibly as he turned away. "What?" she asked, unable to keep the exasperation out of her voice.

            "When it comes to getting the baby out of my life, proving that she's not mine, all of a sudden it's 'we'. Why is that, Cass? Why will you work with me on one end of this thing and not on the other?"

            "I'm just trying to get you to get your head out of the clouds and be rational, that's all. That baby is probably not yours. Even if she was, how would you handle this? You live in a studio apartment, you work eight days a week, and your schedule is not exactly conducive to single-parenting. Are you going to put her into daycare? Daycare is just the way it sounds, Tom, daycare. Do you think they care if your day winds up ending at midnight because you were on a stakeout?"

            "I'll work it out, Cassy. There are a lot of single parents out there, and some of them have got to be cops. The department makes some kind of provisions for us - them - us -" Tom stopped, taking a deep breath as frustration welled up within him. "All I'm saying, Cass, is that this baby might be mine. Unless I find out differently I intend to do whatever I can to be the best father I can be, because that would be the most important job I've ever had. Whatever it takes. If it means getting a bigger place, if it means making changes at work and in my social life, then yes, I'll happily make those changes. That's what parents do. And, having a supportive best friend to lean on once in a while would make a world of difference. Can you do that for me, Cassy?"

            Cassy's response was long in coming. "I just don't want to see you get hurt in the end." 

            "That's not what I asked."

            "Yes. Tom, if this baby turns out to be yours I will help you in whatever way I can, but first we need to know if she is yours. We need to know, Tom."

            Tom sighed in resignation as he wandered back over to the crib.  Gazing down at the small occupant he felt his heart melt again. *Proof that love at first sight really happens,* he mused.  *Less than a week and already you've wormed your way into my heart.*   "I'll start making some calls in the morning," he agreed softly. "I'll find her mother."

"We'll find her mother," his partner corrected him.

                                                            *******

            "All dead ends?" Cassy asked again as she followed Tom out of the precinct.

            "All of them," he confirmed. "I called every single woman I was involved with around that time period last year. One hung up on me, one thought I'd come up with a really original line for getting back together and two I just got recordings saying that the numbers are no longer in service. I'll try again tomorrow."

            It seemed to her that he didn't seem too disappointed about having those two possibilities still out there. When their shift had ended he'd hurried to pick Melody up from the P.D.'s daycare facility, and Cassy found herself tagging along. She watched her partner's face light up as he took the baby from the daycare worker and greeted her tickles and kisses before heading towards the door.  Melody squirmed happily, reaching for Tom's nose and kicking her feet, apparently delighted to see her new playmate again.  

            "So, how about it? Want to join us for dinner tonight?" Tom offered. "I'll cook."

            Cassy glanced out into the parking lot to her car. She didn't really have anything else planned for the evening, and having one of Tom's homecooked meals really did sound better than scrounging around her own kitchen.  "Yeah, I guess I could do that. But if we're going to give little Miss Splashy here another bath I might go home and pick up my bathing suit first."

            Tom laughed and gently bounced Melody in his arms. "You hear that, little Miss Splashy? Aunt Cassy wants to play!"

            "Tom! Detective Ryan!" a breathless voice called from somewhere in the parking lot.

            Tom pulled up short and turned toward the sound of sneakered feet running across the asphalt. It took a moment for him to recognize the girl jogging towards him.

            "Who's that?" Cassy asked, nudging his arm.

            "That's... Rachel Waters," he said, relieved that he'd been able to pull the name out of his memory after over a year. The young girl had changed quite a bit since the last time he'd seen her as a 17-year-old runaway, living on the streets. "Hi, Rachel." He smiled and called a greeting to her as she neared.

            The young blonde girl came to a halt, panting and out of breath. "Hi! How are you?" she asked in what she tried to make sound a casual voice.

            "I'm fine. It's good to see you. You look great!" And she did, he had to admit to himself. She'd been underweight and malnourished looking when last he'd seen her. She'd been dirty and disheveled with a frightened look in her eyes. Now, she looked like just about any other 18-year-old. The program he'd gotten her into had evidently done a world of good for her.

            "Thanks," she replied hesitantly. Her eyes traveled from him to the baby he held in his arms, and lit up as she moved closer.

            "Rachel, this is my partner, Cassy St. John. Cassy, this is an old friend of mine, Rachel Waters."

            "Nice to meet you, Ms. St. John," Rachel replied without looking at the woman. Her blue eyes grew tearful, as they remained glued to Melody. She reached a trembling hand out to the child and ran gentle fingertips over her cheek.

            Tom's heart plummeted to the pit of his stomach. "Rachel...." he said softly.

                                                ***********

            A warm breeze set the swing beside her into motion as she saw Tom cross the parking lot, coming towards her.  The pain in his expression was impossible to miss.  "You okay?"  Cassy asked softly as he joined her on the swingset.

            "Me? Sure," he replied slowly.  "I think everything's going to work out.  I called Rachel's mother in Philly. As it turns out, she divorced Rachel's stepfather a month after Rachel ran away.  He was the main reason she took off.  Her mother's been going nuts looking for her ever since.  She wants her to come home, and to bring the baby with her.  I just talked to Harry, and told him I needed a few personal days.  I'll be driving them up to Philly.  I want to make sure they get there and that things are going to work out before I come back.  I think it's for the best. Really."

            "What are they doing in there?" she asked, nodding in the direction of his apartment.

            "They're both asleep. I don't think Rachel's gotten a minute of sleep since she left Mel... Alicia," he corrected himself.  "They'll crash here tonight.  She really loves her, she just didn't know what else to do.  She was desperate."

            "But why you?"

            Tom was silent for a long moment, staring down at the sand beneath his feet.  "I suppose I was the only person here she really trusted.  She was living on the streets two years ago, in a pretty seedy area just outside Palm.  She was scrounging for food, hanging with a fairly nasty bunch, and heading for some big trouble.  I was following up on a lead on a case one night, and was walking back to my car when I heard someone screaming. Some idiot was trying to make her pay for a burger he'd bought her in a pretty unorthodox way. I got the creep off of her, took her to a diner and got her fed and cleaned up.  We talked.  Her mother had married some incredible jerk who thought that she was part of a package deal he'd married into. When she tried to talk to her mother about it her mom thought she was making up some story out of spite.  So, she took off.  Anyway, I took her to Covenant House, that place for runaways.  There are some good people down there, and they took her in.  I checked up on her pretty regularly for a while. She finished high school, then she moved in with some twenty-year-old guy she'd fallen madly in love with and I lost track of her.  Last time I saw her was almost a year ago."

            "And Mr. Wonderful took off when he found out she was pregnant," Cassy surmised.

            "Exactly.  So, she had the baby, and made a go of it for a few months.  The only job she could get barely paid enough for her to turn around and pay for a baby sitter while she was at work.  I imagine that being eighteen and alone with a hungry baby crying and not enough money for food and diapers must be pretty terrifying."

            "That poor kid," Cassy at last sympathized. "So, she turned her baby over to someone she knew she could count on. When are you leaving for Philly?"

            "Tomorrow afternoon," he answered softly.

            "Do you need anything?" she offered.

            "Walk the dog for me while I'm gone and whitewash the picket fence?"

                                                            *******

            Tom was silent as he climbed out of the Mustang in front of the small white house.  The falsely cheerful smile he wore didn't reach his eyes.  White picket fence, he observed sadly.  Seems like everyone's got one but me.

            Rachel remained in the car, her eyes nervously glued to the front door.  "Rachel... this is the right house, isn't it?" he asked softly.

            "Yeah, it is," she answered, her voice far off and quiet. 

            Tom walked around to the passenger side and opened the door for her.  "C'mon.  Your mom is probably just as nervous as you are," he said, crouching on the ground in front of the open car door and reaching for her hand.  "But, she loves you, Rachel.  Someday your own daughter is going to make some mistakes.  Are you going to love her any less?"

            "No," she replied immediately. 

            "Your mother doesn't love you any less because of everything that happened.  She wants to help you, and Melo... Alicia.  C'mon," he repeated, standing and tugging gently at her hand.  "Let's go introduce Alicia to her grandmother."

            Tom watched the brief scene play out before his eyes with conflicting emotions. His spirits lifted and rejoiced with Rachel and her mother as the front door opened and the tears of relief and nervous joy spilled down the older woman's face.  He could see Rachel's shoulders begin to shake as she set down the baby carrier and went into her mother's arms.  His soaring spirit was held to Earth by the empty ache which started in his arms and spread to his heart as Rachel picked up the baby carrier again and entered the house, turning only as an afterthought to wave him an invitation to follow.

                                                            *******

            Tom leaned back against the hood of the Mustang, his sunglasses securely in place.

"You really have to head back to Palm so soon?" Rachel asked, looking up at him.

            He nodded, one hand absentmindedly reaching out to touch the cheek of the baby she held in her arms.  "Yeah.  I'd like to stay, but... the streets of Palm just aren't safe without me."

            The young woman's eyes glistened with fresh tears.  "I don't know how to thank you," she said, her voice beginning to waver.

            "No thanks are needed, Rachel.  Just take care of yourself, and this baby, that'll be thanks enough.  And call me once in a while and let me know how you're all doing."

            "I will," she promised.  "I'll call, and I'll write."

            "And send pictures," he requested.  He held out his arms, gently taking the baby from her for a moment.  A feeling of nearly overpowering longing swept through him as he held the infant close.  His eyes closed and he inhaled the clean baby-powder smell, felt the warmth of her living presence.  Pressing an affectionate kiss to her forehead, he whispered,  "Be good for your mom and your grandmother.  You've got your whole life ahead of you... school and friends, boys and proms, scraped knees broken hearts... and I wish I could be here to see every bit of it.  But I'll always be just a phone call away, and if you or your mom ever need me..."  His voice trailed off and he felt the threatening burn of tears behind his eyes as he handed the baby back to her mother.  "Take care of each other," he said, quickly planting a kiss on the young woman's cheek before retreating to the safety and privacy of his car. 

                                                            *******

            "Morning."

            The familiar voice caught Cassy by surprise. She looked up with a smile to greet her partner as he deposited himself at his desk, a small paper bag in his hands. "Morning, Tom. When did you get back?"

            "Yesterday afternoon. I would have called but... it was a long drive."

            Though he wore a slight smile, it fell short of his eyes. His shoulders sagged almost imperceptibly, as though bearing a heavy burden. "So, how did it go?" she asked carefully.

            "I had no idea how hard it would be to walk away," he replied distractedly. *Holding the infant close, the smell of baby-powder... a tiny hand reaching out and a toothless grin full of innocence...  A lump in his throat as he glanced repeatedly into the rear view mirror at the empty back seat as the miles stretched out between them... folding the portable crib and stowing it in the trunk of the car for return to the family it belonged to.  The tiny apartment couldn't have been more empty.  *

            "You still with me?" Cassy prompted softly as he drifted.

            Tom's voice seemed to come from miles away. "Yeah. I'm still here. Rachel and her mother have a lot to work out, but they'll be all right. She just fell in love with her granddaughter at first sight."

            "I'm glad to hear there's a happy ending for someone in this whole mess. How are you doing?" Her heart ached in sympathy for her ex, and she knew there was nothing she could do to help ease the pain for him. She'd watched him over the short period he'd taken care of Melody, and had seen in action a part of him she'd always known existed. He'd fallen so easily into the role of father - jumped in with both feet despite her best efforts to keep him out of the water. Sometimes she believed that his normal childhood and close family upbringing was more of a curse than a blessing. Growing up the way she had, on the other hand, had at least prepared her a little better for the pitfalls and disappointments of life.

            His answer came back to her, his voice sounding carefully controlled, and even a little numb. "I'll be fine, Cass. I guess I didn't realize how attached I was getting to that kid. I think I knew in my head that she wasn't mine, I just let myself get carried away."

            "If it makes you feel any better," she admitted reluctantly, "I got a little carried

away myself. Just a little."

            The light in the man's eyes seemed to brighten. "Really?"

"Really."

            "Maybe someday..."

            "Someday you'll be a terrific father."

            FIN