Marmalade's very expensive in Darkest Peru


It was a Thursday when it all happened, which Ray only remembered because it was the day he had to leave work early to babysit Little Maria. On Monday nights, Vecchio took Maria with him to his single dads' group; and on Tuesday nights Vecchio and Maria -- and usually Ray, too -- ate dinner with the Vecchios; and on Wednesdays they usually both stayed home and Ray watched the game while Vecchio pretended to but usually fell asleep; and on Thursdays Ray babysat so Vecchio could have some time to himself. Or that was the story, anyway. When Ray had initially offered, shortly after Vecchio moved into his spare bedroom, Vecchio had just given him a look.

"You know I have a mother down the street, right? And two sisters. And all three of them are desperate to take care of the baby they keep calling the 'poor motherless thing'."

And then Ray had to suck it up and admit that he just wanted to spend some time with the kid, because, let's face it, a roommate with a baby was as close as he was likely to get to having kids of his own.

Vecchio knew, but it amused him and worked out for him, so he let Ray get away with it. It was probably the same reason he'd been willing to move in when Ray had offered. When Vecchio came back from Florida, underweight and sickly child in his arms, he moved back to the Vecchios, where Ray saw him on Tuesday nights when Ma had him over for dinner. At first Vecchio had seemed relieved to have all of these women around who were happy to care for his child, but Ray had seen him grow more and more frustrated. For one thing, tiny, fussy Maria wasn't what they were used to in a house full of three generations of rambunctious Vecchios. But more importantly, Ma and Big Maria acted like Ray was an irresponsible knucklehead who couldn't be trusted to take care of his own child. Like he was his Pop, or something, and not the guy who'd been supporting the rest of them for years.

Ray hadn't invited Vecchio to live with him for Vecchio's sake. He could always use help with the rent, and since Fraser had stayed in Canada, he didn't have much left in the way of friends, and Vecchio would do in a pinch (they could watch the game together, anyway, and fight about the Sox versus the Cubs, and even though Vecchio had taken his disability and was using it to be a stay-at-home dad he was still somebody Ray could talk to about police work). But mostly it was because Ray had fallen in love with Little Maria the very first time he met her, and inviting Vecchio to live with him was the best way to be with the girl he'd fallen hook, line, and sinker for. First time he'd fallen in love since the divorce and it was with Fraser's ex-partner's illegitimate kid. Figured.

Probably he had just adored Maria on sight because he'd assumed she was Stella's, but by the time he learned she wasn't he already loved her. If anything he cared more after he learned the poor kid's history.

"Why were you sleeping with some crack whore?" demanded Big Maria at dinner that first Tuesday, and Ray blanched and put his hands over the baby's ears as if she could understand.

Vecchio had glared at his sister. "She wasn't 'some crack whore', and don't call my daughter's mother that. She's a nice lady who's stuck in a habit, and was smart enough to know that she shouldn't be taking care of a kid if she can't take care of herself. And I didn't know she was using when I slept with her. And I wasn't sleeping with her, anyway, it was just one damn night!"

"So you couldn't be careful?" asked Big Maria, shouting like all the Vecchios shouted.

Vecchio yelled right back. "Stella had thrown me out of the house three hours before. My heart was broken and I was drunk off my ass. I wasn't really thinking about being careful."

The Vecchios were really loud, shouting over each other the way they always did, and Ray just held the baby, fiercely glad that Vecchio had been too drunk to be careful, and furious at anyone who would have prevented Little Maria from existing. He looked up once, but Frannie was glowing with that serene Madonna look she so often had these days, and she smiled at him beatifically. It made him so uncomfortable that he had to get away.

"I'm just going to change the baby," he'd muttered, and Little Maria had snuffled and turned her face against his shoulder, and that was it, he was gone, he was lost.


So anyway, Ray knew it was a Thursday, because he was procrastinating his paperwork earlier than usual so he could go home and read Arlene Sardine to Maria. He was busy yelling at Huey's replacement Daisy Mallard when it all went down.

The kid was two or three or threabouts, and nobody was sure, afterwards, how she arrived at the 27th. Welsh tripped over the suitcase coming out of his office, and just as he was about to start yelling, Frannie shouted "oh, the darling thing!" and ran up. For there on the suitcase was a sleeping toddler. She was wrapped in an overlarge blue duffle coat with toggles, and was wearing a most odd-looking hat, with a wide brim.

Welsh spent almost 30 seconds speechless, which might have been a record. Finally he got his voice back. "Ladies and gentlemen, would it behoove one of you to inform me as to why there is a small child asleep in front of my office?"

Frannie had picked up the child and was cooing over it. She pulled off the shapeless hat to reveal a sleepily blinking child with a pink ribbon around its very scruffy hair. "Sir, there's a label around her neck," she said, looking up at Welsh. All the cops in the precinct leaned forward as Frannie carefully removed the label. "'PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS CLONE. THANK YOU.'"

"Clone?" said Welsh.

"Look, sir," said Mallard's partner. "The suitcase says something."

Ray was already out from behind his desk. "See, that's why they pay you the big detective salary, Don," he said, as he sat on the floor beside the suitcase. There was something strangely familiar about it. "You don't miss a trick." He looked at the label on the suitcase which read, in large letters, WANTED ON VOYAGE. Ray looked more closely. Underneath, in much smaller letters, it read PROPERTY OF S. KOWALSKI.

"Kowalski?" asked Welsh, but his growl sounded oddly gentle. Next to Ray, the towheaded child sat up in Frannie's arms and peered intently at Ray and the suitcase. Frannie absentmindedly pressed a kiss to the child's hair, but she, too, was focused on the suitcase.

"I haven't seen this suitcase since I was 10 years old," said Ray, softly. He pointed to a sticker which loudly proclaimed "Grand Canyon!" and showed a faded illustration of a donkey. "That's from a trip we took the year I turned nine. That one," he continued, pointing to a sticker which read "Cleveland is for lovers" in an improbably childish font, "was from a trip to Ohio to visit my Auntie Betty when I was seven."

"And that one?" asked Frannie, pointing to a sticker which looked much newer than all the others on the worn, battered suitcase.

Ray looked solemnly at the sticker. The words "β ORIONIS!" were emblazoned in bright red over a shiny green alien head, complete with huge black eyes. "I have no idea where that one came from," he said.

The toddler wriggled out of Frannie's arms, looking like any other just-woken two-year-old. "Hi!" she said, and climbed into Ray's lap, leaving dusty footprints on his jeans. She looked up at him from her enveloping duffle coat with a lopsided smile, and that was it, he was gone, he was lost.

"Hey, kid," he said. "You like books about sardines?"