THE DADDY QUEST

The Luchettis Book #2

 

 

   She found him in an alley, shivering behind a garbage can like so many other throwaways. But Rayne Houston had spent her life with strays and rejects. She knew just what to do.

   No fast moves. No loud voices. Patience did the trick—and a little bit of food.

   He was tougher than most. Took a few days to coax him out. But he didn’t disappear. When she came by every day after school, he was waiting.

   She began talking to him, pouring out all the horrors of being thirteen and different, of school and boys and of living at the halfway house and how embarrassing that was.

   “As if I could bring my friends to a place called Mercy House.”

   As if she had any friends besides her mom, Janet and the parade of women who passed through their lives. Though, to be honest, Rayne hadn’t been friendly with anyone lately. She snapped at her mom, ignored everyone else and spent a lot of time alone in her room. She felt...weird.

   Grown-up but still a kid. Confident yet uncertain. Easily annoyed and just as easily thrilled. She wasn’t sure what was wrong with her. Maybe it was just one of those phases she kept hearing about.

   Rayne had never been interested in the stupid girly nonsense that went on at school. She saw real, live nonsense at home and on the streets of Las Vegas every day. Stuff that made the silly dramas of seventh grade seem like a joke.

   Still, one friend would have been nice. But all the kids thought she was a freak because she didn’t dye her hair, or pierce her eyebrow, or wear clothes that were three sizes too big whenever she wasn’t wearing things that were at least a size too small.

   Rayne glanced down at her favorite outfit—bell-bottoms and a flowing floral top she’d discovered in a secondhand shop that specialized in hippy clothes. She’d even found a matching scarf, which she’d tied around her forehead.

   Sometimes kids sneered, “Make love, not war,” and gave her the peace sign.

   “I’d rather be taken for an Austin Powers groupie than a hooker any day.”

   The kid was a good listener, his big, blue eyes soft and sympathetic. Rayne considered how she could lure him home to stay and how she’d keep him a secret. Because at Mercy House there were no men allowed—only reformed prostitutes, drug addicts and exotic dancers.

   “One big happy family.”

   The boy’s head went up when she spoke, and his mouth formed the word family, but no sound came out. Rayne leaned forward, but at her movement he skittered into the shadows again.

   The kid was squirrelier than a browbeaten dog and twice as skinny. Someone had dumped him for sure, but not before they’d smacked him around a bit.

   Rayne had seen too many people who’d been hit not to know what they looked like even when the bruises were gone. There was something in the eyes that screamed, “Don’t!” Something in the way they held their bodies still and kept their voices quiet, as if trying with all they had not to be noticed.

  The kid had a classic case of the don’t-hit-me’s, and just watching him made Rayne so mad she wanted to pound on whoever had done it.

   Of course, violence never solved anything—or so Janet always said. But then she was an ex-nun. What else could she say? In Rayne’s opinion some people only understood a good smack upside their stupid heads.

   “Hey, kid, what’s your name?”

   She figured he wouldn’t answer—again—but a moment later a scratchy whisper split the silence. “Rat.”

   Rayne jumped to her feet. “Rat? Where?”

   “No. Name’s Rat.”

   Yep, some people definitely needed to be smacked.

   “They called you Rat?”

   “Rug Rat, mostly. I like Rat better.”

   “I am not going to call you Rat.”

   He inched out of the shadows and into the fading light. His shrug only emphasized the boniness of his shoulders. The kid was so scrawny he made Rayne’s teeth ache.

   “It’s my name,” he said simply.

   “How old are you? Five? Six?”

   His face crinkled. “I dunno.”

   Well, she couldn’t leave a five-or six-year-old boy alone in the dark one more night. “Come on.” She held out her hand. “I’ll take you to my house.”

   He stared at her hand as if it were something more horrible than a rat. “No!”

   His gaze darted from side to side as if he meant to run. However, Rayne blocked the only exit.

   “Relax, kid.” She refused to call him Rat. She just couldn’t.

   “Don’t want to go back.”

   “Where?”

   “The bad place.”

   “What bad place?”

   “I dunno. But nobody liked me.”

   Rayne could relate. She tilted her head. “I like you.”

   He studied her for a nanosecond, before his lower lip jutted out. “Still not goin’.”

   “How about this? You can stay in the storage room. No one goes there.”

   Courtesy of the desert sand, basements were almost nonexistent in Las Vegas. Therefore, the storage space beneath the stairs at Mercy House was large enough to house another bedroom. If the maze of old furniture and boxes hadn’t clogged it up. But the mess also made the room into a very good hiding place.

   “Nuh-uh.” The boy shook his head for emphasis.

   “I can’t leave you here. It’s not right. You’re going to come and stay at my place, and that’s that.”

   “Don’t like tall people.”

   “You mean grown-ups?”

   He gave a short, sharp nod. “They hit.”

   “Not all of them.”

   “All of them.”

   “The people at my house wouldn’t hit you if you paid them.”

   He didn’t look convinced, and Rayne couldn’t blame him. But she had to get him off the street. Once she took him to Mercy House, let him settle down and see from a safe distance that the people who lived there were okay, he’d come out on his own.

   Then she could worry about the no men rule. If she was lucky it might not apply to little boys.

   “My mom would never send you back to the bad place,” Rayne said.

   “How come?”

   “She was in a few herself.”

   Interest lit his eyes. She had him now.

   When Rayne left the alley, the kid followed her all the way home. She hid him in the storage space, just as she’d promised.

   She’d always wanted a pet, but she could settle for a little brother.

* * *

   Every night Nicole Houston climbed the stairs to the roof and watched the bright canvas of Las Vegas burst to life. First the sandy shaded hills receded as bright, white dots sprang up like popcorn across the horizon. Then, as darkness descended, the hills would deepen to blue midnight behind the flare of the electric lights.

   Nicole watched so she would never forget how she’d gotten here in the first place. Blinded by neon, lured to the music, the money, the vice—what lonely, orphaned, pretty girl wouldn’t be? She’d been luckier than most, to find a place, a life, some hope. But it was because of where she’d started that she was able to be any good at what she did at all.

   Nicole turned away. By night the city appeared downright beautiful—on the surface. By day it was always hard to believe a less attractive spot could exist. There weren’t enough colored lights, sequins and glitter to cover the ugliness that thrived in certain corners of the world.

   “Nicky? You up there?”

   Thuds and mumbles preceded the arrival of the woman Nicole admired more than anyone. Pushing seventy, Janet Bristol still moved as if she weren’t a day over fifty-five. Her fading, flowing, waist-length red hair, willowy six-foot frame and tendency to dress as if she were an extra in a commando movie belied her original vocation. For nearly forty years Janet had been known as Sister Martha Grace.

   “Here.” Janet shoved a plastic cup into Nicole’s hand, then collapsed into the frayed and listing ancient lawn chair.

In deference to the late-May heat of Nevada, which was positively balmy when one considered the desert oasis could top out at 110 degrees in the summer, Janet wore camouflage shorts and an army-green tank top. She’d left her combat boots downstairs, but her ankle-high black socks were still in place. Residents of Las Vegas referred to Janet as a one-woman army of God, and they were right.

   Nicole’s cup appeared to be filled with red wine. She knew better. In this house no drugs, no alcohol, no sex might as well be etched on the front door, which was just fine with her. She’d had enough of all three before she turned sixteen.

   “To another job well done.” Janet lifted a second cup and after Nicole tapped hers against it, they drank. This time the liquid inside was grape juice, but they’d performed the same toast countless times with countless other liquids. What was in the cup did not matter, what the cup symbolized did.

   They’d saved another lost soul. Chalk one up for the good guys.

   Lately, though, Nicole hadn’t felt like much of a superhero. Perhaps because she was the mother of a teenaged daughter and had somehow morphed into the most boring person on the planet.

Nicole sighed.

   Janet’s sharp gray eyes narrowed. “What?”

   “Nothing.”

   “Nothing always means something.”

   How a woman who’d spent half her life as a nun could be the next best thing to Mother of the Year was beyond Nicole. Of course, Janet had seen more than the average nun. She had refused to be pressed into the teacher-nurse mold and boldly gone where few sisters had gone before. Straight to the belly of the beast.

   Viva Las Vegas!

   In the end, despite all the women she’d helped and the lives she’d saved, Janet had been told to toe the line or get out. Still, she refused to be bitter.

   “If everything goes our way in life, how would we ever learn anything at all?” she often said.

   Nicole wished she were half the woman Janet was, but she never could be.

   “Spill it,” Janet said. “What did the girl do or say this time?”

   Janet knew her so well, and she knew Rayne even better. What would Nicole have done nearly fourteen years ago if not for Janet?

   She’d arrived on the doorstep of Mercy House, a sixteen-year-old pregnant stripper with a page torn from the yellow pages still clutched in her hand.

   Technically she’d been and ex-stripper. Once she’d started to show, Nicole had been out on her tassels. But she was taken into Mercy House without question, and she’d been here ever since. This was home now, Janet and Rayne the only family she’d ever had, or would have.

   “Rayne’s hiding something.”

   The cell phone on Janet’s belt shrilled. “Sorry.” She lifted a finger. “Hold that thought.”

   With a scoop of the hand and a flick of her thumb across the screen that would make a CEO envious, Janet answered her phone. “Hello? What?” She scowled. “No, I don’t think it’s all right to steal from a casino.”

   She listened, then shook her head. “Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple, he didn’t take their money.”       Another pause. “Yes, I realize you’re not Jesus. I’m not sure what tipped me off.”

   Janet rolled her eyes, and Nicole fought the urge to laugh. Her friend’s cell number was common knowledge on the lower rungs of Vegas society— perhaps because Janet gave it out to anyone who asked and quite a few who did not.

As a result people called at all hours asking for advice, needing a kind word or a cool head, and Janet was there. Her no-nonsense style and comforting manner had become legend, but sometimes the questions were downright ridiculous, if not funny.

   “Here’s a thought,” Janet continued. “Thou shalt not steal. Short, to the point, still relevant in today’s society.” She jabbed the end button with a practiced thumb. “I swear I’m going to get a 900 number. At least I’d get paid for all the advice I give.”

   “You’d never charge for advice.”

   “But I’ve got the perfect number, and I’d hate for it to go to waste.”

   “Okay.” Nicole spread her hand in a questioning gesture. “I’ll bite. What’s the number?” 

   “One-nine-hundred ask a nun.”

   Nicole quickly counted the letters. “Clever.”

   “That’s me, clever old nun. Now, why do you think Rayne is hiding something?”

   “She’s jumpy. Missing sometimes. Late getting home when she’s never been late before. Do you think she’s got a boyfriend?”

   "Ask her.”

   “I did. She just narrowed her eyes and looked at me like I was dumber than dirt.”

   “Kids.” Janet made a tsking sound. “Can’t live with ’em, can’t put a shock collar on ’em.”

   “Gee, I see why people call from all over just to get your opinion.”

   “You’re welcome.” Unfazed by Nicole’s sarcasm, Janet finished her juice. “Give the kid a break, Nicky. She lives in a halfway house with women. She’s got no siblings, no father.”

   Nicole winced. Janet knew the truth about Rayne’s father, but no one else did. Not even Rayne.

   “All of the kids at her school have parents who are showgirls, magicians, blackjack dealers. This city is glamour on a shoestring. She’s got an ex-nun and—” Janet broke off, then stared into her cup as if expecting more grape juice to appear like a miracle. Janet was always expecting a miracle.

   Nicole had learned over the years she had lived here that one thing separated a professional believer from the amateurs. One expected miracles, the other merely hoped for them. Nicole had lost hope long before she’d lost everything else.

   “You think it’s starting to bother her that I took my clothes off for a living? There are worse things.”

   “And we’ve seen quite a few of them. So has Rayne.”

   The familiar sense of guilt flickered. “Maybe now that she’s older I shouldn’t let her stay here. I could send her...”

   “Where?”

   Nicole lifted an eyebrow. “Military school?”

   “She’s thirteen. She’s supposed to be a pain in the ass. If she wasn’t, I’d be worried.”

   Nicole sipped her juice. “Are you allowed to say ass?”

   “I’m allowed to say anything I please. I own the joint. Or J. B. Grace does.”

   “And since you’re one and the same...”

   “Precisely.” Janet got to her feet. “Now, if I want to pay the bills, J.B. had better get to work in the bat cave.”

   Janet’s alter ego, J. B. Grace, comic book author, kept them in grape juice and various other sundries. Since Janet had left the church, then taken a few unpopular stands to protect her girls, much of their mission funding had dried up.

   Several years ago Nicole had come across a notebook. In it were extremely detailed drawings that illustrated the story of a crime fighter named the Angel of Light, who brought down Old Testament retribution on a host of bad guys tearing up the streets of a fictional city that appeared very Vegas-like.

   When Nicole had confronted Janet, she’d admitted to writing them to ease her frustration with all evil in the world. She’d brought out more, and Nicole had recognized many of the horrible tales they’d heard from some of the women who had passed through Mercy House. But in the realm of the Angel of Light, the bad guys always paid—often quite horribly.

Nicole was hooked.

   So were a lot of other people. The Angel of Light comic books had drawn a cult following and netted them enough money to buy Mercy House, ensuring they wouldn’t be out on the street some month when the rent came due and they had nothing.

   “Would you like to decide who gets Carolina’s room?” Janet hovered in the doorway, one foot on the step leading down, another still anchored to the roof.

   “Huh?”

   “Pick a new recruit, Nicky. I’m busy.”

   “But—but—”

  Janet always chose the women who would live at Mercy House. She seemed to have a sixth sense about those on the verge of change.

   Carolina, whom they’d just toasted, had come to them from one of the party houses outside of Vegas. She’d been here eight months and left that morning for her new life as an assistant to the assistant chef of a ritzy restaurant in San Francisco.

   Women who were ready to start new, but had no idea how, got the chance at Mercy House. However, they had to want that chance deep down inside in order to succeed. Janet had always been the expert at seeing through the bravado and the toughness to the woman within.

   Nicole wasn’t sure if she could. What if she chose wrong?

   “Just because you’ve made some poor decisions in the past doesn’t mean you’re incapable of making a good one now. Unless, of course, you refuse to make any at all.”

   “The decisions I made at sixteen hardly count.”

   “I wasn’t talking about when you were sixteen.”

   Nicole’s heart gave a painful thud against the wall of her chest. “You promised never to bring that up.”

   “I did? I’m forgetting all sorts of things in my old age.”

   “No, you aren’t.” Though Nicole’s voice was cool and her face calm, her palms had gone damp as her pulse fluttered faster and faster.

   She could not talk about the past. She would not talk about him.

   “Where’s Rayne?” she asked.

   Janet’s lips thinned. She knew what Nicole was doing, since she had done it a thousand times before. When conversation turned to...him...Nicole changed the subject. Rayne was always a handy subject to choose.

   “I left her shading one of my sketches.”

   “And her homework?”

   “Done. Or so she said.”

   “I prefer to see it before I believe it.” Nicole strode toward the steps.

   Janet refused to move out of her way.

   Since Nicole didn’t want to go hand to hand with the Amazon warrior goddess, she was forced to stop and listen.

   “You can’t avoid everything that hurt you in the past. Every mistake you made. It’s not healthy. For you or for Rayne.”

   “I’m not avoiding anything. I just don’t want to make another mistake.”

   “Also not healthy.”

   “I don’t like to screw up. Sue me.”

   “There’s a difference between wanting to do well and being so afraid of making a mistake you do nothing at all.”

   “I do plenty. You act like I’m some pathetic recluse who never leaves the house.”

   Janet gave her a bland look.

   “I leave the house!”

   “You’re more of a nun than I ever was.”

   “Am not.”

   “Oh, that’s tellin’ me. You’re twenty-nine years old and you haven’t had a date in... What? Help me out here.”

   Nicole sniffed. “I don’t date.”

   “Not healthy.”

   “I’ll eat more broccoli.”

   Janet raised an eyebrow. “I’m starting to think you don’t like men.”

   “What’s to like?”

   “You have no one to blame but yourself. If you’d told him about Rayne, he’d have come back.”

   “And denied everything he was, everything he’d ever wanted to be. I wasn’t going to ruin his life.”

   “Wasn’t that was his choice to make?”

   “No. Because he’d have made the wrong one.”

   “Who are you to say what’s wrong and right? Walked on any water lately?”

   There was just no arguing with a nun.

   “What’s done is done. I can’t change it now.”

   “You never should have told her he was dead. That is so gonna bite you on the butt.”

   “You’ve been spending too much time with Rayne. You’re starting to talk like her.”

   “And you keep changing the subject.”

   ‘”I never said he was dead. I said he was gone. He is.”

   “You’re going to have to tell her sometime. Then she’s going to—”

   “Hate me.”

   “I was going to say, want to meet him.”

   Which was exactly what Nicole was afraid of.

* * *

   Rayne didn’t mean to snoop. But who hid secrets in the Bible anyway. Wasn’t that some kind of sin?

   She’d come to her mom’s room as she did every day before supper. Sometimes Mom was there waiting, other times, like today, she was up on the roof thinking or talking to Janet.

   Rayne should probably run downstairs and check on the kid, but she would have to feed him later, and she didn’t want to disappear too often. Eventually someone would wonder what was going on and come searching for her.

   Rayne flopped onto the bed to wait, but in minutes she was bored. The only book near enough to touch was the Bible, and when Rayne shuffled the pristine pages, just look what popped out.

   Her father’s phone number.

   The sight of a dead man’s handwriting made her fingers shake. She smoothed her thumb over the letters and the numbers, imagined him writing the words, handing Mom the note, kissing her goodbye. Then walking out of their lives and dying too young.

   Rayne wasn’t exactly sure why he had left or how he had died. Her mom always got weird whenever Rayne asked about her dad—fidgeting, twitching and becoming all teary eyed. Eventually Rayne had stopped bringing him up at all.

   Her mom had had a rough time. No doubt about it. She’d been abandoned on the steps of Saint Nicholas Church in Houston when she was just a baby. Hence her name, Nicole Houston.

  She’d been shuffled from foster home to foster home until one of her “brothers” had tried to be more than brotherly.

Someone else who needed a good whack—with a two-by-four.

  Nicole had then hopped a Greyhound for Vegas and done her best to get a real job, but she was a teenage runaway. However, she was a very pretty runaway, with long blond hair, big blue eyes and creamy skin over a whole lot of curves. She’d ended up dancing exotically in places where they weren’t too particular about proof of age.

  Rayne’s mom had been bluntly honest about what she’d done, how awful it had been, and the steps that had led to each mistake. She had always been downright chatty about everything—except Rayne’s dad.

   “I guess it would really suck to have your boyfriend get himself dead and leave you holding the baby.”

   They didn’t even have a picture. All Rayne knew was her father’s name and that he had dark hair, blue eyes and came from Illinois. She’d always figured she must look like him since she didn’t look anything at all like her mom.

   Black hair, green eyes—where those had come from she’d probably never know—and...

   Rayne snorted in disgust at the thought of her impish, heart-shaped face, minibody and nonexistent breasts. It frustrated her to be the shortest, flattest, cutest girl in school. Especially when thirteen-year-old boys referred to her mom as a “hottie.”

  “Damn it!” Rayne sat up, then hunched her shoulders in expectation of a roar of Biblical proportions if Janet heard her. But even Janet couldn’t hear through a closed bedroom door, though sometimes Rayne wondered.

   She had just reached out to put the note back where she’d found it, when a little voice made her hesitate.

Why not call the number and see what happens?

  Rayne tilted her head, considered, then shrugged. “Yeah, why not?”

   She grabbed her mother’s phone and punched in the number.

   Five rings later a man answered. “Hello?”

   Suddenly Rayne had no idea what to say. Who was she calling? Where was she calling? And why?

   “Hey, I hear you breathing. Is this Zsa Zsa?” The man made a sound of disgust and then called out, “The baby’s using the speed dial again.”

   “Uh, no, I, uh—”

   “Hello?”

   Rayne’ glanced down at the paper in her hand and blurted, “Aaron Luchetti.”

   “Oh, sorry. Thought my sister’s baby was at it again. Aaron’s not here right now. Message?”

  Not there right now?

   “Hey? You still there?”

   She had to shake her head, hard, to make the buzzing in her ears go away. Was the room spinning?

   “Um, yeah. I mean no. No message, thanks.”

   Rayne hung up, then stared at the phone as if it might reach out and bite her.

   Her mother’s lie certainly had.

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