Art Pact 224 - Death by Owl


"If there were any other way of getting around the problem..." she told me. Her eyes were large, and her head swivelled around its axis, the fine feathers of her neck ruffled and twisted as they followed her neck around. She flapped her wings once, hooted, then coughed as if embarrassed by this unnecessarily avian outburst.

"I'm sure it can't be the only option," I protested.

"I'm afraid it is."

"No incarceration, perhaps? Surely I could be locked up. For life, perhaps - I'd accept that. Or maybe just for a few decades? It's not that serious a crime, surely. What would you do if another owl had..."

"Another owl," she said firmly, "would not have."

"Are you sure? I mean why is there even a law in the first place, if it's a thing that no-one would do? Are there sentencing guidelines or something?"

"Of course there are guidelines," she said huffily. "We're not savages, you know. When you were in court, didn't you see the judge looking at her law books?"

I had been too busy being outraged at the whole farce of the trial, but I kept my own counsel on that, instead making a gesture that I hoped would be sufficiently ambiguous that she could accept the answer she was looking for. It obviously worked sufficiently well, because she went back to leafing through her own notes, hooking a toe under the edge of each page before flicking it over with a violent twist of the ankle.

"Is there hope for appeal?" I asked.

"Hmmm? Oh, appeal. Well, hmmm, quite," she nodded.

"So there's hope?"

"Oh no, no hope at all. There won't be time, you see."

"Won't be- what do you mean, there won't be time? Of course there'll be time. There'll be time, won't there? Surely." I looked at the page she was looking at, trying to decide whether there was some hidden message there. It appeared to be about civil real-estate cases. "Why won't there be time? When are they going to do this?"

She closed the book, stared at me for a few moments. There's no human in the world who can compete with owls when it comes to the serious business of staring contests, so I had to look away before she did.

"You understand, of course, why there is no other way of resolving this?"

"Not really," I said.

"It's because of your... your size and shape. Under normal circumstances-no, let me rephrase that. In the unthinkable and extremely unlikely circumstances that an owl had committed this transgression, that particular owl might be confined to a penitentiary or some other jail cage."

"Right..."

"But there are no cages big enough to house you, nor - if there were any - would they be strong enough to confine you without fear of escape. You are a liability for any prison. No-one will take responsibility."

"So that's it? Just because you don't have the facilities to detain me, I'm to be executed? You couldn't build something?"

"We have neither the time nor the resources, especially in this time of war, to waste on the construction of a prison for a single person. Besides, the skills aren't readily available. Who here knows how to make a jail that will hold a person? It's never been done before, there aren't any precedents for it. The first one will go wrong, obviously, and the second one, and so we'll pay the price three times over. It won't be cheap, either - nothing ever is the first time  you do it."

"So it just comes down to money, does it?"

"Everything comes down to money in one way or another," she said, leaning her head forward. The dark rings of feathers around her eyes made it look as though she was trying to look over the top of a pair of spectacles at me, and I leant backwards slightly. "And that's why you won't have time for an appeal. There's no jail to hold you for a long stay in prison, but that also means that there's no jail to hold you for a couple of weeks while an appeal gets processed. The court can spare sufficient soldiers to guard you overnight, and enough to make a firing squad for you tomorrow."

"Tomorrow!" I squeaked - I'd intended it as a yell, but my voice broke in the middle of the word. All my thoughts of escape flew out of the window immediately, and - as it is so written - my mind was focused wonderfully. Of course, it was focused on the immediacy of my death, with little attention to spare for anything else. I could almost see the firing squad in front of me, perched on their stands, clutching their little guns in one foot and balancing themselves with their wings. It would have been adorable if it wasn't for the fact that it might be the last thing I saw.

"Tomorrow morning at first light," she said, tapping at her book. She gave a sudden and startling flap of her powerful wings, and with a gust of air that washed over my face like soil falling onto a coffin, she leapt away to the upper perch at the top of the bookshelf. I considered briefly making a run for it, but I was sure that the soldiers had not left. There would be no escape until that bullet was winging its way towards my face, and that would be the end of me and everything I'd done and known. All my skills...

All my skills, I thought suddenly.

"There's someone who knows how to make a jail that can hold a human," I said quickly. "Someone who'll work for nothing."

She turned, stared at me for a moment, then fluttered back down to the nearby perch.

"Really?" she asked. "And how do I get in touch with this altruistic construction worker?"

"Well," I said. "You'd probably have to get the clearance of the court to talk to him about it, and you'd have to convince his security detail. But the good news is, he's close at hand. Couldn't be closer, in fact."

"You've got to be kidding me." she said. I shook my head.

"Dead serious."

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