GUILT • by Matthew Harrison

Solicitor Roy Marsden wasn’t keen on animal cases. But in these sensitive times, fewer and fewer prosecutions involved people. With so much behaviour ascribed to medical condition, human guilt had dropped out of the equation. You had only to say, “Depression, M’lud,” and you were let off with a caution and a course of treatment.

He needed a course of treatment himself, Roy thought as he opened his client’s front gate. Contested cases were just too stressful. And that, he thought, was the good thing about animals. No arguments. Roy braced himself, fingered the comforting shape of the pillbox in his pocket, and trudged up the wet flagstones to the front door.

The door swung open, and there stood a little old lady in a cardigan, holding a cat.

“I’m so glad you’ve come,” the lady began. Yet her lip trembled, and a tear dropped onto the cat’s tabby fur. The animal stared at Roy.

Distracted, Roy mumbled, “There, there, Mrs. Barnes.”

The cat’s big jewelled eyes were gazing at him — or through him as if he hardly existed. Then the eyes glanced away, caught by a sparrow’s flight.

“Is this Pansy?” Roy heard himself ask.

No!”  The lady stifled a sob.

Then Mrs Barnes recovered, and putting down the cat she invited him in. Roy entered warily. The cat licked itself and, ignoring him, walked off with measured pace towards the stairs.


As he sipped tea perched on the sofa, Roy asked Mrs Barnes about the case.

Pansy, of course, was not in the house but in police kennels — “Horrific, you have no idea!” Mrs. Barnes added.

“And the — ah — alleged incident?” Roy asked.

“I’d like to kill that Mrs. Beasley!”

“Just the facts, please,” Roy said, wincing.

It seemed Mrs. Barnes was finding it stressful too, for she had to apply smelling salts before she could continue. Nonetheless, the facts were simple enough. Pansy had been roaming the back gardens, as she habitually did, and had found Mrs. Beasley’s French windows open. She had entered (“What would you do in this weather?”). And there she had found the canary outside its cage (“Deliberate, I’m sure!”).

At least the facts weren’t contested, Roy thought with relief. The cat, of course, hadn’t known about intra-house surveillance. Roy had seen Mrs. Beasley’s video, and it was sickeningly clear. The crouching, the waving tail — then a tabby streak, a squawk, and the cat walking away corpse in mouth.

“Any previous convictions?” he asked.

Mrs Barnes shook her head. Roy raised an eyebrow.

“Well, there was a mouse, once.”

“Pests aren’t a problem,” Roy said. “Now, Mrs. Barnes, our most promising course of action at this stage is probably to plead guilty.”

Guilty!” Mrs. Barnes exclaimed. “My Pansy!?

“I’m afraid we have to be a little bit realistic…”

“But she’s a cat! Oh, you lawyers — can’t you say it’s her nature?”

“Genetic disposition? The courts are not very sympathetic these days. You see, cats are protected. With status comes responsibility.”

Mrs Barnes’s voice quavered. “I’m really sure she didn’t…”

Roy grimaced. He had been wrong about no arguments. His stress level was rising again.

“But I can’t believe it of Pansy. Another cat, now…” Mrs. Barnes glanced behind Roy.

“There are the DNA tests,” Roy said firmly. “The blood on her whiskers matched the canary’s.”

Mrs Barnes sighed. “I suppose you know best. Although it will hit us hard.”

“Us? I thought Mr. Barnes…”

“Not him!” Mrs Barnes exclaimed, “I mean Daisy. They’re sisters, you know.”

She pointed behind Roy. He turned, and saw the cat through the banisters, self-satisfiedly washing her whiskers. Her indifference to the bloody deed that hung over the house made him shudder. Perhaps he shouldn’t do animal cases after all.


A week later, Roy paid another visit to Mrs Barnes. Today the sun was shining, and it was hard to imagine acts of brutality in the leafy gardens that lined the avenue. As Roy opened the gate, he was feeling positively cheerful.

“I’m so grateful to you, young man,” Mrs. Barnes greeted him: “you’ve done a wonderful job! Hasn’t he, Pansy? Daisy?” She appealed to two identical cats that sat unruffled on the stairs. “Do come in!”

Roy braved the cats and reached the safety of the sofa. Holding a protective cup of tea, he explained. The police had tested the canary’s blood and found the match. But they had stopped there, they hadn’t tested Pansy herself. Sometimes they didn’t take animal cases seriously. But he had checked, and it wasn’t her saliva on the corpse.

“I knew it,” Mrs. Barnes beamed. “Such a gentle soul.”

Then she frowned. “But who, then?”

Roy glanced at the two cats.

Mrs Barnes’s jaw dropped. “Daisy!?” She looked quickly around. “You’ve come to take her away?”

“Don’t worry, Mrs Barnes. They won’t be prosecuting.”

“But how come…?”

Roy pointed.

There, one cat was placidly licking the other.

Mrs Barnes was still troubled. “Don’t they suspect Daisy?”

“I’m sure they do. But they’d never make it stick in court. One animal framing another — who would believe that?”

They looked at the cats. The animals stared inscrutably back.

Under the cats’ combined gaze, Roy felt uncomfortable. He thought of the canary’s corpse, of the likely future corpses that would feature in the careers of these cats. And it was not just them.  He had a horrifying vision of blood-spattered leaves across the back gardens of England. Was he doing the right thing?

The client’s instructions, he told himself, the client’s instructions. Nothing else mattered. He would take a sedative as soon as he got back to the office. Sooner. He fingered the pillbox in his pocket.

Then Daisy — or Pansy — twitched an ear, yawned, and laid her head down to sleep. The other cat glanced idly away.

“You can see why the Egyptians used to worship them, the dears,” said Mrs. Barnes.  “Why, Mr. Marsden, you’re quite pale! Have another shortcake, do.”

Matthew Harrison is a writer and researcher living in Hong Kong. His published works include Queen’s Road Central and Other Stories and Benjamin Bunce.

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