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.
Mayor Malachi Marsh stayed in an opulent Victorian manor in the north of Innsmouth, not far from the waterfront and the winding road up to the cliffs and the jagged reefs. The Mayoral Mansion was well-furnished, with strangely finned golden ornaments and paintings of sea creatures on the walls. The furniture was chrome and angular, very modern. Mayor Marsh brought us to his parlor, and had cigars and brandy brought out. His gunmen stayed in the corners, slouched against the walls and chewing on smoldering cigarettes.
“Now, there’s two main powers in Innsmouth – the church and the government. You can guess what side High Priest Hezekiah Gillman is on.” Marsh tapped a short finger on his knee. “Gillman controls the Esoteric Order of Dagon. Now, I’m all for worshipping the old gods and the old ways, but Hezekiah Gillman takes it to extremes. He wants ancient rites practiced, ancient gods raised from their slumber, and the whole world torn asunder.”
“And you don’t?” I asked.
Mayor Marsh grinned. “Where’s the profit in that? I see a whole new future for Innsmouth – smuggling capitol of the world. We’ve got a good set of docks, plenty of boats – not to mention other means of navigating the water. Gillman uses those docks all the time, bringing in strange books and artifacts, but I’ve got grander plans. Heroin. Smut. Stolen goods – taken from Europe, sold in Innsmouth and trucked out to the entire east coast. We’ll make a mint.”
As plans went, it was pretty good. But I gathered there was an obstacle. “And Gillman doesn’t like it.”
“No, he doesn’t. The less dealings with outsiders, the better, he figures. That’s why I know he must be desperate, hiring an out-of-town gunman to come in and help his little church choir.” Mayor Marsh leaned in. “See, everyone’s on pins and needles now, waiting for the war to start. I don’t want to fire the first shot – I just want to fire the last. So I guess you and your associate will flop here, and go to battle when I give the word.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I agreed. I stood up, reaching for my hat. Almost like it was an afterthought, I turned back to Marsh. “Say, there was another button man heading here, also on Gillman’s payroll. Name of Partridge, Vernon Partridge. Had a traveling salesman routine as a cover. You know what happened to him?”
Mayor Marsh smiled. It wasn’t a pretty sight. “I do, as a matter of fact.” He folded his hands. “He stayed at the hotel. The usual gang got him and took him out to the reef. We cut him up and gobbled him down. I had his right hand. It was delicious.” Mayor Marsh laughed suddenly, a hacking little series of shrieks. “Keep that in mind, Mort Candle. Or maybe I’ll get to taste you.”
Weatherby and I left the room, with Mayor Marsh still laughing behind us. We knew the truth and it hit us like a slap in the face. Innsmouth was rotten. It didn’t take a professor to figure that out, but now he knew that it was worse than either of us could image. I’d had dealings with all kind of supernatural critters. I knew the kind of evil they could bring to ordinary human lives. I wasn’t exactly shocked by figure out that it was here in Innsmouth – but I was still a little surprised.
We headed to our guest room on the second story, infinitely better than the Gillman House. I slammed the door shut, dropped my suitcase and slumped on the bed. Weatherby stared at me.
“Why are we still here?” he wondered. “We have the information. We know of poor Mr. Partridge’s fate. We should tell his wife that he met his, well, demise, and that she should grieve and move on. I’d suggest sparing her the details.”
“Don’t like mentioning that her hubby’s an all-you-can-eat fish buffet?” I asked. I took off my trench coat, folding my hands and grabbing the cold handles of my automatics. I could feel the anger burning inside of me, a tiny spark growing into an inferno with each passing second. “No. We’re not going back just yet. I’ve got plans for this town – and for our good Mr. Mayor Malachi Marsh and High Priest Gillman.”
“What the devil are you talking about, Mort?”
“Trust me, kiddo. This town’s a goldmine.” I started thinking up a plan, a way to take out the two gangs and make some fast cash at the same time. “All it needs is a bloodbath.” I pointed to the bed. “Tell you what – lock the door, catch some sleep, and forget about it. I’ll do the rest.”
“Very well. But I don’t like it.” Weatherby hopped into the bed and folded his arms. Despite his protest, he was tried. He leaned back, setting his dark haired head on the pillow and closing his eyes. In a matter of seconds, he was sleeping like a boy. I leaned down and removed his glasses, setting them on the nightstand.
He was a good kid, but he didn’t understand how the world really worked. I opened my suitcase and withdrew a stripped down baseball bat, good for breaking skulls or kneecaps and small enough to hide in the folds of my coat. After I grabbed that, I headed for the door. It was the later part of night, and not many of Marsh’s men were around. I headed out a backdoor, and then started going to the docks.
The sun rose as I walked, cutting through the fog and stretching light across the bumpy streets in thin fingers. The mist was still rolling in, making everything seem indistinct and distant. I brought myself back to the war and the time before, in Brooklyn, the bad old days of gangland squabbles that taught me to know the sound of gunfire well before I even got to France. I thought of what you needed to survive those times, where loyalty and justice just earned you a quicker death. You had to be cunning. You had to be tough. And more than anything, you had to be mean.
On the way to the docks, I found a small filling station and bought a bright red gas can, then filled it to the brim. I held that in one hand, and the baseball bat in the other, as I walked down to the docks. They were important to Gillman and Marsh – the source for their smuggling. If they went up, each side would blame the other, and the war would be on.
The docks were a sparse collection of crumbling piers, jutting out into the gray, frothing ocean. Several of them were decayed and crumbling after so many years of being battered by the ocean. Only a few boats were moored along the wharves, mostly rusty fishing scows and sailboats. With such a dismal fishing industry, I didn’t know how Innsmouth managed.
I headed to the main dock, where a trio of longshoremen was loafing around. They were big bruisers, dressed in worn oilskins, overalls and flat caps. The biggest of the three stood up, flicking away the dried fish he was chewing, and turning to face me. He had some kind of a skin condition, making it look like barnacles were splotched over his face.
“What are you doing, mammal man?” he asked. I didn’t recognize the slang. It must be local.
I set down the gas can, revealed the baseball bat, and cracked it against the underside of his chin. He went down, falling hard on the dock. A couple of his teeth fell from his mouth, clattering on the wooden pier. I gave one to his ribs, hard enough to make him howl. The other dock workers ran to help their pal.
I grabbed the gas can and shook it in their direction, letting a stream of gasoline drench their clothes. They stepped back, terrified and confused. They had no idea what I was planning to do. I gave them a hint by dropping the bat and drawing out a match. “You boys good at swimming?” I asked, shaking gas all over the wooden docks. “I hope you are.” I flicked the match to life.
The dock workers leapt off the pier, splashing down in the cold water below. The big longshoreman rolled over, joining his pals in the sea. I stepped back and tossed the match into the growing puddle of gas. It lit instantly, spreading a little warmth to that cold New England morning. The dock burned quickly, the flames growing until its entire length was ablaze.
I stood back and watched the pier burn, then went back to the gas can and the other docks. I emptied the gas can, setting fires until everything on the waterfront was burning. The few sailors and dock workers hurried away or dove into the ocean, trying to get out of the flames. I would have stayed and watched, but somebody might miss be back at the Mayoral Manor.
I stuck to the back alleys as I made my way back, hoping I wouldn’t be spotted. I hopped a pair of fences to reach the overgrown backyard behind Mayor Marsh’s mansion, and slipped in through the back exit. Now Gillman and Marsh had all the excuse they’d need. Innsmouth would bathe in blood. But that wasn’t enough for me. I thought about poor Vernon Partridge, so eager to earn a few more bucks for his wife and kids, getting carved up and eaten by the sick monsters who ran this rotten burg. I didn’t want Innsmouth to bathe in blood. I wanted it drowning.
I made my way back to our room. Weatherby was sleeping lightly, and he woke up when I came in. The kid sat up, blinking his bleary eyes. “You’re back?” he asked. “What exactly did you do out there?”
“You’ll find out,” I said. “Soon enough.”
I sat down and rested my eyes, and waited until there was a loud pounding on the door. I stood up and opened it, then looked down at Mayor Marsh. He was in his shirtsleeves, a snub-nosed revolver’s pearl handle reaching out of his belt. “It’s on,” he said. “Gillman’s goons hit the docks. Torched everything. All my smuggling operations are finished until I can make repairs!”
“You sure it’s him?” I asked. I was banking on Marsh seeing red – and not seeing clearly.
“Who else would it be, damn it?” Mayor Marsh shook his head. “Well, that fool’s just made his last mistake, by Dagon.” He turned around, and I saw the foyer of the mansion crammed with Marsh’s soldiers. “Spread out! Find out word of what’s coming next! Kill Gillman’s boy if you find him! Keep the pressure on, until he rears his ugly head!”
“You want me to go out, Mr. Mayor?” I asked.
“Nah. I’ll keep you here. Better defense. Gillman will be looking for me, soon enough.” His round glassy eyes darted about the room. “Go out on the porch. Grab a heater from the armory. Wait until I give the order.” He hurried off, his thick legs propelling him swiftly down the hall. I got the feeling that Marsh had been waiting eagerly for the war, but had no clue how to actually fight one.
Weatherby faced me as we walked down to the porch, after I had selected a Thompson sub-gun from the armory. We sat there in silence for a few minutes, listening to the ocean waves pounding in, and the occasional rattle of gunfire from somewhere within Innsmouth.
“You’re the cause of this underworld conflict,” he said sourly, when we sat out on the porch, looking out at the gray empty street. “I have no idea what you intend to accomplish…”
I leaned back in my rocking chair, the tommy gun resting on my knee. “I’m hauling in a crimson catch,” I explained. “And this whole town is gonna be flopping around in my net.” I dropped my voice to a whisper. “Gillman’s gonna be desperate once the bodies start piling up. That’s when I’ll see him. I’ll drop some information, make like I’m switching sides, and set up another battle.”
“You’ll betray both of them,” Weatherby said, realizing exactly what I intended to do. “For money.”
“For Partridge,” I replied. “And for every other sap that wandered into this death trap.”
“It’s not going to bring them back. And you’re tangling with very powerful forces.”
“Yeah. This gang’s a regular Murder Incorporated.” I reached for a cigarette. “They’re fish out of water, Weatherby. There’s not a damn thing they can do about it.”
“No.” Weatherby turned to me, his pale face red. “My father taught me about the kind of men they are, particularly the Esoteric Order of Dagon. They’re an ancient cult, worshipping strange submarine gods and breeding with foul beings from the bottom of the sea. They have access to powers the human mind can scarcely fathom.”
“So I’ll be careful. It ain’t like this is my first time at the dance.”
“It is when it comes to these fellows, Morton,” Weatherby replied. “Your plan is unsavory and I don’t like it. It’s, well, dishonorable.”
“Same way the world is.”
He didn’t say anything to that, merely turned his eyes back to the street. Weatherby was quiet as a mouse for the rest of the morning and the afternoon. He didn’t like what I was doing, but I didn’t much care. I kept on thinking about my plan, what play to make next, how to send Innsmouth further down the road to total warfare and oblivion.
Little by little, the day’s news drifted in. A carload of Gillman’s thugs had been ambushed at the Little Squid diner in downtown Innsmouth, shot all to hell. Mayor Marsh’s gang had firebombed the Gillman hotel, losing two of their number in the attack. A sniper had picked off a pair of Marsh’s soldiers, before he was caught, tied up and hurled onto the jagged rocks of Devil Reef. I didn’t like it. These were skirmishes, not the big battles I needed to sap the manpower of the two gangs.
In the late afternoon, I stood up. Marsh had arranged for breakfast and lunch for Weatherby and me – fried fish, of course – and I had enough strength to run a marathon. “I’m gonna take the air, kiddo,” I told Weatherby. “Stay here – but be ready to move.”
“What exactly are you going to do?”
I told him, giving him instructions on what to do when the dust settled. I could see he didn’t like it, and maybe I didn’t like it myself. The rot of Innsmouth seemed to sink into everything, poisoning it. I hoped my plan would reach its end soon. After giving Weatherby the instructions, I grabbed my suitcase, slung the tommy gun over my shoulder, and headed into town.