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:
Mort looked up at Weatherby. The gag stopped him from talking, but he gave the boy a quiet nod.
Butch laughed as he sat down in one of the chairs and put his feet on the table. “I found him snooping around, and hit him with a baseball bat. Put him right out. He woke up and told me everything.” He pointed to Weatherby. “They’re private detectives. Peggy, your new boyfriend is some shamus, and he’s only hanging around with you to get more dirt on me.” He reached out and yanked the gag from Butch’s mouth. “Tell them.”
“I never said that,” Mort muttered. “You’re making things up, kid. You’ve gone screwy with jealousy. Do yourself a favor – untie me and call the cops. A stretch in the county jail is the only thing that can cure you now.”
“Oh, I don’t think so. I’m getting Astaroth on my side. And then, there will be nothing I can’t do. The Silver Hills Centurions will win the championship. I’ll graduate with full honors, get to be elected president – anything. And Peggy and me will go steady.” He grabbed Mort’s Ka-Bar and nodded to his friends.
They moved faster than Weatherby. One slugged Weatherby in the chest, and the boy felt something explode in his midsection. His eyes burned as he tumbled backwards. He managed to get the revolver half out of his coat before they grabbed his wrist and pulled the gun away. Weatherby was slammed against the wall, and held there by strong arms. Peggy screamed, but Butch’s other friend grabbed her.
“Butch?” the kid holding Weatherby asked. “You sure about this? I mean, isn’t it murder?”
Butch had already taken up the book. “Shut up, Petey,” he said, and started to read.
Outside, the only light came from the full moon, which suddenly passed under a cloak of clouds. The ancient words grew in volume as Butch read, and the electric kitchen lights began to glow a faint blue. Peggy stifled a scream and pointed to the stove, as more blue smoke emerged. The oven fell open, and the demon Astaroth emerged.
He seemed bigger than the kitchen, the top of his head brushing the ceiling. Smoke poured around him, and his eyes glowed like dying coals. Astaroth was a naked man, curling horns emerged from his head and a long bristly beard like steel wool reaching down to his waist. He carried a great serpent in his hands, which curled and writhed around his shoulders and neck, its big forked tongue flicking in and out endlessly. His demonic servants, lean creatures resembling the imps but big as a man and armed with pitchforks and red hot cudgels, followed him into the kitchen.
Astaroth pointed at Butch. “You have summoned me.” His voice was like the crackle of a roaring fire. “For what purpose?”
“I am Butch Waller, your infernal majesty, and I would have you do my bidding, in return for the blood of an unwilling sacrifice,” Butch said, carefully reciting each word. He walked over to Mort, and raised the knife. “Let me just get that blood for you now…”
Weatherby felt the thick hands of the football player, around his neck and chest. He saw the flat blade of the Ka-Bar knife coming down, aiming for the center of Mort’s face. He had to do something. He glanced at the football player holding him. Quickly, Weatherby reached down and bit the wrist of his captor. He bit down hard, tasting skin and then blood.
With a strangled cry, Butch’s buddy let go of Weatherby. The boy dashed for the table and grabbed one of Mort’s automatics and his revolver. He started shooting, squeezing hard on the trigger until he heard the sudden explosion of the gunshot. It shattered a plate in the one of the cupboards, and did nothing more. Weatherby didn’t know what to do, so he swung the gun to face Butch.
But Mort was already moving. Mort rammed his head forward, delivering a painful head butt to Butch’s chin. Butch went down, and Mort managed to grab his knife. He cut his ropes and sprang up, running for Weatherby.
Astaroth roared. “You mock me!” he called. “You have denied me my sacrifice! You will pay!” The serpent’s mouth opened and fire came out. Mort grabbed Weatherby and pulled him to the ground, seconds before the blaze tore through the kitchen, shattering plates and silverware and blackening the walls. Weatherby felt the floor rush up to him as fire burned above his back.
Peggy was screaming. Weatherby came to his feet, but Mort grabbed his arm. “Come on, kiddo!” Mort cried, pausing to grab his spare pistol from the table. “If we stay here, we’re fried!” He pulled Weatherby to the door. Weatherby realized he was crying too, as they went through the living room and managed to get away from the rising crimson flames.
Mort smashed the door open with his boot, and they collapsed onto the perfect green lawn. Weatherby was coughing and crying, but he stood up and looked back at the house. The flames were already rising.
“Peggy!” he cried. He turned back to Mort. “We have to go back for her. We have to go back inside.” He held tightly to his revolver as he handed the automatic back to Mort. “She could still be alive – alone in there with Astaroth, and those demons, and that monster Butch!”
“You sure?” Mort looked back at the house. “We go in there, we might not be coming back out.”
Weatherby put his revolver back into his coat. He dug into the pockets, grabbing every charm and relic he could, everything that might be useful against Astaroth and the demons. “I’m certain, Mort. I love Peggy. I’ve never been more certain of anything.”
“I know the feeling. I’ve grown to hate it.” Mort walked to the door, and nodded to Weatherby. “Stay close to me. Don’t let the demons separate us. And let’s go and get your girlfriend.”
They stepped back into the house. The odor of brimstone was everywhere, making Weatherby’s eyes water and his nose wrinkle up. He felt the pain in his chest and his face from his recent injuries, making each movement ache. But he didn’t care. Peggy needed him.
The demons charged at them from the kitchen, howling as they leapt over the couches and armchairs. Mort raised both his automatics and started firing. The heavy bullets plowed thick holes through the demons, raising clouds of reddish smoke when they hit. The demons gibbered and snarled as they died, their clubs and pitchforks falling from their hands.
“Get the girl! I’ll cover you!” Mort cried, as they hurried to the kitchen. Mort kept shooting, as Weatherby scanned the kitchen. Blue smoke was everywhere, hiding the room in a choking mist. Weatherby looked around, his heart pounding as he tried to find Peggy.
Astaroth had her. He was holding to her slim waist with his clawed hands, his mouth open to reveal sharp teeth. On the tiled floor, the giant serpent had wrapped around Butch. Its heavy coils choked him, and Butch’s eyes bulged, his mouth open in a frozen scream.
Weatherby started towards Peggy. Butch’s two friends were on the ground, a pair of demons poking at them with pitchforks and laughing. Weatherby moved quickly, hurling a pair of crucifixes at the demons. The crosses burned as they touched red demon skin, and the fiends stepped back.
“Get outside! Get out of here!” Weatherby told the two football players. They stood up and followed his instructions, running away as they clutched their bloody wounds and sobbed. Weatherby looked up at Astaroth, and at Peggy and Butch. “Let them go!” he demanded. “Return to the Inferno! You’ll have no sacrifice tonight!”
The demon Astaroth stared up at Weatherby and the boy quaked under his gaze. Everything about Astaroth spoke of death, terror, Hellfire and despair, and looking into the demon’s eyes was seeing light and love banished forever. Weatherby held his ground. Astaroth licked his lips, the demon’s tongue forked like that of his serpentine companion. “What do you have that could stop me, boy?” Peggy was crying as Astaroth held her, tears silently falling down her face.
Weatherby clutched tightly to the two handfuls of crucifixes, blessed coins, vials of holy water, and other magical detritus. “Just this,” he said and hurled them all at Astaroth. The trinkets struck the skin of the demon, rising thin lines of steam. In sudden surprise, Astaroth released Peggy, and she ran to Weatherby.
Mort stepped into the kitchen, holding the smaller demons back with his pistols. “Let’s go!” he cried. “We ain’t got the time and I ain’t got the lead!”
As he held tightly to Peggy, Weatherby looked down at Butch. Astaroth was still writhing from the effects of the holy devices, and was stepping back into the smoldering oven – the portal to Hell. His snake was coming with him. Weatherby reached down and grabbed Butch’s shoulder. He kicked at the giant serpent, trying to free Butch from its coils. But it was like kicking a brick wall, only hurting his foot.
Butch looked up at Mort. “Tell them it was a fire!” he managed to say. “Don’t tell my parents…about this. I don’t want them to be…disappointed.” The serpent pulled him away, following Astaroth into the glowing portal. Weatherby’s hand fell away from Butch’s shoulder.
Then Peggy and Mort were pulling him through the kitchen and the living room. They got outside, through the door and onto the lawn. Weatherby looked back at the house and saw that the fire had spread. The suburban palace was turning black under the flame, sending up thick gouts of smoke as it started to shift and crumble.
But they were alive. Weatherby breathed a sigh of relief and looked at Peggy. “God,” he whispered. “We made it.”
But Peggy just shook her head. “Was he telling the truth? Are you really some private detective, sent to spy on us?”
“Yes,” Weatherby said. He didn’t want to lie to her. “But that’s no reason to—”
“You jerk!” Peggy’s slap was sudden. It cracked across Weatherby’s cheek, making him look away. “Butch would never have tried to contact bigger demons if you didn’t make him jealous! If you didn’t poke your nose in Silver Hills, none of this would have happened! I hate you! Go back to the road and your cases, you little detective, and leave me alone!” She turned around, storming off before Weatherby had even a chance to respond.
The boy took a step after her, but stopped. “She’s right,” he whispered. He felt hot tears growing in his eyes and buried his face in his hands. “Good Lord. She’s right.”
“No.” Mort put his hand on Weatherby’s shoulder. “I know how you feel. I’ve felt it plenty. But she ain’t right. Butch was a psychopath. He’d have done something awful sooner or later, and I know you didn’t mean to antagonize him.” Mort looked at the burning house. “It’s this lie, this damn big suburban lie, that everyone and everything’s gotta be the same and everyone and everything’s gotta be perfect. Butch couldn’t do it alone, and he turned to demons for help.” He looked back at Weatherby. “How do you want to play this, kiddo?”
Weatherby wiped his eyes on his sleeve as he considered the question. “We’ll tell the parents that we didn’t find anything and there was no Black Magic going in Silver Hills,” he said. “That Butch was just killed in a fire, instead of being dragged to the Inferno by a Crowned Prince of Hell. Let the lie live.”
“All right.” Mort put his arm around Weatherby’s shoulder and helped him down the sidewalk. “Come on, kiddo. I got the auto parked around the corner.” They walked along in silence. Behind them, fire trucks rolled down the street to the Waller house, as doors opened for neighbors to see what was going on.
Mort looked down at Weatherby and sighed. “I’m sorry you had trouble fitting in with those kids,” he said. “I know it meant a lot to you, and now it’s gone. I’m sorry about that and about everything.”
“Yes,” Weatherby said. “I should have known better.” He allowed himself a small smile. “But at least I have one true friend.”
“Yeah,” Mort agreed, grinning back. “You do have that.”
The two of them walked back to the automobile, and got inside. They drove away from Silver Hills, and left the suburbs behind them.