Cake of the Dead
Story by Justin Short/ Illustration by John Waltrip
I suppose you think me mad, dear Sadie.
It is useless to argue. I received the various tonics and salves you so kindly sent me. The labels, at least, were intriguing. One promised to cure the fever of the brain; another claimed, when mixed with sufficient brandy, to make one sweat the delirium away.
I do not blame you, Sadie. The last weeks are lost to me; a dark fog. However, it was not insanity to which I was prisoner, but intrigue. Thank Providence I am free from it at last.
It began with the dead man. The night was a still one, and my gazette was quite good. The smoke from my cigar spiraled toward the ceiling in a most poetic way.
The front door exploded inwards. A stranger stared at me. He was arrayed in tweed and sweat, and his face was pallid. His hands trembled against the jambs, almost as if he had no strength in him.
“Cover me in cream cheese,” he wheezed. “Let raspberries run over me. Sprinkle graham cracker crumbs…on my grave.”
He gurgled and collapsed in the entryway. I moved to examine him, but he was already dead. There was little need to feel for a pulse. The foul, heavy odor that shot from his body and filled my previously-pleasant flat was proof enough.
Before I had time to clear my throat and summon the constable, another arrival decorated my doorway. This one was quite alive. He was a slender youth, fingers stained with opium, trousers ratty in the knees. I doubted it was from frequent prayers.
The youth looked shocked to see me and responded by raising a revolver and aiming the worst part of it between my eyes.
Do not faint, dear Sadie. I still live.
“What did he tell you?” he demanded of me.
I shrugged. “Some rubbish about graham cracker crumbs.”
“I see. Follow me.”
“What about the body?”
The youth scratched his lip. “I don’t think–”
While he was thus engaged, I dove for him. My head collided with his upper abdomen. I heard a gunshot, and we tumbled into the hallway. Before the youth could recover from his surprise, I landed several blows to his lips and eyelids.
I hear your gasps, Sadie. Keep calm, I implore you.
“Your first mistake,” I said, shaking the stranger’s blood from my knuckles, “was entering unannounced. Your second–”
(here I brought my elbow against his nostrils)
“–was giving me orders. I don’t take kindly to that.”
I finished dispatching the ruffian and kicked him gently down the stairs. He came to a stop on the landing. I once more turned my attention to the pale corpse on my carpet. I dug through his pockets, hoping to find some form of identification.
His trousers and vest were empty. No photographs, no badges. No currency; not even a sole quid. However, when I moved his stiff arms, I uncovered a scrap of paper. It was thin-leafed and emerald green and glowed unnaturally as I turned it over. There was not much substance to it, the majority of its space being taken up by an illustration. The drawing was of a kettle or wok or some such. Bizarre symbols surrounded the illustration. I noted triangles, mermaids, and a wolf’s head among other forms I could not classify. What a queer discovery!
Naturally Sadie, I should have reported the corpse to the constable and thus ended the affair. But I was curious. Forgive me! I decided to investigate the matter myself. Arming myself with the strange script, I left my flat and proceeded into the night air.
I arrived at the Thames within minutes. London Bridge was faint in the eastern sky. I whistled as I approached the banks, attempting to ignore the stench that reached my nostrils. I must endure it.
I soon found my destination. Do you remember the fellow named Madame, dear Sadie? Likely not. You never fancied my friends. I mention it because Madame dealt in antique books at the time I knew him. He had a small establishment on the banks of the Thames. Do not bother looking for it. It has since been destroyed by gypsies or policemen, I know not which.
I approached his shop, and Madame greeted me with a shout. After exchanging pleasantries, I handed him the scrap of paper and asked what he thought of it.
Now, Madame had the reputation of dabbling in the occult. More than once, he had been expelled from London for selling dark books to well-meaning citizens. He was no stranger to profane texts. Yet as he examined the paper I handed him, his face became oddly purple.
“This is unholy!” he said. “You must burn it and never speak of it again!”
In other words, Sadie, I simply had to find out more. I pressed him for further information. At first he refused, but eventually he grabbed my collar and pulled me closer to him.
He gave me directions to a paupers’ graveyard several blocks away and tossed me out of his shop. I never saw him again. Last I heard, he moved to India and became quite happy.
Evening was dying. It was close to midnight, but I pressed onward. Excitement kept my yawns to a minimum. I simply could not rest until I had unraveled the whole affair.
The cobblestone echoed beneath my feet as I followed Madame’s instructions. Unfortunately, his words led me through the most unsavory parts of East London. At one point I came upon a pair of hansom cabs, both horseless and overturned. One was on fire. The flames threw dancing shadows on the wet ground.
I imagined the shadows rose and pursued me. “Cream cheese,” one said, reaching a dark claw for my throat.
“Raspberries,” choked another, his eyes burning red to match the flames.
“Graham crackers,” hissed the last.
I cleared my mind of the horrific imaginings. I trembled and continued into the night.
At length, Sadie, I approached a tenement building that bordered a dilapidated factory. A small alley passed between the two, exactly as Madame had whispered. I crept down the passage and soon found myself facing a rolling cemetery. A low fence separated it from the outside world. There was a sign on the gate, but the letters were Cyrillic or something to the like, and I could not interpret them.
I stepped over the fence, passed between stones and crypts, and eventually reached a small mausoleum. A bas-relief above its entrance depicted several figures: triangles, mermaids, and others with myriad limbs and eyeballs. They corresponded perfectly with the drawings on my torn sheet of paper. Madame had been correct.
The door was sealed. I dug at the carvings and ivy, blindly searching for some means of ingress. After several minutes, I located a small tunnel concealed beneath a marble cherub.
Upon entering, I heard chants that made me shiver. My tongue dried out, and I confess I nearly fled. But I descended the steps, and soon arrived at the edge of a low, humid vault.
An empty concrete slab stood in the room’s center. Four men clad in scarlet robes stood around it. A woman was with them. She was dark-haired and wore some fashion of kimono. I could scarcely believe the scene before me. Were the assembled oblivious to the human bones and rat droppings surrounding them? If so, why did they not choose a more satisfactory place for their meeting?
I secreted myself behind a large stone figure. I suppose the artist intended him to be a protector of the crypt, but his gargoyle-like appearance sent tremors through my being and made me question the goodness in the universe.
Before me, the men in red chanted more loudly. The lady lifted her arms and sang a counter-chant. The effect was akin to that of schoolchildren performing a song in canon, albeit far more eerie.
Their language was unfamiliar to me. I made out the words necropolis and liber, repeated several times. I also caught the phrase placentam ex mortuis. For some reason, it made my skin feel filthy.
At length, the mausoleum rumbled. Bits of plaster and ancient rock rained from the walls and ceiling. I feared I was being buried alive. But before my nightmare could be realized, I became aware of a new arrival to the party.
Sadie, I will describe him only briefly. If I detailed his appearance, I fear your weak constitution would cause you to grow faint. He was…the only word that seems satisfactory is…rotten. He wore centuries-old grave-clothes, had but one eye, and walked with a stoop. His skin was flaky and terribly brittle. I felt I was in the presence of a leper. Then he spoke, and I realized he was not ill or dying. He was, in fact, a corpse reanimated!
Sadie, his voice was most unendurable. It combined the whinny of a steed with the scratching of a branch against a nighttime window. The sound it produced in my brain was that of a thousand widows mourning simultaneously.
“Do you have the element?” he asked.
The woman knelt and produced a platter from somewhere beneath her robes. She placed it on the burial slab. It was quite empty when she placed it there, but as I watched, something began to materialize.
It was crusted and green, and stank of foul cream and fungus. I thought it must be a severed finger or perhaps a pickled organ, but then I took notice of its shape. It was an exceedingly old piece of cake.
I heard a scream. A second figure burst into being beside the hunched corpse. As his form shimmered and took shape, I recognized him as the man from my doorway. He was pale and translucent, with almost a glow to him. I decided he must be a ghost or something to the like.
I will swear my sanity to the House of Lords, Sadie. I lie not when I relate these events.
The corpse-man reached out to grab the other gentleman. His skin fell to the ground in chunks as he did so. Without much struggle, he wrapped an arm around him and brought him toward the slab.
“Partake,” he whispered.
Again, that horrendous voice!
The stranger from my doorway shook his head. His eyes grew large.
“Partake,” the corpse repeated. “Partake. Join.”
The man cried. I watched as his head was forced downward. His mouth grew closer and closer to that unsavory slice of cake.
Sadie, I could not bear it. To watch a fellow Englishman, stranger or not, be coerced into such darkness? It was too much for my soul to endure.
I jumped into their midst. I could not think of anything appropriate to say, so I simply yelled “Aha!”
All eyes turned to gaze at me. I retrieved the mysterious bit of green paper from my pocket and held it at arm’s length. The robed figures merely continued their chant. I watched in horror as the scrip went up in flames and turned to ashes in my palm.
The men laughed. One of them turned around, lowered his hood and spoke to me. His voice was all growls and deep moans. His eyes were black and phlegm-filled, his mouth crusty and tongue-less.
I was nearly out of ideas, Sadie. Terror gripped me like consumption’s death-rattle. But I thought of the musty piece of cake. I dove through the summoners and rolled onto the concrete. I picked up the platter. It was immensely heavy. There was but a single piece of dessert occupying the plate, yet it weighed as much as several pints of cider.
The corpse-man’s single eye widened. I raised the cake as high as I could, shouted something about honoring the Queen, and dashed the unnatural thing against the nearest gargoyle. The rotten man gave me a look of devilish disgust and disappeared in a vapor. The dead stranger smiled and mouthed a silent “thank you.”
He, too, dematerialized.
I turned around and the party had vanished. Their robes lay on the cold ground, but they had evidently fled naked into the night.
I soon followed suit. I had no desire to spend the remainder of the evening in a crypt.
There remains little else, Sadie. I returned home and arranged for the poor bloke’s burial. Once that was taken care of, I retired to my chambers and slept for a fortnight.
I never discovered what manner of business the young man was involved in. I can only surmise. Why is there a connection between baked desserts and terrible alliances with dark things beyond the realm of the living? What is the nature of this connection? Why did earthly delicacies fail to satisfy this poor fellow’s appetite?
The questions are many, but I do not think it wise to investigate the matter further. I fear for the evil I would uncover. I have no desire to bring a blight to our shores.
I plan to leave the sanitarium soon. I wish you would consider speaking with the directress. It would expedite my release; I have no doubt of that.
In case you wonder, dear, the man’s funeral was quite proper.
It was a quiet ceremony. No attendees save the minister and me. Few words were spoken, just a simple prayer.
And, perhaps most fittingly, the casket was covered with an abundant amount of cream cheese, raspberries, and graham cracker crumbs.
P.S.—I fear I have not been fully honest, my Sadie. I must disclose something further. You see, before I took my leave of the crypt, I sampled a small piece of the cake. Oh, what foolishness!
Since that moment, my days and nights have been indescribably fearsome. Winged, razor-beaked beasts stalk me ceaselessly; slim figures in white cloaks accost me at every turn; decaying fingers reach through the very cobblestone to grab at me. But these horrors are laughable, my dear. The other thing is much worse. He dwells behind the air and inside the mind. He snickers from the shadows. His form follows me, whispering promises of sweet, sweet cake. He hisses an offer of eternal calm.
I must resist. I simply must. But a man needs to rest, Sadie. A man needs relief.
Perdition, it seems, both follows and awaits me. Nevertheless, please visit soon.
[Editor’s note: the preceding text was discovered among the possessions of patient J. Bloggs, an inmate of Thrush Copse Sanitarium from 1896 until his unaccounted-for disappearance in the winter of 1899.]
— ♦♦♦ —
Down the Rabbit Hole. By Adam O’Connell , Art by L.A. Spooner
When a retired detective’s daughter is abducted he’s thrust back into the world he left behind. No other words were needed from him except “She’s my kid chief”. To get her back, this retired detective and a rag-tag team will have to go where few venture…down the rabbit hole.