I was certain that all our hard work and stealth were for naught when the summons from Carnacki arrived for dinner that evening, and it was with the heavy heart of a disappointed child that I crossed the threshold of No. 472 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea at the hour Carnacki had indicated on his invitation.
Carnacki’s appearance, which was more like the toad in the harrow than the cat who’d swallowed the canary, made me reconsider my original assumption. I wisely decided not to make any mention of the surprise or the date, and neither did he. Jessop, Arkwright and Taylor arrived, one by one, after I did. They cast inquiring glances my way when Carnacki’s back was turned, but all I could do was to shrug and look perplexed. Obviously, they had thought as I had and were a bit puzzled by Carnacki’s demeanor.
Did Carnacki know about our plan, or didn’t he? None of us could tell.
The bill of fare at Carnacki’s was always good, so we enjoyed our meal. I confess that I kept looking for signs of a special occasion in the table or in the dishes or the conversation but found absolutely none. Carnacki did not mention the date at all, confining his remarks to the news of the world and, of all prosaic things, the weather. It was not his custom to discuss his supernatural investigations at the table, so that omission was not surprising, and all of us knew better than to question him about his latest case until the meal had finished.
The four of us, Jessop, Arkwright, Taylor, and myself, kept exchanging surreptitious glances, though, and I believe that by the time dinner was over, we all had arrived at the same conclusion: that is was sheer coincidence that Carnacki had chosen that day to invite us to his home to hear his latest tale.
He really didn’t know what we were up to.
If Carnacki noticed anything odd in our behaviour, he gave no outward indication. He seemed a bit distracted himself by something or, perhaps, I thought, he was simply weary from his latest adventure.
After dinner, the five of us did what we always did after dinner, namely, retire to the sitting room, each ensconcing himself in his self-appointed chair. Carnacki also followed his usual routine. He got his pipe and began to fiddle with it. Then he settled himself in his armchair and, after a few puffs, began to speak in that melodious story-teller tone of his.
“I tell you, lads, this one has been the strangest case of a career full of strange cases. And not just strange, but dangerous. Indeed, I consider myself lucky to be here at all to tell the tale. It concerns a diabolical bookseller and his equally diabolical brother, who happened to be a baker by trade—”
Jessop coughed. That was the signal we’d arranged.
I raised a hand.
Carnacki looked startled and slightly annoyed and no wonder because not once in the many times we’d visited his home to listen to his stories had any of us interrupted him at the beginning of his recounting.
“Yes?” he said, frowning at the sight of Arkwright exiting the room through an interior door.
“Before you launch into your story, we wanted to tell you how happy we are that you’re here to tell the tale, too, and on today of all days,” I said.
Taylor got to his feet and held the door open. Jessop got a tiny table and put it before Carnacki. Arkwright returned, carrying a tray with a handsome sweet-smelling cake bedecked with flickering candles.
The colour rose in Carnacki’s cheeks. “Lads,” he said a bit nervously. “How did you know?”
“We have our ways,” I said, grinning, elated that it had been a surprise after all. “Many returns of the day!”
Arkwright sat the tray carefully on the table, and we all began to sing,
“For he’s a jolly good fellow…”
Carnacki’s smile took on the frozen quality of artifice, and when the song ended, he asked with obvious trepidation.
“Lads, where in the deuce did you get the idea for this cake?”
“It was a team effort—and a bit of luck,” I said proudly. “Jessop was browsing an old bookseller’s and came across this dusty old thing called ‘Ghostly Desserts’ and found the perfect recipe, complete with illustration and detailed instructions, then Arkwright found this curious old baker’s shop, and the proprietor swore he could do the whole thing just as it was drawn, even with your favourite defence against ghosts, the electric pentacle, in bright blue almond paste.”
“We put the candles just as they were in the drawing,” added Taylor.
Carnacki swallowed. “But, lads, in this arrangement, well,” a thin sheen of perspiration broke out on his forehead, “the candles, the pentacle, well, it’s all for inviting spirits, ghastly spirits, in, not keeping them out.”
The four of us exchanged nervous glances.
“Sorry about that,” I said sheepishly. “I suppose that’s why you’re the ghost-finder and we’re not. But it’s a delicious cake. We all tried a sample at the baker’s.”
“Go on and blow out the candles,” urged Taylor.
“Great idea,” said Jessop. “Then we’ll cut it.”
“We’ll help you,” added Arkwright.
“Here we go,” I said eagerly, hoping the deliciousness of the cake would make up for our gaffes with the decorating.
“NO!” cried Carnacki.
When the candles blew out, there was a large, ominous crack.
I watched with horror as the cake split in two and a monstrous, glowing hand reached up from its centre.
It grabbed Carnacki by the neck.
A voice, low and gravely, said,
“Out you go!”
And then, though I doubted the truth of my own eyes, the hand seemed to draw Carnacki bodily into the cake.
At that moment, the four of us woke from our stupor. Each reached for Carnacki, his legs and shoes.
And the thing, whatever it was, pulled us, too, into the cake.