Illustration for "What a Life is Worth" Copyright (c) 2019 by Jihane Mossalim. Used under license.

What a Life is Worth

Story by Stephen Patrick

Illustration by Jihane Mossalim


            You know what a life is worth?  $67.17.  I could round it down, but I wanted you to see the clear picture like I did.  $67.17, that’s it.  At least it’s what James Murray’s life was worth.  That’s how much it cost me to take it. You’ll probably read the more mundane details of my life in a biography someday, so I’ll spare you my shoe sizes and favorite television shows. I’m sure my Uncle Karl, the one with the comb-over and halitosis, will take care of any chronicles that are necessary.  Instead, I should explain why I’m standing over a dead man in a gas station parking lot surrounded by a dozen police officers yelling at me to get on the ground.

            I was an accountant by trade, and ill-inclined to fudge the numbers. An even fifty dollars (two twenties and two fives) bought me a mottled gray Saturday Night Special at the corner of 5th and Welshire.  It might have been stolen, I don’t know, but the man in the dirty sweatshirt pushing a shopping cart was eager for my business.  I didn’t really care, because it was a sellers’ market and the price was right.  It also kept me from leaving a paper trail.

I asked for bullets and he pulled a box of bullets from a tan shoebox.  50 rounds seemed like overkill, but he only sold by the box and was not the sort of guy who made change.  I took six and left the rest along with the five-dollar bill he wanted.  That gave me enough bullets for all six of the steel chambers. I wasn’t like I would need the extra bullets. 

            I know, I know, what about the remaining $12.17?   

I had arranged to meet James Murray at the convenience store down the street.  We were set to meet at 9pm, but he had texted me that he was running late. I grabbed a soda from a cooler near the door and two candy bars from a tray beside the cash register.   I plucked a true crime magazine from the rack to help bide my time and completed my purchases with a Pina colada air freshener shaped like a Dallas Cowboys helmet filled out the receipt in my pocket.  I know it was indulgent, they always get me with those damn impulse buys.  My son Matt always loved the Cowboys and the pina colada scent reminded me of his cocoa butter accident on Padre Island. Either way, I think I got my money’s worth.

            I took a spot beside the dumpster behind the store and scrawled out my purchases on a piece of ledger paper I had torn from a book at home.  After I totaled the values, I skimmed the magazine. I did my best to read, but I was ready to get down to business.  Time was money, after all.

I never meant to be a murderer. I doubt anyone ever does.  I really thought of myself as a vigilante, a protector.  When Matt was …taken, I expected to go through all the emotions you read about in cheap psychology magazines.  I don’t know all the details on what James Murray did to my son, and no matter what Detective Princett says, the boy who came home was not Matt. When Matt took his own life, I buried a body that no longer belonged to my son.  I’m sure a lot of fathers have found their way through, but I never got past rage.  It just clicked and made sense.  Rage was what I was; it was what I had become.  When my boy wiped his tears on my shirt sleeve, my mission in life clear.

            Thirty years ago, I wanted to be a Green Beret, charging hills like John Wayne and Rambo, with fire in my eyes and heroism in my heart.  Now, my CPA firm was cutting salary, namely mine, and I was free to embrace the simplicity of my youth.  Rage was easy. It was simple.  It was me.

            I bet most of you would have done it in secret, sneaking around while thinking of what you had to lose.  Not me.  I wanted James Murray to see it coming. That’s why I arranged to buy a Nikon D850 DSLR camera body from him.  He was asking $3000 for it, a ridiculous price for a Craigslist sale, but I was only investing $67.17 in our transaction.

            Matt would forgive me. I’m sure he would.  They’re big on forgiveness in heaven.  Only a cruel and vicious god would refuse to excuse that one sin and ease my son’s pain.  I wasn’t looking for any salvation myself.  Either way, it didn’t work out the way I expected.  

            When James Murray texted me that he had arrived, it was time for me to balance my books.  He stepped out of his car and leaned on the hood staring at his phone.  I called out his name and then tossed my hand-written ledger sheet at him.

            “67.12.  That’s what your entire life was worth.”

            I did not feel the five shots ring out in my hand, but James Murray fell to my feet, staring up at me with cold eyes.  I stood there watching the blood and life drain from his body and time stood still.

The phone in my pocket buzzed and I heard a special ringtone that I had assigned to Det. Princett.  He seemed like a cop’s cop, so I wanted to hear the Hill Street Blues theme every time he called. 

When it stopped buzzing, I heard the familiar chirp of a voicemail.  I plucked my phone from my pocket and pressed play.  I had to cup my hand over the phone to drown out the police sirens that were now blaring around me. 

“Mr. Andrews.  This is Detective Princett. Your tip about James Murray didn’t pan out.  He was in Las Vegas when Matt was kidnapped.  The DNA clears him, too. I’ll follow-up with more details in the morning.”

I clicked repeat on the message, but the voice was drowned out by police officers screaming for me to “drop the gun”; to “get on the ground”. 

            Detective Princett.  He seemed like a nice guy, like one of the good cops from the TV shows. Maybe he would come explain all of this to the cops standing around me?

I scanned their faces, but none of them had the calm, reassuring face I had seen with Detective Princett.  Then again, they were just responding to the call of a shooting at the convenience store.  I looked down at the body of James Murray and then at the gun in my hand.

How had he turned from suspect to victim?  I had tracked James Murray down online, studied his proclivities with children in online chats and learned of his fantasies of being with children like Matt. He was the monster; he was the suspect.  How had we changed places?  Det. Princett could explain all of this.  It was a misunderstanding.  They had to see it. 

I kept the gun pointed at the ground and called out to the closest officer. “Ask for Detective Linean Princett. He’s working my son’s case.”

The sirens were still too loud, and he clearly did not hear me.  He kept yelling for me to drop the gun and get on the ground. Then I saw it.  The paper at my feet, it had the ledger, the numbers. That would explain everything.  I knelt, grabbed the paper and unfolded it.  As I held out the ledger in front of me, I realized the cost.

            The officer closest to me seemed like a nice guy. A quick flick of my wrist would draw his fire, but he did not need to do my dirty work.  Instead, I spun the gun upward and pulled the trigger, firing the final bullet I had bought at Fifth and Welshire.   

               $65.17.  For a gun, six bullets, a soda, two candy bars, and an air freshener.  As my blood mingled on the ground beside James Murray, both of our lives could be measured on the ledger in my hand. 

            $65.17.  In the end, I’m not quite sure it was worth it. Once the cops are done with the gun, maybe Uncle Karl can resell it. 

             Isn’t that a shame? I mean, I did all that work, all that planning.  I even flirted with that fat lady in line at the store, just so she’d hurry up and buy a lottery ticket. I put the pistol up to my mouth and pulled the trigger.

            I should have kept those other bullets.

 — ♦♦♦ —


Next Week: 

Thumbnail illustration for "DirtySecrets" Copyright (c) 2019 by Tim Soekkha.  Used under license.Dirty Secrets By BethAnn Baird , Art by Tim Soekkha

Drake Pieroy, son of Marty Pieroy had a task to complete. Unfortunately, he gets stuck in an elevator filled with people intent on airing dirty secrets. For Christ’s sake!  Can’t a guy just kill a man and be done with it?  

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