About Stein & Candle
For Weatherby Stein and Morton Candle life ain’t easy. They deal with cases that pit them against ferocious demons in the Tokyo underworld, Satan-worshipping teenagers in a seemingly normal suburb and lizard-men in a Lake Tahoe lounge, and they still manage to come out on top. But now one of Weatherby’s ancient ancestors, the villainous Viscount Wagner Stein, has been resurrected – and he’s not alone. Weatherby, Morton and their allies must make a stand to stop the evils of the past from corrupting the future – and not everyone will make it out of the battle alive.
Stein & Candle is a paranormal detective / “zombie noir” serialized and published right here at Curiosity Quills, every Sunday.
- Trouble in Tokyo, Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
- Teenage Wasteland, Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
- Lounge Lizards, Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Also by Michael Panush:
A big bruiser came towards me, hands outstretched. I drew my automatics and shot him in the shoulder, knocking him back against a tree. Before his body hit the ground, two mobsters grabbed my hands. My pistols hit the dirt. I slipped a hand free and slugged the guy on my right, hard in the chin, knocking him onto the dirt. I used my free hand to grab the Ka-Bar from my boot. The guy on my left got the blade in his throat, in one end and out the other. He fell down, grabbing his neck as he bled out.
Verona sighed. “You dumb mooks!” he shouted. “You’re doing it wrong.” He grabbed Weatherby’s shoulder and pulled the kid close to him. He put his pistol right to the boy’s head. Weatherby tried to grab his revolver, and Verona cracked a pistol handle against his arm and made him drop it. Selena screamed at her baby brother’s pain. Verona faced me. “Come on, Morty. Drop the shiv or I’ll kill him slow.”
I knew Verona would kill him, me, Selena and Chad slow anyway. But I couldn’t stand to see Weatherby hurt. There was nothing I could do. I dropped the knife.
Joey Verona holstered a pistol and grabbed my knife and guns, pushing them aside. He motioned with his finger, forcing me to go onto my knees, and then pushed Weatherby next to me. Selena ran to her brother, wrapping him in her arms. Chad was forced down, staying close to them – and right near a sharp gray rock, poking up from the dirt.
My eyes met his. He gave me a tiny nod. Joey Verona walked around us, his mobsters standing in a semi-circle with their guns drawn. Tommy Gabriel crouched over Blemmy, holding up his head. Blemmy wasn’t shot too bad and he might make it – but the chances of any us surviving were getting pretty slim.
“Well, well, isn’t this nice?” Verona asked. “Here we all are. I got a ton of guns on Mort Candle, and I’m about to start getting me some vengeance. I can’t remember when I’ve been this happy! Hell, I actually want don’t want it to end! I want to keep Morty alive for as long as I can!” He swung his boot into my chest, knocking me hard onto the dirt. “Or maybe not. Maybe I ought to kill him, right now.”
I glared up at him, feeling pain racing through my body. “You’re an idiot,” I said. “You’ve loused up an Outfit operation, and doomed yourself. Every mob boss in the country will have you on their list of mugs to be bumped off.”
“I can spin this however I want. It’s not like there’s gonna be any witnesses. I’ll say you and Gabriel and Blemmy were in on it together, and I had to kill you all.” Joey Verona touched his face, resting his palm on the blemished skin. “Or maybe they won’t believe me. You know, I really don’t care anymore. In fact, there’s only one thing that’s got me interested – how to cause you the most pain.”
He pressed the muzzle of the pistol to my forehead. I felt the cold steel ring right above my eyes. I wasn’t scared. He wouldn’t let me off that easily. Instead, Joey Verona drew a switchblade from his coat and snapped it open. “But what to do, what to do? Should I torture you? Mess your face up? Gut you? Melt your eyeballs with a lighter and crush your skull with my shoes? Oh, that’s just for starters. But first, I gotta do something that’ll really get you steamed.”
Then his eyes went to my friends. I felt something cold growing inside of me, reaching out from my heart, through my veins to frost my whole body. I saw that Verona was looking at Selena. “You’re Stein’s sister?” he asked. “Yeah. That must be it. Let’s start with you.”
Weatherby screamed as Verona pulled Selena away from him. He slammed Selena against a tree on the riverbank, making her cry out. She bit her lip and didn’t say anything, even as Joey slapped her face, and held the switchblade close to her eye.
“Selena! God, don’t hurt her!” Weatherby tried to run her, springing up from the grass and dashing to Verona. Two of the mobsters grabbed him and held him back, slugging him in the chest for his trouble. Chad stayed on the ground, his hand carefully wrapped around the rock. If he moved, he’d be lucky to get a bullet through the skull and he knew it. But he kept quietly working on that rock anyway, breathing slowly as he heard Selena whimper.
“You’re such a pretty girl,” Verona told her, pulling himself closer and closer to Selena. “You would’ve liked me. You know, before I got left with a bunch of zombies and hit with a nuclear bomb. All the girls liked me.”
“I assure you, sir,” Selena muttered. “Even if you were as handsome as the devil, I would never feel affection for you.”
Her words made Joey Verona take a step back. “Mouthy little slut,” he hissed, pulling back his switchblade. “Let’s make you ugly.”
That’s when Chad moved. I guessed the mob boys figured he was nothing more than some rich kid beatnik pansy – like I did – because they didn’t pay much attention to him. But he grabbed that rock, stood up and charged Verona. The gangsters tried to stop him. A torpedo’s bullet whistled past his shoulder. But he ran to Joey Verona, and swung his rock into the hitman’s scared face.
Verona fell back, and Chad grabbed Selena’s arm and pulled her away. I stood up, diving for my pistols and blade. I sheathed the knife and came up shooting, killing the two gangsters holding onto Weatherby. Verona was screaming as he held his bleeding face, and Tommy Gabriel sprung up, holding onto Blemmy.
“Move!” I shouted, picking a random direction of the jungle and making a mad dash. I helped Weatherby along, but he was trying to reach his sister. Chad and Selena stayed together, joining us as Blemmy and Gabriel did the same. Blemmy could walk a little, and surefooted Gabriel helped him along.
We hurried away into the jungle, with mob bullets burning through the air behind us. They tore bark off trees and shredded vines and leaves. Dinosaurs that could fly and little ones the size of rodents scurried away, terrified by the sudden intrusion. I pounded through the jungle until my lungs burned and my feet ached. Weatherby fared even worse. Terrified and hurt, the poor kid finally came to a stop when we neared the sheer edge of a roaring river.
I looked at the water and then listened for the sound of Verona and his goons, crashing through the jungle like hunting beasts. There was no way we could ford the river in time. I turned to Gabriel. “This is your world, Gabriel. You got a solution?”
“I-I could get help.” Tommy Gabriel set Blemmy down. His boss collapsed onto the grass, holding his chest. He wouldn’t last long. But then again, neither would we. Gabriel nodded, reassuring himself. “Yeah. I could dash off, find some of my subjects and get them over here. But it might take some time.”
I raised my automatics. “I’ll buy you some. Get moving.”
He hurried off without another word and dashed into the jungle, his long scaly legs carrying him swiftly away. I looked at Selena, Chad and Weatherby. I noticed that Chad had grabbed the kid’s revolver as we ran. He sheepishly handed it back to Weatherby, but I shook my head. “Better let the beatnik have it, kiddo. I bet he’s a better shot than you.”
“True,” Weatherby said. He stayed close to Selena, not letting go of her. “You saved her, Chad. You risked your life to save my sister. And you continue to do so, by staying to defend us.”
Chad shrugged. “I love her, little man,” he said simply. “I’d do anything for her.”
I saw Selena smile, still holding close to Weatherby. I looked at Chad. “Well, Chad, get ready to do some killing,” I said, pointing to some trees near the riverbank. “Take cover there. Wait for my signal.” I moved over, taking the tree furthest away from the river – and closest to Verona’s approaching gunmen.
It didn’t take long for them to show up. I leveled my two pistols at the woods, and then some lean gangster with a tommy gun wandered into my sights. I fired. It gave away our position, but dropped him in a single shot. I dove for his fallen sub-gun, as Chad covered me, cracking away with his revolver. He didn’t hit anything, but he kept Verona’s men back and gave me the time I needed to get the Thompson. My boots kicked up jungle mud as I ran, and then I dove down, grabbed the tommy gun and opened fire.
It chattered away, the blaze of sudden gunfire illuminating primordial darkness. The gangsters took cover and started throwing lead back. A bullet crossed my leg, knocking me hard to the ground. I felt the pain rush up my leg, burning like fire had slipped into my veins. I started crawling to the shelter of the tree, hearing Chad’s revolver blaze away again.
Verona was shouting above the gunfire. “Shoot straight, you numbskulls! You useless bums! If you don’t kill him, I’ll kill you!” He was seeing his perfect vengeance drift away, and it made him angry. Now he was a cornered animal, losing patience as he lost his mind.
For a few more seconds, we all crouched behind cover and shot at each other. I reloaded my pistols, swiftly exchanging clips and then returning the fire. I had done this before, many times in the forests and fields of France and Belgium and Germany. But I always had competent soldiers backing me up. Now, I had Weatherby, Selena and Chad.
Just after I reloaded, things went wrong. “I’m out!” Chad cried, and I cursed that he revealed it.
I peered out from behind my cover and saw the gangsters making a wild charge, all at once, firing wildly as they ran. Verona ran behind them. “Rush them!” he shouted. “Rush them and kill them all! Take Candle alive! Let me finish him!” His own long barreled pistols were blazing in his hands, and then his eyes met mine and I didn’t think it was possible to squeeze so much hatred into a single glance.
I left cover, opening fire with both automatics. I emptied the clips, even as a bullet scraped my cheek, stinging like a bee and drawing blood. Another bullet took a chunk of flesh out of my arm, and I nearly dropped my pistol. They were getting closer, with Joey Verona staying behind, ready to pick me off while his men took my bullets. I cursed. Weatherby, Selena, and even Chad – they were all the family I had. And I was going to get them killed.
Then I heard a low roar come from behind me. I thought it was a gunshot and turned around, wondering how the gangsters had managed to sneak behind us. But it wasn’t a gun. It was a lizard, bigger than an elephant, standing on two lean legs, with a long tail, a wide mouth full of teeth like Bowie knives and tiny arms that seemed delicate enough to play a piano. The creature had dark green scales, and let out another roar that echoed through the jungle like thunder. You didn’t have to be a scientist to know that this was the top predator, the big boss of Lizard World.
Tommy Gabriel was riding on its back. The lounge singer held tightly to reins that wrapped around the dinosaur’s neck, and he turned it in the direction of Verona’s trouble boys, giving it a whack on the side with a long riding crop. The dinosaur turned on them, pouncing with its mouth open. It reached down and grabbed a gangster, biting the man in half like a kid munching on candy.
The gangsters didn’t last long. Some of them stood their ground and opened fire. They got ripped apart by the dino’s teeth, crushed under its clawed feet, or bashed by its tail. The others took off and ran. I left my cover, looking for Verona. This was a chance to finish him.
But he was already turning to run. He looked back at me and gave me a little grin. “Gotta go, Morty!” he called. “But I’ll remember the lady. I’ll remember how you care for Weatherby. Newsflash, big man – long as I’m alive, they’re not safe.” Then he took off for the jungle. Lizard World was a primordial hell of ancient monsters. I had no doubt Verona would survive in it – and find his way back.
Gabriel finished his rampage and reigned in his dinosaur. He patted its nose and slid off, landing nimbly before me, Selena and Weatherby. Chad came out of his hiding place, helping Ben Blemmy along. We all stood there in the jungle, beaten to hell, terrified, and in an unknown world. But we were together and we were safe.
Blemmy looked up at Tommy Gabriel. “You saved my life…” he said, coughing as he put a hand over his chest. “Your debts are cleared, kid. You can stay here. Come back to work. Whatever you want.”
“Thanks, boss.” Gabriel pointed into the jungle. “Come on. I know the way back to the portal to Crystal Grove.”
“You’ll stay in our world?” Selena asked, as we started down the path, helping Blemmy along.
“Sure,” he said. “I may be a prince in the Lizard World, but I’ve got friends and a career and stuff I care about in the human world. I think I’d rather stick with the people I know and care for, no matter how much they annoy me, instead of going off to be some prince out here.” He paused, putting a clawed finger on his chin. “Know what I mean?”
I nodded. “Yeah,” I said. “I think I do.”
We left Lizard World and got Blemmy to a hospital. He managed to stay conscious just long enough to pay me and Weatherby, right out of the suitcase of stolen cash that Tommy Gabriel had carried along. Gabriel had put his silver suit and trench coat on, so he did a decent job of blending in with a human crowd. He decided to head back to the Royal Crown Lounge, and get back to his room – and his mask. We said our goodbyes and then got a room at a nearby motel for the rest of the night.
Selena looked over my wounds in the room, carefully bandaging every cut. Weatherby sat at the small coffee table, across from Chad. The beatnik had been real quiet, and after Selena finished her work and sat next to him, he looked up.
“All right,” Chad said. “I’m sorry, but I gotta know – what’s the verdict?”
I shrugged. “You saved Selena’s life – and my own. You’re a little pink, not too bright, and you’re greatest aspiration is to be poor and hip. But I guess you’re okay in my book.”
“Thanks,” Chad replied with a grin. “But I wasn’t really talking to you, Mr. Candle.”
Weatherby stood up. “Perhaps I might agree with some of Mort’s observations, Mr. Albright. But my sister loves you. That is undeniable. And your love for her is equally obvious. You appear to be a good man, and a fine companion of my sister.” He stood in front of Chad, and held out his arms. “Welcome to the Stein Family.”
Chad embraced him. “Thanks, little man. I knew we were gonna be pals.”
I watched Weatherby. He was watching Selena. She was smiling at him. The kid would learn to like Chad, for the sake of his sister, but maybe that wouldn’t be so hard. With Chad’s arrival, Weatherby and Selena weren’t nearly so alone in the world. And like it or not, neither was I.