A hush came over the spectators in the gallery as the jury filed into the courtroom. Most of the spectators were present every day over the past three weeks, all anxiously awaiting the jury's decision. The trial, filled with ups and downs, took just twelve days. For the past two days, the twelve men and women on the jury deliberated the defendants' fate. The victim's families, reporters, and the defense team anxiously waited for the defendant's fate to be known.
Perhaps nobody was more interested in the jury's verdict than Sam Winston. Sam had barely left the courthouse since the beginning of the trial. Sam commandeered a prosecutor's desk during the trial, continuing to work on his caseload. Sam could keep a close watch over the trial proceedings from the courthouse. It was something he couldn't have managed from the police department on the opposite side of town.
Sam practically salivated at the idea of seeing Charlie Cox being drug off to prison. Charlie Cox was Sam's obsession during the past two years of his life. His hatred for the reputed organized crime figure was biblical. But, for once, Sam saw the good guys winning.
Sam slid into the courtroom in time to hear the judge as he ordered everyone to be seated. From the rear of the courtroom, he could see the two defense attorneys, equal parts genius and scoundrel, conferring back and forth. Both of the defense attorneys appeared relaxed. Sam was confused. The two defense attorneys didn't seem to have a care in the world. Sam believed they'd be more concerned if they were expecting a guilty verdict. So, why weren't there?
As the judge looked at the verdict, handing it back to the bailiff to take to the jury foreperson, he asked the jury if that was their verdict. Juror twelve announced that it was their verdict.
"Madam foreperson, you may read the verdict," instructed the judge.
A hush fell over the courtroom as Charlie Cox, his lawyers, and the prosecution stood for the verdict.
"In the case of the people versus Charles Edward Cox, we the people find on count one, murder, not guilty," she announced. "On count two, conspiracy to commit murder, we find the defendant not guilty."
Cox was guilty, guilty as hell, and Sam Winston knew it to be true. Seeing Charlie Cox smiling made his stomach turn and his blood boil. How? How could this be happening?
As the judge bellowed to the gallery to be orderly in his court, the victim's family broke down in tears. Jaque Knoll's father looked like he was going to erupt as the judge ruled that Charlie Cox was free to go. As Cox stood up with his attorneys and two of his private security following him toward the rear of the courtroom, Sam stood near the entrance. He put his hands in his pockets, clutching the fabric, hoping not to lose his cool. When Charlie stopped at the exit, turning to face the cop that nearly brought him down, Sam's anger flared inside him.
"Sorry for your luck, Detective. You can't win them all," Charlie told Sam, a sly grin on his face.
"This is far from over," replied Sam, "Count on it."
Sam had to get out of there before he did something stupid. Sam pushed his way through the crowd and out the side door to the courtroom. He walked down the stairs and to his car, clenching his fists as he passed the reporters rushing to get statements from Charlie and his legal team. Sam could hear his lieutenant's voice echoing in his head. He warned Sam that Charlie Cox was likely to spend no time in prison in their lifetimes. Now, Sam started to believe the wisdom of his lieutenant's experience.
Getting to his Challenger, Sam sped away from the courthouse as if he'd just stolen the police-issued vehicle. Sam drove as far as he could before realizing that he was in the middle of nowhere. He found his way to a gravel-covered parking lot alongside the river. Sam stepped out of the charger, heavy metal music blaring into the air. He was visibly angry, his anger fueling a burning in his stomach. Sam walked to the edge of the water, staring into the distance, his whole body trembling.
"What the hell happened?" he asked himself.
Sams phone rang in his pocket. He fumbled to pull it from his pocket and answer the call. It was the prosecutor's office.
"Winston," he answered, "What the hell happened?"
Sam stood there, nodding his head as he listened to the lead prosecutor's explanation. Even the prosecutors were taking guesses. Nobody knew how they could have voted to acquit.
"Great, and that son of a bitch is going to be free to do it again. Top-notch work counselor. I hope you're proud of yourselves tonight!" Sam exclaimed, throwing his phone into the gravel as hard as possible.
An hour later, Sam parked outside the Blue Bell Tavern. When he walked into the bar, Sam could see his favorite whiskey sitting on the bar, waiting for him to get there. The bar owner was Sams' training officer when he first started. John Bell had been Sams' mentor, his sounding board, and his friend for nearly ten years. He knew Sam well enough that he knew Sam would end up at the bar and probably drink himself numb.
Sam took his usual spot at the end of the bar. There was a glass waiting for him. He nodded at John as he poured his first one guzzling it back in record time. His second drink lasted longer, but not much. Sam sat silently, feeling the angry energy built inside him begin to fade. John was catching up on his drink orders and joined him at the end of the bar by the time Sam poured another drink.
"Well, I expected you'd be here sooner or later," sighed John, pouring a glass for himself. "What went wrong, kid?"
"Who knows?" answered Sam.
Over the past couple of hours, Sam contemplated possibilities and came up with only a few. Sam considered that the jury could have been paid off, or their families threatened. Perhaps they were being blackmailed. It would be difficult to prove.
"The entire system's corrupt, my friend."
"I know, but it's the only one that we've got," answered Sam.
John looked at his friend. He felt for what he was feeling. The years he spent on the force, marked by the long hours that cost him a marriage, being shot twice, fighting with the criminal element, and all of it so that the courts and the attorneys could plea bargain the criminals back onto the streets. John left the force out of frustration and was sick of the toll the job took on him and his friends.
"It never changes, and it never will. Not until the right people decide to do something about the problems," said John.
"Yeah, well maybe that'll happen one day."
The night went on, and Sam finished off the bottle John left sitting on the bar. As he got up to leave, John stopped Sam.
"Are you going to make it home alright?"
"I'll be fine, thanks."
"Listen, kid, what would you be willing to do to fix the system? To make it work?" asked John.
Sam thought about the question as he leaned against the bar. In some ways, the detective had considered what he'd be willing to do and how far he'd be willing to go to see the job done. In Sam's mind, there wasn't a place he could imagine not going to if it meant winning. The people he fought against, were the evilest men he'd encountered in life.
"Anything I could old buddy, anything I could."
Sam walked out of the bar and hailed a cab. He would have one of the patrol units pick him up in the morning. Tomorrow was likely to be a very long day as the department would want answers as to why Charlie Cox is on the streets. They were answers Sam didn't have yet, so he would need to get an early start.
Morning came, and Sam begrudgingly rolled over to beat his alarm into silence. It was just after six, and the sun had barely risen in the east. Sam stumbled through his apartment, desperately in need of a cup of coffee and a handful of aspirin. His head throbbed behind his eyes. Sam now regretted drinking the entire bottle of whiskey, feeling his stomach do flip flops.
Once Sam had a cup of coffee in hand, and had taken something for the pain in his head, he went to his computer. Sam opened his work files, changing the banner across Charlie Cox's face to say open. It wouldn't be today, or tomorrow, Sam told himself. But, he would take Charlie Cox off the streets if it were the last thing he did in this world.
A buzzing sound from his front door pierced his brain.
"Who in the hell would be here this early?" Sam asked himself.
Walking across his apartment, Sam stopped at the table right inside the front door. Retrieving a chromed pistol from the small drawer Sam peaked through the peephole, only slightly relieved to see John Bell standing on the other side. He tucked the gun in his waistband, opening the door with a scowl on his face.
"Good morning sunshine," John laughingly said as he walked into the apartment.
Sam slammed the door. He was not amused. Johns' secular whit aside, Sam saw the bag and two cups. The overly bitter cup of Starbucks was what he needed to wake up. There was enough caffeine in their coffee to make amphetamines a think of the past for the average meth-head. Sam thought it might give him the energy he needed today to deal with his bosses, the squad room, and the family he felt he let down not delivering the guilty verdict.
"If it's a coffee drinking partner you need, I'm good with the visit. If it's anything else, I'll pass," Sam told him as he sat beside John.
John had an ulterior motive for being there. He came to make sure his apprentice was doing alright because he cared. John thought it was time to have an overdue discussion with him. It was one he considered having a couple of years ago, as he retired from the police force. Sam wasn't ready then.
"Did you get any sleep?"
Sam rolled his eyes before answering the question, "Like a baby."
"Sure," said John. "I always slept like a baby too."
"Did you take up psycho-analysis the past few months, or am I missing something? What can I do for you, partner?"
John turned to face his young apprentice. He took a sip from his cup before setting the coffee down. "Did you mean it? Would you really do anything it takes to make things better if you could?"
"What's this about, John? What are you getting at?" asked Sam.
"What I'm about to tell you I'll deny if you ever repeat. Is that understood?" John asked, needing their mutual trust to be reassured.
John's speech started with a reminder about the days surrounding his retirement. There was a case that affected John, tore him apart inside. It stuck with him for six years, a year longer than John had partnered with Sam before Sam went off to make his name within the department. The year before he was partnered with Sam there was finally an arrest.
"So, what happened?" asked Sam.
"The attorneys...that's what happened," John replied. "Isn't that what always happens?"
"What had the guy done?"
"He was an MD, a good one by all accounts. He landed on my radar when a young girl accused him of abusing her. She wasn't the only one to make the accusation. I worked on a total of eight complaints against the doctor. One by one, over the years, they recanted," explained John. "Finally, after five years of failure, the ninth and tenth girls wouldn't budge on their stories. They came to me, telling me about the attorneys that offered them money, lots of money."
"Jesus," said Sam. "But, you finally got him?" Sam wondered.
"I thought so," said John. "Then one of the girls came up missing. We found her floating in the river. She'd been strangled, but not before she was assaulted again."
"Go on," sighed Sam.
"We put the other victim in protective custody and arrested the doctor. Things went to trial, but that's where evil overcame good," said John. "The judge threw out the case. They tore apart the evidence and found a mistake on the search warrant. A goddammed procedural violation was all it took and he was free."
"That's horrible," Sam said, sitting back against his chair. "Why are you bringing this up?"
"After the trial, I was approached by the prosecuting attorney over the case. He asked me if I felt like the system was failing? Like we were losing the war?" John explained. "When I said yes, he asked me what I'd do if I could fix the system, make it work against the accused."
"So, you're here to remind me that I'm not the only one that ever felt like this," Sam sighed.
John stood up, pulling a folded-up piece of newspaper from his wallet. He told Sam that it was something he'd carried with him for years. He held it out to Sam, a somber, soulful look on his face. "Remember, I'm trusting you as a friend."
Sam nodded, taking the slip of paper from his friend's hand, and nervously opened it. As he looked at the news clipping, Sam felt his heart begin to beat faster. The pieces of the puzzle floated around in front of him, slowly forming the complete picture of what it was John was sharing with him. As he wrapped his head around what he was learning, realizing that his mentor wasn't who he thought he was, Sam was stunned.
"Accused Doctor Found Murdered At Old Quarry," Sam read aloud.
Sam looked at John, who was now pouring himself a glass of scotch. The two men's eyes met and John shrugged his shoulders, unsure what to say to the police detective.
"Jesus," sighed Sam. "So...you...killed him?"
"Yeah," answered John. "I put two in his head, and we buried him out at the Quarry. The gun was taken and melted down. No evidence whatsoever to be found that would tie me or anyone else to the crime. The doc's credit cards were used about four days later in southern Mexico."
"John, why are you telling me this?"
"Because...my friend, there is a small group of people that were and are still fighting the problems caused by a flawed system. And, I want you to think about becoming a member of that group."
Sam sat there, in shock. John had trained him to believe in the meaning behind the badge. He had already murdered the doctor by the time Sam joined the police force. Did he believe in anything he taught Sam? How could he have been a cop for all those years, after committing a vigilante murder? Why wasn't he putting cuffs on his old training officer?
There were so many questions rushing through his mind that Sam was speechless. Why would John think that Sam could ever join such a group?
"You know as well as I do that I should arrest you right now," Sam told him. "I should put cuffs on you and call a transport, book you on murder charges."
"Do it, if it'll make you feel good. There's nobody here but the two of us, and as I said, I'll deny ever having this conversation. I'll lawyer up the second they get here and I'll be out in two hours. Sorry kid," John said.
"You're sorry!" Sam heatedly said.
"I'm sorry that you aren't ready. I'm sorry that you'll have to live with the truth of it all now that I've told you. I'm sorry if it's too much for you," John said.
John finished his scotch, walked to the apartment door, and turned the knob. He turned around, his wrinkled old eyes staring at Sam. John wasn't surprised he made it to the door so easily. He was surprised that when he turned around there wasn't a gun aimed at his chest. He thought to himself, maybe the kid's readier than he was prepared to admit.
"Think it over kid," said John. "It's dirty, it's not right, but it's what's needed."
The door latch clicked as John pulled it closed behind him. Sam just sat there, his world spinning around in circles.
Sam sat in his apartment for nearly three hours as he contemplated what John said to him. It made him late for a meeting with the Chief of Police and the head prosecutor from the State's Attorneys' Office. It was nearly ten-thirty in the morning when he got to the chief's office, finding the door closed. Sam straightened his collar and knocked on the door three times before hearing the voice of Bud Williams yell 'come in'.
"Sorry, I'm late," Sam told Chief Willams. "I had a visitor this morning, an informant of mine thought he had something for me."
"I hope it's something good," Joe Burnett interjected. "I think both of our offices could use a win about now."
Sam hesitated as both the chief and the head prosecutor looked at him. They waited for an announcement that would put them all onto a different path. Sam knew he couldn't help them.
"No, not at all," he said. "In fact, I'm considering cutting ties with him."
"That's too bad," Chief Williams replied. "Joe is correct, after all. We do need a win to take the collective egg off of our faces."
Sam sat down across from his boss. He wasn't sure what they meant by 'egg' on their faces. The jury could be the scapegoat for yesterday. All they had to do was put the right public face out to the press and have that person press the fact that the police and the prosecutors did what they were supposed to do and how it was unfortunate the jurors didn't see the truth of the matter. As Sam sat there, looking at the two men eyeing him closely, he realized they had a different patsy in mind.
"So, what went wrong?" asked the chief.
"We had a rock-solid case. It's on us we didn't notice the mistake on the warrant application in time, but with eighteen thousand documents and pieces of evidence collected over a year-long investigation, we were depending on your office to be precise."
"I see where this is going," sighed Sam.
"No, you don't," replied the chief as he turned to Joe Burnett.
Chief Williams was visibly angered by the prosecutor's statement. He'd been around long enough to see when a politician was covering his own ass.
"Correct me if I'm wrong, Joe. But, wasn't your office vetting all the jurors?"
"Yes, we vetted them all thoroughly."
Chief Williams laughed out loud as he threw a file in the face of the leader of the prosecutors' office. He nodded at his colleague, telling him to "go ahead, take a look."
"What is this?" asked Joe Burnett.
"Financials, on each juror. Each one of them received a one-hundred-thousand-dollar deposit from a Cayman Island account late yesterday," announced Chief Williams.
"Each of them," sighed the prosecutor. "My god."
"So, Charlie wins?" asked Sam.
Sam stood up and nodded at Chief Williams. He turned and looked at the prosecutor. "Until next time, Joe."
"Sam," said Joe Burnett, watching the detective broodily walk out of the office.
Sam didn't make it very far before pulling his cellphone out to make a call. He scrolled through some numbers until finding the one he wanted. He knew now that John was right. Sometimes there was just no way to win if you weren't willing to do what was necessary. It wasn't irony that John came to see him today. He understood why today was the day they chose to recruit him, why today John bared his soul.
"It's me," Sam announced as he heard Johns' voice. "I want to know more."
John wouldn't say much over the phone but did give Sam a time and place for them to meet. There was an old mansion out on Route 36, one that had been bought and remodeled seven or eight years ago. The place was large enough to be secluded and had tons of space for a meeting away from the watchful eyes of the police or anyone else, for that matter. Sam agreed to meet there, later that night.
At near sunset, Sam's Hellcat rolled up the gravel drive leading to the property. There were two men that worked a security gate at the fence line. For years he passed the property and never got close enough to see how tightly protected the place had become. While two men worked the gate, men walked the fenceline. CCTV cameras lined the property.
Sam was waived through the gate without hesitation. They obviously expected him. Sam drove the length of the drive to the backside of the mansion. From there he could see cars parked near a large barn. John was standing next to his Escalade.
Sam hesitated before getting out of his car. He counted a total of five other vehicles. What was he getting himself into, he wondered.
"Well, I'm here," said Sam as he stepped out.
"I'm glad, kid," John said, smiling. "I honestly wasn't one hundred percent certain there wouldn't be a warrant for my arrest today. It's good that you decided to be open-minded about this."
"John, I still don't know what this is," Sam told him.
The place they were at was the Hanson Estate. It was owned by former Senator Hanson's son David. David inherited the family businesses and wealth when his father was assassinated during a presidential campaign.
"Why aren't we meeting inside?"
John explained that the barn was where the group met when it was time to vote on an action plan. David had trained in Langley and had been an analyst with Central Intelligence. When he designed the property, refitted the house, he found the barn had some of the same design as the one on the property where he trained.
"So, he designed it to be like the farm."
"Basically," John replied.
"Listen, David's a bit eccentric. You'll get used to him. But, he's done a phenomenal job of cultivating his own network. It's outside of the system, off the books, and completely self-sustaining."
"How many?" asked Sam.
John looked at his young apprentice, "How many what?"
"How many people have you guys taken off the board?"
John looked up at the sky, the meridian of the night moving finally over them. As the darkness fell across them, he invited Sam inside to meet the rest of the group.
Walking into the barn, Sam followed John as he was guided to a conference room in the center of the structure. There were four members waiting in the conference room, one of which, to his surprise, was Joe Burnett. The others were David Hanson, Judge Michael Straughter, and Senator Stacey Davis of the fourth district.
Sam was perplexed by the room. It was a who's who of powerful people in the region. A prosecutor, a judge, a billionaire, and a member of the state senate didn't strike him as the type to form a group of vigilantes.
"How did this all come together?"
"The owls, you mean?"
"Owls?" asked Sam.
"Look up," said David, joining Sam and John.
Sam looked up into the rafters. There were five barn owls that sat on perches. They all rested atop a perch at the tip of a five-pointed star that hung above the conference table.
"Did you know the owl was known in Greek mythology to be a symbol of wisdom? It's also a well-known fact that they have incredible eyesight. They see everything," said David.
"Tell him why you really like them," suggested John.
"Well, some believed they are an omen of death. And since that is what we deal in here, it's fitting they like the barn."
Weird, thought Sam.
"Have a seat, we have a vote to hold," David told Sam.
When the group was all seated David called the meeting to order. As David spoke, Sam stared at the barn owls on the posts. They were majestic, sitting there in cohesion with their counterpart members of the group. Sam realized that there were five owls and five members. He didn't see the sixth owl in the barn.
"So, lady, and gentlemen, we have two decisions to make. The first one, do we allow Detective Sam Winston to become the sixth member of the Owls Club? And secondly, what of the fate of Charlie Cox?" announced David.
The group all voted in favor of allowing Sam Winston to join the club. As they did, David retrieved the sixth owl from a side room and let it loose in the barn. For the first time in two years, there was a full table at the Owls club, something they all wanted to celebrate. But, there was still one piece of business.
"How do you vote on the second matter?"
"Guilty," answered John.
"Guilty," answered Joe Burnett.
"Guilty," answered Senator Davis.
"Guilty," answered Judge Slaughter.
"Guilty," answered David.
Sam realized that they were voting to execute Charlie Cox. Was this happening? He spent his life defending the rights of people, even lascivious low-lives like Charle Cox. If he voted guilty, then he was betraying the badge he took an oath to honor.
Sam looked upward at the sixth owl. He wished it were as simple as sitting on a perch, knowing all and seeing everything. He knew Charlie Cox was guilty. In his gut, he knew that Charlie was a murderous monster that shouldn't be on the streets. After several moments, he finally knew the answer he had to give.
"Guilty," said Sam.
"Well, it's unanimous. So, without further delay," said David as he walked to the back of the barn.
When David was coming back he was dragging someone with a black hood over their head. The suit was unmistakable. Just yesterday, Sam had stared face to face with Charlie Cox as he smugly gloated about getting away with everything. He was wearing the same suit.
David put Charlie Cox on his knees on plastic that was laid out on the floor. Sam realized that this was his initiation.
"Sam, would you like the honors?"
"Go on kid," said John. "Show them you're truly ready to make a difference in the world."
Sam was on auto-pilot. He felt his body standing. As he walked over to David, David pulled the hood off of the man's head. Charlie Cox had been beaten and tortured from the looks of things. David assured Sam that Mr. Cox had been forced to endure everything he had done to his victims before tonight.
David handed Sam a silenced semi-automatic and stepped aside. "He's all yours."
Sam thought about what he was doing. Was John right? Was this what was needed in the world? He raised the barrel and put it to Charlie's temple. Sam didn't know how to decide if this was the right thing to do. He knew Charlie would never change. He knew there would be more bloodshed down the road if he didn't kill the crime figure. How had it come to this?
There were three whispered sounds before Sam heard the owls above. He looked up, seeing all of their eyes on him. Like it not, he was now a part of the Owls Club.