Penny Dreadful

Penny Dreadful

4.3 19
by Will Christopher Baer

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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… See more details below

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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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In Baer's dark sequel to his first novel, Kiss Me, Judas, there is no moral yardstick, none of traditional noir's submerged longing for redemption, only a violent, Dungeons and Dragons-ish s&m hell. Phineas Poe, enervated, depressed and missing a kidney after misadventures in Texas, is hired by his old Denver police buddy, Moon, to find officer Jimmy Sky, who has vanished. Because neither Poe nor the reader is told of Sky's importance until he is finally located, the tale hangs not on suspense but on sensationalist gore. Poe descends into a twisted world of sadomasochistic goths playing the dangerous "game of tongues," an elaborate predatory pursuit where biting off one's victim's tongue increases the power of the biter within the hierarchical system of players. Incited by the narcotic "Pale," the mostly college-age participants frolic perilously in stygian alleys, assuming fantastic alter egos that eventually threaten their real identities. One player, "Chrome," instead of performing the bloody French kiss that is the game's currency, kills his victims --and that becomes police business. Poe, initiated into the game, resists its seduction, discovers the double lives of his old colleagues and eventually saves his girlfriend. Baer's language is hip, spare, brutal, sometimes gorgeous. Although there are some touching (albeit twisted) relationships, readers will have a hard time identifying with the deranged, damaged characters, since Baer withholds the truth about their lives until the end of the story. But once the game's main trick is revealed, the narrative loses steam. The payoff, however, is the voyeuristic glimpse the novel affords into the imaginary labyrinth inhabited by obsessive, nihilistic gothic gamers. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|

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Chapter One


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 babydolldress 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 duct tape and rubber patches. Boots that laced up to the knee and a black T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. His hair was shaved to black stubble.

    Goo watched him drag the unprotesting Trembler along by the elbow, his fingers no doubt raising bruises in her flesh 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 was 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 was 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 choke 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.

    She walked down the hall and dressed before a broken mirror.

    Her pale splintered torso. Distended arms and legs, coming apart before her eyes. She watched herself fall and fall through the dark glass. She pulled on a black corset and thigh-high black boots. Hesitated, then chose a yellowed wedding dress that had been crudely altered and was now held together by safety pins and fell in a ragged hem a few inches above the tops of her boots.

    Phineas still slept. She folded his clean clothes and left them at his feet. She tried but could not write him a note. Instead she left twenty dollars on the kitchen table with a menu for the Silver Frog, a Chinese place that delivered at all hours.

    Down the creaking staircase and outside. Blue and black sky. She would take a cab down to Lodo but first she must walk a few blocks and relax. If she thought about it too much, she might cling to herself. She would be trapped, unable to play. But her breathing soon became easy, fluid. The street narrowed. And almost without apprehension, she transformed. Eve became Goo. And Goo was stronger.

I was awake, technically. But I didn't want to open my eyes. I was vaguely aware that someone was watching me. The skin had that familiar creepy tingle and I was naked, it seemed. On what felt like a couch. I was tucked like a dead man under a thin blanket. The material was very soft and smelled of tobacco and rain and skin. I reached between my thighs and gave my testicles a reassuring squeeze and briefly, I was twelve and just waking up in my narrow bunk bed at home with blue-and-white-striped sheets and pale blue walls around me and a whale mobile dangling overhead and my little dick cupped safely in my left hand.

    I hoped I was in Eve's apartment.

    The couch beneath me felt like velvet. Eve had a velvet couch, dark red velvet. I remembered that much. From before. But I didn't exactly remember arriving here. I must have walked twenty-two blocks from the Greyhound station in a drowsy sort of morphine stupor, even though I had been off that shit for six weeks or so, ever since I separated from Jude in San Francisco. It had been a long walk from the station, and stinking hot. I had decided it must be springtime. April, or possibly May. And who was watching me. It didn't feel like Eve. She must have undressed me, though. I tried to remember her hands. Her thin strong fingers.

    I opened my eyes and stared into an unsmiling, androgynous blue-eyed face hovering a few inches from my own. The face sniffed at me.

    Human, the face said. And apparently alive.

    I sat up and waited calmly for the world to spin around. But the world appeared to be temporarily stable. Maybe this was an exaggeration, but I felt much better than I deserved to. The face grunted, pulled away from me and lit an unfiltered white cigarette.

    Can I have one of those? I said.

    Il est possible que.

    I rubbed my mouth. The face was speaking French, apparently. Languages. I had studied German in high school and been pretty bad at it. I had spent some of the past year in South America and could spit out enough Spanish to ask for breakfast and not get shot. However. I hated the French and their slippery tongue. But I shrugged this away. I had no real reason to hate the French and could barely remember why I did. It had something to do with my grandfather and a prostitute during World War II and a mouthful of stolen gold teeth. Anyway. The unsmiling face before me was fierce and beautiful. It was probably male, I thought. If it were a woman's face I would likely be afraid of it.

    Two slender fingers were extended, floating toward me. The fingernails were painted a bright yellow. Horrible, a horrible color. These were the fingers of a corpse, a vampire. A short white cigarette appeared before my eyes like a magician's rabbit. I took it between my lips and allowed the yellow fingers to light it for me. The smoke was bitter and harsh and I coughed painfully into my fist. As usual, I looked for black phlegm or chunks of lung in my hand and was relieved to find nothing.

    What the hell is this? I said.

    It is a Gitanes, the face said. The finest of French cigarettes.

    I'm sure. But it tastes like shit.

    The face was unamused. Then return it to me.

    Thanks, I said. The tobacco is just a little stale, maybe.

    Imagine, said another voice. The human is rude.

    Right. I was fucking surrounded, then. I sighed and glanced around. My clothes were tucked beneath my feet. They were folded. I couldn't remember the last time my clothes were folded and somehow this made me feel incredibly lonely. I tried to compose my face but couldn't remember exactly what it was supposed to look like. I only wanted to take a shower. I wanted to be unmolested, unfucked with. But there was a shadow crouched in the window behind me. A boy, or a very small man, in raw brown leather clothes. His hair was long and white and he wore a string of bones around his throat. The room was otherwise empty. Okay, so there were only two of them.


    The man-boy smiled at me, a ring of sharp teeth in shadow.

    I pushed the blanket aside and reached for my clothes. I felt hot, as if my blood was thickening. I pulled on pants and sat there, scratching my chest and not blinking. Trying to be cool, I suppose. As if I woke up on a strange couch with mutants staring at me every day. I wanted a cup of coffee. I wanted these two freaks to give me a little space.

    I rubbed at a sore mosquito bite on my left wrist, aware now that my knife was missing. I told myself to wake the fuck up.

    The unsmiling pretty face wavered before me, became solid again. A body formed behind it. A silver, sleeveless shirt that appeared to made of soft metal. Hairless, muscular arms with a few unreadable words tattooed on the pale, smooth underside of one bicep. Black pants held together by patches of rubber and electrician's tape and boots stained with mud. The man's hair was black and short and very soft, like the fur of a young black dog. The man was eerily calm and not exactly hostile. He was unpleasantly seductive, though. I guessed him to be about thirty years old. There was a fine web of wrinkles around his blue eyes. And those eyes were now staring obliquely at my chest, my exposed belly.

    That is exquisite work, the face said.


    The scar, he said. Where did you have it done?

    I blinked stupidly at him, smiled. It isn't meant to be ornamental, I said.

    How did it happen?

    On a lumber crew in Oregon. I stumbled into a tree pulper.

    Ah, said the face. The wrath of Pan.

    Excuse me. Who are you?

    The face sighed. The wrong question, isn't it?

    The man-boy began to whisper. A string of curses, or prayers. It sounded like Latin, maybe. One dead tongue or another. What the fuck. They wanted to spook me.

    But how did it really happen? said the face.

    You wouldn't believe me.

    Try me, said the face.

    I had an organ stolen, I said. And felt a slight flush. The story embarrassed me, somehow.

    The face nodded sagely. Leggers, he said. Happens all the time.

    I frowned. This was not the reaction I was used to. Most people looked at me with a peculiar mix of disbelief, horror and amusement. Nausea, basically. One woman actually hit me in the face when I told her about it.

    Again, I said. Who are you guys?

    I am rather more interested in who you might be, said the face.

    Okay. I'm Phineas. A friend of Eve's.

    Eve, said the face. I'm sure you mean Goo.

    I opened my mouth, then closed it. Yes, I said.

    I am Chrome, said the face.

    The man-boy still whispered.

    How do you know Eve? I said. Or Goo, that is.

    I am her paramour.

    Okay. I stood up and walked into the kitchen. I was suddenly very thirsty, and wondered how long I had been sleeping. I was shivering a little, claustrophobic. I didn't think I liked my new friends. Perhaps I wasn't meant to. Eve didn't want me here, maybe. And why would she? I barely knew her at all. The last time I saw her, she had just been raped with an assortment of household objects. By someone who was looking for me. She had probably hoped she would never lay eyes on my sorry ass again. Then I showed up on her porch, homeless and unannounced. And after I passed out on her couch she naturally sent these two along to give me a fright.

    I opened the refrigerator and peered at its uncertain contents. A few unmarked items wrapped in brown paper. Meat, possibly. But Eve was a vegetarian, or so I thought. She was also a lesbian, the last time I saw her. Now she seemed to have a creepy Goth boyfriend with sharp yellow fingernails. His name was Chrome, for fuck's sake. The paramour. I licked my lips and reached for a jar in the fridge that appeared to contain water. And what the hell did I know. Maybe she was bisexual. Who wasn't a little bisexual at the end of the day, alone with the black fingers of memory and silence? The heart was a frail but curiously stubborn organ. I knew that much. This Chrome person, though. He was a nasty one. And not just dark and dreary. He was a skinny wolf lounging in the sun. The guy was for real. I sniffed at the water and my nostrils burned. It was not fucking water, okay. I leaned over the sink and took a long drink from the tap. Now my mouth felt a little better, but I was lonely.

    On the table was a menu and twenty dollars, and I felt my spirits lift a little. Eve wanted to feed me, it seemed. Therefore, she was not trying to kill me. I smiled and licked my teeth, which felt mossy. How long had I been sleeping.

    Be nice, I muttered. Be fucking nice.

    I wandered back to the living room.

    I'm going to order some food, I said. Are you guys hungry?

    Chrome sighed. He sat on the couch now, his left boot resting on the blanket I had so recently slept with. And I have to say I was fairly aroused, my senses jangling. I felt sick, too. I concentrated on the fist of hunger in my belly. I stared at Chrome and I was confident that he was well aware of the effect he had on men and women. That he saw other humans as amusing toys. Everyone who ever came near him must want to fuck him or kill him or both. He had dark swollen lips that any supermodel would die for and blue eyes like seawater in the sun. And he smelled like metal, like salt and gasoline.

    He was a tease, a torturer. Nothing more, nothing more.

    Chrome stared back at me, smiling now.

    The man-boy was busily examining the rest of my clothing. He sniffed a boot delicately, then licked the heel. He pressed the socks and shirt to his face.

    What do they smell like? I said.

    The man-boy grinned. Like a summer breeze, he said. Like chemical detergent.

    Chrome spat. I assume Goo laundered them, he said. She is such a woman, sometimes.

    I looked at Chrome's throat and wondered where the hell my knife was.

    The man-boy grunted. The boots, however, taste of blood and feces. They taste of Louisiana. He glanced up at me. You have come from Louisiana, have you not?

    Yes, I said. I was there last week. And I laughed, weirdly pleased by his cleverness. Meanwhile, my bowels felt like they were slowly stretching.

    I lived there as a child, said the man-boy. My name is Mingus the Breather.

    Well. I rubbed at my eyes and could think of nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with that. It's nice to meet you, I said.

    Perhaps you would like us to call you Fred, said Chrome. Because you will be going to see Elvis, soon.

    What? I said.

    And then we can say: poor Fred. He was a friend of mine.

    That's not true, said Mingus. He won't see Elvis, necessarily.

    I'm sorry, said Chrome with a sigh. But the man does not look well.

    Nothing has been decided, said Mingus. No one's fate is sealed.

    Spare me, said Chrome.

    I smiled benevolently. As if I wanted to be nothing more than a gracious host. I picked up the phone and dialed the Silver Frog. My vision was swimming and I calmly ordered mu shu, dumplings, fried rice and eggdrop soup. Then hung up the phone and helped myself to another of Chrome's nasty French cigarettes. I blew a pretty sorry smoke ring and handed the cigarette to Chrome.

    Our fingers touched. Our eyes slipped over opposing flesh.

    I laughed out loud. The tension between us was absurd, cartoonish. I might as well ask the man to choose a weapon.

    Chrome merely yawned. Enchantez de faire votre connaissance.

    I pulled on my boots and stood there, feeling awkward and clumsy, as if my limbs were suddenly too large for my body. I watched as Mingus patiently repaired a hole in my freshly washed shirt with a needle and a length of black thread. It was a maddeningly slow process, sewing. No wonder I never learned to do it. My mother had been no good at it either and as a boy my socks were always full of holes. Jesus fucking. My mind was about to crash into itself. I chewed at my thumb and wished they would leave. Otherwise I was going to jump out a window any minute now. The silence rose like water, swirling. Chrome stared and stared at me.

    Do you like to hunt? said Chrome.

    What do you mean. Like ducks? I said.

    Yes, said Chrome. Exactly like ducks.


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