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Penny dreadful, p.1
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       Penny Dreadful, p.1

           Will Christopher Baer
Penny Dreadful

  Penny Dreadful

  A novel by Will Christopher Baer

  ebook ISBN: 978-1-59692-867-1

  M P Publishing Limited

  12 Strathallan Crescent


  Isle of Man

  IM2 4NR

  British Isles

  Telephone: +44 (0)1624 618672

  email: [email protected]

  Originally published by:

  Lawson Library

  A division of MacAdam/Cage Publishing

  155 Sansome Street, Suite 550

  San Francisco, CA 94104

  Copyright © 2004 by Will Christopher Baer

  All rights reserved.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Baer, Will Christopher.

  Penny dreadful / by Will Christopher Baer.

  p. cm.

  ISBN 1-931561-81-8 (hardcover : alk. paper)

  1. Ex-mental patients—Fiction. 2. Ex-police officers—Fiction.

  3. Missing persons—Fiction. 4. Denver (Colo.)—Fiction.

  5. Punk culture—Fiction. I. Title

  Paperback edition: November, 2006

  ISBN 13: 978-1-59692-107-8

  Book and jacket design by Dorothy Carico Smith.

  Publisher’s note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Born in Mississippi in 1966. Old Southern family. Lived in Montreal and Italy as a child. Spent high school years in Memphis, Tennessee. Attended college in New Orleans, Louisiana (Tulane). Dropped out. Finished B.A. at Memphis State. Received MFA 1995 from Jack Kerouac School at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. California since 1996, Bay Area, L.A., now Santa Barbara. Worked as homeless counselor, taxi driver, bartender, video store geek, college professor (Evergreen State, Olympia, Washington), screenwriter, and journalist. Short stories published in numerous places, notably Nerve and Bomb. Married, one child by previous marriage. One brother. Parents still living in North Carolina.

  To play the Game of Tongues, you must first understand the caste system. Phineas Poe, antihero of Kiss Me, Judas, returns to Denver to find reality rewritten and the laws of reason fractured. When Poe is enlisted by his old ally, Detective Moon, to find a missing cop named Jimmy Sky, he is drawn into the Game of Tongues, a violent fantasy game played out by disaffected college drones, hacker kids, and Goth refugees in underground punk clubs, on rooftops, and in sewers. Everyone he meets has multiple personalities, and before long Poe begins to lose track of his own identity. If he can hang on to his sanity long enough to find Jimmy Sky, he might just beat the game.

  for Elias

  -Why was the host (victim predestined) sad?

  -He wished that a tale of a deed should be told of a deed not by him should by him not be told.

  -Ulysses, James Joyce

  penny dreadful

  a novel by will christopher baer





  I am near the end now and this notebook is falling apart in my hands. Damp, becoming pulp. The pages are swollen together and the ink bleeds. The ink disappears and I am not what I appear to be. I wanted to make that clear from the first, from the beginning. But failed, somehow. I tell myself that nothing has vanished, nothing is lost. The lies are chronological, evolutionary.

  The dead are watching, listening. I wonder what they know.

  The thing is that my consciousness drifts and I have forgotten exactly what I look like. I pass my reflection in a blackened window and I may not recognize myself. My reflection is now perceived as a threat, an ugly twin. My reflection is a dark nonperson, a stranger on the street and this is not an identity crisis as I understand the phrase.

  Dear Jude. The mutation of self is normal.

  But this is not a suicide note and I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. There’s no point in that. It has always been in my nature to stare at the sun, to step out into traffic. I am an unlikely suicide but I did want to get a good close look at death, to touch his matted hair and pass him by.

  You should know that I am an alien, a stranger. I may ask you for a cigarette, for the time, for spare change. I may suddenly push you down an alley and steal your wallet, cut out your tongue. I may stop you from choking to death on a fishbone and I may have more than one name.

  Did you know that your eyes tend to change colors. They slip from yellow to gray and blue and the change is irrelevant to mood, to disposition. The names are something like that. Phineas Poe. Ray Fine. Fred.

  I wasn’t thinking clearly when I came back to Denver. I followed myself back to Eve’s place because I believed I would be safe there. I was equipped only with the small brain of a bird, the heart and bone structure of a chicken. I was a stupid chicken.

  I was not quite self-aware.

  The strangers in me are easily distracted. They are daydreamers, romantics. And therefore unreliable. They are often drunk and they don’t always look out for each other. They pretend not to notice things. It always comes back to this business of drifting and I don’t mean the way clouds drift. The way shadows drift behind the sun. It’s a geological thing, a tectonic shift. The drift is not so easily noticed, but the impact tends to be profound.

  Open your eyes, boy. Your eyes. Open your eyes and no more turn aside and brood.

  — from a small blue notebook found on a Denver city bus,

  apparently the diary of Phineas Poe. This was the final entry.



  The Trembler was young and fair, with red hair and stupid blue eyes and the pale furry limbs of a spider monkey. And shameless. The girl had no shame. She clung to Chrome as if grafted to his hip. Goo rolled her eyes and followed them down a road white with mist. Chrome was her boyfriend, technically. She liked to sleep with him. But she rarely hunted with him. It wasn’t her bag. Goo was not a Mariner, and she didn’t share his bottomless black hunger for tongue. Nor did she like to watch him go down on others, which Chrome very well knew.

  They had found the Trembler under the 17th Street Bridge, crouched near a sewer opening. Alone and mute. She had obviously become separated from her little tribe, her pocket of the game. And when Chrome and Goo had come upon her she had pathetically tried to tremble them, which only made Goo more tired and grumpy.

  Chrome, though. He had been unpleasantly cheerful all evening and apparently found the Trembler amusing so he had scooped her up like an injured sparrow. He had muttered something to Goo about having a delicious threesome, a sickening idea. Goo wished he would just take the girl’s tongue quickly and cleanly and deposit her in an abandoned car, or behind a trash barrel.

  But she could see that he was in no mood for the efficient kill.

  The Trembler could be no more than sixteen, thought Goo. She was a newborn, barely an apprentice. Fashionably unclean, barbaric. The girl was dressed as some sort of prehistoric cave dweller, wearing a babydoll dress of raw suede and no shoes. Her legs were unshaven and she smelled.

  Goo spat in disgust. She was an Exquisitor and was therefore expected to be a bit more elegant. She wore brown leather trousers, clean. She wore polished black motorcycle boots and a vest of fine silver chain mail. And Chrome, being a hunter, wore only black. Black jeans tirelessly reconstructed with black tape and rubber patches. Boots that laced up to the knee and a black T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. His head was shaved to black stubble.

  Goo watched him drag the unprotesting Trembler along by the elbow, his fingers no doubt raising bruises in her fle
sh and from a distance he looked just like a boy who had found a lost kitten and was taking it back to his tree house to feed it milk and tuna or possibly cut off its feet and now Goo quickened her step and came up alongside him.

  I’m going home, she said.


  I am, she said. I’m gone.

  Chrome stopped, flicked his wrist and the Trembler stood upright, quivering.

  Have you ever seen such a waif? he said. La jeune fille, exquis.

  Yes, said Goo. The girl is exquisite. But I’m bored. I’m hungry and I’m tired and I’m going home.

  The girl stared at them, unblinking. She was a wetbrain, thought Goo. She was a ninety-eight-pound victim of the Pale. Chrome growled, impatient.

  Come, he said. There’s a market ahead. I will buy you a loaf of bread.

  They turned down the next street and Goo flinched at the web of bright lights. She didn’t like the bright. It reminded her of day. But Chrome did not even look to see if she was following. He merely flowed down the sidewalk, as if he were made of water. The Trembler trailed behind, a balloon on a string, forgotten.

  It was near dawn.

  Maybe four or five in the morning. Traces of yellow and pink in the sky, like fine hairs. Which made it Thursday. There was a twenty-four-hour Safeway up ahead and Goo sighed. She could get a bite to eat and perhaps distract Chrome from the Trembler. Not that she was sorry for the girl, not in the least. Goo wasn’t interested in the girl’s fate, near or far. She was tired and she simply didn’t want to watch Chrome eat a stranger’s tongue.

  Through hissing doors into terrible white light. Goo squinted, covered her face.

  Chrome grinned, mocking. Le soleil cruel.

  Goo hated him. His French was terrible.

  But the store was empty, a morgue. She didn’t want to flounder alone under the man-made light and so she followed them down a row of canned vegetables, her eyes focused dully on the Trembler’s slender but dirty and needle-scarred legs.

  The dairy section.

  I thought we were buying bread, said Goo.

  Chrome shrugged. He opened a glass door and withdrew a brick of Monterey Jack, which he thrust at the Trembler. Hold this between your knees, he said.

  The Trembler blinked and Chrome shoved her up against the open door. He bit at her lips until blood ran to her chin and she opened her mouth.

  The cheese hit the floor.

  Chrome sucked at the girl’s dirty face and Goo closed her eyes. She felt sick and reached for something to grab onto, pulling down a row of creamed corn. The dull clatter of heavy metal and she opened her eyes to see the Trembler fall to the black-and-white tile floor as if she were made of lead.

  Blood gurgling from her mouth, too much blood.

  What did you do? said Goo.

  Chrome looked at her, puzzled. I took her tongue.

  All of it?

  He spat, and something flew from his mouth like a broken tooth.

  Nah, he said. The tip is all.

  Isn’t that a little too much blood? said Goo.

  Chrome winked at her, pulling a bit of stained plastic from his teeth.

  Blood packet, he said. An ordinary theater prop.

  Oh, said Goo.

  The Trembler stood up, brushing herself off and smiling meekly. The red ran from her mouth, real and false. Goo wanted to gag but Chrome was watching. He was always watching her. She shrugged and turned to go, as if bored.

  I stepped off the Greyhound from west Texas and looked around at a world shimmering with exhaust and dead air. Denver, unrecognizable. My mouth was full of fucking dust and I was home. Broken glass scattered on a parking lot of black tar.

  Dull sunlight.

  I stood for a few minutes with the other passengers, waiting stupidly for my luggage. I had no luggage. I had nothing much in my pockets. Two or three cigarettes and a book of matches. Stub of pencil and a useless hotel room key. One dollar and an assortment of coins, most of them pesos. One bright blue pebble that I had picked up on a sidewalk in the French Quarter because I thought it might be lucky. A mysterious coupon for cold medicine. I couldn’t remember when I last had a cold.

  I started walking and found myself counting my steps. Twenty-seven to the sidewalk, fifty-one to the corner. I needed to focus on something. I needed to find a phone booth and figure out where I was going.

  Eve, I thought. I would go see Eve, maybe.

  Little help, said a voice.

  I looked down, surprised. A hunchbacked homeless man with a bloody nose and no hair squatted against a brick wall. I was nearly standing on his foot. There was a dog beside him, a pale arthritic mutt with a choke chain around its neck. The man worried the end of the chain between his fingers and stared up at me with hope in his eyes.

  What do you need? I said.

  The man began to cough and I patted my pockets, thinking I could either give him one of my three cigarettes or a handful of Mexican coins.

  Lost, said the man. He spoke with a strange lisp.

  I looked around. This is 19th Street.

  You sure, he said.

  Where are you going? I said.

  Don’t even know my fucking name, said the man.

  I stared at him. I know that feeling.

  Comfortably numb, he said.


  I crouched down, careful not to get too close to the dog. Pulled out my sad pack of cigarettes and found there were only two. I gave him one, and he poked it between blood-stained lips. I lit a match and held it for him. He thanked me and I shook my head. There was only a fine line between us. The guy was younger than he looked, maybe twenty-nine. His fingernails were clean. His dog wasn’t starving and I decided they were newly homeless.

  Everything slips, he said. Everything slips away. I had a house and a car and they turned to fucking dust. Disappeared before my eyes.

  I shrugged. Life is nasty and it seemed pointless to say so.

  The stretch of silence and my knees began to ache. I couldn’t help the guy. That cigarette was all I had. The sun slithered out from behind heavy clouds and the man whimpered at the sight. I stood up, dizzy.

  Hey, said the man.

  I turned. The dog lifted its head now and for a moment was not a dog at all. It looked like some kind of hideous bird.

  What? I said.

  The man opened his mouth and now I thought he would act like a proper homeless man and ask me for money, or at least offer me a crumb of wisdom. But then his nose started to bleed again and he said nothing at all.


  She wasn’t sure what day it was, Thursday perhaps. Early morning. The sky was a web of gray and blue, as if it might rain even while the sun stared down. The day was otherwise unremarkable until Phineas appeared on her doorstep after thirteen months, his eyes narrow with apologies. He was asleep on his feet. He was dirty and stinking and still he didn’t look so bad. The shadows and starvation were gone from his face. There was new muscle in his arms. His hair was long and tangled with fingers of red, as if he had been in the sun.

  Words fail.

  Her hands felt brittle at the sight of him, but she let him in. A voice in her head said very softly, with a touch of menace and despair: he can’t stay here. He can’t.

  It wasn’t her voice and she shook it off.

  And he collapsed on the couch and slept while she undressed him, her hands never quite touching his flesh. She was tempted to touch the scar that coiled around his belly, to trace her finger around the dark red rope of alien tissue that had grown there. She stopped herself, she was afraid that she might wake him. The scar must be so cold, like the skin of a fish. There was a knife strapped to his left arm, a slender, pretty thing but very, very sharp. She hid it under a cushion. She pulled his boots off, his torn socks. She unbuttoned his pants and pulled them down, her fingernails trailing through his dark pubic hair. His penis was soft and meek and reminded her of mice sleeping in bits of grass and stolen feathers and she had a sudden peculiar urge to chok
e it in her fist. As if it were truly a mouse. Then his left hand twitched and slid between his thighs. He was protecting himself, even in sleep. And he should, she thought. He should protect himself from me. The urge was gone, anyway. She shrugged and covered him in a thin blanket and wondered if there was anything but rotten food in the house.

  She dragged his clothes down to the basement in a pillowcase stained with pig’s blood. The washing machine required quarters, which she did not have. But the coinbox had long been broken. She pried it open with a screwdriver, removed three quarters, then hammered the box shut again. One of her neighbors had left behind a small bottle of fabric softener and she didn’t hesitate to steal it. His clothes would need a lot of softening. She stood over the machine for a few minutes, watching the water swirl and become gray.

  It was time to go to work. To be fair, she was late and she wasn’t so sure she wanted to go. She would love to put on her pajamas and drag the television out of the closet and watch a fuzzy movie, to fold herself in half and lie beside Phineas on the couch.

  But she was weak, she was soft.

  She could never resist, never. She would chew her leg off before she would stay home.

  However. The house felt smaller now and she was changed. But not so much, yet. A wrinkle, a twist of color. Phineas had come back and she had no idea what she might do with him. She wondered what effect he would have on her. She wondered what he hoped to find, what he expected from her. Maybe nothing. Maybe he wanted nothing but a place to sleep for a few days. Then he would move on and would that be so terrible. She hadn’t known him so well, really. They were connected though. By blood, by something.

  She wanted to think about it and she walked around the small apartment, undressing slowly. There was no music and the ringing silence was a relief. Now she stood over him, naked. Her body was covered in bruises, new and old. She touched one, carefully. Yellow and blue and shaped like a star, a flower. She loved her body, cracked and torn as it had become.

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