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:
I drew my automatics as it charged us, hissing madly. The lizard pounced. I fired, my bullet striking it square in the skull. The lizard fell at my feet, writhing in the red dirt as it died. I looked up, happy with my kill. “He wasn’t that tough,” I said. “Maybe I should take him back, get him stuffed and put in a hunting lodge. What do you think, kiddo?”
“Mort?” Weatherby pointed into the jungle. “I’m afraid he has friends.”
He was right. Dozens of the lizards peered out at us from behind trees, slowly creeping closer. They were pack animals, surrounding us, cutting off any escape – and then moving in for the kill. I turned around, leveling my pistols at all of them. They hadn’t heard a gunshot before, and it didn’t scare them.
“What the hell are these things?” I muttered, as Weatherby drew his revolver.
“Dinosaurs. Velociraptors, to be exact.” Weatherby looked at his sister. “We saw their skeletons in New York, at the Museum of Natural History. Do you remember that?”
“I do,” Selena agreed. “We had a wonderful time. If we survive this, Weatherby, we’ll have to go back.” She didn’t mention that the odds were against it. The raptors crept forward. I saved my bullets, waiting for their charge. Selena grabbed a large rock, and Chad picked up a stout branch for use as a bludgeon. I didn’t think that would last long against the claws of the raptors.
They came forward at once, like some silent signal had been given. I turned around and started shooting, blazing away with both pistols. The raptors tumbled down after my shots, the heavy .45s cutting deep holes in their scaly skin and splattering blood on jungle leaves. Weatherby’s revolver thundered away, uselessly kicking up some dirt. A raptor came towards me from behind, rearing up to take a bite out of my back. Chad smacked the branch into its open mouth, sending it snarling back into the woods getting a taste of nothing buts it own blood and cracked teeth.
I looked up at him as he pulled his club back for another. “Where’d you learn to do that?” I asked, gunning down a raptor before it could reach Selena.
He shrugged. “My old man was keen on golfing. I can swing a club pretty well.”
Another raptor came at me, and I turned around to plant a couple slugs in its face. That’s when I remembered I had fired my last shell. My pistols clicked empty, and I saw the dinosaur slowly leave the ground, flying towards me with its twin sickle claws about to cut open my chest. Before it could land, a spear struck its throat. The raptor fell down, gurgling as it bled out.
A flurry of spears and arrows followed. I looked up to see three large dinosaurs headed our way, with riders that could pass for human in low light. The dinosaurs were big hulking monsters, rivaling rhinos for size, with thick frills and three horns each. Their riders had arms and legs like people, but were covered in green scales instead of skin. Their round faces had blunt snouts and sharp teeth, without ears or hair. They wore loose vests and trousers made from dinosaur skin, and carried long lances.
I raised my hands as I faced them. “Any of your lizards speak English?” I asked. “I just want to thank you, for saving our behinds.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it.” The lizard man in the middle raised his lance. “But you gotta leave this place, right now. It’s nothing but trouble for people like you.” He spoke English like a native, and his voice flowed like syrup. It was warm and familiar.
Selena recognized our savior after he spoke. “My God,” she whispered. “You’re Tommy Gabriel! I’d know that voice anywhere.” She grinned. “You sound just like you did in ‘Love me Like the Lightning Loves the Thunder’ and ‘You’re in My Dreams, You’re in My Mind’!”
Weatherby stared at this sister. “You like this simpering warbler?” he asked.
“Well, my roommates have all his records.” She shrugged. “I don’t mind him.”
Gabriel smiled. It was odd, seeing a lizard grin. “Always good to meet a fan,” he said, leaning down on his triceratops. “But I ain’t lying about leaving here. It’s a dangerous place. All kinds of hungry dinosaurs and savage tribes are around, and they’ll eat you just for fun.” He pointed back to the jungle with his spear. “Just turn around and move.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, Mr. Gabriel. We’ve been sent to find you. Ben Blemmy isn’t happy that you’re leaving his club – and took a heap of dough with you.”
The lounge lizard sagged in the saddle. He had the suitcase hanging from a strap on his saddle, and pulled it out. “Yeah…” he said. “I guess I did. I was panicking, and just kind of grabbed it and ran. I wasn’t thinking straight – like why I wouldn’t even need bread out here? I just had to get out of there.” He sighed. “I guess Mr. Blemmy must be pretty upset.”
“Got that right, man,” Chad agreed. “He’s all set to blow a gasket. But how’d a lizard man like you end up working a lounge singer anyway? That’s a story I’d like to here.”
“It’s not long. I was born to a pretty high-class family here, but I wasn’t any good at sword-fighting or dino-riding, which is what most people do. No, the only thing I wanted to do was sing. And after some exploring, I found a path that led to your world. I covered myself up in some old rags I found, snuck around until I learned your language, and started singing for pennies in parks and stuff. Soon I had enough money to get some real masks made. After that, Tommy Gabriel’s career was on the rise, baby.” He smiled, his sharp teeth making his grin look predatory. “But then I started gambling and got in deep. So I ran. And I guess you fellows are here to bring me back.”
“Do you want us to?” Selena wondered.
“I don’t know.” Gabriel touched his sharp teeth with his tongue. “I’m a prince out here, but I don’t like it. And back in the Royal Crown, I got fans and friends – but all the money and the troubles just bring me down. But it’s only there that I can sing, you know?”
“Perhaps we can make a compromise,” Weatherby suggested. “Mr. Blemmy wants his money back. Maybe if you gave it to him, he’d forgive you, and allow you to stay here.” He held out his hand. “Will you come and bring it back with us?”
Tommy Gabriel considered the question, but then shook his head. “Sorry, kid, but Blemmy’s connected and he’s a nut. He’d kill me on sight.” He closed his lipless mouth. “But I’ll tell you what – bring him out here, and I’ll give him the money. That way, I know he won’t have a death trap waiting for me back at the Royal Crown. How’s that sound?”
“Aces. Sounds like a plan.” I walked over to the dino, holding out my hand. Tommy leaned down and shook it. “You might want to avoid having your pals on the big lizards show up. Something tells me Ben Blemmy scares easily.”
After giving my suggestion, Weatherby, Selena, Chad and I headed back to our world, leaving Lizard World the same way we had come. I was pleased with myself. We had found Tommy Gabriel, and soon Blemmy would have his money back and the whole situation would end without violence and mob involvement. Things were looking up. But experience has taught me that things normally do – right before you go off the cliff.
After leaving Crystal Grove, we drove back to the Royal Crown Lounge. It was dark in the Lizard World and it was dark in our world too. I sped the Roadmaster down the strip of pavement, the trees flying by as I increased the speed. I figured this case should be closed quickly. As it turned out, I didn’t close it nearly fast enough.
We reached the Royal Crown Lounge and headed inside. The place was packed, tons of tourists showing up for dinner and the evening entertainment. They crowded around the lobby and the main floor in their dinner jackets and gowns, talking about how rich they were and the cold air. I ignored them, scanning the room for a round guy in a leopard print tuxedo. It didn’t take long to spot him.
Ben Blemmy hurried over to us, forcing his way through the crowd. “Mr. Candle! Mr. Stein!” he called. “It’s great to see you! What have you got for me? Here, come to my office.” He turned around, and started leading us through the crowd.
“We found Tommy Gabriel,” I said, as we walked through the crowd and headed up a small stairwell to the offices. The carpet led away to a warm mahogany floor, with glossy wood panels on the wall. “But you ain’t gonna believe where he is. Or what he is.”
Blemmy turned around. “What do you mean?”
“He’s a lizard,” Chad explained. “In a Lizard World dimension, that’s next to our own.”
“Uh-huh.” Blemmy took the news well. “Makes sense. That’s why he always kept the temperature a certain way. It even explains those big eyes of his – and his tongue – which the ladies loved, by the way.” He reached the door of his office, but stopped and turned around. “So, you know where he is?”
“That’s right, sir,” Selena agreed. “And what’s more, he’s agreed to hand over the money he stole and—”
“That’s swell!” Blemmy cut her off as he opened the door. “Because the fellows from Reno arrived, and they’re anxious to get hunting.”
We stepped inside Blemmy’s cavernous office. The place was like a gilded garage, big and mostly empty. A dozen men in colorful suits lounged around, sipping martinis or smoking. They carried guns openly, as there was no need to hide their weapons in a mob-owned club. But I didn’t pay any attention to the goombahs. I was looking at their leader, and he turned to look at me, a horrible smile twisting his deformed face. That was the face you could recognize anywhere, the kind a mother could only pretend to love. It was the face of Joey Verona, and I was responsible for making him the way he was.
Joey Verona stood up and walked towards me. “Morty!” he cried. “So good to see you! It’s been so long! Too long, I’d say!” The left side of his face was a candle that had been lit too long. Yellow and splotchy, it sagged to enlarge his eye and force him to talk out of the right corner of his mouth. His slicked back hair was steel grey and he wore a salmon pink suit with a white rose in the lapel. Verona had a vendetta against me, a result of leaving him in a zombie-infested city, at the mercy of an atomic bomb.
I went for my automatics. It was bad enough that Verona was here, but so was Selena and her new boyfriend. I couldn’t let that psycho mobster hurt either of them. But Verona shook his head. “Come on, Mort,” he said. “We’re friends here, huh? Relax. I’m a professional. I’m on the Outfit’s dollar. You know what’d happen to me if I went nuts and fouled up Blemmy’s play?”
“You won’t try for revenge?” I asked, fingers firm around my automatics.
“Not at all, not at all!” Verona’s lopsided smile faded for just a second. “Well, not unless you give me a reason, Mort.” He turned to Blemmy. “Besides, I got someone else to kill. You and your friends located Tommy Gabriel yet, Morty?”
“They have,” Blemmy agreed. “And I think he said he’s willing to deal.”
“He’ll give back the money he stole, provided you leave him alone,” Weatherby explained. “He wants to meet you in the Lizard World, where the transaction can be completed.”
“So I get the money back…” Blemmy’s pudgy face screwed up. “But I lose a major attraction…well, I guess I ought to just cut my losses—”
Verona wrapped an arm around Blemmy’s shoulder. He pulled him close, like a lover. “You ought to cut something, buddy,” he said. “But not your losses. Let me tell you, Blemmy-boy, everyone in the Outfit thinks of you as weak. You ain’t even a paisan, so that’s one knock against you. But you roll over on this, and everyone’ll know you’re a woman. Come on, Blemmy. Let me have a crack at the lounge crooner. I’ll have him singing a different tune and everyone will know how tough you are.”
I could tell right away that it was working. Blemmy’s eyes got dark. “Yeah,” he said. “I get stiffed a lot. By unions, by wiseguys – hell, by everybody! Maybe after I have a guy whacked, people will think twice.” He was nodding to himself, getting used to the idea. He turned to me. “We’ll all go,” he said. “Let’s dangle. We’ll follow your car.”
“I refuse to be part of such cold-blooded murder!” Weatherby cried. He turned away, but I grabbed his shoulder. If he pissed off Blemmy and Verona now, he, his sister and even Chad would pay the price.
“We’ll work something out,” I whispered. “We’ll think of something.”
“Like what?” Chad asked, his arms folded. “You talk real big, Candle – but you’re just some thug, I think. And you’re more interested in money than doing the right thing. Weatherby should stay with me and Selena, and not you.”
I would’ve slugged Chad, but Selena shook her head. “That’s not true,” she said. She looked sadly at the mob hitmen. “Come on. It doesn’t look like we have much of a choice.” She headed out into the hall, and we all followed her.
We left the Royal Crown Lounge and drove into the cold night. The road to Crystal Grove was empty, and there was only my auto, followed by two cars packed with wiseguys and heaters. We rolled down that narrow band of road, passing through the trees until we reached our destination. Blemmy gave a c-note to the ranger in the guard house, and we all got in after hours.
Then, it was just a matter of finding the spot where Gabriel’s clothes were and following those three-clawed footprints. Weatherby, Chad, Selena and I walked first, with Blemmy close behind, and then the wiseguys bringing up the rear. I didn’t doubt for one second that Verona would try and stab me in the back. He blamed me for ruining his face, his career and his sanity. He wanted me dead, tortured and ruined, and he was only biding his time.
The winding forest path led us past the changing trees and then to the river bank in the Lizard World. The mob guys got nervous, raising their guns into the seething jungle, and staring and pointing at the prehistoric animals that scattered when we approached. Tommy Gabriel was sitting on a rock at the water’s edge, dipping his clawed feet in the water. His dino pals had left him alone. I regretted having him send them away.
He sprang up and looked at us. “Blemmy,” he said, hurrying to the side of his employer. “Bet you never expected to see me like this, eh?” He carried the suitcase in his hand and held it up. “Here you are, Mr. Blemmy. And I was thinking – why don’t I come back to work for you? This world’s no place for me. I’ll let you withhold pay for me, for a year or two, in exchange, and to say sorry for everything. How’s that sound?”
I looked at Blemmy. He looked at Verona. I could tell the club owner wanted to agree. His eyes got big and sad, staring at Gabriel. “Uh, sure, Tommy. I guess that’ll w-work.” Ben Blemmy realized that he didn’t want to kill anybody. But Joey Verona was a different story.
He pulled out a pair of long barreled automatics and shot Blemmy in the back. The club owner wheezed and fell forward. Verona swung his pistols around to face Gabriel as Blemmy writhed on the mossy ground.
“Sorry, lizard boy,” Verona muttered. “But I’m afraid tonight ain’t ‘the night for love,’ as your song goes.” He turned back to his gangsters as I reached for my guns. “What are you waiting for?” he asked. “Take Candle and Stein alive!”