November 25, 2020

Night Court

A short story


Editor’s note. Mr. Neff wrote this story in 1988. It has never before been published. — Nicholas Strakon


HARRY WEATHERS SQUIRMED IN HIS SEAT in the courtroom. It seemed like hours since he'd been picked up while waiting his turn at Zeke's Barbershop and brought here, and he still had no clear idea what his offense was, despite the hurried conference with his court-appointed attorney. It could certainly be nothing like the crimes of violence and destruction he was hearing recounted over and over in the charges brought against the other defendants. He originally moved to this Zone because of the unusual opportunities for commerce, as his old friend Zeke Brandenburg had done years before to operate his own barbershop during the night hours. The many businesses open all night, some of them only at night, had been a primary attraction for Harry. Always the night-owl, he'd been enjoying his dusk-to-dawn existence for a couple of months now, months during which he'd been in no trouble, had not even been the victim of a crime. This latter was no great achievement, though: heavy crime in the McKissick Zone seemed to be confined by and large to neighborhoods Harry avoided in any case.

His hastily procured attorney, a young guy named something-or-other Russell, appeared at Harry's left and began whispering that they should move toward the front, that it was finally Harry's turn.

"People versus Harry Weathers," cried the bailiff. "Mr. Weathers is charged with violation of commercial quotas pertaining to race."

Harry was nudged forward to find himself standing between Russell and the Zone's prosecutor. The judge's eyes seemed impersonal and warned Harry that he could expect no leniency in this matter. He had been bewildered, with no heart for this kind of aggravation from the moment he had been arrested. He still needed the haircut, and he still felt like just talking things over with Zeke, but now he forced himself to listen to the Zone's prosecutor who had already begun.

"... ing Paragraph 42, Section 3 of Quota Directive Seven, failure to give equal and proportionate business to minorities offering comparable services at commensurate rates. He is also charged with violating the relevant sections of the Fair Trade directives dealing with consumers' attempts to establish race monopolies in service industries."

"Your Honor," began Russell, "we ask that the Fair Trade charges be dropped. We are prepared to show that the defendant has known Mr. Zeke Brandenburg, the barber in question, for a number of years, that they were friends before Mr. Weathers came to this Zone, and that their friendship would preclude the intent necessary for any finding of guilt on his part in that matter."

"That line of argumentation," replied the judge, "would seem to me to reinforce the Zone's case in the first charge, Mr. Russell."

"Yes, Your Honor, and my client is willing to plead guilty to negligent race discrimination. We believe that any charges of willful discrimination should be dropped in favor of this lesser charge."

"Mr. Weeks?" The judge turned to the prosecutor. Harry could be pretty sure what the prosecutor would now say, since Russell had spent more time with him than he had with Harry.

"The Zone has no objection to dropping the charges as formulated in favor of a plea of guilty to the lesser charge, provided Mr. Weathers will enter his consumer license into the record." Russell's surprise told Harry that this had not been part of the original understanding.

"May I consult with my client a moment, Your Honor?" The judge waved Harry and Russell to a side window where they spoke in lowered voices.

"Can they make me do that?" Harry's question was really more of a protest. "Isn't that self-incrimination?"

"No, Harry, it's not. When you applied for your license to trade with the merchants of McKissick you agreed to surrender it for public scrutiny when required by any officer of the court or forfeit it. Didn't the police ask to see it when you were first arrested?"

"No, they just looked at my I.D."

Russell raised an eyebrow, then took off his glasses to begin wiping them with a handkerchief. "Well, in any case, the Zone's not requiring that you let them examine it here, but if you refuse after being offered a lesser charge they may insist, and you'll have to give it to them. And then it'll look bad if you didn't cooperate in the first place." He exhaled roughly on the lenses a couple of times before wiping them again. "There's nothing incriminating on your record, is there?"

"Of course not," said Harry. "I just don't like their prying into it."

"Mr. Russell?" The judge seemed suddenly impatient to Harry.

"Yes, Your Honor." The lawyer put his glasses back on abruptly, tucked the handkerchief away, and glanced at Harry. "My client agrees to submit his consumer license."

Harry produced the credit-card-sized permit which bore on its reverse side a magnetic strip encoded with the record of all his cash and credit transactions since arriving in the McKissick Zone. The judge passed it through a scanner and, studying the statistical information coming up on the screen, he frowned. He looked back at Russell and said, "Mr. Weathers has patronized a remarkably small number of minority businesses since this license was issued, Mr. Russell. What has your client to say for this shameful record of racism?"

The lawyer scowled at Harry as if to say, Nothing incriminating, huh? and then said to the judge, "Mr. Weathers is new to our community, Your Honor. I'm certain that he meant no discrimination, and that he merely requires a little more time to accustom himself to the careful shopping habits the citizens of McKissick expect of their neighbors."

"The ratios shown on this record far surpass those explicable by chance, Mr. Russell," replied the judge. "I believe this record shows a pattern of deliberate and unremitting racism, broken only by the most flagrant tokenism. Had the original charges against him not been dropped, I should have considered this record incontrovertible evidence of your client's guilt. Mr. Weeks, in his hasty agreement to reduced charges, has done a great favor for his, um, racial compère, and a disservice to the community whose trust has been vested in him. I shall be ordering a special investigation of his office's over-all performance in this regard."

The Zone's Prosecutor reddened considerably at these remarks, and if he contemplated reminding the judge who it was that had entered Harry's license into the record he thought better of it and refrained.

"Mr. Weathers," Harry was caught off guard at hearing himself addressed, "racial discrimination is a very serious offense in this Zone. It erodes the fraternal solidarity existing among our many ethnic groups and is easily the most pernicious, not to say most despicable, offense we must contend with in our courts. My ancestors were slaves to white men for over two hundred years, and both our people suffered physically and spiritually for it. There must be no residual life, such as racism, remaining from that unjust system.

"I do not lightly threaten Mr. Weeks's office with possible charges of racially motivated malfeasance, and I have done this publicly and before you to impress upon you, a relative newcomer, the seriousness of your prejudices. If you persist in these you will be risking imprisonment. In custody you would be examined to determine your suitability to participate in our Equality Orientation Center programs. It has not gone unnoticed by this court that even your choice of attorney has been racially governed: Mr. Russell is a fine attorney, but he is white, and rather than accept a white court-appointed attorney you would have been well advised, considering the charges facing you, to have hired a representative of one of our recognized minorities. The court will therefore be examining Mr. Russell's record also with an eye to possible racial misconduct. Your choice, you see, may have endangered his status in the matter of quota-satisfaction, as it has similarly endangered that of every one of the white merchants whom you have over-patronized. It is their responsibility to meet the community needs for balanced purchasing, and it is entirely possible that your custom has unfairly weighted their sales.

"Racism is a curse always lying just below the surface of any pluralistic society fortunate enough to attract a multitude of ethnic groups. And whenever it appears in the McKissick Zone this court has been given a mandate to deal with it firmly and decisively.

"Therefore, in accepting your reduced charge and your plea of guilty to it, I levy the maximum fine of $5,000." He started to hand Harry's consumer license to the bailiff, then hesitated. "I don't suppose you prefer to pay this fine in cash?" Harry shook his head No. The judge handed the card to the bailiff, who ran it through another scanner, tapped at a keyboard, ran the card through the scanner once more, and returned it to Harry. "Please do not come into my court again on similar charges," said the judge.

"Thank you, Your Honor," said Russell, ignoring his client's unhappy grimace. He began to guide him out of the courtroom when something Harry had been dimly aware of during the judge's upbraiding broke through: the nature of the charges brought against the defendants whose cases had been heard ahead of his.

"Excuse me, Your Honor," said Harry. The judge looked up at him with a glance that gave permission for him to continue. "When was the last time a black man was charged and sentenced in your court for any offense against the quota laws?"

The judge's eyes blazed. "Are you impugning the impartiality of this court?"

"Well, you yourself said racism lies just below the surface in a pluralistic soc ..."

"I recommend that you stop right there, Mr. Weathers, or risk facing contempt charges."

Russell tugged a little on Harry's arm, but Harry spoke first. "But don't you have to determine that sentences for discrimination are evenly or proportionately passed before sentencing a white man?"

"Mr. Russell, will you please caution your client?"

But before Russell could respond, Harry was saying, "Well, when was the last time anyone from a recognized minority faced contempt charges ..."

The gavel banged. "Mr. Russell, please have your client in here Thursday morning at 10 o'clock to answer to the charge of contempt of court."

"Yes, Your Honor." Then to Harry, "Just keep quiet, will you, and let's get out of here."

* * *

Two hours later Harry left a bar, a little drunker than he had intended to get, still annoyed at having to show up in court again, and still smarting from having had so much credit on his commercial license withdrawn. He glanced over his shoulder and noticed for the first time that the bartender was white. "Well, hell," he said to no one in particular, "how'm I supposed to know who owns the damn bar?"

He was more than a little lost when he wandered into a nearby alley. After relieving himself, he looked about him, trying to get his bearings, when three youths in black muscle shirts stepped into the dim light. "Well, well," said one jauntily, as he pulled a knife from his back pocket. "Here's a man been drinking too-o much."

Harry's fear was immediate and useless. He couldn't move; he couldn't run.

"We'll take whatever you got, fella," said another one, also suddenly flashing a knife. "Your cash, your watch, and anything else you got we can use. Just make it easy on yourself."

They moved up on Harry and as soon as he got a good look at them his mind played another one of those tricks on him, like the one it had played in the courtroom, and he managed to keep from slurring as he said, "Just a minute, here. Can you guys prove you met your quotas for robbin' guys? You gotta give equal and proportionate opportunity to minorities to be robbed before you come after me. Demonstrated preferences for white customers is evidence of racism, which is very serious and always lies just below the surface."

Harry Weathers did not meet his court date on Thursday. Ω

November 25, 2020

© 1988, 2020 Ronald N. Neff
Published in 2020 by WTM Enterprises.

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