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Don't Count Your Chickens

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“I’m sorry, Inés – but did you say chicken rustling?” Miranda’s tone was polite, but she sounded as though she hoped she was mistaken.

“Ah - rustling?” Max’s eyebrows rose in puzzlement.

“Stealing,” Miranda and Inés clarified in chorus, and he nodded, enlightened.

Inés sighed and leaned back in her chair. “Yes. There has been a report from a farmer, Marcelo Gasson. He has a large poultry farm just outside Maria de la Salut. Apparently over the last few weeks there have been three thefts, with more chickens being stolen each time. The third theft was last night. He wants us to find the thieves before any more of his precious birds go missing.” She glanced from Max to Miranda. “So I thought it would be a nice little mystery for you two.”

“Chicken thieves.”   Max was grinning. “Okay. We’ll try to round them up without – ah – getting egg on our faces.”

Miranda gave him a warning look, and sighed, but didn’t say anything.

Inés also sighed, and jerked a pointing finger towards the door. “Go.”

They went.

***

“So,” said Max, turning the steering wheel of the BMW gently as they sped around a bend on the way from Palma to Maria de la Salut, “tell me more about the chicken thieves.”

It was a journey of about forty minutes and Miranda had been making good use of her time, reading up the case notes on her phone. “Marcelo Gasson is the owner of Avícola Son Reno, one of only a few large poultry farms on Mallorca. He is known for promoting rare breeds. Most of his chickens are free-range, but they are all brought into barns at night, especially since chickens started disappearing. He reckons it was about fifty the first time, a hundred the second time and last night another hundred and fifty birds disappeared. Seems like the thieves must be getting more confident.” She pushed her sunglasses higher up her nose and tilted her face to the warm sunshine, enjoying the breeze as the car accelerated along a straight stretch of highway.

“But what would someone do with hundreds of stolen chickens?” Max wondered aloud.

Miranda shrugged. “Sell them? If they’re rare breeds they’re probably valuable. Keep them on another farm somewhere? I’m not sure if you could sell them as chickens to eat, or if they would be worth stealing for their eggs. We’ll just have to find out what Senor Gasson thinks.”

“Maybe it’s animal rights activists? They don’t like big poultry farms.”

“That’s true, but by the sound of it this farmer keeps chickens in better conditions than many. He’s not keeping battery hens. Anyway, I suppose we’ll soon see for ourselves.” They had reached a signpost directing them off the main highway down a lesser road marked Maria de la Salut. Max indicated and swung the car towards the exit.

“We should question everyone who works on the farm,” he said. “But we should try not to ruffle any feathers.

***

Marcelo Gasson was a tall, thin man in his fifties wearing baggy old canvas trousers, a stained work shirt and ancient boots. His bony face was tanned to a leathery brown and he had an unusually long neck. When he spoke, he jerked his chin down slightly with each word, strongly reminding both Max and Miranda of the way his chickens pecked at the ground.

Miranda was more successful than Max at repressing a smile as Gasson spoke and pecked. Brandishing her pen over her notebook, she asked, “So the barns were definitely all locked when you went to bed? And you didn’t hear any disturbance in the night?”

Gasson shook his head. “Nothing. And I checked all the locks on the barns myself before I went into the house. This morning, the locks all looked fine but in the barn furthest from the house, half the chickens were gone.   Some of my best Minorcans too.” He looked stricken.

“No-one broke the locks?” Max asked, alert. “Who else apart from yourself has keys to your barns?”

“The barns are locked with keypads. I’ll show you.” Marcelo Gasson led the way across the yard behind the farmhouse. Max and Miranda fell into step behind him, Max grateful that the ground was hard and dusty-dry, with no mud to befoul his expensive loafers. Miranda kept telling him that he really should learn by experience and start keeping some boots in the car for their visits to rural locations, but somehow he just hadn’t got around to it yet.

A winding path led from the farmyard. On their left were a row of six large wooden barns. On their right, large fenced fields sloped downhill. In each field the scattered shapes of many various-coloured hens wandered about, pecking at the ground and finding shade beneath the occasional hardy trees. Now and then the sound of faint contented clucking floated on the warm breeze towards Max and Miranda.

Senor Gasson led the way along the path until they reached the barn furthest from the house. Like the others, it had a shiny black metal door with a neat keypad set on the right. He typed in a four-digit code and swung the door open. Miranda sniffed at the pleasant aroma of fresh straw and sawdust, and the less pleasant aroma of chicken droppings. There were no hens in the barn currently, but running down the middle of the floor were lines of metal feeders and water dispensers. To one side stacks of straw bales were piled up high along the wall, and to the other side wooden perches and nest boxes were fixed. Compared to some of the pictures Miranda and Max had both seen of intensive poultry farming and thousands of hens crammed into battery sheds, Senor Gasson’s chickens appeared to live in positive luxury.

“Who knows the codes for the barn doors?” Miranda asked, stepping over a line of metal feeders and walking over to look at the rows of straw bales.

“Well, myself, my sons Luis and Alvaro, my foreman Sol Seguro – no one else. Occasionally I hire a few other temporary workers, but mostly the four of us can do all that’s needed. I changed the door codes after the second robbery, but we all know the new codes, of course.”

Max trod his way carefully out of the barn and looked across to the long white shed which Senor Gasson had pointed out as the location for the egg sorting and packing operations. “Of course, there’s the possibility that one of your sons or your foreman may have given the codes to someone else.”

Gasson looked shocked. “I’m sure they would never do so. They’re all as concerned as I am about the thefts.”

Miranda picked up a glossy black feather which lay on the straw at her feet, and stroked it thoughtfully. “We’ll need to interview all of them. Do you have a room in the farmhouse we could use, please?”

***

Gasson’s little office off the farmhouse kitchen was cluttered with all the papers and files of his poultry business. Looking distracted with worry, he had dusted off a couple of spoke-backed wooden chairs and cleared a small space on the oak table for Max and Miranda’s use. A threadbare rug covered the stone floor and one of the farm dogs chose that moment to lounge into the room inquisitively, sniff around Max’s ankles, accept a few ear-scritches from him and turn a couple of circles on the rug before flumping down, apparently happy to keep them company for their interviews.

Miranda tested a slightly wobbly chair before deciding it was probably just about safe to sit on. Max was ambling around the room, looking with interest at the mass of small framed photographs which crowded the office walls, some of them crooked and obviously dating back many years. Most of the pictures featured poultry of various shapes and colours, or Marcello Gasson cradling his prize chickens proudly in his arms and brandishing rosettes or small trophies.

“Prize-winning chickens,” Max mused, peering more closely at the photographs. “He seems very proud of his birds. I suppose they are his nest egg.”

Miranda decided to pretend she hadn’t heard this last remark. “Luis Gasson, the elder son, should be here soon,” she said. “Senor Gasson must have given him the message by now.”

As she spoke, there was a tap on the open door and a tall dark man in his late twenties put his head around the doorframe. “I think you must be the detectives from Palma my father told me about,” he said, stepping inside and looking quickly from Max to Miranda. Miranda waved him to the other empty chair and he sat down. Luis Gasson bore some likeness to his father, but was much better-looking. He had the air of a man who would be more comfortable working outside in the sunshine than sitting trapped on a small chair in this small room. “I am Luis. He told me you wanted to ask me some questions - about the stolen birds?”

“Yes, we need to find out if you know anything which might help our investigation,” Miranda told him.

“Of course, I’ll help if I can, but I don’t know much,” Luis said. “All I know is that each time we have lost birds, the thieves come at night and no one hears anything. Nothing at all. And the locks on the barn doors are not broken.” He glanced at the photographs Max had been studying. “Last night they took our best breeding Minorcans. You know, there are only a few hundred of the true breeding stock left in Spain now, and only in the Balearics. My father is devastated. It’s been his life’s work to try to save these breeds.”

“Why do you think the thieves are targeting your chickens?” Max asked.

Luis shrugged. “I just don’t know. To a breeder or collector, of course, they are valuable stock. But where could they hide them on Mallorca?” He shrugged again.

“You and the other people who work on the farm – where were you all last night?” Miranda questioned.

“Papa and I had supper and went to bed quite early – at about nine. We had an early start this morning in the egg shed – we had to prepare orders for the local restaurants and hotels which use our rare-breed eggs. Alvaro, my brother, was out with his girlfriend when I went to bed. I didn’t hear him come in but he was asleep in his room when I got up this morning. I went to let the birds out into the fields and discovered there had been another robbery.”

“And the foreman? Sol Seguro?”

“Oh, he doesn’t live in the house. He has a cottage about ten minutes’ walk away. He leaves at about six in the evening and returns about eight in the morning.”

“Well, that’s useful to know. Thank you, Mr. Gasson, you’ve been very helpful. We’ll let you know if we need to speak to you again.”

As Luis got up to leave, he flashed Miranda a rather charming smile which revealed very white teeth. “I’m happy to help. I hope you find the thieves quickly. For my father’s sake.”

***

Alvaro Gasson was a skinnier, paler and altogether less attractive version of his elder brother Luis. His long hair was drawn back into a straggly ponytail and his attempts to grow a beard had so far only resulted in some rather pathetic tufts of chin hair, which Max, who took some pride in his beard grooming, regarded rather pityingly. Alvaro fidgeted constantly on his chair, glancing around and looking quite uncomfortable. Miranda made a mental note to check whether he had ever got himself into any trouble with the police, since he seemed so twitchy and nervous in their presence.

No, Alvaro said, he hadn’t seen or heard anything on any of the three occasions when birds had been stolen. Yes, he had gone out the previous evening with his girlfriend. Her name was Paula Duran and she lived on the other side of Maria de la Salut, out towards Ariany. They had had dinner with her family, and then gone to a bar, where he had watched a football match until Paula had got bored. After that, they had taken his jeep and driven around for a while. No, he couldn’t remember exactly where they had been. He had dropped Paula off at her home, where they had had a final drink together. He had returned to Avícola Son Reno at about eleven.   Everything on the farm had seemed quiet and normal when he got home. He had slept heavily and been woken the next morning by the commotion when Luis had discovered the latest theft and come back to the house to phone the police.

After Alvaro had hurried out of the office, casting a harried glance behind him, Max said, “He seems a bit nervous, no? Maybe we need to look at his story more closely.”

“Yes, I get the feeling he doesn’t like talking to the police,” Miranda agreed. She looked down at the heaps of folders and papers in front of her on the oak table. “I’d like to take a quick look through these files, just to find out what sort of shape the business is in. You never know, perhaps Senor Gasson is desperate to claim on the insurance for his stolen chickens. He seems genuine, but anyone can do stupid things if they’re short of money.”

“Oh, he seems very honest to me. And he seems to really love his chickens. In fact, I think he’s a good egg.”

Miranda fixed him with a piercing stare. “You’ve actually been Googling English phrases about chickens, haven’t you, Max?”

“No! Well, maybe, yes. I like the way you have so many idioms about birds. It’s cool.”

Miranda sighed and gave up. “If I look through these files, will you go and try to talk to Sol Seguro, the foreman?”

“Sure.” Max stepped over the snoring dog on the rug, and left Miranda frowning over the mess of paperwork.

***

Sol Seguro was a short, stocky man with bronzed muscular arms and a shiny bald head. He was throwing straw bales onto a trailer when Max found him near the egg shed, and making the bales look like they weighed practically nothing. Max gave one of the bales an experimental heave to check out its weight and was impressed.

“Senor Seguro? I am Detective Max Winter. Palma police.” Max waved his badge.

“I know who you are,” Sol Seguro grunted, chucking another bale into the trailer. “Marcelo told me you were here. And a woman, he said.”

“My partner, yes. May I ask you a few questions, please?”

Seguro shrugged. “If you must. Some of us have work to do though, you know.” Max seated himself comfortably on some of the straw bales still stacked on the ground and, after a reluctant moment, Seguro joined him. “What do you want to know?”

Producing his notebook and pen, Max asked, “How long have you worked here?”

“Here? Fifteen years. But with poultry, nearly thirty years.”

“Wow. You must know everything there is to know about chickens.”

Sol Seguro shrugged. “What do you want to know, Detective?”

“I just need to check a few facts with you. Where were you on the three nights when birds were stolen from the farm?”

“I was at home in my cottage. I leave between six and seven most nights. By the time I came into work each time, Marcelo or Luis had already discovered the thefts and they told me about them. We checked the barn doors but couldn’t see anything wrong with the keypads. I’ve told Marcelo he could do with improving the security, though. Maybe some alarms on the outside farm gates, or even security cameras.”

Ja, good idea.” Max was jotting down notes as Seguro talked. “If you’ve been here fifteen years, you must know the family well?”

“Yes, I suppose I do. Luis and Alvaro were just teenagers when I started work here. I’ve watched them grow up. Marcelo’s wife Ana died about ten years ago.”

“Excuse me for asking this, Senor, but have you ever told anyone else the codes for the barn doors?”

Sol Seguro looked at Max with contempt. “Of course not. Do I look like an idiot – or a thief?”

Max held his hands up apologetically. “Not at all, but I had to ask, I’m sorry. And what about Luis and Alvaro – do you think either of them might have shared the codes?”

Seguro looked thoughtful. “I don’t think so –“ He shrugged. “Unless Alvaro’s told that girlfriend of his. He’d probably tell her anything.” Sol’s face was inscrutable.

“And does Luis have a girlfriend?”

“No. I don’t know why not. He works very hard on the farm, though if you ask me he’s more interested in the money than the poultry. Maybe he doesn’t have time for a girlfriend.” Seguro got to his feet abruptly. “If you’ve finished asking questions, Detective, I’d like to get back to work now.”

***

“Now I want to meet Paula Duran,” Max told Miranda, after describing his interview with Sol Seguro to her. “Seguro thinks Alvaro couldn’t be trusted not to tell her the door codes. It’s possible she could be involved.” Max looked at the now much tidier piles of files and papers on the table in front of Miranda. “How are the books?”

“Fine. Senor Gasson isn’t making a fortune from his rare breed chickens, but his business is doing all right. I don’t think he needs to run any insurance scams to survive.” Miranda stood up from the rickety wooden chair. “We don’t seem to have many leads so far. I did find out a bit more information from Senor Gasson, though. Not last night, but on the night of the second theft, a neighbour thought she heard someone driving past about four o’clock in the morning. Could have been the thieves making their getaway?”

“Maybe.   Or maybe just someone on their way home from a club.”

***

They found Alvaro Gasson morosely grading eggs in the egg shed. After jumping nervously at the sight of police officers again, he told them that Paula Duran worked in a farmacia in Maria de la Salut. There didn’t seem to be any urgent leads to follow up at the farm, so it wasn’t long before Max’s BMW was speeding through the lanes from the farm into the centre of the small town.

They had timed their arrival well. When they reached the pharmacy Paula was just about to go on her break and she seemed happy to agree to join them at the nearby café to answer their questions.

She was, Max thought admiringly, quite frankly a stunner. With the curves of a centrefold, glossy black curls tumbling over her shoulders, and enormous conker-brown eyes outlined with plenty of mascara, she would have caught the eye of most men. Before leaving the pharmacy, she had pulled her work smock-top off over her head to reveal a particularly sexy red vest and extremely fitted jeans. What the hell, Max thought, as they found a free table outside the café and ordered coffees, does a girl like this see in a scrawny, unimpressive guy like Alvaro Gasson? Surely the local guys must be falling over themselves to take her out?

Paula’s thickly-lashed eyes flitted with disinterest over Miranda before giving Max a long approving look up and down, which she followed up with an inviting smile in his direction. Max glanced at Miranda and had to suppress a smile of his own as he saw her regarding Paula through narrowed eyes, clearly sizing her up and not in the least impressed.

“So,” Miranda began, “I assume you know there was another theft of birds from Avícola Son Reno last night?”

The expressive eyes widened. “Of course. It’s terrible. Poor Senor Gasson.”

“I understand you were with Alvaro last night, is that right?”

“Yes, we had dinner with my parents and went to a bar. Alvaro watched to watch some boring football match. Later we went for a drive and then he dropped me off and went home.”

“And what time did he leave you?”

“About a quarter to eleven. Then I went to bed. I got up about seven-thirty to go to work. Alvaro rang me later and told me there’d been another robbery.”

“You live with your parents, is that right?”

Paula sighed and looked away from Miranda as though she was boring her. “Yes. My family have a guesthouse and some holiday cottages, out towards Ariany. I live in one of the cottages just across the yard from my parents. I like it, it gives me more privacy.”

“Does Alvaro talk to you much about his father’s chicken business?” Max asked.

Paula’s full red lips turned up in a slight smile. “No. I’m not interested in chickens. I don’t know anything about them.”

***

“You realise,” Miranda said shortly afterwards, as she put on her sunglasses and Max started the car, “that she doesn’t actually have an alibi? If she lives in a separate cottage to her parents, they probably wouldn’t hear anything if she went out during the night.”

What a girl though,” Max whistled. “How did a guy like Alvaro Gasson get a girl like that to go out with him? She’s way out of his league.”

“Just because she’s attractive doesn’t mean we can rule her out of our enquiries.”

“You’re not jealous, are you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Max,” Miranda said automatically. Then, looking at the signpost at a junction, she asked, “Where are we going? I thought we were going back to the farm?”

Max accelerated away from the junction. “Well, I thought maybe we should go and take a look at the Durans’ place. Paula may be gorgeous but she seems smart, too. And the person behind these robberies isn’t bird-brained.”

Miranda deplored the pun, but was about to agree with his choice of destination when her phone rang. “Max, turn the car around. We have to go back to the farm. Senor Gasson’s had a heart attack.”

***