About Stein & Candle
A wealthy Hawaiian hotelier is chewed to death by sharks – in his penthouse office. A traveling salesman goes missing – in a shady New England town full of monstrous fishmen. A new casino gets supernaturally good luck in Vegas – thanks to ancient Egyptian magic. These are the cases taken by the Stein & Candle Detective Agency. Morton Candle’s a hardboiled ex-paratrooper turned two-gun shamus. Weatherby Stein – a fourteen-year-old wiz kid and heir to the greatest family of European sorcerers.
Stein & Candle is a paranormal detective / “zombie noir” serialized and published right here at Curiosity Quills, every Sunday.
Weatherby and I walked into the lobby of the Gillman House Hotel in uptown Innsmouth, and I could smell war in the air, heavier than even the scent of fish. Innsmouth was a rundown New England town, a fetid backwater with an unused harbor gone rotten and most of the houses abandoned. I wouldn’t have dragged myself to Innsmouth, Massachusetts unless it was for my job. But even though I was working a case, the open road out of town looked real inviting.
The Gillman House was the only hotel in town, a dusty flophouse that had been decaying since the Victorian Era, and still hadn’t managed to collapse completely. Weatherby and I entered the hotel after parking outside, and walked across the lobby to the receptionist. Quite a few Innsmouth locals were loafing around the lobby, chunky fellows in worn suits, oilskins, trench coats and battered bowler hats and flat caps. Several of them were packing, and the others looked hungry enough to be a danger because of their teeth.
There was something off about everyone in Innsmouth, from the slouching men in the lobby to the receptionist in his dusty red vest. They looked like they had swallowed a bowling ball, with round heads, bulging, watery eyes and sparse hair on their heads. Nobody in town was gonna win any beauty contests. They glared at me and Weatherby, with just the right mixture of cruelty and curiosity that set me on edge.
The receptionist gave us a similarly low look. “What you want?” he asked.
“Rooms. Two, same floor. Can you handle that?” I reached into my trench coat for my wallet.
“Only one room available. You can share.”
“Is that so?” I looked back at the lobby. “You don’t look like you get a lot of out of town business.”
“Only one room available.”
I doled out the dollars. “Fine. But it better make the Ritz look like a dump.” I turned to Weatherby as the receptionist pushed a key in my direction. “Come on, kiddo. Let’s go see our new quarters.”
We headed up the stairs to the second floor. Weatherby stayed close to me. “I don’t like this Mort, by all the gods and devils. A strange hand has a firm grip on this decrepit mist-shrouded little port. There is something evil in the eyes of the locals.” Weatherby, antiquarian that he was, would say that about any city which was modern enough to have automobiles and running water. But this time, I agreed with him.
“I know what you mean,” I said, as we stepped down the narrow hallway to our room. The floorboards creaked with each step. “Tomorrow morning, we start asking around for Partridge. Soon as we find out what happened, we’re gone.” I opened the door and stepped inside. There was one bed without sheets and one armchair, both covered in a thin sheen of dust. A single window overlooked Innsmouth’s main street. The sky was the color of steel, and a light sheen of rain soaked the crumbling streets and houses.
We were there on a missing person case. Vernon Partridge was a middle-aged insurance salesman from Ithaca, New York. Last month, he had kissed his wife and kids, hopped in the Studebaker and headed out to spread the good word about life insurance, door-to-door, through New England. He hadn’t come back. The wife was worried about him and hired me. I told her that he might have stepped out with some roadside floozy, but she was certain that wasn’t the case.
So Weatherby and I had gotten to work. We had tracked Partridge through Boston, Salem, Kingsport, Arkham, and then Innsmouth. Rocky roads made Innsmouth only accessible by a certain bus route. We found Partridge’s Studebaker set in a lot near the bus stop in Newburyport, where it had been for several weeks. A dozen witnesses reported Partridge boarding the bus to Innsmouth, ignoring the rumors about the town and eager to reach untouched territory for his firm. Weatherby and I left our Buick Roadmaster next to the Studebaker and caught the next bus.
Now we were in Innsmouth, and the gray sky was getting dark. I wanted to leave, forget about Partridge and the case and run to somewhere where the sun shone and everything didn’t smell of rotting fish. But I thought back to Partridge’s poor little wife, proudly telling me that her husband was a good and loyal man. I slumped into the armchair, giving Weatherby the bed.
But the kid was looking at the door, fiddling with the lock. “Mort…” he said. “The lock appears to be broken.”
“Just like everything else in this joint,” I muttered. I had a look, and it clearly was bust-o. I pushed the desk in front of the door, though I doubted that would stop anything. “You get the bed,” I told Weatherby. “Try and get some sleep.”
“I’ll try, Mort. But I don’t see much chance of slumber in this hostile place.” Weatherby clambered into the bed, still in his shirtsleeves, and used his frock coat as a blanket. He stared up at the yellow ceiling, and tried to close his eyes. I sat down and stared at the door, feeling the foggy chill and waiting for dark.
I didn’t doze. The whole room was soon wreathed in shadow, with only a thin stream of moonlight coming in through the window, but I didn’t close my eyes. My suitcase leaned against my foot, a comforting weight. Only half the things inside were clothes. I stared at the closed door, and then watched as it bulged outwards, shifting the desk. Footsteps sounded outside, heavy boats scraping across the wood.
“Weatherby,” I said, coming suddenly to my feet. Instinct kicked in, well-honed from hours of crawling through snow or mud, listening to the scream of falling artillery shells and the rattle of machine gunfire. “Someone’s outside, trying to get in. It ain’t room service.”
Weatherby sat upright and stepped off the bed. He slipped into his coat quickly. “They mean us harm?” he asked.
“Yeah.” I withdrew the Colt automatics from shoulder-holster and looked to the window. The roof sloped downwards, leading to the badly paved main street. It wasn’t much a jump. “Get to the windowsill,” I told him. “When the shooting starts, get out and slide down. I’ll join you in a sec.”
“All right. Be careful.” Weatherby moved to the windowsill and looked back, shivering slightly in the evening chill.
I bit my lip and watched the desk move. Finally, the battering outside was enough to knock it over, and the door slammed open. Half a dozen Innsmouth men looked in, all armed with stout cudgels and long curved fishing knives. I didn’t ask what they were there for. I just started shooting.
I dropped the first one with a round to the chest. “Weatherby!” I shouted. “Get down!” I heard him scrambling out the window and onto the roof as the Innsmouth men charged inside. I kept shooting, blasting open another guy’s knee and sending him howling to the ground. He didn’t scream, but made a gurgling retch and flopped around like a fish out of water.
The other Innsmouth men made for me, one swinging a lead pipe towards my head. I stepped back, taking the blow on my shoulder, and cracked the handle of my automatic against his flat nose. I heard something break, so I hit him again, and then pushed him back into his friends. I used the time to holster one gun, grab my suitcase and run like hell for the window.
I hopped outside. Weatherby was flat on the roof, sliding down the uneven tiles. Together, we made it off the roof, and then the short drop and the street. We hurried down the main street, hearing the snarls and growls of the men behind us. If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn they weren’t human. Something told me Innsmouth had something rotten as six week-old halibut at its core.
After a while, I figured we could stop running. We were in what passed for the upper class part of town, with decaying Victorian manors overlooking the dark street. A few automobiles were parked on the side of the road, the newest from around 1935. Lights blazed in some of the windows, and I didn’t like the idea of people in this town being awake at this hour. That’s when I heard several pairs of feet behind us.
Weatherby noticed it too. The kid reached into his frock coat. “Shall I draw my revolver?” he asked.
“Nope. I got enough problems already.” But more firepower was definitely gonna be needed. I opened the suitcase and pulled out my shotgun. It was twelve-gauge, a nasty number I had picked up in a Boston pub for forty bucks and a fresh pack of cigarettes. I racked it and turned around. “All right!” I called. “That’s far enough.”
A portly man stepped into view. “How much?” he asked, holding out his hands. He wore a neat light blue suit and vest, the kind you’d expect on any Wall Street big shot. A fedora rested in his hands, and he smiled with shark’s teeth. He had the same wide head, stubby fingers, watery eyes and slit nose as any Innsmouth man.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“How much is High Priest Hezekiah Gillman paying you?”
My mind raced. The Gillman House Hotel, doubtlessly owned by the High Priest of the same name, had been packed with toughs, waiting for a war. This guy must be from the other side. I named a sum, and the well-dressed fellow nodded.
“Tell you what,” he said, running a thick pink tongue along his sharp teeth. “I’ll double it, if you’ll come and work for me.”
All around us, more torpedoes were showing up. They stepped out on the sidewalk, popping up behind brick walls and aiming rifles and shotguns my way. Unlike Gillman’s boys, these guys were a mix of toughs in black leather jackets and sharply creased zoot suits, their thinning hair slicked back with a good deal of pomade. I couldn’t fight my way out, not with that many guns against me.
“Sounds like a deal,” I said. “But who exactly are you?”
“You don’t know?”
“Mr. Gillman is very secretive,” I said. “I guess he planned to tell me when I got here.”
“Heh. That sounds like Hezekiah all right. He loves his secrets.” The fat man pressed a hand to his chest. “I’m Mayor Malachi Marsh. I run this town, though High Priest Hezekiah Gillman doesn’t know it. And from now on, you fellows are on my payroll. You got names?”
“I’m Mort Candle and this is Weatherby Stein,” I explained. I lowered the shotgun, and then set it back in my suitcase. “Gillman didn’t tell me anything. I’m not sure what exactly the situation is here, but we’ve got no loyalty to him either way. And that payroll you mentioned sounds appealing.”
Mayor Marsh grinned. “Tell you what – come on back to the mayoral manor with the rest of the boys and I’ll level with you. I’ll give you some room, and all the guns and ammo a couple of professional shooters could ever want.” He looked at Weatherby. The kid hadn’t said a word this whole time, just stayed next to me and glared at Marsh. “Even if one does seem little more than a minnow.” He turned around and started walking down the street, his men falling in line behind him.
Weatherby turned to me. “Have you taken leave of your senses?” he whispered harshly. “You can’t go to work for some degenerate gangster politician!”
“You got any better ideas?” I asked. “He knows what’s going on in town. He might know about Partridge. I’ll keep it subtle, ask in a roundabout way, but maybe I can find out what happened to him.”
“Fine,” Weatherby grumbled. “But after we have ascertained Mr. Partridge’s whereabouts, we will leave this town immediately. Right?”
“Right,” I agreed, and followed Marsh down the street. I was unsure, despite my answer. I didn’t know how deep this black ocean was – and what would happen when I hit bottom.