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:
There was a cab stand down the road a little from the Royal Crown, and we headed straight there. According to Blemmy, Gabriel didn’t own a car. Without an auto – and missing a face – he couldn’t have gotten far, so I bet he bundled himself up and called a cab. Most people think cabbies don’t notice anything but the road in front of them, but that’s not the case. A taxi driver sees everything that goes on in the backseat, and they’d remember if one of their passengers wasn’t human.
Despite the glitz and the sleaze, Tahoe wasn’t that big of a town. We rode past some of the casinos and lounges, almost hidden in the surrounding forest. The ride was painfully silent. Weatherby and Selena sat in the back, talking in quiet whispers, while Chad slouched in the passenger seat. He tapped a finger on his knee as he looked out the window. He looked like he was trying to think of something to say to me.
“So,” Chad finally said. “You play any tunes while you and the kid are cruising around? I know a lot of these really gone bands back in New York, you know, jazz and bebop and such. I can give you some records if—”
“Close your face,” I told him.
“Morton!” Selena cried. “Chad is just trying to be polite! You have no cause to be mean to him!”
I mumbled an apology and kept driving. I didn’t say anything, but Weatherby did. “Mr. Albright?” he asked. “How exactly did you become acquainted with my sister?”
“It was a party,” Chad explained, happy to have some conversation. “Just a little campus shindig. I always enjoy going to those, just to see what crazy thing my fellow students are up to. So I was there, digging the records and snapping my fingers, when I looked in the corner and saw the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, just standing there next to the wall, with no one talking to her. So I went over and introduced myself. I was holding a cup of coffee. She was near the table with the sugar and cream. We got to talking, and I realized that she’s smart, and kind, and just an amazing person, in every way.”
Weatherby smiled a little. “She certainly is,” he agreed. “And you know, of our…” He paused and stammered. “Our circumstances and misfortunes?”
“Yeah.” Chad looked back at Selena. “She told me about the War. I’m sorry, Weatherby. My own parents are a bunch of stuck-up high society losers, but I can’t imagine what losing them would be like. They named me, ‘Chancy,’ if you can believe it. I don’t think they’d like Selena. They wouldn’t even like the idea of her. I don’t think they even like me that much.”
“Not hard to see why,” I said. Chad Albright was a rich kid with bohemian delusions. And I didn’t know if Selena was part of his act – or if he genuinely loved her. He didn’t take my bait, but kept on talking, looking at Selena and Weatherby all the while.
“So, little man, I just want to let you know that I’ll never let Selena get hurt, or want for anything. She’s a grown woman, and she doesn’t need to be taken care of, but I’m there for her. And I’m there for you, too, if you need me to be.”
“Thank you, sir,” Weatherby said, and Selena put her arm around his shoulder. I could tell Weatherby didn’t think much of Chad Albright. But Chad loved Selena. That was obvious to Weatherby, and I guess, for him, it was enough.
We arrived at the cab stand, left the car and got to work. Chad and Selena stayed outside while Weatherby and I started our interviews. Most of the taxi drivers were enjoying their lunches in a small break room next to the garage when we arrived, and I walked in with a crisp fin held between my fingers. They looked up from their sandwiches to the dollar, and I nodded to them.
“Hello there,” I said. “I’ll give this and its brother to anyone who can tell me if they picked up a strange passenger last night, and where they took him.” I returned the five-spot to my pocket. “But don’t think about getting smart. If you say you gave the Loch Ness Monster a ride, I’ll bust your jaw for lying.”
Silence fell over the cab drivers. One fellow, a portly guy in a checkered shirt and flat cap stood up. “I think I saw something,” he said. “Hell, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.” He put his hands in his pockets. “I work a late shift. I get all kinds of weirdoes. But this was different. He wore a big trench coat and a fedora, low so that his whole face was shadowed. Then a bit of moonlight came in through the window, and I saw his face. It had scales and it was green as a lime. He only went a little down the highway, and had me drop him off in the woods.”
Weatherby and I exchanged a glance. “A reptilian humanoid,” he whispered. “That’s remarkably odd.”
I nodded as I forked over ten bucks to the cabbie. “Got that right.”
The taxi driver took the money. “Mister?” he asked. “Is there anything I should do about seeing that lizard man?”
“Want my advice? Forget it ever happened.” I turned away and walked outside. We left the cabstand and met up with Selena and Chad. Both were anxious to know what we had learned, and Weatherby explained everything. The kid was deep in thought, running down options of what exactly Tommy Gabriel could be.
It wasn’t until we got back to the Roadmaster that he sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said softly. “It can’t be a naga, for those beings are feminine and retain their serpentine tails. It could perhaps be one of the Dogon’s reptilian men, but those are most decidedly inhuman. I doubt one could pass for a lounge singer.”
Selena patted his shoulder. “Just think on it, darling. I’m sure there’s an answer. I’ve heard many accounts of reptile people walking amongst us, so perhaps they all have a common source.”
Chad coughed. I looked over to him as I started the engine. “You got something to say, beat boy?” I asked.
“Well, I think I do, Mr. Candle.” He turned around, preferring to talk to Weatherby than to me. “Okay, dig this – I read a lot of some really weird books, just way out there stuff. Half the time, the people who write them are hopped up on bennies and booze, so I take them with a grain of salt. But I got my hands on of a copy of the rough draft of this book by Bill Burroughs, and he talks all about other dimensions, filled with bizarre creatures, connected to our own.”
“And some of those creatures are reptilian?” Weatherby wondered.
“He calls them Mugwumps. The ones in his story are in a place called Interzone, and their piss is some kind of super drug. But that’s not important. What is, is that one of the places you can get to Interzone, or other freak-o dimensions is Crystal Grove National Park. That’s not but a few miles from here.”
I considered his theory. I didn’t like it. I’d sooner drive the Roadmaster off a cliff than believe in the ravings of some lunatic junkie writer. I looked at Weatherby, and I saw disbelief in his face, but a little trust too. “You want to check it out?” I asked, speaking to the kid and no one else.
“I suppose so. After all, the cab driver said that he dropped Mr. Gabriel near that area,” Weatherby agreed. “It seems to be a good lead.”
Chad smiled. “Good enough at least,” I said, trying to cut down his optimism. I turned the auto around and headed for the highway. Crystal Grove wasn’t far.
We made good time and got there in the late afternoon. Selena had brought sandwiches for all of us, and we ate on the way. She had even gotten roast beef for Weatherby, which was his favorite. Selena was a great girl, and the perfect sister to Weatherby. I guess that was why he didn’t mind Chad so much. He’d do anything for her – and that meant enjoying the company of her boyfriend. But I got the feeling it wasn’t much more than an act on his part–and I didn’t even bother to do that.
“You got a job, Chad?” I asked, as we bought tickets to the park from a small guardhouse. “Or do you just write poetry, play bongos and spend your parents’ money?”
“I do some short-order cooking at a place in the Village, while I’m in school,” Chad replied. He stared at me, and took off his sunglasses. “Look, man,” he said. “I know you saved the kid’s life in the War, and you’ve been taking care of him, but I don’t like this whole hostility thing. I’ve been nothing but polite to you, and you think you can run me down for some reason. Well, I won’t have it.”
We drove into a small parking lot, surrounding by tall trees. Crystal Grove was a little forest, the trees gleaming in the sunlight so it looked like everything was dappled with silver.
“Chad, please don’t get into a fight with him,” Selena said and he clammed up.
I smiled. “The little lady’s got you on a short leash, huh? What’s a matter? You light in the pants like your other hipster friends?”
That made Chad angry. He turned around and glared at me. “Selena, I can’t tolerate this guy! I just can’t! He’s so full of himself, hates everything that isn’t like him, and he’s a square! I love you and your kid brother’s cool, but Mort Candle is an idiot and brute!”
“I’ll show you a brute, you spoiled brat—”
“Wait!” Weatherby stopped us all. He pointed past the parking lot, to the gnarled roots of a tall tree. “Are those clothes?”
We all left the car and ran to get a better look. Sure enough, a bulky trench coat, fedora, silver suit jacket, matching paints and shoes, and a bolo tie lay in the ground, half-covered by dirt. Footprints led away from the clothes. They weren’t made by human feet. They had three claws, like they belonged on some bird or lizard. I held up one of the shoes, watching the rhinestones glow like pale fire in the sunlight. We all knew who had left these. Gabriel had been here.
“The lounge lizard didn’t do much to hide his trail.” I let the shining shoe fall into the dirt.
“He was in a hurry, perhaps,” Weatherby suggested. “Shall we follow the footprints?”
“Sure.” I patted the twin .45s I carried in crossed shoulder-holsters. There wasn’t much that wouldn’t be stopped by a bullet from one of those. “As long as it’s okay with lower class Fauntleroy, here.”
“It’s fine by me, man,” Chad retorted. “Lead on.”
We walked after the footprints, following them as they wandered seemingly at random between the trees. Those trees seemed to grow closer and closer together, and it wasn’t long before I noticed long curling vines had wrapped around them. The temperature was rising. Sweat appeared on my forehead and dampened the sleeves of my coat. The smart part of my brain was yelling at me to go back and forget about the case, but I didn’t listen. We kept on walking, leaving a temperate mountain forest and walking into a jungle.
After a few more minutes, the trees widened out into a clearing, near the banks of a mighty river. Tall mountains reared up in the distance, piercing a primeval mist. Tropical birds fluttered around in the branches, but they didn’t have feathers, only scales. We weren’t in Kansas anymore.
“Good Heavens,” Selena whispered. “We have entered another world.”
Weatherby shivered as he reached into his coat. “I don’t think we’re alone either.”
He was right. I heard something behind us, pattering through the forest on clawed feet. I turned around, reaching for my pistols. Chad held protectively to Selena, pulling her to close to him. She put a hand on Weatherby’s shoulder. They made a strange trio – this beatnik, cute college girl and spindly teenage occultist – but I guess they were a family nonetheless.
But they wouldn’t last long if I wasn’t tough enough. I turned around – just in time to see something step out of the jungle. It was a lizard the size of a timber wolf, walking on two long legs tipped with curved claws, with a narrow snout full of glowing green teeth and eyes full of hate and hunger. Its scales were tan, with stripes the color of dried blood. The lizard looked hungry. I decided to feed it.