Philowneus Phunk’s Polecat Band
by David M. Pearce
My client pawed my shoulder, interrupting my daydream about my late wife. For the briefest moment, my eyes tricked me into believing she’d been watching me from the courtroom gallery. A lavender pillbox hat, a style she’d favored, stood out among the throng of observers. My thumb brushed against a familiar platinum band, spinning it on my ring finger.
Who was I fooling? Mary Beth was gone. Only my job remained. And here I sat, beside another perp looking for me to get him off on a technicality. I sighed. It wasn’t much of a profession. Not anymore. I hadn’t won a jury verdict since she’d passed.
My client’s shackles rattled, echoing off the walls of the hushed courtroom. I didn’t bother looking at him, pretending instead to review my notes for closing argument. Crumbs lay scattered across the pages. Had I eaten? I must have. Another ubiquitous sandwich. Nothing had much taste anymore.
The end of the lunch hour neared. The court clerk and jurors kept busy by checking their phones for messages, killing time at the end of their break.
Another tap at my shoulder, this time more insistent.
“What is it, Phil?”
“I’m nervous.” A thumb drummed on the tabletop, a staccato without cadence. “You said the judge would be back by one. It’s now quarter after.”
I sighed, turned my head, and stared down my nose over wire-rimmed glasses at Phil’s black-and-tan masked face. Gray handcuffs clattered as he preened his whiskers. Worry creased facial fur into lines. His lip curled, showing rows of sharp pointy teeth. Ferrets. They couldn’t sit still.
“The judge got caught up in another hearing,” I said. “This isn’t her only case.”
“That means she isn’t taking mine seriously.” Phil’s head drooped. He kept rapping at the tabletop. “I’m going down.”
“Not if I can help it.” I gave a reassuring smile. “I’ll do my best to argue on your behalf.”
His hands continued to fidget.
“Stop beating on the table. It’s distracting.”
“I can’t help it. The music needs to come out.”
The tapping grew softer. “This jury worries me. Not a weasel, mink, stoat, badger, or wolverine among them. These aren’t my peers.”
I glanced at the jury box. It was a typical jury. A stiff-necked mammalian, most likely with a giraffe’s genes somewhere in his ancestry, wore the shiny badge of jury supervisor. Beside him, a gorilla-man rested his chin in his hands, chewing at his fingernails. The other jurors combined into a furry menagerie of ursine, feline, or canine backgrounds.
I craned my neck, looking back over my shoulder at the gallery. Phil’s relatives and bandmates clustered behind us. They looked as high strung as Phil, a nervous bunch. By their flamboyant dress and the instrument cases scattered in the aisles and on the benches, I concluded that they must have stopped on their way to a gig.
The head with the lavender pillbox hat nodded. An older female ferret, who I assumed must be Phil’s mother, carried on a hushed conversation with white-whiskered male companion. I shook my head, wondering how I could have mistaken her for my wife. I frowned, realizing I was the only Homo sapiens sapiens in the room. When had that happened?
“I want you to present the biology thing to the jury,” Phil said. “It’s gotta work for me.”
I sighed. “It’s disgusting. And it will probably backfire.”
Phil glared. “But it could set me free. Are you going to do as I say?”
“Not if I can help it. There are other arguments I can make. Let me try the neo-interpretive jazz angle.”
“Ugh. Weak. Whose lawyer are you?”
I put both palms on the table. My eyes darted over toward the prosecutor, but he showed no sign he’d caught our muted conversation. “I’m your lawyer, Phil, doing the best I can with what I got.”
Phil glared. “If you don’t make the argument, then you’re fired. I’ll find a lawyer who will take up my cause.”
“Really? Who’s stood by you all this time?”
“Lot of good it’ll do me now. You’re a stuffed shirt who’s got no balls, that’s what. I’m ready to gamble for my freedom.”
My fingers clutched at my pen, squeezing it harder than necessary. I kept my voice calm. “You’re better off taking the State’s plea bargain. You’d be out of prison in fifteen months, assuming you keep your snout clean while you’re inside.”
“Wuss. Does the missus know she married a eunuch?”
My gut lurched, with the lackluster lunch souring in my stomach. My thumb moved, again caressing the platinum band on my ring finger. “Mrs. Pratt passed away three months ago. Thanks for the reminder.”
Phil grunted. He showed no sign of remorse. “Come on, Mike. No cat guts, no guitar strings.”
I shook my head. “It’s a bad move, but you’re the client. I don’t think—”
A loud buzz announced the judge’s impending arrival.
“About time.” The corner of my client’s thin lips curled back in a sneer. “Let’s get this show on the road. Make the argument, Mike.”
I cupped my hand up near the side of my mouth. “Keep it down, Phil. Try to pretend you’ve got respect for the system.”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever you say, Mr. Candyass.”
“All rise.” The stentorian robot bailiff motioned with its stunted arms. Green mechanical eyes swept across the courtroom, settling on my client, as if expecting confrontation. Servomotors whined as it hovered closer.
I stood and buttoned my threadbare jacket as the door slid open. My right eye twitched as the judge hopped into the courtroom, propelled forward with a loping gait. For all the times I’d appeared before the Honorable Roo, her appearance still startled my old bones. Oh, I didn’t have any problems getting along with Earth’s other sentient species. Still . . . did anyone not recognize the imagery associated with having a marsupial magistrate mete out justice?
The judge’s oval-shaped ears rotated forward. Her black-eyed gaze swept across the courtroom before reaching the defendant’s table, where I stood next to my shackled client. Judge Roo’s nostrils flared when her eyes settled on Phil. As if sensing its mother’s disquiet, the joey hidden in her pouch squirmed, visible as a brief quiver beneath black robes.
“You may be seated.” Judge Roo sat on a bench behind the dais. “Back on the record in Case Number 2215-CR-004596-LA.” She nodded to the prosecutor’s table. “We’re ready for closing arguments. You may begin, Mr. Serpico.”
A hooded cobra man-thing uncoiled from his bendy chair, picked up a data slate in one pseudo-hand, and slithered into the advocate’s well in front of the jury box. Yellow eyes moved up and down the zoo that would render the verdict.
“Good beings, thank you for serving on this jury.” The prosecutor paused for dramatic effect. “You’ve seen the evidence. Philowneus Phunk defrauded his customers. The State presented damning testimony from Mr. Phunk’s band. They confirmed his scheme to defraud their audiences, promising the moon and stars during concerts, but in reality producing random noise. They created a cacophony by banging on their instruments without rhyme or reason. Philowneus refused all demands from his audience for refund.”
I scribbled on my legal pad. I didn’t hold out much hope. Phil was guilty down to his thieving bones. His dubious strategy didn’t seem plausible. I predicted that most everyone in the room would be offended. Still, if his ploy surprised the prosecutor, perhaps I’d get him to do something dumb. It was Phil’s only hope: prosecutorial error resulting in a mistrial.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught another glimpse of the lavender hat in the gallery. Oh, Mary Beth, what would you say to me now? She’d given me good counsel when she was alive, boiling down the most complicated cases into simple truths. More than once, I’d rehearsed my closing arguments at our dining table. What would she think about this case?
“Your job is to make the prosecutor prove his case,” she would have said. “All defendants deserve the best defense you can give them. The system doesn’t work if you don’t try.”
My notes swam over the legal pad, blurring into an incomprehensible mess. I blinked. None of my scribblings made sense. There was nothing for a jury to believe in and follow, like a pack following the alpha. Instead, the page was dotted with random thoughts and suppositions designed to get me through the closing without appearing incompetent. Maybe Phil was right. Had I become a coward?
“In summation, gentle beings, the evidence shows that Philowneus Phunk committed the crimes as outlined in the true bill.” The prosecutor slithered back to his podium, looking each jury member in the eyes. “He is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Thank you.”
Several jury members yawned and stretched. A few blinked, as though disoriented. There was an opportunity here, but I couldn’t deliver a boring speech. My wife would’ve urged me on. “Give people a story,” she would have said. “Make it a simple story, one the jurors can connect with.”
Judge Roo nodded. “Mr. Pratt, you may proceed with your closing argument.”
“Go get ‘em, Mike,” Phil said, his voice a bare whisper.
“Thank you, Your Honor.” I stood at counsel table, glancing down at my notes one last time. Nothing in them helped. To hell with it. What did I have to lose anymore? One last gamble with a story my wife could appreciate. A story that played to my audience. “Gentle beings of the jury, the State failed to meet its ultimate burden of persuasion. We’ve heard testimony from Phil’s bandmates, but can you give credibility to what they’ve said? After all, they’re weasels. Worse yet, they’re musicians. We know their kind. Scheming. Conniving. So how do we know someone else didn’t create this scheme to defraud customers? It could have been any polecat.”
Mr. Serpico bolted upright. “Objection, Your Honor!” His forked tongue lanced out, bouncing up and down. “I . . . I can’t believe what I’m hearing!”
“Neither did the concert hall,” Phil said, muttering under his breath.
I glared at Phil, and he lapsed into silence.
Judge Roo’s eyebrows narrowed. “State the nature of your objection, Mr. Serpico.”
“Relevance. Lack of foundation. Improper argument based on facts not in evidence. This is the worst form of species-ism. Intolerable! The court cannot allow this to continue.”
Judge Roo tapped her fingernails on the dais. Click. Click. Click. Her brow furrowed as if considering me for the first time. Her eyes looked me up and down, judging my worth. “Overruled. I want to hear more about this argument, to see where Mr. Pratt takes it.”
My heart soared. Halfway home. If I turned on the charm, maybe I could win this case. If only my wife could see me now. My eyes drifted back to the lavender hat. Maybe her spirit did watch me.
The state attorney looked angry enough to spit. Given his genus, I made damn sure I kept my distance from him. Never get too close to a prosecutor with fangs and a glandular problem.
I concentrated on putting on my trustworthy uncle face, one I’d practiced over the years with help from Mary Beth. The jurors stared at me with rapt attention. Some looked horrified, like I’d farted in church. I’d expected that. If I reached them, played on their primal urges, I might convince one or two members and hang this jury.
“You understand our history,” I leaned forward on the lectern, as if chewing the fat with a neighbor over a fence post. “The world changed in the Twenty-First Century. The courts recognized the rights of all species to coexist. A Korean laboratory started it all, following the early work done by the Japanese researcher, Yoshizumi Ishino. The CRISPR interference technique helped bring about gene swapping between humans and animals. The National Institute of Health sanctioned additional research with restrictions, but the technology outpaced them. Secret genetic experiments giving birth to new sentient species. Ostracized, segregated. Your grandparents survived it all.”
I paused, letting the moment sink in. Modern folk pretended to accept infinite diversity, but deep down the old prejudices stirred. Fear, hatred, aggression—I mustered my allies. If these good beings recognized their own emotions, tapped into them, then my voice would persuade them.
“The Louisiana Lion Insurrection—remember it? They insisted the Law of the Wild should control our country. They subjugated those perceived to be lesser creatures. It’s a time we want to forget. But it still lingers. Bet you think twice about going near a pride on the streets. We recognize a predator, watch for them out of the corner of our eye. It’s intuition. I’d urge you to listen to that instinct, now.”
I latched onto a pitcher and poured myself a glass of water. Oratory came with its own tempo, and I wanted to milk the moment. I sipped at my drink, taking the time to make eye contact with every member of the panel. Some of the horror faded from their faces, and careful thought crept in.
“And so now we have Phil. His ancestors hold an old lineage—Mustela nigripes—also known as the black-footed ferret. Did you know that science once thought his ancestors extinct? It’s a sad story. Farmers would take zinc phosphide and sprinkle it on oats. They’d cast the oats out onto their fields and wait. Hang around while the putrefying toxin did its dastardly work. Kill the prairie dogs that ravaged their crops. Alas, the poor ferrets ate the poisoned prairie dogs, and that nearly wiped out the species.”
I frowned, shook my head, and watched for signs of empathy. A vulpine mongrel nodded her head. I had the jury now.
“Is it any wonder that Phil wants compensation? Doesn’t his species deserve reparations for this genocide? Can you blame Phil for giving in to his nature after what humans did to his clan? No, you cannot. Therefore, good beings, I urge you to find Phil ‘not guilty.’ Give him justice here today, make right the horrors suffered by the black-footed ferret. Thank you.”
I strolled back to my chair and sat down. Phil wiped at the corner of his eye with a paw and then patted me on the shoulder.
“That was beautiful,” he said. “Musical.”
I leaned in close and muttered. “Not bad for a wuss.”
He smirked. “You’re getting rave reviews.”
The judge’s gavel crashed against its sounding block, startling me out of my triumph. I sat up in my chair and folded my hands in front of me. The Honorable Roo stared down at me from the bench, arms crossed over her chest, the gavel still clutched in a furry paw. Her nostrils flared, and her joey wiggled beneath her robes.
“Mr. Serpico, you don’t need a rebuttal.”
The prosecutor’s yellow eyes widened and his forked tongue hung outside his open jaws. He shook his head. “I don’t understand, your Honor.”
Judge Roo ignored him and turned to the jury box. “Members of the jury, thank you for your service. There’s no need for my instructions, or a reason for you to retire.”
A lump caught in my throat. What was this? Phil stirred beside me, and I put a hand on his shoulder to stop him from doing something stupid.
“In all my years of judging, I’ve never heard such nonsense.” She paused, unfolding her arms and pointing the gavel at Phil. “Did you goad your attorney into this argument, Mr. Phunk?”
Phil’s whiskers twitched. “No, your Honor. I expected a speech about creativity and interpretive neo-jazz. That’s what we played for the crowd. I can’t help it if they’re close-minded critics.”
My jaw dropped open. Sneaky, underhanded bastard. “Phil! You know that’s—”
“That’s what I suspected,” Judge Roo said. “I’m declaring a mistrial. Bailiff, please take Mr. Pratt into custody.”
I yanked at a collar that seemed too tight. “Your Honor, if I could explain—”
“I’ve heard enough from you, Mr. Pratt,” Judge Roo said. “I’ve always suspected that you were a closet species-ist, and now you’ve confirmed it. Humans.” She snorted. The gavel crashed down. “Thirty days in solitary confinement for contempt of court.”
The robotic bailiff sidled up close. The prosecutor gave me a satisfied hiss, tongue wagging up and down. Jurors nodded their approval.
Phil kept his head down, but I could see a smirk playing at the corner of his mouth. He got the mistrial he wanted, but at my expense. Phil’s bandmates hummed out an off-key funeral dirge as the bailiff dragged me past the gallery toward the side door.
Judge Roo turned toward Phil. Her eyes bored into his. “I’m releasing you to your own recognizance, Mr. Phunk, until I find time for a new trial on my docket. Maybe you’ll learn rhythm in the time being.”
The smile dropped off Phil’s face. His eyes darted toward mine. I shrugged. Phil couldn’t find musical talent even if someone tied it to his own tail.
The bailiff shuffled forward to my table. I held out my hands. Cold steel manacles clicked around my bony wrists, their weight a noticeable burden. Still, it felt good to win Phil a brief reprieve. I felt a surge of pride. The lavender hat bobbed in the gallery, and I imagined my wife smiling down in approval. I’d transformed an unwinnable case into a temporary cease fire.
“All rise.” A second bailiff announced the judge’s departure, and she swept out of the courtroom, her robes rustling like a murder of crows taking flight.
The jurors filed out, happy to be able to go home. I envied them that luxury. My next stop would be the insides of a cold cell. I paused at the thought. Actually, the cell really wouldn’t be that much different from my house in the suburbs. It had become a drab and dreary place since Mary Beth died, making my rustic home seem all the smaller. There was little life left in the place.
“Chin up, Mike,” Phil said, nodding at me. “I’ll send you a recording of our latest concert, something to listen to in the clink.”
“That would be fine, Phil. We’ll talk when I get out.” Fat chance that I would ever listen to it. To do so while in jail would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
Phil waved goodbye, then joined his bandmates. A kazoo buzzed out a march as the bailiff led me through the courtroom door and into the holding pen normally reserved for my clients. It smelled like musk, rust, and disinfectant. The cell door clanked shut behind me.
“I’ll be back for you with forms to sign,” the bailiff said. “Strip down for delousing.” Servomotors whirred, and it scooted out down the corridor toward central processing.
I sat down on the hard bench inside the cell, leaned back, and closed my eyes. The silence sounded like a symphony to my ears. It was my first happy moment since my wife’s death. I let my mind wander—daydreaming about the good times I’d spent with Mary Beth. She would have liked my closing argument and applauded the fact that I’d won a reprieve for my client. Perhaps the additional time alone would allow me to think of a new defense for Phil. I could almost see my wife smiling at me in her favorite lavender pillbox hat.
About David M. Pearce
David M. Pearce has published in The Florida Writer. The Florida Writers Association also recently accepted his short story, “Short-Armed,” as part of its “Hide and Seek” collection.