Downside Rain by Linda Welch by Linda Welch - Read Online

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Summary

Another place lies palm to palm with the world we know. Downside, Earth's backdoor, where magic, madness and monstrosities abide, where rain falls from a cloudless red sky and neon pulses day and night. A fallen angel in a derelict tower weeps crystal tears. A powerful man hides a dark secret. Wraiths skim through the streets, hunting monsters. Rain and her partner Castle are wraiths. They'll take almost any assignment, providing it's legal and pays well. They specialize in ridding Gettaholt City of monsters, be they mischevious but relatively benign sprites or ghouls which don't limit their feasting to the already dead. They are also ears and eyes for Alain Sauvageau; unnoticed, the pair gleam information for the crime baron. Rain would be happier working for Alain were he not always trying to get into her pants, but she refuses to be the reigning lothario's latest in a long line of affairs and jilted lovers. Rain goes Upside on a mission for Alain and while there discovers River, a wraith who knows nothing of Downside. She is duty bound to introduce him to Downside society, an obligation she resents. When she's marked for death, she must survive attacks by demons and Gettaholt citizens compelled by powerful magic. Who is trying to kill her, and why? Is River friend or foe? Can a wraith die twice?

Published: Nordic Valley Books on
ISBN: 9781501447853
List price: $3.99
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Downside Rain - Linda Welch

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Author

WRAITH

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Definition: Merriam - Webster

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1: the likeness of a living person often seen as an apparition.

2: an insubstantial form or semblance, shadow.

3: a barely visible manifestation.

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Definition: Downside

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1: all of the above.

Chapter One

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I walk between raindrops which plummet from a bloody red sky. Castle taught me the trick, but the rain has to fall just so. He also said to ‘walk between raindrops’ means marginally avoiding disaster, or ‘dodging bullets.The definition is appropriate to our lifestyle, as barely escaping situations which threaten life and limb is often an occupational hazard. But today I’m merely dodging raindrops.

Those who have been Upside say the red sky is not real, as if up there is the standard by which everything is judged. I have been Upside, I came from there, but don’t make comparisons. This is Downside, Earth’s underbelly, the darkness to its light.

Downside has been here forever, a refuge for those horrors Upside is reluctant to believe in. But Upside’s myths and nightmares never truly disappeared, they came here.

Although Downside doesn’t let just anybody in, it may decide you belong, and once here you can’t leave without a compelling reason. Remember that when you find the deepest, darkest shadow you have ever seen and decide to explore.

Neon pulses to a wild guitar riff. Voices yell and laugh and chatter. Inhaling aromas, I pass restaurants, a bakery, vendors who sell from small wheeled carts: deep-fried battered fish, garlic sausage, coffee and hot chocolate, soy noodles.

Eyes slant in my direction, a freak in a city of freaks. A few people peer longer as they try to decide whether they see a person in the shadows or a darker shadow.

Rain makes the shop windows glisten, prisms shimmer as water and oil puddle on the street. Water gushes from downspouts on street corners and pushes filth along street-side gutters. Pennants hung for yesterday’s festival sag, drowned cloth in muted colors.

I keep to the pedestrian-only streets, a little narrower than those for traffic. Buildings are welded together four or five floors high in the old city center, street after street of businesses which buy, sell and trade.

A few raindrops get me as I avoid people who carry umbrellas. Everyone else scurries along or walks with hunched shoulders and screwed up faces.

Approaching Popkin’s, I increase mass and raindrops gleefully find their target. Not heavy enough to make an impression, my low-heeled black leather boots leave no mark on the doormat, though water beads off them to the tile floor when I step inside.

People and noise fill the café. Steam hisses from the espresso machine, aromas of coffee and cinnamon strudel mingle. Voices rise and fall, silverware chinks on china. Gene Popkin stands over a table telling a guy and gal they must order or leave, the café is not a place to shelter from the rain. Castle sits in the back at his usual table in a dimly lit nook, where maintaining enough flesh to fool the casual observer is easier than near the big glass windows at the front.

Not that we are self-conscious of our nature, but neither are we a sideshow to be gawped at. Full flesh requires more energy. We save the energy for when we really need the mass and run faster half-fleshed.

Sticky crumbs litter a plate pushed to one side. Delicately holding the handle in two big fingers, Castle sips from a tiny coffee cup. He is my business partner and occasional bed partner. We are not in love, sometimes we don’t like each other, but when one of us gets the urge, the other happily obliges. Partners with benefits.

Two female vampires sit in the back, one in white lace, the other in red satin. Huge eyes seem to swim in their own liquid below eyebrows like narrow arches. Instead of the usual sexy pout, the set of their mouths is odd, distorted. They are hungry for blood, fighting to keep their fangs sheathed, but the teeth give them problems. The silly things haven’t fed in a while and should not be abroad.

Four human preteens watch me. Too many of the little bastards run around aimlessly, taking up seats in restaurants, hanging out on corners, sauntering down streets as if they have right-of-way. Humans have been Downside since the first of them stumbled into the shadows. They breed like the rats which infest underground sewage canals and subways.

The observation is not derogatory. Humans and rats spit out offspring at an unprecedented rate, their spawn overruns the city, and while a rat infestation can be dealt with, human procreation can’t be controlled. Their greater numbers drove the other species Downside and they believe in their own superiority, so what will happen should they decide to take control one day in the far-flung future?

As for human children like the brats eyeballing me, not only do I lack an ounce of affinity for them, I plain dislike them. Their sense of entitlement rubs me the wrong way. Castle says human kids Upside are the same.

Yet, sometimes, an infinitesimal envy, a yearning, stirs in my breast when I see young human men and women walking to Gettaholt University or one of the technical colleges. Are we of an age? Did I attend a college or university before Castle found me?

I wend between round tables with green- and white-checkered plastic tablecloths. Castle twirls his tiny cup with thumb and finger as I join him. His deep voice rumbles. Hey, peaches.

Hey yourself. Thanks for getting my coffee.

You’re late. It would’ve been cold by now.

Beings, entities, species, creatures - the myriad types of people who live Downside call us wraiths. Without exception we are black-haired, dark-eyed and look like humans in their early to mid-twenties. With his height and bulk, Castle is mistaken for a young thug and the way he drops his chin and stares from beneath his brows lends his gaze a threatening quality which is entirely unwarranted. His black hair is messier than usual, sticking out in spikes, caught between nape and the collar of his brown canvas trench coat. He regards the coffee cup with hooded dark-green eyes, but his wide mouth quirks a tad when his gaze roves to my nipples where rain molds the cotton tee to my chest.

I jog his elbow with my hip. Castle exclaims an expletive as coffee splashes his fingers.

Oops! I remark insincerely. It’s those little cups, you have to keep your eye on them.

Yeah, yeah. He waves me off as I head for the counter.

I order a latte. The white-haired human guy looks relieved, I bet because I don’t ask for a fancy concoction. He’s working his butt off this morning with people coming in to avoid the rain and obliged to buy a drink for the privilege. I fancy a macchiato blend, but they cost as much as breakfast.

My reflection stares at me from the mirror behind the counter. Under the café’s bright, white florescent lamps, chin length blue-black hair sticks to my damp cheeks and flattens on my skull and a stray strand meshes with lashes so thick they look as though several coats of heavy black mascara have been applied. My dark-blue-nearly-black eyes look huge, startled. The black T-shirt is plastered to me, the black jeans clammy.

A shade from monochrome, I’m a natural for the Goth look.

Passing a bill to the barista, careful not to brush his hand, I busily add a good measure of raw brown sugar to the cup and grab a plastic stirrer when he tries to give me change. He drops coins on the counter. I scoop them up, go back to Castle’s table and slide into the seat across from him.

~*~

Castle is proud of Rain. She’s intelligent, fast and fights like an Amazon. In a way, he helped her become what she is today, because he taught her everything, from how to not only survive but thrive Downside, to how to kill monsters. She assimilated more quickly than he did. The gods know he gave his mentor Beach heartburn when he came down. She fits in as well as a wraith can. It took a while, but not as long as some he’s heard of. Now, you’d think she’s been Downside forever.

She never talks about what she experienced Upside before he found her. He saw her in the doorway of a boarded up store, struggling to hold in the fear, clamping down on rising hysteria. He tried to get it out of her, thinking it might be therapeutic, but except to say it was a few hours she clammed up every time. She’s one of the lucky ones; he’s heard of new wraiths who were alone for weeks. She is the only one he’s found. He’s spent more time looking for the lost than he should when Upside in the past forty years and wishes he could launch a dedicated search, but you can’t go Upside without a good reason and finding wraiths is not one of them.

But she must think about it. Everyone does. You never forget waking lost and alone with no knowledge of who you are. He will never forget his time and the hopeless panic which engulfed him.

His gaze roves to her breasts under the wet shirt and his pants get tight in the crotch. They haven’t taken a tumble in months. But now is not the time to get amorous, they have a job.

He never imagined he’d take on a partner after years of working alone. But Rain is proficient at what she does and he can rely on her. She is his friend, and wraiths don’t have many of those. Sometimes, when he lets himself, he worries about losing her. It can happen. Even wraiths die, and some of their jobs are dangerous.

Like this one. Rain will bust her buttons. In her opinion, of all the loathsome critters Downside, ghouls are the worst.

~*~

The plastic stick goes around and around but the bottom of the cup remains gritty with sugar. So?

Castle gropes for a green cardboard folder on the vacant chair. He opens it on the table and swivels it to face me. I drag it across to my side. The commission comes from Bermstead Cemetery’s custodian. I flick one corner of the cream-colored paper as I read, then close the folder.

My voice sounds like an accusation. They want us to clear out a ghoul nest.

Is that what it says?

Ghouls.

Your point is?

Fucking ghouls!

"Fucking ghouls, he repeats with stress on the first word. Now that’s something I never want to see. Ghouls going at it like bunnies . . . well . . . ick."

I give up and settle for trying to strip the skin off his bones with my eyes.

He drains his cup. Money’s good.

Good, not great, I grump.

It’ll pay next month’s rent.

Just.

You’re not hurting for cash.

How do you know? Anyway, that’s not the point. They should offer more for ghouls. Unlike private clients, the city won’t negotiate a fee and Bermstead is a city cemetery.

What are you going to do with all the dough you squirreled away? You live in a matchbox. You could get a bigger apartment in a better neighborhood.

I’m fine where I am.

And a car.

Can’t drive.

You can learn.

Don’t want to. I furiously stir my coffee. He’s irritating me now.

I toss the stirrer on the table, push the folder away and play with my change, trying to stack the coins in a pyramid, but I need another coin for it to work. Were we first choice?

Castle’s lip curls and his nose wrinkles as he picks up the plastic stick and puts it on the lip of my saucer. Third. Bindle and Ketch are busy.

I heft a sigh. Maybe this job will up our rep, though dealing with ghouls doesn’t make my heart flutter in a good way. It sucks, you know? We’re as good if not better.

Castle licks a finger and blots up crumbs. "It’s a matter of perception, sweet cheeks. Bindle has a troll and an ogre. Ketch and his brothers are trolls. Clients think they can plow through almost anything."

They can. I sip coffee, replace the cup in the saucer and tap the folder with an index finger. When?

Tonight. He rises to his feet and towers over me. My place at eleven?

Fine. I pass him the folder. You want this?

He swipes it from my hand and walks out of Popkin’s. I try to savor my coffee but having to deal with ghouls sours my enjoyment. The café is clearing out now the rain has stopped. With nothing else to do, I’ll head home.

Tales of us say we find some isolated place at night where we become incorporeal, floating in air as we sleep. Tales tell of many things which are not true. My studio apartment on Glamorgan comes with bed, chair, storage, stove, refrigerator and sink. I’m flesh most of the time. The flesh needs sustenance, rest and shelter.

Castle refuses to understand I’m content where I am. He says I lack ambition. I say possessions don’t define quality of life. If I moan about a fee it’s because the job is worth more, we are worth more.

She’s just a girl, a young male voice whispers.

I twist on the chair, knees sliding out from beneath the table, and get to my feet. My shirt dried in the warm air so the café’s clientele have lost interested in my chest.

Another kid says, You forgot your change, as a hand grasps my arm.

I intuitively lose flesh if someone grabs me. His fingers sink into my arm before I regain control.

The kid barely suppresses an ugh! and releases me. Watching expectantly, his friends huddle over their table.

Little bastard. With a sneer, I make a production of slowly turning my head. He’s young, probably thirteen, and wears a pale-green Henley and tan cargo pants. Brown hair gelled into a thick wave rises three inches from his scalp. Expression a mixture of triumph and disgust, he’s showing his four buddies what big huevos he has.

I give him the baleful eye before bending to scoop up my change. Already back with his friends, he tells them my arm feels like a sponge. One of them says, I told you she’s a wraith.

I should let it go, but these mannerless brats chafe my ire. So I walk the few paces to his table. Fixing his gaze with mine, I study him seriously till he can no longer pretend he’s not nervous, then lift my arm and sniff where he touched me, a long, leisurely inhalation through my nose. I have your scent.

Eyes still locked to his, I slowly lick my skin. Your taste is in my mouth.

His eyes get big.

I step in. With one hand on the back of his chair, I lean down, mouth near his ear. I can find you, wherever you are. I’ll see you in your dreams.

His face, and that of his friends, wears the identical pale shade as they gawp at me.

He swallows heavily and whispers, Please, don’t.

I straighten up, smack him on the head and say briskly, Gods no. What would I want with a little shit like you?

I leave the café wearing a grin. Contrary to common lore, I can’t sneak into dreams and steal the dreamer’s soul. If I drift in his nightmares tonight, his imagination will put me there.

A dryad squats on the street corner. Silver birch skin, hair like a crow’s nest of brown twigs, eyes of golden autumn leaves. Spindly arms drape over her knees, long gray toes curve, trying to dig through the asphalt to whatever soil may be beneath.

Dryads are a fucking nuisance, too. Dryads of the forests, naiads of rivers and springs, oreads of the mountains, limoniads of the meadows, limniads of the swamps, napaea of the glens - sometimes nymphs decide to explore urban life. Because Gettaholt’s east boundary lies close to what is left of the Auld Wood, the city tends to get dryads. They have to root after a few days so try to wherever they can. City workers pry them loose. If they are fortunate, dryads are handed over to relocation specialists who return them to their natural habitat. If they are fortunate. They are women and pretty much helpless in the city. Helpless women don’t last long in Gettaholt.

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My bedstead is red, the sheets cream. Posters in bright primary colors dot the walls. A yellow plastic chair like a giant ice-cream scoop hangs from the ceiling by a sturdy iron link chain. Red plastic cartons stacked four-wide and three-deep hold everything I need from clothes to dishes to weapons. The refrigerator, stove and sink are blue. Castle squints as if dazzled or fumbles for his shades when he visits. Ha ha.

I gear up before leaving for Castle’s place at ten forty-five. The hilt bound with sisal cord, a long obsidian dagger rides a waist sheath. Obsidian slices through the toughest skin, even a wyvern’s. Two smaller obsidian blades rest in forearm sheaths and a pouch on my belt holds three tiny triangular steel blades designed to fit between my knuckles.

Castle gave me the dagger as a kind of ‘welcome to the club’ gift. He meant to find me work and inexpensive lodging, then we both discovered I can fight and have a strong stomach for gruesome. Small, agile and fast, I quickly adjusted to the lifestyle and how to use body mass to my advantage. He asked me to partner with him and I didn’t think twice. I learned to capture or kill monsters.

I wear my shin-length leather coat. Leather is no substitution for body armor but does provide some protection from claws and teeth.

The sky is red streaked with black. Half-fleshed, I cling to the deeper shadows. The main streets are almost silent, few pedestrians negotiate the uneven sidewalks. Stores have closed, though bars and nightclubs on side streets and alleys are in full swing. I pass the House of the Seven-Handed God. Pink plaster crumbles off the walls and two of the great glass windows are cracked. Few people believe in the gods nowadays. Congregations are tiny, as are donations, and religious bodies have difficulty recruiting young people to replace elderly priests.

Were gods here ages ago, but left when people stopped believing in them? Does belief bring gods into existence and now they’re dead. I know evil entities emerge from somewhere to create havoc and we say they come from below, but we are supposed to take the gods’ existence on faith alone. For some inexplicable reason, these old temples for deities no longer loved or wanted make me sad.

Gliding up stone steps to Castle’s door, I call up more flesh to rap the wood. Footsteps tap the hall’s wooden floor, the door opens and Castle stands there with a bloody great sword in his hand.

Come in. He steps to the side and swishes the sword through the space I occupied a second ago.

The house is lit up inside. We don’t need light by which to see, but lamplight adds normality to the building and discourages thieves.

Castle follows me along the wood-paneled hall, through his living room to a space next to the kitchen. The right wall is all closet, a wall lamp hangs on the left. Castle presses a rivet on the lamp’s mount and a panel slides aside to reveal an arsenal stacked on shelves and hanging on pegs.

Ghouls, huh. I glance at his sword, the blade four feet of honed, tempered steel, his hand protected by a heavy steel buckler; a good weapon to use on ghouls because we can strike from a couple of feet away. We don’t want to get in range of their long arms.

I select a similar sword from its peg, lighter than Castle’s but as long, with a narrower, slimmer blade.

Castle chooses an obsidian hatchet with a long wooden haft and two obsidian throwing knives. He tosses me a leather baldric and harness and snags one for himself.

We leave through the backdoor and cross the street to where his car waits under the residents’ carport. The old jalopy needs the shelter, any more rust and the body will fall apart. It already lacks the left rear passenger door.

He grabs the handle on the driver’s side door and yanks, but the damn thing is stuck again. A well-aimed kick with his heel and it grudgingly grinds open. I perk an eyebrow. He gives me a sour look. He will never admit driving the heap embarrasses him and he thinks it’s bad for his image.

We settle the swords and harness on the torn vinyl backseat and climb in front. Castle starts the engine, twists to look out the rear window and backs out. At least the rain has stopped, a good thing, as the windshield wipers need new rubber blades.

The car plows through puddles in the rain-slicked streets, spraying water over the sidewalks. I pick at my fingernails as Castle whistles through his teeth.

My peripheral vision catches movement, white streaks, and I look up sharply. A whirlwind of lights dance and swoop in an alley. Will-o’-the-wisp, a half-dozen wind elementals and they are excited.

Stop.

The old car screeches to a halt, but the alley is empty. The noise scared off the elementals.

I hop from the car.

Castle sounds disgruntled. Rain, whatever’s there is dead.

I know.

Castle’s lips clamp together, his fingers impatiently tap the steering wheel as I start for the alley. He doesn’t lack compassion, but doesn’t see the point of investigating a lost cause. Wind elementals scour dead flesh off the bones but won’t attack the living. But I don’t want to think of a family learning their loved-one has been found as a pile of clean-picked bones. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

The alley stinks of rancid meat and rotting vegetation. My boots crunch on broken glass and squelch through a disgusting pulp. The inky darkness is no problem for a wraith. Night or day, our vision is perfect.

Bite marks cover a big, dead, seriously torn up cat. I don’t want to speculate what made those marks. The elementals can have it.

I walk backward a few paces, turn and trudge to the car.

Do we need to call anyone? Castle asks.

Nope. Just a dead cat.

He puts the car in gear. Happy?

I slump in the passenger seat. I’m always happy. See my big smile?

He huffs out a noncommittal noise. And off we go again.

We drive through an upscale neighborhood of high-rise apartments with tiny areas of colored rock in front and neat paths. Buildings get farther apart, single-family dwellings replace the apartments. Our destination is a semi-rural suburb five miles yonder.

Chapter Two

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The Blayne estate house towers east of Bermstead. Sounds grand, but calling it an estate is a stretch; Gettaholt doesn’t have space to spare for huge houses and acreage. Still, the house is impressive, big and very old with turrets and towers and pale weathered stone.

Calla Blayne is a sylph and one of the Triad, Gettaholt’s ruling body, although strictly speaking a duad until the open position is filled. Sylphs are female, and rare. The