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.
The Esoteric Order of Dagon’s church wasn’t hard to spot. It was the only building on its block that hadn’t collapsed from decay and neglect. The church was a strange gothic cathedral, the steeple leaning like a crooked finger. I remembered Weatherby’s words about the Esoteric Order of Dagon, how they were some cult packing major occult power. I made a note to tread lightly, as I walked up to the large double doors and slammed them open.
There were no crosses in that church, only strange fishy decorations that looked like they would swim if you put them in water. Bronze statues of strange monstrosities, part man, part frog and part fish, crouched in the alcoves, long claws poised.
The pews were packed with gunman. Unlike Marsh’s greaser toughs, these guys wore stiff suits or cheap coats. They turned to face me, looking like bullfrogs puffed up with aggression. They went for their guns, but I raised my hands. “I’m not looking for a fight,” I said. “I’m looking for Gillman.”
“And what do you require of me, my son?” High Priest Hezekiah Gillman stood at the pulpit, thick hands folded. He wore a long flowing white robe, and a tall finned headdress of sharp gold, with a gleaming green jewel in the center. “You are the mayor’s new hired gun, I believe. I’ve heard of you, Morton Candle. News travels quickly in a town like ours. Perhaps you should make your peace with your gods.”
“I’m not looking to get religion,” I said. “I’m looking for work.”
Gillman approached me, his hands still folded. He was taller than Mayor Marsh, and regarded me with bored, half-closed murky eyes. It was like he had total faith in how things would end, and all he had to do was wait. “Do you not already have a job?”
“Yeah. But I’m looking for a little more payoff.” I grinned at the tiara. “Like that nutty hat you got on. I bet that must have cost you a pretty penny. I think you got more dough than Marsh. I think we can make a deal.”
“We can indeed, my son,” High Priest Gillman smiled. His teeth would have frightened a shark. “But I need something more than your services. I have a ship coming in shortly, you see, though it has been momentarily delayed by the destruction of the docks. Several occult supplies are aboard, as well as my cousins from Devil Reef, and an individual from Europe I hired to aid me in this struggle. You see, I already have a professional killer coming.”
“How about information?” I asked. “Like the exact time when Mayor Marsh and all his troops will come marching down the street, heading right for your church and loaded for war?”
The high priest nodded beneficently. “May Dagon bless you, my son.” He named a sum, nearly triple what Marsh was paying.
I nodded. “Sounds good. I’ve never met a preacher like you, your holiness.”
“I’d rather think you haven’t.” Gillman nodded to his underlings, who brought me a thick roll of bills. I counted them quickly and pocketed them. He waited until I was finished, his foot tapping on the polished tiled floor. “Well?” he asked.
“They’ll be coming in half an hour. If you get to main street and hide out in some of those abandoned buildings, you can set an ambush for them. Cut them down while they’re on their way.”
“An excellent plan. We are truly blessed to have someone of your skill on our side.” I could tell Gillman didn’t trust me. He stepped around, his robes billowing as he moved to block the door. “But what will you do now?”
“Go back to Marsh’s manor. If I’m gone too long, he’ll know something’s…fishy.” I grinned as I said the word. “I better get moving.”
“Then go, my son.” I started heading down the aisle, when Gillman grabbed my arm and turned to glare at me. “A word, before you leave,” he said. “You look down on my kind. All of you mammals do. You think of your god on his cross and feel so superior. But know this, Morton Candle: I have seen my god. I have spoken with him and heard of his wisdom and listened to him tell of the end of all things.” His grip increased. His nails were sharp, digging into my arm like claws. “So pray to your god, Morton Candle. Pray that you never see mine.” He released me.
Somehow, I didn’t have a snappy remark. I nodded back to High Priest Gillman and hurried for the exit of the church, the tommy gun still under my arm. I took the back alleys and side streets, trying my best to remain unseen. I shivered, and it had nothing to do with the cold air drifting in from the ocean. Mayor Marsh was a wannabe gangster playing out of his league, but High Priest Gillman was something else entirely. He was a fanatic, and his religion didn’t involve going door to door to hand out pamphlets.
I got back to the Mayoral Manor, and found Marsh himself at the porch, staring at me. His thugs were lounging around the yard, and all of them seemed curious. I grinned. “Why the welcoming party, Mr. Mayor?”
“Where in Great Cthulhu’s name have you been, mammal? You left your post, and your little associate is nowhere to be found!” Marsh demanded, slipping back into regional slang because of his agitation. “I’m the boss of you! You can’t just wander off and—”
“I did a little recon, as we called it in the war,” I explained. I pointed down the street. “I saw Gillman’s holy army, moving straight for the manor. They should be here in about an hour. If you and your boys hurry, you can get into the abandoned buildings on main street and set a trap for them. As for Weatherby, he’s laying low, waiting for my signal.”
Mayor Marsh considered the news. “A chance to bring down Gillman’s whole operation…” he said. He nodded, reassuring himself. “All right, you did good, Mort.” He reached into his pockets and tossed me another roll of bills. There was no honor in this, but a whole lot of dough.
“So, what’s your plan, boss?” I wondered.
Marsh grinned. He held out his hand, and one of his gunmen handed him a shotgun. “Let’s go! Let’s take this city!” he shouted, and stepped into the street. His gangsters fell into step behind him. Marsh’s smuggling had apparently paid off, because they were packing some real fancy heaters. I followed them, but was careful to stay to the back. Like all good plans, mine was vague, flexible and left plenty of room for improvisation. I had set up Marsh and Gillman. Now it was time to see who fell first.
Marsh’s gang went down to Innsmouth’s main street, with Gillman’s holy warriors heading the same way. They clashed on a dingy square of pavement, between a block of abandoned cabins with cloth stuffed in their windows and the skeletal remains of Innsmouth’s old Baptist church. Both gangs approached each other and went for their guns. I didn’t see who fired the first shot, but soon streams of lead were crisscrossing the street and the fight was on.
I found a good piece of cover in one of the rotting cabins, sat back and watched the show. It wasn’t a long fight, but it was a bloody one. Sub-guns belched lead back and forth, followed by the boom of shotguns and the clatter of heavier weapons. Pistols rattled away, and an occasional grenade or Molotov cocktail arced through the air, blowing bloody holes in the ranks of the Innsmouth men. Just like I planned, both sides arrived before the other could find cover – and there was nothing left but slaughter.
Mayor Marsh worked his shotgun, cursing in some arcane, amphibian language as he swept the streets with lead. He jabbed it into the chest of a Gillman torpedo, and blasted off the poor bastard’s head. High Priest Hezekiah Gillman carried a pair of curved daggers with ornate jeweled hilts, slashing everyone who got near him to ribbons.
I watched the battle progress, thinking back to the brutal urban warfare I had participated in, when death waited around each block and snipers ruled streets from their perches. Now these Innsmouth idiots were getting it, enough to leave their streets soaked in blood. I watched it all. I’ve had worse times.
Marsh lost his nerve first. “Fall back to the manor!” he cried, and turned to run, firing his shotgun over his shoulder. His men followed, scrambling away as they hurried up the street. They dragged their wounded with them, but left their dead out for the seagulls to peck at. Machine gunfire raked them as they tried to leave.
I watched them go, counting the number of soldiers he had left. Less than a dozen. My plan had worked, evening the odds quite a bit. I stepped out from my hiding place, knowing that Gillman could see me. He was the winner of this battle, and with more troops coming in by boat later today, it looked like he’d come out on top after all. But he wasn’t counting on me.
I stepped out into the street. “Candle!” I turned to see two of Marsh’s soldiers, both staring up at me. “Candle, cover us!” the bigger of the gunmen bellowed. Gillman was watching. I reached into my coat, watching the glassy eyes of Marsh’s toughs widen as I pointed my automatics their way. I fired four shots, and let them collapse on the street.
“Well done, Morton Candle.” I turned around to see Gillman standing next to me. “They never saw it coming.”
“What now, your holiness?” I asked. “It looks like Marsh’s men are decimated. But I’d advise against moving in for the kill. Let’s give them some time to stew, while we gather our own strength.” That would also give me time to plan for Gillman’s downfall.
He nodded. “An excellent idea,” he said. “Come my son. Let us return to the church. Perhaps our guests will be soon in arriving.” We started walking down the street, his soldiers staying close behind. We stepped over the corpses. Gillman looked like he was strolling through the daises. “Tell me, my son,” he said. “What do you know of our fair city and my people?”
“Not much,” I admitted. “Everyone else in the region hates you more than Negroes, hopheads and commies combined.”
“Hah! As well they should, I suppose.” He faced me, another one of those manic grins plastered to his face. “For we Innsmouth Folk are not one of your pathetic mammal species. When this town was young, a venturesome sea captain discovered our race in a distant South Sea island. He brought them here, and they bred with the locals, and now our legacy stretches back to cyclopean underwater cities in the distant past, which were great while your kind was running about in the trees of the jungle.”
I didn’t exactly believe him. Like most religious nutjobs, High Priest Gillman had as much sense as a hobo has summer cottages in the country. But I could tell Gillman had the total conviction of the true believer, for every word he said. We approached the church, and I spotted Weatherby standing near the double doors, watching us as we arrived.
“There is more,” Gillman said. “The Deep Ones, for that is the true name of my people, worship ancient and powerful alien gods, which slumber through the centuries, and which only the blackest spells and darkest magicks can awaken.”
“Sound like a fun bunch of guys,” I mused.
“Hah!” Gillman had another croaking laugh. “When they awake, the seas will boil and blood will fall as rain. They will grind the earth like corn. Ia! Ia! Cthulhu fhtagn!” He burst out in a strange guttural chant, nearly convulsing as he said the bizarre words. He straightened up and gave me another grin. “My faith often caries me away,” he added.
“You can say that again.” I broke away from him and approached Weatherby. I dropped my voice to a whisper. “How you doing, kiddo? I think I’m almost done here.”
He stared at me sadly. “I am done, Mort. I’m finished with being a part of your traitorous plan.” The kid was uneasy, staring at Gillman and the other Innsmouth men. “You are associating with inhuman monsters, who worship dark gods that are beyond the knowledge of mortal men. I’m leaving this town immediately, and walking into the hills. I shall proceed until I find civilization and gain transport back to Newburyport, where I shall await you.”
His words stung, and the look in his eyes was worse. “Come on, Weatherby,” I whispered. “I’m almost done with this bloody business.”
“And I want no part in any of it. You have gone blood drunk, Mort – crazed with a desire to do this town more damage. I fear for your safety, but even more, I fear for your soul.” He put his hands in the pockets of his frock coat. “I don’t like this, and I’m leaving. Please, don’t try to persuade me otherwise.” He turned away and started walking.
I watched him go, wondering just how right he was. Part of me wanted to run after him, and forget everything about Innsmouth, its ugly people and its crazy cults. But the job wasn’t done yet, and not enough blood had been spilled. I watched Weatherby leave, and then walked back to the church.