Ross Murdock sat in his cell, which for him had become pretty much the norm. There was only one bed, a toilet, a sink, a locked door, and no windows. A single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling out of his reach was the only illumination.
Was it only two days ago when he was scheduled to come before Judge Hawke in Los Angeles County Superior Court, about to be sentenced as an habitual criminal? Murdock was a professional thief for hire. He was good at it and it paid well, which is why he shunned more traditional careers. The consequence was that he faced twenty-five years in prison, and not all of his wealth, hidden in offshore accounts, was going to save him from it. Certainly his high priced attorney hadn’t.
When Murdock was led to the courtroom for his sentencing hearing by a Sheriff’s Deputy, the courtroom was empty. “In back, Murdock.” If Murdock hadn’t been cuffed and the courthouse hadn’t been filled with dozens of cops, he’d have slugged the fat bastard in the face and made a run for it.
Instead, he let himself be half-guided, half-pushed behind the judge’s bench and through the door into Hawke’s chambers.
“You may go now, Deputy.” Hawke sat behind his desk. The sexagenarian was, as always, impeccably dressed in a grey suit, but his black robes were not in sight. Who was in sight, standing beside and just a bit behind the judge, was a military officer, probably in his mid-fifties, and far more physically fit than the now departing donut gobbler. Even if he wasn’t cuffed, Murdock figured the officer knew how to handle himself well enough to put the younger man down for the count.
“Have a seat, Murdock.” Judge Gideon Hawke. If the 21st century had what used to be called “a hanging judge,” Hawke was that man. Murdock had come before Hawke more than any other judge. He stood before Hawke for the first time when he was 15 and Hawke was presiding in Juvenile Court. For over ten years, Hawke’s been waiting to put him away and now…now what?
“I’ll stand, Judge.”
“As you wish, Murdock.” The Judge absent-mindedly shuffled some papers on the desk in front of him, uncharacteristically showing anxiety or indecision. Who the hell was that man behind him?
“Murdock, as you know, you’ve been convicted as an habitual criminal. The maximum sentence for being a non-violent habitual is twenty-five years. Rather harsh for a man your age, not being even thirty and all.”
Hawke paused, not for effect, but because what he had to say was so distasteful.
“I’ve been put in a position where I must give you a choice between that sentence and volunteering for a military project. The gentleman at my left is United States Army Major John Kelgarries. If you accept his offer, you’ll be working for him.”
“What’s this all about, Major?” Murdock knew Hawke, and while the Judge would prefer to see him behind bars for two-and-a-half decades, if he was giving him an option, the alternative might not be any better than prison, or maybe a lot worse.
The Major seemed to have been standing at attention since Murdock entered the room. “I can’t tell you much, Murdock. Just that our project needs an undercover man with your skill set. You’re young, athletic, highly intelligent and well-educated, uh…well-read that is, and you’re an excellent thief.”
“And the Army needs an undercover thief.”
“In a manner of speaking, Murdock. The mission, after you’ve been trained of course, could go anywhere from one to six months. After that, you’d be free to go with the understanding that you can never tell anyone what you learned as part of the operation. You would also be well compensated and your criminal record expunged.”
Murdock could see Hawke bristling at that last sentence.
“A fresh start. Sounds appealing.”
“You’re a creature of habit, Murdock. Once back out on the streets, a clean record won’t keep you from crime again.”
“So how dangerous is this mission, Major? Am I risking life and limb?” Murdock was speaking half tongue-in-cheek, but if Major Kelgarries had a sense of humor, it was conspicuously absent at the moment.
“It’s dangerous and yes, you could be killed. Other than that, I can’t give you any more details. It’s this or twenty-five years behind bars.”
“There’s always parole, Major.”
“Not a chance in your case, Murdock. You’re an incorrigible.”
Judge Hawke was rapidly making Murdock’s mind up for him.
“Okay, Major. You have yourself a man. How about you get these cuffs off me.”
Hawke sighed and then picked up his phone. He dialed an internal number. “Have the Deputy come back to my chambers, May.”
Kelgarries and Murdock couldn’t hear what the voice on the other end said, but moments after Hawke hung up the phone, the Deputy had returned.
“Deputy, have Mr. Murdock processed for release to Major Kelgarries at once.”
“Your Honor?” Obviously, the Deputy had no idea what alternate arrangements had been made for the prisoner.
“Just do it, Deputy.”
The Deputy took Murdock by the arm and started leading him out of the Judge’s chambers. The thief turned and smiled at the Judge. “See you around, Hawke.”
The Deputy closed the door leaving Hawke and Kelgarries alone.
“I hope you know what you’re doing, Major. There isn’t a chance in hell of that boy rehabilitating.”
“Your Honor, I’m not a social worker, I’m a soldier. I don’t want to rehabilitate Murdock, I want him to do a job. If he survives it, he’ll have earned his freedom a dozen times over.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“Then Heaven help us all, Judge Hawke. We’ve got so little time left.”
As Murdock was being processed, he had no idea of the private conversation between Judge Hawke and Major Kelgarries or how drastically it would change his life.
Now in his cell somewhere above the Arctic Circle, Murdock was pondering the price of his freedom. He was still a prisoner until Kelgarries or someone let him out and told him what was going on.
The Arctic Circle. Kelgarries nailed it when he said Murdock was well-read but not well-educated, at least in the sense of going to school. He was a high school dropout, but not because he was unintelligent or disliked study. It had just been more profitable to steal than to sit in a classroom all day.
As a youth, he consumed the contents of his public library, nearly every book, physical and digital, DVD, and podcast. Among what he had learned over the past decade-and-a-half was that the Arctic ice pack was drastically shrinking. Murdock wasn’t political and he had no particular social agenda, but he believed in facts, cold, hard facts that were rapidly becoming warmer and more fragile. What good was amassing a fortune as a professional thief or the freedom he expected to earn in return for participation in this military endeavor if the world didn’t survive long enough for him to spend it?
There was a metallic sound coming from the door. It opened. Major Kelgarries walked in flanked by two tough looking M.P.s
“Ready for your first day back at school, Murdock?”
The thief stood. “I hope it’s more interesting than the last time I was in a classroom.”
“It will be, Murdock. What you learn in the weeks ahead might save your life…and help you save everyone else’s.”
A little earlier today, I wrote a flash fiction piece called The Artifact. It was a wee scifi spy thriller set in the present or near future that suggested the character Ross Murdock was about to embark on a mission to travel backward in time 4,000 years in search of alien technology.
I pulled out the inspiration for this piece, Andre Norton’s (Alice Mary Norton) 1958 novel The Time Traders and I read the first nineteen pages.
As I mentioned previously, I’m really a sucker for this series and for time travel stories in general, so after crafting my bit of flash fiction, I wanted to continue. I guess I’ll keep writing until I’ve either re-written the whole novel or I get bored.
Today, I decided to re-write the beginning of Ross Murdock’s story just for fun. Let me know how I did.