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 didn’t like Tokyo from the start. During the War, we had done our best to set that city and everyone in it on fire. From the look of things, it was still burning. Most of the buildings had been rebuilt and new ones were springing up all over the place, but the scars remained. You could see them in the glare of the neon lights, the way men and women in their western clothes hurried down the narrow streets, and the wafts of blue smoke drifting up from joss sticks in altars and shrines. The wounds of the War were still raw, and it didn’t take much to get the blood of Tokyo’s people flowing again.
My partner Weatherby and I had arrived in Tokyo by plane and headed directly to a seedy downtown gin mill to meet with our client. He was a cop, a flatfoot by the name of Lieutenant Sakai, but that didn’t mean anything. Rumor had it that the Japanese police were as corrupt as they come. A new force was moving into Japan, muscling out the government as the American occupiers drifted away. They were called Yakuza, and it seemed like the Land of the Rising Sun was theirs.
I noticed them lounging about in the back of the bar, laughing uproariously over cups of sake, their neat Western suits just managing to hide their intricate, colorful tattoos. I recognized the type. After spending my whole life in Brooklyn – where stuck-up thugs ruled the streets – I’d be an idiot not to. I leaned back in the seat and had some of my own sake. It tasted too warm. Weatherby was sipping tea, which he seemed to enjoy. The kid didn’t like the bar, but he did like the tea.
“Do you suppose we’ll have time for any sightseeing, Mort?” he asked. “My father visited the Orient in his youth. It was apparently a transformative experience.”
“Sure, kiddo. I’m sure we’ll see plenty of sights. Maybe not very nice ones, but I think we’ll see them anyway.” I looked at the door. “I just wish this Jap cop would show up. We stand out like sore thumbs in this joint. And I thought these people were supposed to be punctual.”
“Please, Mort.” Weatherby pushed his glasses up on his nose and gave me a look like I had started smelling bad. “Keep your bigoted opinions to yourself. Need I remind you what the racism and cruelty of Germany did to people of my persuasion?”
“That’s different. You didn’t cause any trouble. But I heard stories about what happened to the G.I.s and Marines who got sent to the Pacific. France was bad, and Belgium and Germany were worse, but I’m still glad I didn’t end up in the Philippines, or Guadalcanal or Iwo Jima. The stories I’ve heard make those places sound like hell. And the Japanese did their best to play the role of devils.”
Footstep neared our table. A tall Japanese fellow in a stiff brown suit walked over and sat down. He had square glasses and a look that told me he didn’t know what humor was. He was younger than I expected, probably right out of the academy. He sat down and held out his hand. “Mr. Candle?” he asked, his English perfect. “And is this Mr. Stein?”
“That’s right,” I said. “And you’re Sakai?”
“Yes.” He tried his best to smile. “Are you enjoying Tokyo?”
“This is a marvelous country,” Weatherby said, nodding as he raised his cup.
“With some real skeletons in the closet.” I folded my hands. “Tell me, Lieutenant, what exactly were you up to during the War?”
He shrugged and answered without a pause. “I was too young to fight. I was with my mother. My father died in China, and we had a great deal of trouble. It was…a bad time.” He looked straight up at me, daring me to contradict him. “The war was a bad time for our country. I do not approve of the Imperialists, or with the atrocities they committed in Asia and the Pacific Islands. I do not believe that Japan needs a brutal government. But a government so weak it falls before organized crime will not help us either, and I fear that is what we currently have.”
It was a fair answer. I told myself to shut up. Weatherby looked over his shoulder, at the laughing gangsters in the back of the bar. “You are referring to the Yakuza groups?” he asked.
“Yes,” Sakai agreed. “It is difficult to find a police officer who has not been corrupted by their reach. But lately, some unknown force is moving against the Yakuza gangs, and I fear it may be something worse than them, asserting its power in the underworld.” He leaned forward. “A number of attacks have left the two largest Yakuza groups, the Nagasako-Gumi and Hasegawa-Gumi, reeling. These attacks are arcane in nature.”
That explained why he had called us. “Well, you came to the right place, pal,” I said. “What kind of creepy crawly spooks did the killings? And do you have any idea who is behind it?”
“A wide variety of demons carried out the attack.” Sakai spoke like he was describing bank account management. “A private plane carrying several high-ranking Nagasako members was attacked and destroyed in midair by a band of flying monsters with large red noses and feathered wings. Simultaneously, a nightclub owned by the Hasewaga-Gumi was torn apart by a pale female form with long dark hair.”
Weatherby nodded. “Winged Tengu and an Onryo vengeance ghost. Whoever summoned them must have a great deal of occult power. Do you have any idea who might be controlling them, Lieutenant Sakai?”
Sakai looked at Weatherby, a little surprised that the kid knew so much. It was something I had gotten used to, more or less. “Well, the Hasegawa-Gumi and the Nagasako-Gumi are both in competition with the powerful Yamoto-Gumi. The Yamoto organization has several of the most murderous assassins and killers on its payroll. They are undoubtedly the strongest of the Tokyo Yakuza groups. Their Oyabun, Boss Yamoto, resides at the Cherry Blossom Tea House, and oversees control of numerous lucrative rackets.”
“A real big shot,” I said, thinking of the American counterpart, some fat greaseball with a cigar and an expensive suit. “I know the type. But would he use magic, instead of good old fashioned knives and guns, to take out his rivals?”
“I do not know.” At least Sakai was truthful.
I stood up. “Well, that’s what you hired us to find out. Maybe we’ll go and see what Boss Yamoto is up to. You got the address to this tea house?”
He wrote it down on a napkin as I set my fedora on my head and slipped into my trench coat. “I must warn you, Mr. Candle, the Yamoto-Gumi are particularly violent,” Sakai explained, as he handed me the napkin. “They dislike Westerners. Gaijin such as you may have trouble, showing up to their place of business uninvited.”
I had my .45s in crossed shoulder-holsters, and a powerful shotgun in my suitcase. I patted the handle of one of my pistols. “Got all the invitation I need right here. Nice meeting you, Lieutenant. Come on, kiddo. Let’s take the air.”
Weatherby and I headed out of the bar and hit the street. The sun was going down, the neon was coming out, and Tokyo was just starting to come alive. We walked along the crowded buildings, looking up at the skyscrapers mingling with bamboo shacks and refugee tents. I called a cab and handed him the napkin. Weatherby seemed a little nervous, his hands in the pocket of his frock coat and his dark eyes flashing around the car.
“What’s on your mind, kiddo?” I asked, as the black taxi rolled into the crowded street. “You afraid of these Oriental types?”
“I think you may be underestimating them. I am remembering my father’s stories of some of the concepts, upheld by certain Japanese groups, which are lacking in the local criminals of your neighborhood.” He shivered a little in the cold. “I fear a direct approach may be disastrous.”
I shrugged. “It ain’t failed me yet.” I leaned back in the seat and closed my eyes, letting the taxi take us where we wanted to go.
The Cherry Blossom Tea House was a large round structure, traditional as they come, with pale paper walls, wooden grid windows, fountains and statues in the gardens outside, and two stories of tables and chairs in neat rows. The only sign that it wasn’t something out of the Feudal Era was the neon sign on the side, which was pink, purple and pulsing into the night. Weatherby and I watched it from across the street. I took out a deck of cigarettes and had a pair, waiting for the last of the civilian customers to head home.
Right before I started for the Tea House, I saw two carloads of Yakuza soldiers pull up outside. They headed in, laughing, talking and smoking, with the bulges of pistols in their coats and swords in wooden scabbards on their shoulders. I looked back to Weatherby. “Something big must be going down. They’re pulling in their extra muscle.”
“Should we perhaps choose another time to make our appearance?” he wondered.
“Nah. Lets’ get them when they’re strongest, so we can show them how weak they really are.” I crossed the street and Weatherby followed. The kid might be scared, but he’d follow me into hell. He trusted me to keep him safe. I hadn’t let him down yet.
I pulled back the sliding paper door and poked my head inside. Every guy in the place turned to look at me, their hushed conversations falling silent. “Hey there,” I said. “I take it this isn’t the Ritz-Carlton?” I walked inside, Weatherby close behind. My shotgun was wrapped up in the folds of my trench coat, ready to be used. All I needed was an excuse.
My boots tracked mud on the polished wooden floor. Weatherby followed hesitantly, his eyes flashing around the place. There were more Yakuza than I expected. They sat on the tables, their guns and swords near their hands.
One of them stood up and approached me, his katana loose in its wooden scabbard. He had spiky hair and a red leather jacket, giving me a grin as his thumb twitched and pushed up his sword handle a little to let me have a look at the blade. “Maybe you are lost, gaijin,” he said. “So I will give you one chance – leave this place now, or your death shall be on your own head.”
I smiled. “I was lying earlier,” I said. “I ain’t lost. I’m exactly where I want to be.”
He snarled at me, his grin fading. “Leave now, gaijin,” he hissed.
“The name’s Mort Candle. And why don’t you make me?”
He tried, unsheathing his blade and swinging it at my neck. I grabbed his wrist with one hand and held it, then crashed the butt of the shotgun against his cheek. His head caved in and he hit the floor, spitting out crushed teeth and blood. I kicked him while he was down and swung the shotgun around to face the rest of the Yakuza. Looking down the barrel of the shotgun normally chilled the craziest hotheads. But it just made the Japanese mobsters mad.
They stood up, reaching for their pistols and daggers, hissing out insults in their own language. Weatherby stood next to me, fumbling to draw his own pistol. I racked the cannon and raised my voice. “I’m just looking for Boss Yamoto!” I cried, showing off the shotgun. “The Oyabun, big cheese, or whatever you painted palookas call him! I’m looking for him!”
The voice, weathered, brassy, loud and with an infinite hatred burning in each word, came from my right. “You have found him!” Boss Yamoto cried, holding a katana above his head. “And now you shall die!” He had craggy features and a red face with brutally short white hair. He wore a dark double-breasted suit, and was missing a pinky. It didn’t hurt his handling of his sword.
Boss Yamoto came towards me like an avalanche. I swung the shotgun to face him, and I was a second too slow. A downwards slice hacked my shotgun in half, and then he pushed the blade up and kept the point right at my throat. I raised my hands.
Weatherby was right. These bastards weren’t the sloppy back alley thugs of Brooklyn. They were warriors. And now they had me right where they wanted me. Weatherby went for his revolver, and got a bunch of pistols pointed in his direction. I kept my hands still and looked at Boss Yamoto. His face looked like a mask of some snarling Kabuki demon.
“Who sent you?” he demanded, speaking fast enough to cram three words into one.
“I’m a detective,” I said. “I just want a little information. I’m looking for a tip about the recent demon attacks on prominent Yakuza gangs. Yours seem to be the only group that hasn’t been a victim. Mind telling me why?”
His eyes narrowed. The sword didn’t move. “We do not work with demons. I know nothing about these attacks. We have not met them yet, but we will be ready when they come.”
“So that’s what all the trouble boys are for?” I asked, nodding to the large amount of Yakuza gunmen. “Just a little security blanket to help you sleep better? I don’t buy it. Why’d you pull them in, Yamoto? What’s going down at this place tonight?”
“A deal, detective,” Yamoto snarled. “For weapons.”