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:
Weatherby didn’t tell me we’d be meeting his sister at the Royal Crown Lounge until we reached Lake Tahoe. We were there on a case, and maybe I would have been pissed at the kid for arranging to meet her when we were on a client’s time, if I didn’t know how much he cared for her, and how rarely they saw each other. Selena brought out a subtle change in Weatherby. The mask of a superior, confident, arrogant genius aristocrat cracked like porcelain under a baseball bat when he saw her. The fifteen-year-old kid in Weatherby got to take a peek outside.
I also didn’t mind because I knew Selena wasn’t some airheaded college girl, worried about clothes, shopping, boys and not much else. Selena could take care of herself. She was studying anthropology in New York, and was almost as big an expert on the occult and folklore as her baby brother. She was brave too. Selena had been at boarding school in the States when the Nazis had taken her family as hostages for Hitler. Weatherby was all she had left, and it wasn’t hard to see the affection they had for each other. Call me a sap, but I didn’t mind seeing her.
I spotted her when I pulled the cherry red Roadmaster up to the curb of the Royal Crown Lounge. It was a brisk day in Tahoe, where the mountain air slid into your lungs like a sharpened switchblade. The Royal Crown was a round structure, made of polished, shining wood, with a fat neon sign glowing gold before the doors. Like most joints in the town, it had gambling in the open and girls if you looked a little, but the main draw – for the rich mugs that flocked here – was entertainment.
‘Tommy Gabriel – Live Every Night!’ the sign declared. Gabriel was a lounge singer and seemed more popular than God. I had listened to him. I didn’t see the appeal. But Tommy Gabriel and his sappy love ballads meant big money, and the owner of the club had some problem with him, which only the Stein and Candle Detective Agency could solve. We hurried over, and Selena was there to meet us.
“What’s she doing up here anyway?” I asked, as I opened the door. “Studying the habits of the rich? This place is lousy with them.”
“I think she’s on vacation,” Weatherby said, stepping carefully onto the curb. “She did not provide much of a reason for her presence, but she was decidedly delighted that I was here. I think she said she wanted me to meet someone.”
We walked onto the sidewalk as I tossed the keys to a valet. That’s when I saw Selena Stein. She was standing in the shadow of the Royal Crown, and hurried over to us, arms outstretched for Weatherby. There was somebody with her. I got a good look at him as he stood next to Selena while she embraced her little brother. I didn’t like what I saw.
Selena chattered away, patting Weatherby’s shoulder. “Oh, Weatherby, you look wonderful! Have you gotten taller? I’m sure you have.” She wore dark jeans and a collared shirt under a neat leather jacket, a backpack slung over her shoulder. She shared Weatherby’s thin nose, dark hair and bright eyes behind spectacles. “And I can’t wait for you to tell me about your adventures in Europe with our ancestor, and everything else you have been up to.” She paused and stepped back, standing next to the fellow who had come out with her. “But first, you have to meet someone. This is Chad Albright. He’s my boyfriend.”
Weatherby looked at Chad Albright. He was a thin guy, with straight dark blonde hair and matching moustache and goatee. He had sunglasses on, and he pushed them down his nose to look at Weatherby. He wore a tight black sweater under a black leather jacket. I could tell right away what he was – a beatnik, a bohemian, one of those fruity kids who liked coffee, poetry and communism in equal measure. Weatherby’s eyes went wide.
Then Chad made it even worse by opening his mouth and talking. “I’ve heard all about you, little man. It’s great to finally meet you.” He held out his hand and Weatherby took it, as gingerly as if he was handling a rattlesnake. “I gotta say, Weatherby, your sister is one swell girl. She’s real nice, and if she’s to be believed, you are too.”
“T-thank you, sir,” Weatherby said. “Pleased to meet you.”
“No need to be so formal, little man!” Chad laughed. “I dig that coat of yours too. So, you mind if we just tag along while you do your work?”
I stepped in front of Weatherby and looked down at Chad. His smile slowly faded. “I think we do, pal,” I said. “And ain’t you got some juice bar to clutter up? Or a protest to go to?” I glared at Chad, and balled my hands into fists. “I don’t know if Selena’s told you about me, but I’m Morton Candle, Weatherby’s best friend, and I don’t like some prick with a good haircut and some Mary Jane cigarettes trying to seduce his sister. How about you scram before I beat the hair tonic out of you?”
“Morton Candle!” Selena sounded like a shrill schoolteacher. She put her arm on Chad’s shoulder and looked up at me, like a tiger about to pounce. “Chad is a good man! He does not use any kind of drugs, and he is kind and loving. You have no reason to insult him, and I will not send him away while I spend time with my baby brother. If staying with you while you work on your cases is the only way I can get the two men I love most in the world to meet each other, then so be it.” She tapped my chest with a thin finger. “And you have no right to stand in my way.”
I turned to Weatherby. As far as I was concerned, it was his call. “What do you think, kiddo?” I asked.
The boy looked back at Chad, who smiled. “Well, all right,” Weatherby said. “If you want that, Selena. I won’t disagree with your wishes.” He turned away, and headed inside. I stayed close to him, and Selena and Chad followed.
Chad leaned forward, trying to talk to Weatherby. “Thanks, Weatherby. I’m sure we can be good buddies. I really like your sister, and I think we can—”
“Please.” Weatherby turned to him, and he clammed up. “Just don’t talk to me, if you please? At least for now.” He turned back to me as I held the door for him. I think Weatherby’s polite silence hurt Chad more than my enraged insults. I didn’t mind. As far as I was concerned, the toilet bowl was the only place a beatnik loser like him belonged.
The interior of the Royal Crown Club was done up like a hunting lodge. Warm red carpets, a blazing fire in the corner, and the heads of deer and moose on the walls gave the appearance of a place where gentleman swapped stories of their biggest kills. But the only hunters there were looking for good stocks and summer homes, as well as the buffet and a night’s entertainment. Something was screwy with that entertainment, so the management had called us in.
As soon as we entered, a short, fat guy in a leopard-print tuxedo came towards us, a martini shaking in his hands. He had a red face, topped with a few strands of gray hair. He looked like a soccer ball with arms and legs. This was Ben Blemmy, the owner of the Royal Crown. He wiped sweat from his forehead as he shook my hand. “Good to see you, Mr. Candle, Mr. Stein, good to see you. Please, follow me.”
He headed to a service entrance, and we followed. He talked constantly, not bothering to check who Chad and Selena were. I guess he had other things on his mind. “You fellows know about Tommy Gabriel, don’t you? Sure you do. He’s a gold mine, a solid gold mine, a crooner that makes the ladies go crazy and fork over dough by the handful. Sure, he’s a headache and a half, with a bunch of weird conditions, but I’m not one to complain.” He turned back to look at me. “Am I?”
“Nope,” I agreed. “What’s wrong with him?”
Blemmy laughed. “I could write a book on that, I tell you! He don’t want no one in his rooms, he only takes certain foods, and he wants his room nice and toasty at all hours. But that I can handle. You see, Tommy Gabriel is the best kind of employee – the one who pays you back. Every buck he earns goes to the tables, and the Royal Crown takes it back. Matter of fact, he was in pretty deep debt to me – until he took off yesterday morning, with about half of the cash we got in the Royal Crown’s treasury. I want you to find him and get my money – and my crooner – back.”
We left a small service hallway and walked into a series of private rooms. These were the high class places, where the Royal Crown’s richest guests could afford to flop. Blemmy led us to a door marked with Tommy Gabriel’s name in gleaming gold letters. He fiddled with his keys, unlocking the cream-colored door.
“Mr. Blemmy, may I ask a question?” Weatherby said. “Would not the police or a normal private investigator specializing in missing persons be better for this situation?”
“Well, some of the money Gabriel swiped wasn’t exactly earned legally. And I don’t like cops.” Blemmy opened the door. “I pay good money to the local Outfit to keep the coppers out of my business. A lot of the money Gabriel stole was for them. I already put in a word to the boys in Reno, and they said they’re sending me a top shooter. All you gotta do is find Gabriel. The Mob’s button man will do the rest.”
We stepped inside. This case was getting worse by the second. Dirty money and mob hitmen were a bad combination. “But why did you hire us?” I asked. “What’s so strange about this case?”
Tommy Gabriel’s room was as ritzy as they come. A king-sized bed gleamed across from a glass coffee table, and a fully stocked drinks cabinet beckoned in the corner. The room was kept hot, warm enough to make me sweat in my trench coat.
“You want to know why?” Ben Blemmy asked. He pointed to a large mirror against the far wall, where various cosmetic supplies rested in neat wooden cases. “That’s why.”
I saw what he was talking about. There was a mask on a wooden stand, and the mask was Tommy Gabriel’s face. The pink skin, perfectly curled pompadour, and little dimple that all of America knew and loved sat there. Tommy Gabriel had peeled it off before he left. Weatherby and I walked over to it, while Chad and Selena stayed near the door.
“This is an amazingly lifelike mask…” Weatherby said. “It must have cost a fortune to create. But if Gabriel had to disguise himself, then that means—”
“He ain’t human.” I said what we were all thinking. If he was just a deformed guy, he could’ve gotten plastic surgery to make him look passable instead of spending a bundle on an expensive mask. Something else was going on here.
Chad gulped. “Whoa,” he said. “That’s something all right.”
Mob hitmen, dirty money, and a lounge singer who could take off his face — this case was about as bad as they come. And there we were, with Selena’s new beatnik boyfriend, right in the middle of it. Luckily, I already had some ideas where to start.