(This story first appeared in the Spring 1981 issue of SKULLDUGGERY, a small press mystery magazine edited by Will Murray. I've resisted the urge to do any rewriting, other than correcting some typos and fixing one geographical mistake I made back then.)
Play by the Rules -- by James Reasoner
Jan wasn’t waiting for me on the dock when I brought the Santana into the boat basin, and I suppose that’s when I began to worry. I got the boat tied down and went at a fast walk toward the motel, two blocks away from the beach.
Nothing looked out of order as I approached. Business was good and all of the little pink cabins were occupied. A few of the parking spaces were empty at the moment, since some of the guests were out sightseeing or shopping. I couldn’t shake the feeling of apprehension that had hit me, though. Jan had been there to greet me every time I’d brought in the shrimp boat during the two years we had lived in Fulton Beach.
When I went between the two big palm trees that flanked the entrance to the motel courtyard, I could see a strange car, a little red Datsun, parked next to the two-story cabin that served as the motel office and our living quarters. The way the Datsun was parked blocked off our station wagon.
I opened the screen door and went into the office, called, “Jan!”
Her voice came from the living room upstairs. “Up here, Josh.” She didn’t sound like anything was wrong. I slowed down and went up the stairs at a normal pace.
“Hi, Josh. Look who’s here,” she said when I came into the room.
The man sitting on the sofa with her was somebody I had seen before, but I couldn’t recall where. He was just on the far side of thirty, like myself, with long dark hair and a quick grin. His clothes were expensive without being flashy. He stood up and stuck out a hand.
“Josh! Long time no see, old buddy. Hope you don’t mind my barging in and introducing myself to your lovely wife here.”
I hesitated, then shook with him. “Hello. It, uh, has been a long time.”
“Saigon in ’69, right? You were playing Buz Sawyer while the rest of us had to be content with being plain grunts.”
That’s all it took. As soon as he said Buz Sawyer, I knew who he was. His name was Howard Cole, I had known him slightly in Vietnam, and I had never been able to stand him.
I used to run into him every so often in Saigon. He worked in the supply depot, and if I remembered right, there had been some rumors about black marketeering that involved him. He always called me Buz Sawyer because I worked in Intelligence. We had never been friends, let alone “old buddies”.
Still, there was no point in being rude to him now. I said, “Sit down, Howard. How’ve you been?”
He smiled, showing me all his teeth, and the phoniness of it put me even more on edge. “Never better,” he said. “I happened to be in the area on business, and I thought I’d drop in and see my pal Josh Denton. Boy, we’ve both come a long way since ’Nam, haven’t we?”
He looked around, letting his eyes linger a little longer than I liked on Jan. I didn’t say anything, and he went on, “Yeah, you’ve got it made, Josh. Nice little business, a boat, sand and sea, and a pretty wife. You’re a lucky guy, you know that?”
I was feeling more uneasy now. Howard Cole always had an angle, and I could sense some unknown currents moving around under the surface.
Jan was blushing a little from his flattery. “You will stay for supper with us, won’t you, Mr. Cole?”
“Hey, call me Howard. Sure, I’ll stay if it won’t be any bother. What I’m really interested in is a couple of rooms for tonight. Some friends of mine should be here a little later and I thought if you had any vacancies . . .”
“Sorry, we’re full up,” I said quickly.
Jan shook her head. “No, we’ve got one cabin empty. The Evanses next door left early, Josh. Could you and your friends manage with one cabin, Howard? It has two double beds.”
“I’m sure we could, Jan. You don’t mind if I call you Jan? Tell you what, I’ll unload my stuff now. Okay, Josh?”
I didn’t know what to say except, “Sure.” I didn’t want Cole in our motel, but I didn’t have any tangible reason to refuse him.
But I didn’t trust him, and I didn’t believe his friendliness for a minute. He had some reason for showing up, and it wasn’t to relive old times.
When Cole had gone downstairs to unload his Datsun, Jan said, “Is something wrong, Josh? You didn’t seem too pleased to see Howard.”
I didn’t see any point in worrying her. “No, I was just . . . surprised. I think I’ll go down and help him, see if he needs anything.”
What I hoped was that he’d spill what was going on.
He was taking a suitcase out of the trunk of his car when I came out the office door. I said, “Let me get that for you,” and reached to take it.
He jerked it away and said, “No! I mean, ah, I’ve got it.” He shot a quick glance at me and I could see fear in his eyes.
I wondered if he could see it in mine.
For a moment, I considered telling him to get out. But what would I tell Jan when she asked me why I had done it?
I said, “You’ll be in this first cabin here, right next to the office. When do you think your friends will be here?”
He looked at his watch, a big sparkling gold thing. “They should be here by eight-thirty or nine. Could you come in for a minute, Josh? There’s something I’d like to talk over with you in private.”
“All right,” I said. “The door should be unlocked.”
It was. He went in first, carrying the suitcase. I followed him in. He put the suitcase on one of the beds while I went over and punched the air conditioner on.
When I turned around, he had a gun in his hand and it was pointing right at me.
“Now don’t get upset, Josh,” he said. “Everything’s going just fine.”
I didn’t know how to react. I had never had a gun pointed at me before, even in Vietnam. I said stupidly, “What’s going on here?”
“You’re going to help save my life,” he said. “You don’t have to know the details, you just have to do what I tell you. That way, you and Jan don’t get hurt.”
The façade of brash charm was gone now. His face was a taut mask with gleaming eyes. I said, “Take it easy, Howard. I’m not going to argue with you. What is it you want?”
“We’re going to go back outside and act like nothing’s happened. The three of us will eat dinner, and then when my friends get here, they’ll keep Jan company while you and I go on a little cruise in your boat. It’s a simple business deal.”
I couldn’t keep the cold anger out of my voice as I said, “Nothing had better happen to Jan.”
“She’ll be all right – if you do what I tell you. If you’re a good enough actor, she doesn’t even have to know anything’s going on.”
I had been watching the pistol in his hand, and it was as steady as could be. Jumping him wouldn’t get me anything but shot. I sighed and said, “Okay, Cole, you’re the boss.”
“This suitcase is all the luggage I’ve got. Is the key to this cabin in your office?”
“All right, I’ll lock the door on our way out. Let’s go.” He slipped the gun somewhere inside his sports coat.
We went back to the office and I gave Cole the key to his cabin. Jan came downstairs while we were there and asked, “All squared away?”
Cole gave her his toothy grin. “Sure is.”
“I hope you like fish, Howard. Even considering the circumstances, we eat a lot of it.”
The next couple of hours were an ordeal as the three of us ate supper and then sat outside on the redwood lawn furniture. I tried to keep up normal conversation so that Jan wouldn’t suspect anything was wrong.
Guests were coming and going all the time, usually pausing to chat. Tourists with fishing gear walked by, heading for the fishing dock. We could see other shrimpers pulling into the basin, and a cool breeze was blowing in from the bay.
It was just like hundreds of other pleasant evenings, except that a man with a gun was sitting with us.
Cole was reclining back in a lounge chair when a big car turned in between the palms and pulled up into the courtyard. As it came to a stop, Cole sat up sharply, the self-assured grin falling off his face.
Three men got out of the car and walked toward us. One of them wore a lightweight business suit and walked in front. The other two hung back and were dressed in slacks and sports shirts. They were followers. The man in front was definitely a leader.
He was tall and big without being fat. Iron-gray hair curled tightly against his head. He came up to us and said, “Hello, Cole. Are these your friends?”
Cole stood up respectfully when the man approached. He answered, “Yes, sir, Mr. Bannon. This is Josh and Jan Denton.”
Bannon turned to us and said, “How do you do?” The corners of his mouth lifted briefly, but you couldn’t call it a smile.
“Hello,” I said. Jan, as usual, was more voluble.
“Hi. Welcome to Bayside Courts. I hope you enjoy your stay.”
“I’m sure we will,” Bannon said. “If you’ll excuse us, my associates and I have some business to talk over with Mr. Cole.”
The four of them went into Cole’s cabin and shut the door. For a moment I considered getting Jan into the station wagon and making a run for it. Then I saw the curtain in Cole’s cabin move, and one of Bannon’s men looked calmly out at us.
Jan said, “You’ve sure been in some kind of mood since you got in. Is something wrong?”
I shook my head. “No, I’ve just got some things on my mind.”
I was thinking about how much this man Bannon reminded me of an Intelligence colonel I had known. I remembered the time we caught a VC saboteur and the colonel interrogated him. The man had planted a bomb in a Saigon school that killed thirty kids when it went off. When all the questioning was over, the colonel calmly put a pistol to the saboteur’s head and pulled the trigger.
I didn’t think Bannon would need even that much of an excuse.
Jan and I sat there for another half-hour, talking about not much of anything, before Cole, Bannon, and the other two came back out. It was full dark by then, and bugs were beginning to congregate around the lights.
All four of them came back across the courtyard to where we were sitting. Cole said, “Say, Josh, I was just thinking that I’d enjoy a little run on your boat, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh, Josh doesn’t like to take the boat out at night,” Jan said. Cole looked hard at me. Bannon had a deceptive look of casual interest on his face.
“I guess I could make an exception for an old friend,” I said.
A smile broke out on Cole’s face. “Great! I’ve never been on a boat, and I just want to ride around a little. I’ll pay you for the gas.”
“Don’t worry about it.” I stood up.
I could tell Jan was surprised by my decision, but she didn’t say anything. Bannon sat down in the chair I had just vacated and said, “I was wondering if you could tell us about this part of the country, Mrs. Denton, while your husband and Mr. Cole are gone. We’re from back east, and this is our first trip to Texas.”
So they were going to be watching Jan while Cole and I were out on the boat. The threat didn’t have to be spoken for me to understand it. I looked at her long brown hair and deep green eyes and knew I was going to behave.
We left Jan extolling the virtues of coastal living to the three men and walked down to the boat basin. As we walked, Cole said, “You’re being very smart about this whole thing, Josh. You keep cooperating and everyone will be happy.”
“I don’t want you happy,” I told him as I stepped onto the Santana. “I just want you away from here.”
“I will be,” he said, voice grim now. “By tomorrow, this’ll all be a memory. Now let’s go.”
I got the engine going and backed the boat out of its slip. Cole stood beside me just inside the open wheelhouse, gripping a railing.
The Santana is just a small shrimper, since fishing is only a sideline with me. The little wheelhouse and the hydraulic lift system are the only projections on the deck. There’s no place to sit except on the deck, which is usually oily and dirty, so Cole stood up while I cruised down the basin. I had filled the tanks on my way in that afternoon.
We rounded the jetty and came out into the waters of Aransas Bay. The wind was getting up, and the ride was rougher than inside the protected basin. I decided it was about time I knew where I was going.
“The other side of St. Joseph Island,” Cole replied to my question. “Out into the Gulf. I’ve got the longitude and latitude. Will that help?”
“It might come in handy.”
I think the sarcasm was lost on him. The rocking boat seemed to make him nervous. He held on tight with both hands, staring out at the dark water.
After we had gone several miles in silence, Cole said, “I guess you’d like to know what this is all about.”
“Not particularly,” I answered, and was surprised to realize that it was the truth. All I wanted was for it to be over.
His unease had peeled away his glibness and left him with a need for honest communication. “I’d like to tell you about it, Josh,” he said, “even if we never were friends like I pretended.”
“All right.” I decided conversation wouldn’t hurt anything.
“It all started with a girl. You remember I was always pretty much of a swinger.”
I didn’t remember. I hadn’t cared that much about him.
“This was different, though. It was more than anything I’d ever felt before. I wanted to marry this girl. I still do, but there’s a problem.”
He paused as if to let me comment, but I didn’t say anything.
He went on after a minute, “You see, she’s Bannon’s daughter. And he doesn’t like me very much. I can’t see myself marrying Elaine over his objections even though I love her, can you?”
I was glad he said it and not me. I was surprised he would be so blunt with himself.
“I’ve got to get his approval, Josh. I decided the best way would be to go into his business.”
“A business you conduct with guns.”
“All right, maybe it offends your morals. I don’t care. If I pass this test tonight, I open the door to plenty of money and a beautiful girl and the easy life. I won’t turn my back on that.”
The dim lights on the panel must have been bright enough that he could see my face and read the disgust on it. “Damn it, Josh,” he exclaimed, “you just don’t understand! It’s all a game, and if you’re going to win, you have to be willing to do anything. Anything! There aren’t any rules.”
“There’s no point in us arguing,” I said softly. “I would like to know how Jan and I got mixed up in this, though.”
“We’ll be picking up a shipment for Bannon. He left it up to me to work out the details. I had made arrangements to use another boat, but that deal fell through at the last minute. I had heard you were down here in this area and had a boat, so I checked around until I found you.”
Bitterness boiled up in me. “So you went out and involved two innocent people with a bunch of killers.”
“Bannon’s just a businessman,” he protested.
“I saw his eyes, Cole. He’s a killer.”
“Look, you’d better just worry about doing what I tell you.” The gun came out of his coat. “I don’t need any goddamn lecture.”
I shut up.
In the back of my mind, a fear was growing. If what I suspected was true, we were going to pick up a shipment of drugs. I didn’t think a man like Bannon would expose part of a smuggling pipeline unless he intended to do something about any possible witnesses.
Cole’s ambition might well have written the death sentence for Jan and me.
I followed Cole’s directions until we were well out in the Gulf and the lights of land were only a distant scattering of fireflies. I slowed the engine and came to a stop at the location he had given me.
Cole looked at the luminous dial of his watch. “We’re a little early,” he said. “It should be soon, though.”
It was five minutes later that I heard the sound of another boat approaching. It came out of the darkness without running lights and slid in beside the Santana. Cole still had the gun in his hand.
“Lupe!” he called. The other vessel was a battered fishing boat and it was silent for long seconds after Cole’s hail.
Then an answering call came back in accented tones. “Sí, Señor Cole. You come from Señor Bannon, no?”
“That’s right. I have something for you.” He stepped out onto the deck, holding the pistol in one hand and a thick envelope in the other.
“And I have something for you.”
With the sound of the wind and the waves in my ears, I almost didn’t hear the shot, but I saw the flash from the shadows of the other boat. Cole grunted and staggered back against me.
Something zipped past my ear and I spun the wheel. Not away from the other boat, but toward it. Cole moaned and slumped to the deck. I ducked to get what cover I could as more bullets thudded into the wheelhouse wall.
The Santana may not be the fastest boat around, but she’s sturdy. The impact knocked me off my feet as the two boats collided with the sound of splintering wood and fiberglass.
Cole cried, “No!” and then I heard a splash. When I turned my head, he was gone. The gun was lying on the deck.
I grabbed it up and emptied it at the fishing boat, not caring if I hit anything. I spun the wheel again and opened the throttle all the way. A little distance appeared between the boats.
Within a few minutes, it was obvious that the other boat wasn’t giving chase. I couldn’t see any activity on board as I pulled away. I didn’t know if any of my shots had connected, but I didn’t care. The Santana was going home.
I felt a pang of guilt about Cole. I knew he had been bleeding, and I had seen fins cutting sleekly through the water. Searching for him would have been futile. Still, I couldn’t help but feel bad about the way things had turned out for him.
Then I got down to some serious trembling as the fear reaction finally hit me.
By the time I piloted the Santana into the boat basin at Fulton Beach, I had decided what I was going to do. There was nothing left but a confrontation with Bannon and the hope that he would believe the truth.
I walked into the motel courtyard on still shaky legs. Most of the cabins were dark, but lights were still on in the office. Before I got there, a form stepped out from the shadow of a palm tree.
“Hello, Mr. Denton.” It was Bannon. “Where’s Cole?”
I took a deep breath. “He’s somewhere in the Gulf. He’s dead.”
I couldn’t see his face, but there was no surprise in Bannon’s voice as he said, “Is that so? I’m glad you’re all right, Mr. Denton.”
I saw it then, understood what had happened. “There wasn’t any shipment at all,” I said. “You set him up. He told me you didn’t like him. Where’s my wife?” There was an edge of hysteria in my voice.
“She’s inside watching television, as far as I know. That’s what she said she was going to do. You can’t prove anything, Mr. Denton. Let me take care of Cole’s bill.”
“He didn’t owe a thing.”
“If that’s the way you want it. You can go inside now if you want to. We’ll be gone shortly. We won’t be staying the night.”
He faded away into the darkness, leaving me there listening to the sound of the waves rolling in and thinking what a poor idiot Cole had been.
Then I went inside.