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.
They worked in silence, each man alone with his thoughts. Sergeant Morton Candle thought a little about the coming fight, but the tactical side of his mind worked by itself, like a machine you wound up and left alone. He worked out cover, good firing positions and all the means to succeed in the coming fight. But the other side of him, the human side of him, thought back to his time in New York, and the smuggling and violence and death that he had swam through like a filthy river.
He thought about what had brought him to the Airborne, and his first jump, and then the mission briefing, just a few weeks ago, before they went to Castle Stein and he saw Weatherby’s parents die before the eyes of their little son.
They had hauled him into Patton’s headquarters, in the center of his camp. The Third Army’s camp always seemed alive with activity, and there was nothing permanent about it. Trucks, jeeps and tanks rolled through the rows of hastily assembled tents, columns of soldiers marched behind them, and planes roared overhead, their blaring engines never quite fading away. Candle was led into the general’s tent in the mid-afternoon, his boots crunching in the mud.
He slipped in through the tent flap and there was General George S. Patton, sitting at his desk and overlooking a map of the Black Forest. Patton seemed larger than life, alive with energy. A cigar smoldered in his mouth. Candle’s eyes flashed to Patton’s waist, and he grinned when he saw the famous ivory-handled revolvers.
General Patton looked up and Sergeant Candle snapped off a salute. “At ease, soldier,” Patton said, his voice gruff and harsh. He was barrel-chested, his hair thinning and his face red. “You’re with the airborne, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” Candle agreed.
“All right. There’s someone I want you to meet.” He extended his hand into the darkness of the tent. A fellow in a dark suit stepped out, grinning like an idiot. He looked like a civilian, and a dumb one at that. “This is Agent Bobby Belasco, sergeant,” Patton explained. “He’s with the OSS.”
Belasco’s grin widened. He had curly brown hair in a wild tangle, and his suit was rumpled, his tie crooked, and the buttons on his vest undone. Candle knew about the OSS. Their name was always mentioned in whispers. Meeting an agent was like meeting a ghost. “I’ve read your records, Sergeant Candle,” Belasco said, his voice oily and warm. “That work of yours on D-Day – taking out those bridges and the Krauts guarding them – was just wonderful, if I do say so myself.”
“Thanks.” Candle turned to the general. “May I ask what this is about, sir?”
Patton nodded. “You believe in reincarnation, sergeant?”
“Spirits, ghosts, reincarnation, goblins, ghouls – vampires. The Spear of Destiny, secret Tibetan cities guarded by the goddamn Abominable Snowman, ancient Gothic soldiers raised from the grave by magic runes, the living dead, the Ark of the Covenant, flying saucers, demons, ancient Egyptian mummies brought back to life, Greek gods, witchcraft – and a thousand other things crazier than a one-legged reindeer with a missing antlers. Do you believe in them?”
“Not really, sir.”
“Well, the Germans do. God almighty, they love that crap. And Mr. Belasco here’s got an inside line on their occult programs. The Black Forest is where they’re setting up their labs. I want you and your boys to go and knock them out.” He pointed to the Black Forest with a stubby finger. “Belasco’s got a particular job for you, the program posing the greatest danger to the Third Army as we head for the Rhineland.”
Belasco nodded. “They’re called Draugr, Morton. Animated corpses, powered by Viking magic. Totally mindless, completely loyal. Needless to say, they must be stopped.” He reached into his coat, withdrawing a small photograph. “This is the egghead they got working on it.”
Candle looked at the picture. It showed a family. The father had a neat goatee and spectacles. The mother had light brown hair and kind dark eyes. The daughter, a gangly adolescent, had dark braids and a wide smile. The little boy had spectacles, and seemed delighted to be with his sister, father and mother.
“A whole family?” Mort asked.
Belasco nodded. “These are the Steins. The daughter’s lucky enough to be in boarding school in America. Everyone else has a small army of Waffen-SS as unwelcome houseguests. Dr. Wolfgang Stein’s wife, Hannah, is an Englishwoman, and she has the misfortune to be of a race Hitler doesn’t like. If Dr. Stein doesn’t follow his marching orders, Hannah and little Weatherby go straight to the camps.”
Morton had heard about the camps. He knew the charnel horrors inside. “Christ,” he whispered. “We’ll rescue them? That’s the mission.”
“Exactly. And make sure you bring them back to us. The Third Army will be nearby, so you pull them out and then join up with us.” Belasco took back the picture. “The Stein family has produced the greatest occultists in Europe for generations. They’ve conjured up powerful elemental spirits, created artificial life, made deals with the devils, and transmuted lead into gold. We want them.”
“Even the little boy?”
“Even the little boy.” Belasco smiled. “Imagine all the juicy little secrets they have rattling around in their brains. Imagine the power America can wield when we pick them clean.”
“You’re talking about human beings, Belasco,” Candle said, feeling a hint of anger blossom inside of him. “Not folders of intel.”
Belasco opened his mouth to respond, when Patton clamped his arm on the OSS operative’s shoulder. “Why don’t you go outside, Bobby? Go see what the men are up to?”
Still smiling, Bobby Belasco stepped outside. Candle watched him go. Patton waited until the tent flap swung closed, and then reached for a bottle of whiskey and two cups. He slammed them down on the map and starting pouring. “You like whiskey, Sergeant?” he asked. “We’ve liberated enough fancy French wine to drown an army, but I wouldn’t use that swill to wipe horse crap off of my boots.” He looked up at Morton as they emptied their glasses. “And I wouldn’t piss on Bobby Belasco if his heart was on fire.”
“Permission to speak freely, general?” Candle wondered.
“You go right ahead. I do that every time I open my goddamn mouth.”
“He’s a rat,” Candle said. “A weasel. I know his type from back home. The kind that would sucker up to the coppers or the crooks, depending on the time of day. The kind that would shoot his pal in the back, as long as there was some easy money in it.”
“I guess so, sergeant. And I trust him about as far as I can throw him. He’s worse than the goddamn commies. And he doesn’t care much for anything, unless there’s profit in it.” Patton tapped the map. “But the Steins are still held captive by the Nazis. That nice family is getting tortured by a bunch of German monsters. And I think we’ve got an opportunity to do something about it, kick some ass, and save the day. And if that’s not why we’re here, then I don’t know the goddamn reason!”
Sergeant Candle smiled. A speech from Patton could a light of fire inside anyone. “I’ll rescue them, sir,” he said. “You can count on my squad.”
And so they had taken a risky flight over the Black Forest, bailed out and parachuted down into the woods around Castle Stein. And Dr. Wolfgang Stein and Hannah Stein were dead, giving their lives to save their son. And here they were, trapped in a ruined church with the Waffen-SS closing in, like a noose around the neck of a hanging man.
But Candle and his soldiers weren’t going down without a fight.
They worked all morning, and most of the afternoon, breaking only for chow and a quick rest. They didn’t stop until they heard the sounds of boots in the shaded forest floor, and the rumble of engines and machines among the boughs of the trees. The SS weren’t playing it quiet. They didn’t have any need to.
Candle stood up. “All right!” he said. “Grab a gun and get to cover! Jerry’s incoming!”
He scrambled into the trench that his men had dug, next to Newt and Dutch. All three men raised their guns, aiming them into the woods. Tiny prepped the machine gun, threading in a belt and cocking it. In the steeple, Elkins leaned the barrel of his rifle on the ledge. Charlie stood inside, a stolen MP40 sub-gun in his hands, ready to go where he was needed.
The Germans started coming in. They were moving through the trees, dozens of them. These were the brawny Waffen-SS fighters, wearing dark forest or pure white winter camouflage. They were big men, Teutonic giants unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Candle didn’t allow himself time to be scared. He started firing, careful bursts that dropped the nearby Nazis.
Tiny’s .30 cal roared to life behind them, sweeping the forest with lead. Bark and branches went down, and men did too, ripped to red shreds by the heavy gunfire. Newt and Dutch rattled away, their carbines spitting out lead nearly in tandem. Morton didn’t like it. It was all going too well.
A mortar round came whistling down, striking the side of the church and raising a fountain of dirt and flame. Candle wasn’t panicking. He simply waited and listened, and then Elkins’ sniper rifle cracked off a shot, and then another. The mortar team had to have been nearby. That was their mistake. Elkins never missed, and the Germans wouldn’t be stupid enough to try that again.
Sergeant Candle and his squad fell into the familiar pattern, a well-practiced dance they had done since Normandy. Flanking fire, covering fire, suppressing fire, reload and do it again. Herding the enemy where they wanted him to go with bullets and the occasional grenade. And when the enemy reached the chosen destination, he got a long burst from Tiny’s .30 cal. Candle didn’t like how well it was going. He knew the bad times were going to get there soon.
Then he heard the rumble of a Panzer tank drawing closer, and knew the bad times had arrived. Mort Candle peered through the shade under the trees as the treads whirred through dirt. He recognized the tank instantly. It was a Tiger, a vehicle legendary for its sheer power. The 88 mm gun swung their way, slow and ominous as an executioner’s axe.
“Fall back to the church!” Candle cried. Newt and Dutch hurried for the doors, and Mort would have followed them, if the tank hadn’t chosen that moment to fire.
Mort went into the air. He was lucky, the explosion striking only near the edge of the trench. But it still knocked him flat on his back and left his ears ringing. Everything went slow and soft around him. Candle gritted his teeth, grabbed his gun and started firing, even as he summoned up the strength to move. The Tiger’s only machine gun started to whine, cutting into the ancient stone walls of the church. The German infantry in the woods surged towards the church, using the tank as cover.
A hand gripped Mort’s arm and hauled him back, like he was a child. He looked up and saw it was Tiny. The big gunner hurled captured stick grenades into the German ranks. “Come and get some of that, you hear!” he bellowed. “I got plenty more, just you see!” They started going off, blasting back the infantry. Tiny hurled back Mort and tossed him inside the church like the sergeant was a bundle of rags.
“Tiny, you imbecile!” Mort tried to sit up, but it was too late. A bullet burned into Tiny’s side, flattening him on the ground. Candle felt a bit better now, and he grabbed his Thompson and prepared to run to his friend.
Charlie beat him to it. “Cover me, sir!” Charlie shouted, dashing out. His pistol was flashing in one hand, a medical kit held tightly in the other. “Taking out that tank would be nice!”
“You got it.” Mort looked back at Dutch and Newt. “Come on, boys,” he said. “That Panzer ain’t gonna wait all day.”
They dashed outside, running straight for the tank. They split up, weaving across the open field. The Tiger Tank’s fearsome main gun fired again, carving off a corner of the church, but missing the paratroopers. Candle didn’t bother to look behind at Charlie and Tiny. He trusted them and he had his own problems.
He and his rifleman hurried to the dark brown sides of the tank. The armor of the Tiger was thick, tough enough to take shots from Allied tanks without getting a scratch. Busting it open with grenades was not an option. But Sergeant Candle and his boys had a different idea. Mort hopped onto the side, clambering to the top. He still felt like his innards were mush from being blown back by the Tiger’s shot, but he stood his ground and Dutch joined him. Newt stood near the treads, keeping the German infantry back with his carbine and the last of his grenades.
“All right, Dutch,” Mort said, looking at the hatch and slapping down a tiny satchel charge. “Ready for shooting fish in a barrel?”
“Sounds like fun,” Dutch agreed.
Mort popped the satchel and it went off. It sent up a small line of smoke and cracked open the hatch. Mort and Dutch looked inside. A couple German tank operators looked back. Mort and Candle tossed in one grenade each. The explosions would rattle around inside the Panzer, cooking off the shells inside and reducing the men to shreds.
They hopped down from the tank as the explosion boiled up from inside. Metal split and greasy smoke poured out. “Back to the church!” Candle ordered, and they pounded across the ground. Now Sergeant Candle looked up, staring into the opening of the church, and the figures under the archway.
Tiny was leaning against the wall, a bandage slapped across his shoulder. His .30 cal lay on the ground, the ammo belt next to it. Charlie sat behind the gun, staring forward blankly. Candle ran to his side and knelt down, Dutch and Newt close behind. The German infantry were closing in. “You crazy, Charlie?” Candle demanded. “This ain’t no goddamn picnic! You’re gonna get your head—”
He noticed the red splotch on Charlie’s uniform and the sightlessness in his eyes. “Oh Christ,” Candle whispered. He had seen men buy it before, tons of men, in tons of places. But it never got any better. “Oh god.”