An Underworld Tales Horror Story
by Bobette Bryan
Copyright © 2004. All Rights Reserved!
Second edition: © 2014
“Janil, where are you? I’ve been worried sick.”
Janil brushed an errant strand of mahogany hair from her face with a manicured hand and sighed. “I’m fine, Mother! Like I told you in my letter, I’m in Chicago!” She sat on the bed, legs dangling over the side and patted down the ruffled black Liz Claiborne skirt that she’d purchased especially for tonight.
“Chicago! I don’t understand why you–”
“We wanted to be together. You know that”
There was silence on the other end of the line and Janil, playing with the button on her lace shirt cuff, hesitated. “I’m sure that you understand young love, Mother. You and Dad were about the same age as me and Will when you two ran off and got married. We’ve been apart for so long and–”
“Janil, you know what the Army said.”
More silence. “The serviceman who came to the door last week to give you the news…”
“I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I was home when he visited. I heard what he said about Will. I held you when you cried–”
“Mother, I’m in a hurry. Can we talk about this later? Will just stepped out of the bathroom. We have dinner reservations at the Navy Pier in about an hour and–”
“It’s not possible!”
“It’s hard to get a reservation on such short notice, but we managed it, because another couple cancelled at the last moment.”
“Janil, Will is not with you. The Army said he was killed in action. Remember? He was killed in Iraq. Shot by a sniper.”
Janil laughed almost hysterically, and then turned to say: “Will, the Army still says you’re dead.”
“Janil!” came her mother’s desperate voice.
“Mother, I assure you it’s merely a clerical mistake. I explained that in my letter.”
“Like I said, he’s here with me. He’s sitting on the chair across from the bed right now, polishing his dress shoes, shaking his handsome head and smiling. And–”
“I want to come to Chicago–see Will for myself. Make sure you’re okay. Your father and I are going to fly up there–”
“Don’t, Mother. I’m fine. Never better. I’m happy. In love. You’re going to have to take my word for it. It has been more than six months since Will and I were together. Please understand that we need to be alone now.” She shifted, bringing her long legs onto the bed, careful not to snag her hose with the heels of her shiny black pumps.
“Janil, you’re confused right now. That’s understandable. You’re grieving. I love you and I want to help you. I need to talk to you–face to face.”
“When I get home on Friday, we’ll have plenty of time to talk.”
A long moment of silence ensued. “Oh, Janil…”
“I want you to just sit down and think about what has happened these past few days. I want you to promise me that you’ll do that.”
“I can’t promise you that, because there’s nothing to think about. And I want you to stop this. You’re beginning to scare me. You sound as if I’ve gone mad. There’s no reason for this. You just don’t understand. I’m with Will, and he’s fine and so am I.”
“Explain it to me then.”
“Didn’t you read my letter? I received a call from Will yesterday afternoon, you see. He wanted me to meet him here and so I have.
“Then how can you explain that Mrs. Henderson called last night–said Will’s body was to arrive at the airport today?”
“I already told you–it’s a mistake! Call Will’s mother again. I’m sure she knows the truth by now. I’m sure Will let her know that he’s alive and well.”
“Your father went over to Mrs. Henderson’s house about an hour ago.”
“I don’t know. He hasn’t returned yet.”
“Oh, mother. You worry yourself so much about trivial things. It’s such a beautiful day and Will and I are so happy, and here you are putting a damper on things when you should be happy for us. The last time we were here, it was so cold–frigid air–thick ice on the water. No boats on Lake Michigan. We couldn’t enjoy our vacation. And we’re so glad that tonight we can finally have that dinner cruise we always—”
“Just promise me that you’ll visit a close friend before you go to dinner.”
“Harry James. You remember him. Don’t you? He came to dinner several times when we lived in–”
“I don’t need a psychiatrist, Mother. I told you, I’m fine.”
“He needs to see you. He’s not well. Just lost a son a few months ago. I’ve tried to contact him, I haven’t been able to. It won’t interfere with your plans. It wouldn’t take you long to drop by his place to make sure he’s alright. It’s right on your way to the Pier. He’s just downtown and–”
“No. I’m sorry. I can’t do it. It’ not fair of you to ask me to do this. I told you how important the evening is to me and Will.”
“I wouldn’t ask you unless I thought it was urgent.”
Janil laughed, almost hysterically. “I’m on to you, Mother. I know your little games so well. I’ll stop in and see Harry if you insist. But not tonight. Tomorrow. Maybe.”
“Why can’t you accept the truth about what happened?”
“Why can’t you believe that Will is alive and well? By God, you make him sound dangerous. I’m not afraid of him. I love him very much, and I want to be with him more than anything. Nothing will stop us from being together tonight. Nothing.”
“Prove to me that Will is there. Let me speak to him.”
“He went out a couple of minutes ago, said he’d wait for me in the lobby. I have to go. I won’t let him wait a moment longer. We’ve waited long enough to be together. Goodbye, Mother. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
The line went dead.
Margaret tightened her grip on the phone, took a deep breath, then hung up. But as quickly as she’d lowered the phone into the cradle, she snatched it up again and redialed the long distance number. As she nervously paced the room, the phone rang and rang. No answer. She reluctantly hung up. What was going on? Had Janil had a complete breakdown or was there really a man with her? If so, who was he?
Hearing the front door open, she turned to find John entering the foyer. He dripped with rain. She hadn’t even noticed that it was raining. He stood in the doorway and shook off his umbrella outside, then he removed his raincoat and did the same with it. She watched as he hung both on the brass coat rack beside the door.
His expression was solemn as he brushed some beads of rain from his balding head. His gaze met Margaret’s briefly, but he said nothing as he claimed his leather chair before the fire.
She stood beside him, laying her warm hand over his cold one. “Did you see Mrs. Henderson?”
He nodded. “It was no mistake. Will is dead. His body arrived today. The viewing is tomorrow, and the funeral is set for Thursday at 1 PM at the Jones Carter Chapel.”
“I talked to her on the phone.”
“What? To Janil? When?”
“Just before you came in.”
His whole being snapped to alert. He sat up in the chair as if lifted by a puppet’s strings.
“She’s in Chicago like she said in her letter–at the Butler Hotel, down by the Lake where she and Will stayed before. She claims she’s with him.”
John’s forehead wrinkled into a frown. “Then how does she explain the Army’s notification or the fact that the body was shipped back?”
“Clerical error. Oh, do you think it’s possible. Maybe the body in the coffin is someone else, and–”
Margaret’s words died on her tongue for John was firmly shaking his head. “I saw the body.”
They both remained silent for a moment, and then John took a deep breath before he continued. “I wanted to make sure, but I couldn’t bring myself to broach the subject with Mrs. Henderson. The woman is obviously having a difficult time coping with the loss of her son. The last thing I wanted to do was to throw this lunacy at her. Instead, I expressed my condolences, and she told me about the funeral plans, and I went to the funeral home to see for myself. I explained the situation to the funeral director, Hank Richardson. We met him at Todd Anderson’s parties a few times. Do you remember him?”
She nodded, holding back the tears, and John continued. “He was thoughtful, understanding. He took me to a table in the back where they were about to prepare the body for viewing, showed me the corpse. It was perfectly preserved. His injury was lower–in the gut, Richardson said. The head and torso were intact. I saw the purple butterfly shaped birthmark on his lower arm, saw the tiny rose tattoo with ‘Janil’ on his other, and the little scar above his lip from his bicycle accident. There was no mistaking the corpse’s identity. It was Will.”
Margaret nervously paced for a moment, then sat across from him in a wing chair. She lit a menthol cigarette with trembling hands as she spoke. “For a moment, she’d almost convinced me that he was alive. What in heaven’s name are we to do?”
“Go to Chicago. I’ve already checked the flights. If we head for MCI right now, we will get to Chicago in a little over two hours.”
“That may not be soon enough. I have a bad feeling about that dinner cruise. I’m afraid she’s going to do something to herself.”
“I did. He said he’d see her, but she refused to see him.”
“Call him back. See if he’ll go to her. Tell him its an emergency.” He got to his feet. “I’ll get our bags ready.”
The next time they saw their daughter, she sat on a bench at the pier, her quaking body wrapped in a wool blanket, her sopping hair matted and clinging to her face and neck, a deluge of tears streaming her pale cheeks. Their old friend, Harry, sat beside her, a protective arm around her shoulders. They had to fight a group of onlookers, police, and medics to reach her.
When Harry saw them, he stood to greet them. He and John strode a few feet away to talk while Margaret rushed to Janil. As she held Janil tightly, the girl’s sobbing intensified.
“Oh God, Janil. I’m so glad you’re all right.”
“I’m fine. I’m glad you’re here.” And then she looked into Margaret’s hazel eyes and added, “I just got him back, and now I’ve lost him again.”
“I know, but it will be alright,” Margaret said, wiping the hair out of Janil’s face and kissing her forehead as if her daughter was 8-years-old again.
A cop approached John. “I need to talk to you, sir.”
John followed the officer a few feet away where they could talk out of Janil’s earshot. Harry, expression grim, beckoned to Margaret.
Promising to be right back, she gave Janil another hug, then joined him.
“I think she’ll be okay, Margaret, but she’s in urgent need of professional help.”
“From what I gathered, her boyfriend and her–”
“She was with a man. Witnesses on the schooner saw him. They said that the two appeared to be having a wonderful evening. They kept to themselves through the cruise, holding hands and talking over dinner. Afterward, they danced. As the ship was returning to port, Janil and the man were by the rail, watching the ships in the distance, when apparently, he somehow fell overboard. She either jumped in after him or fell in. A crew member saved her life. They searched, are still searching, but the man’s body hasn’t been found. He probably drowned.”
“Good God! What a shock and after–”
He nodded, grasping her hand and holding it tight.
“But who was he?” Margaret asked.
“She claims he was Will Henderson.”
“I know, but it’s impossible!”
“I’ve only been able to talk to her briefly, but from what I’ve seen, I think she’s having a nervous breakdown, can’t accept Will’s death. I believe she met someone else, and, in her bereaved mind, he became Will. ”
“But who? She never mentioned another man.”
“I don’t know. I never met the man. By the time I’d arrived, the ship had already set out. ”
“Have the police questioned you?”
“Yes. But I told them very little about the crisis Janil is going through, because I didn’t want to implicate her in anything that could result in her being detained here.”
“Implicate her–about what? Why would they detain her?”
“I don’t know–a possible suicide pact. If a body turns up, they’ll likely want to question her further.”
Margaret closed her eyes for a moment, slowly shaking her head. Then she massaged her temples with stiff fingers. It was no wonder that her head pounded.
“So far no one has any idea who the man was. Several other passengers said they’d heard her call him ‘Will.'”
“I’m so confused.” She studied Janil as she spoke. “I feel so helpless. I don’t know what to do for her.”
Harry put a hand on her shoulder. “Of course. It’s only natural that you’d feel that way, but just being here and giving her your support is the best thing you can do for her right now. And as bad as things seem, I assure you that she’ll recover from this. It will take time, but she will. You need to get her some help as soon as you return to Kansas City. I’ll give you the number of a wonderful doctor there.”
“I’ll call him first thing tomorrow. Thanks so much for all of your help, Harry. I don’t know what we would have done without you. I can’t express how grateful–”
“It’s okay. You don’t have to thank me. That’s what friends are for.” He put an arm around her for a fierce hug.
A moment later, she joined John who’d been talking to the officer and Arnold Peterson, the ship’s Captain. “Harry said she was with–”
“I know,” John said. “The Captain told me the same thing. She was with a man named Will–or at least she called him that.”
“How could it be? Where could she have met him? On the phone earlier, she told me that Will had called her yesterday and asked her to meet him here.”
“I’m guessing that he was a close war buddy of Will’s. Maybe he came to offer his personal condolences.”
“Maybe. I don’t know. None of it makes sense…”
“It will later. The important thing is that Janil’s safe. Come on. Let’s get her out of here. The police have our names and phone number. They’ll contact us if they need to.”
Janil, still shivering, sat in the back seat of the rented Lexus. Margaret sat beside her, holding her hand and reassuring her. John and Harry said very little on the short drive to the Butler Hotel.
Harry thought it would be best if Janil attended Will’s funeral. It would help her accept his death, give her some much-needed closure. They’d get her things from the hotel and take the next flight out if one was available. They’d go to Harry’s townhouse and make the flight plans. If they couldn’t get an evening flight, they’d leave on the first available morning flight.
As the car slowed before the hotel lobby, Margaret clutched Janil’s hand tighter. “I’ll go in and get your things and check you out.”
Janil rifled through her Coach purse for a minute and then handed Margaret the room key. Then she laid her head back and stared at Lake Michigan as if in a daze.
Margaret entered the lobby. The shock of the tasteless 1970’s styling instantly assailed her senses. The hotel was in a state of glaring decay with it’s cracked tile, orange, sculpted carpet, and peeling walls. The whole place smelled slightly of mold. Despite its flaws, the hotel attracted guests, because of its lakeside view.
The clerk at the desk was so enthralled with painting her nails red and talking on the phone to an apparent love interest that she never noticed Margaret enter. That was fine with Margaret. She didn’t want to explain why she was here.
It took her no time to find the second floor room, and she quickly unlocked the door and went inside. A chill suffused her, a draft perhaps. Though uneasy, she worked quickly, anxious to gather Janil’s things and put the day’s events behind her. She found Janil’s empty blue suitcase on the bed. She shoved Janil’s clothes, makeup, toiletries, jewelry, and a pair of tennis shoes inside, then closed the lid.
Suitcase in hand, she was about to exit when she glimpsed another suitcase jutting out from beneath the bed.
She collected it. It was small and olive green. She laid it on the bed and opened it with a gasp, for it was full of men’s things–socks, underwear, a shaving kit, toothpaste and brush, shoe polish, and a hard, black comb. There were also military uniforms, desert style fatigues, neatly folded. She searched the pocket for a name, but the fatigues were new and the name hadn’t been stitched on them yet.
Hoping to find a clue to the mysterious man’s identity, she searched the elasticized compartment in the lid and withdrew a stack of letters bound by a pink ribbon. She untied it and quickly scanned the contents of one of the yellow papers. Her eyes widened. Love letters.
Each letter was addressed to Will from Janil.
She returned them to the suitcase and extracted a small, black velvet box. She pried it open to find a gold engagement ring with a gleaming diamond. Tears in her eyes, she returned it to its rightful place and continued to search, finding various military pins and, finally, a name tag.
The tag sat upside down in her hand, and she trembled as she slowly turned it over and took in the elusive name.
She lowered her head on a sigh, closed her eyes for a moment. Confusion filled her weary mind. It took a while for her to collect herself. But then she remembered John’s theory about a close friend of Will’s.
It made sense. Will would have doubtlessly entrusted his treasured belongings, the love letters and engagement ring, only to a close and trusted friend. Servicemen form strong bonds, especially in times of war. Perhaps the man had come to deliver these precious items to Janil personally. Maybe he’d even known that Janil was delusional and had mistaken his identity but had played along with it, not knowing what else to do.
Or maybe he hadn’t been such a gentleman and had used the situation to his advantage. Her eyes scanned the rumpled bed.
She thought of another possibility as well…perhaps the man who’d fallen in Lake Michigan was the same serviceman who’d come to their home last week to announce Will’s death. Perhaps he’d come into possession of Will’s things. If so, it shouldn’t be too difficult to trace his identity.
Ah, but she was torturing herself with such thoughts. Like John had said, the truth would come out later. The investigators would get to the bottom of it all and learn the identity of the poor soul who’d drowned. Now, she needed to focus on Janil who was obviously in the midst of a complete nervous breakdown and was, possibly, suicidal.
She returned everything to the suitcase and snapped the lid shut. She decided to take it with her. Without a backward glance, she exited the room and locked the door. She made her way down the long hall toward the elevator. A door opened behind her, startling her. She spun to see a man in military fatigue pants and a t-shirt, leaning out the doorway of the room she’d just exited.
She recognized his face, his eyes, the scar above his lip. From where she stood, she could even see the little rose tattoo on his arm, the word “Janil” above the scarlet blossom.
As the word “Will” slowly left her lips, he smiled, then vanished before her.