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Don't Count Your Chickens

Chapter Text

When they got back to Avícola Son Reno, there was an ambulance parked outside. Hurrying into the farmhouse, Max and Miranda found two paramedics checking out Marcelo Gasson, who was strapped into the ambulance’s carrying-chair in the kitchen. His lips were slightly blue and he looked weak and exhausted. Luis was hovering around, looking concerned.

“My father has had problems with his heart for a long time,” he explained to Max and Miranda. “He takes medication every day. Most of the time he is fine, but he has had several attacks in the last few weeks, and I suppose the shock of losing more of his birds must have brought this one on.”

“Did you forget to take your medication this morning, Senor?” one of the paramedics asked Marcelo.

Gasson shook his head, his face drawn. “No, no, I always take it - first thing in the morning.”

“Well, we’re going to need to take you on a little trip to the hospital, just so the doctors can check you over.”

Marcelo was wheeled from the kitchen to the waiting ambulance. “Luis – take care of the birds. And tell Alvaro and Sol –“

“Don’t worry about anything, Papa,” Luis cut in quickly. “I have it all under control.”

As Marcelo was helped into the ambulance, he looked anxiously at Miranda. “Please – Detective – help me. Find my birds.”

Miranda met his eyes and tried to look reassuring. “We’ll do our best, Senor Gasson. Get well soon.”

***

The next couple of hours passed in some tedious questioning of all the nearest neighbours to find out if they had heard anything else (they hadn’t). After this, Miranda let Max go alone to the egg shed, where Luis Gasson was waiting to explain at great length about profit margins and the market for rare breed eggs in high-end catering.   Being bored by egg economics could be Max’s punishment for all those bird idioms he insisted on using, Miranda decided. She walked up the path towards the farmhouse and saw the lanky Alvaro Gasson leaning on a gate, watching the peacefully foraging flocks of birds in the fields. When he heard Miranda’s footsteps approaching he looked up, but instead of flinching away from her nervously he just looked worried. She leaned on the gate next to him. “Have you heard anything more from the hospital about your father?”

“Yes.” Alvaro actually smiled. “He is better, and resting comfortably. They think that perhaps in the upset of discovering the theft this morning he didn’t take his heart tablets, although he insists he did. They are going to keep him under observation tonight, but we can go and bring him home tomorrow.”

“Oh, that’s good.” Miranda looked at the nearest chickens, which wandered up to the gate hopefully. “What breed of hens are these?”

“Ah, these are some of my favourites,” Alvaro told her. “Blue Andalusians – you see the lovely blue sheen on their feathers? Very pretty, very unusual colouring.”

“They are…erm…very handsome.”

“But see that little flock there in the next field, they are my father’s favourites. Mallorquina – they actually originated right here on the island, but now they are very rare. They can be different colours, but these are paga – with the lovely yellow heads and backs, and the black feathers below. They have such personality – they are a little bit wild and love to roam free. Thank God, none of them have been taken yet.”

Miranda eyed the glossy two-toned birds and agreed that the Mallorquina chickens certainly seemed to have an unusually intelligent glint in their eyes. She looked with interest at Alvaro, too. His tone as he talked about the birds was almost as enthusiastic as his father’s, and he was more animated than she had seen him before. At that moment he caught her eye and suddenly looked a little shame-faced.

“Detective – I wanted to apologise. I’m sorry if you have found me rude.”

“Not at all,” Miranda said politely.

“It’s just – you see – my last girlfriend – she broke up with me because she fell in love with a policeman,” he explained, while Miranda stared in surprise. “So now, whenever I see the police, I can’t help feeling uncomfortable. I am trying to get over it, but I really loved her, you know?”

Miranda blinked. “Oh. Well. I’m sorry to hear that. But you have Paula now, don’t you?”

He looked solemn. “Yes. But – I don’t know – I don’t think she is serious about me. I think there might be someone else.”

***

He doesn’t like the police because his last girlfriend ran off with a policeman?” Max laughed incredulously. “Now I’ve heard everything.”

“Well, I believe him.” Miranda closed the car door and put on her seatbelt. “And you know, when you actually talk to Alvaro he’s as obsessed with those birds as his father is.”

Max rolled his eyes as he put the car into gear. “Come on. This is our chance to check out where Paula Duran lives, before she gets home from work.”

***

The finca owned by Paula Duran’s parents was a neat and tidy property, with bright pots of flowers positioned by the sign which advertised the freshly-painted guesthouse and holiday cottages. Further back from the road were fields with fruit trees, vegetable beds and some grape vines. A dog barked somewhere at the back of the main house, but there were no cars parked outside and no-one answered Max’s repeated rings and knocks at the front door. It seemed that the Durans and their guests were all out for the day. Miranda and Max wandered around and peered in at windows. Miranda was quick to guess which cottage was Paula’s home. She pointed out to Max that all the other cottages were spotlessly tidy and guest-ready, whereas this one was frankly a tip, with items of women’s clothing and dirty plates strewn all over the small living-room. “Either this is where Paula lives, or some of the holiday guests are making themselves really unpopular.”

Without realising it at first, they struck gold when they were hailed by a woman who had been peering suspiciously at them from the doorway of a house across the road from the Durans' property. She beckoned to them. “Eh, what do you want?” she shrilled. “No one is home there.”

Max gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile and flashed his ID badge at her. “Palma police, Senora. Do you know the Durans at all?”

Senora Calvo was delighted to have someone to talk to. A sprightly lady in her seventies, with henna-red hair and a flowered housecoat, she ushered Max and Miranda into her house. The house was dark and cluttered with many dusty ornaments, items of furniture and paintings of the Virgin Mary and other saints. There was a strong smell of cats, and several felines patrolled the room. They jumped on and off Max’s lap as Senora Calvo bustled about pouring coffee. Miranda held her notebook on her knee at a careful angle to discourage the cats from even attempting to try her lap.

It quickly became clear that Senora Calvo was a mine of information. Yes, she knew all about the Durans, not that they were that friendly to her, though heaven knew she’d tried to be a good neighbour since they’d bought the old finca six years ago and done it all up for the tourists. They were always too busy to stop and chat to her, but the business had done well. Senora Duran was a keen gardener and grew her own produce which was used in the guesthouse catering. Senor Duran made wine as a hobby and enjoyed doing DIY around the property. There was a son, but he worked in a bank in Madrid and rarely came home.

“I know that Paula, too.” Senora Calvo made a face which suggested she didn’t think that much of Paula. “I see her coming and going. She works in a farmacia in Maria de la Salut.”

“Yes, we know.” Miranda took a polite tiny sip of the tar-like coffee and tried not to gag. Max had already manfully drained his small cup. “Do you ever see her boyfriend visiting her? We think he was here for dinner last night.”

Senora Calvo threw up her hands in a gesture of confusion. “Her boyfriend, which boyfriend? She has more than one man in her life. There’s a young man with a jeep – he has a ponytail and hair on his chin – not worth being called a beard –“ She flicked her fingers at her chin to indicate Alvaro’s tufts of hair. “He comes often. He was here last night bringing her home, late. Woke me up with his headlights and his engine.”

“But there are other men who come to see her, too?” Max asked, watching Miranda’s struggles with the coffee. A fluffy grey cat jumped on to his lap and he stroked it cautiously, suspecting it might have fleas.

“Another one, at least. A little older, maybe. Dark. Good-looking. I’ve seen him come here to pick her up quite a few times.”

Miranda and Max exchanged quizzical glances. Alvaro seemed to be right in his suspicions that Paula was seeing someone else.

It was another half an hour before Senora Calvo reluctantly let her visitors escape. Max crossed the road to collect the car, while Miranda said a final goodbye on the doorstep. “You’ve been very helpful, Senora. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. I hope that Paula hasn’t been getting involved in anything she shouldn’t. That girl needs to sort herself out and find a really nice young man, like yours.”

Miranda followed Senora Calvo’s glance to where Max was getting into the BMW, fortunately out of earshot. “Oh, he’s not my – we just work together.” She seemed to have to explain this to people far too often, she thought.

Senora Calvo nudged her in the ribs and winked. “If you say so, eh? Come back and see me any time. I enjoyed talking to you both.”

Slightly ruffled, Miranda waited for Max to pull the BMW up in front of them. She got in and returned Senora Calvo’s wave as they drove away. After a quick stop to check on the situation at Avícola Son Reno, it would be time to head back to Palma as the evening drew in.

***

Inés, when she asked for a case update the next morning, was not best pleased to learn that they were not much further forward in finding the lost poultry or identifying the thieves. She made a few pointed remarks about simple cases, and wondered aloud how hard it could be to find three hundred chickens wandering around Mallorca.

Another two days passed without any major breakthrough on the case. Max and Miranda had spent the time looking into the backgrounds of the Gasson family and anyone else connected with the case. They had studied satellite maps and driven miles around Mallorca looking for any possible sites where three hundred stolen rare chickens could be concealed. None of this effort had led to anything very useful. Miranda had also had to put up with Max being uncharacteristically grumpy all the previous day because he’d met Carmen’s new boyfriend at Joan’s Bar and the guy was so unfairly nice, and so obviously smitten with Carmen, that even Max couldn’t find anything to criticise in him. Miranda thought of pointing out that it was now nearly six months since Carmen had broken off her romantic relationship with Max, and he couldn’t have expected her to stay single forever, but she decided that mentioning this would only increase his grumpiness, so she kept the conversation firmly on the case instead.

“Let’s go back to Avícola Son Reno. We ought to check on Senor Gasson, anyway, after his heart attack.”

They found Marcelo resting in a chair in the farmhouse kitchen, and Alvaro with him, preparing an omelette and salad for lunch and giving his father a lecture on taking it easy. He nodded in quite a friendly way at Miranda and Max.

“How are you, Senor Gasson?” asked Miranda. “I’m glad to see you’re out of hospital.”

“I’m fine, Detective,” Marcelo replied, although he still looked drawn and ill. “No one is letting me lift a finger. All day I have people running around after me.”

“Looks like he’s feeling a little hen-pecked,” Max murmured in Miranda’s ear. Miranda winced, but decided that at least if Max was back to making bird puns he had got over his temporary grumpiness.

“We like to look after you, Papa,” Alvaro said. “You know the doctors said you had to be careful not to do too much.”

“I want to walk around the farm, see my birds, but they won’t let me,” Marcelo complained. “At least we haven’t had any more trouble.”

“Well, that’s good,” Miranda said.

“Yes, and the day after tomorrow there are men coming to put in alarms and security cameras around the barns,” Alvaro told them, beating eggs to make his omelette. “Papa decided to take up Sol’s suggestion of putting in more security.”

“It’s worth the cost, if it protects my birds,” Marcelo said emphatically. “Have you found out any more about the thieves?”

“We’ve been making a lot of enquiries,” Max assured him, wishing they had something more solid to tell him. “Don’t worry, Senor, we hope to be able to recover your stolen birds very soon.”

With no real progress to report, Miranda suggested that they should have another look around the farm in case they noticed anything they had missed before. Leaving the farmhouse, she and Max walked down the winding path between the barns and fields. As usual, the fields were dotted with flocks of birds.

“I wonder if-“ Max broke off as a stocky figure popped out of a barn door they were approaching and gestured to them urgently. It was Sol Seguro, and he beckoned them into the barn. Slightly mystified, Max and Miranda followed him. Once inside, Seguro looked out of the door again to make sure there was no-one else nearby.

“I need to talk to you, Detectives,” he said, looking worried.

“About the robberies?” Max asked.

“Not exactly.”

“Senor Gasson told us that he’d taken your suggestion about putting in alarms and cameras,” said Miranda. “Hopefully that will stop the thieves.”

Sol Seguro nodded impatiently. “Yes, yes. I am glad he is doing that. But I wanted to talk to you about something else. About Marcelo. I think something is wrong.”

“Well – he did just have a heart attack,” Max said. “But he seems to be getting better now –“

Seguro broke in again. “No, you don’t understand. I didn’t want to think it – I couldn’t believe it – but I know something is wrong.”

“Please, tell us, Senor Seguro,” Miranda urged, him, getting out her notebook.

Seguro sat down heavily on a nearby straw bale. “Well. Marcelo started having heart trouble about five years ago. He had a little attack, and the doctors gave him some medication. He got better, and he has been fine for a long time. Then, about six weeks ago, he had a bad attack, and since then he has been ill so much – one attack after another.”

“Um – I suppose it could just be unfortunate that his heart problems have got worse?” Miranda suggested tactfully.

“There is something strange going on,” Seguro insisted. “Marcelo is one of my oldest friends. I know him. He thinks he is going mad because the doctors think he hasn’t been taking his medication properly, and he knows that he has. Something is wrong. He is frightened that he will die, and I am frightened for him.”

“People’s memories get worse as they get older,” Max said. “Perhaps he really did forget?”

Seguro glared at him. “Not Marcelo. There’s nothing wrong with his memory, and he and I are not that old! He’s the most careful man I know.”

“I’m not sure how much we can help,” Miranda said, “but thank you for sharing this with us, Senor. We’ll definitely look into it.”

Walking away from the barn, Max asked, “What is he suggesting? That someone is out to get Marcelo? It sounds crazy.”

Miranda was frowning thoughtfully. “It does, but – I’d like to check something out.” She led the way back to the house, where Marcelo Gasson was now eating his meal from a tray on his lap. Alvaro was tidying up the sink, and Miranda approached him quietly. “Alvaro – could you show me where your father keeps his heart medication, please?”

Alvaro looked surprised, but directed her to the bathroom, where the medication was kept in a plastic box on a shelf. Once she was alone, Miranda examined the multiple bottles in the box, which all contained generic-looking white capsules. She opened the first bottle and looked closely at the pills inside, before repeating this with the other bottles. Finally, she took several plastic evidence bags from her pocket and bagged up two capsules from each bottle.

“Senor Gasson keeps his pills in the bathroom, where it would be easy for someone else to access them,” she told Max shortly afterwards, as they were getting into the car. “I want to get these back to Palma and ask Federico to analyse them. I’m no expert, but I think some of these capsules do look a tiny bit different. Sol and Marcelo are so sure that Marcelo wouldn’t forget to take his medication. I know it sounds crazy, but what if someone’s been replacing some of his pills with fake ones, to try to bring on a heart attack – maybe even a fatal one?”

“It’s a long shot, but it’s worth checking out,” Max agreed. “And – let me see – who do we know in this case who works in a pharmacy and would have access to lots of pills?”

Their eyes met, and simultaneously they mouthed the words, “Paula Duran.

***

After dropping the pills off with Federico, Max and Miranda decided to head straight back to Maria de la Salut and pay another visit to the pharmacy where Paula worked. Alvaro had told them that it was her day off, and they were hoping to make some enquiries without alerting Paula to their activities.

“If Paula really is providing fake pills to make Marcelo sick, she must have a motive for doing it,” Max mused. “Does her boyfriend Alvaro want to get rid of his father? And what for? Does he want money, or the farm?”

“If he’s trying to get the farm, he’d have Luis to deal with,” Miranda pointed out. “Luis is the oldest son.” She frowned. “I just can’t believe that Alvaro would try to kill his father. He seems really concerned about him.”

“That could be an act,” Max suggested, pulling the BMW into a parking space near the pharmacy, in the middle of the little town.   The shops had only just re-opened after the lunch break, and the streets were quiet with the atmosphere of an afternoon siesta. They entered the pharmacy to find no customers in sight and only one staff member, a plump grey-haired woman who was tidying the counter. She looked up as they entered. The badge on her shirt identified her as a qualified pharmacist.

Buenas tardes,” she greeted them. “Can I help you?”

Miranda flashed her police badge. “Palma police. We’re hoping you can help us with an investigation.”

“Of course, but I can’t imagine –“

Max smiled at her. “It’s just a routine enquiry, Senora. Some pharmacies on the island have reported that medication has been going missing. Have you had any problems like that?”

The woman looked upset. “I told Senora Martin that we should have reported it, but she wanted to keep it quiet.”

“So you have noticed missing drugs?” Miranda asked.  

The woman came out from behind the counter. “I hope I won’t get in trouble for telling you this. But it’s important to help the police, isn’t it?”  

“Of course. Please, sit down, Senora.” Max motioned her to a chair. “What’s your name? And what can you tell us?”

“I’m Maria Reyes. It was a couple of months ago. Senora Martin – she is the owner – said it was probably just a mistake. Someone had sold packets of medicines and forgotten to record them. But it’s happened a few times since. They weren’t controlled drugs –when we issue anything dangerous we have to record it very strictly. These were just a few packets of over-the-counter medicines, so Senora Martin said it was probably nothing to worry about, and we should all just try to be more careful in future.”

“What sort of medicines went missing, do you know?” Miranda asked.

Maria Reyes screwed her face up as if trying to remember. “Well, there were some sleeping tablets. Not the really strong ones, just the regular sort you might buy if you had insomnia, you know? And I think there were some allergy capsules. I don’t remember all the details, though.”

Max was scribbling down her words as Miranda was looking around at the packets and bottles on the pharmacy shelves. “Allergy capsules?” Miranda asked. “What would happen if you took those when you didn’t really need them for an allergy?”

The pharmacist looked surprised. “Not much. They’re just an anti-histamine. They wouldn’t do you any harm.”

But if what you really needed was heart medication, they wouldn’t do you any good either, Miranda thought, and she could almost hear Max thinking the same. “What colour are the allergy capsules, Senora?” she asked.

Maria Reyes went to a shelf and pulled down a packet. “I can’t remember exactly which medications went missing. But they may have been these ones.” She held the packet towards them so that they could see the picture of white capsules on the front, next to an illustration of a bee and a flower and the words Alivia de la alergia.

Max and Miranda exchanged significant glances. “How many people work here, Senora?” Max asked. “Apart from yourself?”

“Well, Senora Martin and myself are the pharmacists. Then there’s Daniel, he’s training to be a pharmacist, and two girls who work as assistants, Eva and Paula.” Senora Reyes looked worried. “You said medicines have gone missing from other pharmacies? Do you think this is connected?”

“No, I don’t,” said Miranda, knowing that Max had made up the story about the other thefts. “I’m sure you have nothing to worry about, Senora. As you say, it was probably just someone being careless. Thank you for your help.”

They left the shop just as a young woman in a pharmacy assistant’s smock-top was returning from her lunch break. Eva, the other assistant, they presumed.

***

“So,” Max said. “If some of those heart pills turn out to be anti-histamines, we have a good idea where they came from. Paula Duran works in that shop, and her boyfriend is Alvaro Gasson. That can’t be a coincidence.”

“No, but we still need the evidence. Paula had the opportunity, but we’ve got nothing to prove that it was her who took the medications from the pharmacy and nothing to prove who put them in the Gassons’ bathroom. I’m going to dust Marcelo’s medicine box for fingerprints, but I’ll probably find prints from the whole family there, plus my own.”

“It’s possible she might still have some of the empty packets in her cottage. Her place was a mess. She might be careless enough to leave them lying around and not throw them away.”

Miranda nodded in agreement. “Well, it’s worth a look. I think we’ve got enough suspicion to get a search warrant for the Durans’ place, anyway.” They reached the BMW and opened the car doors. “Let’s head back to the farm and check for those fingerprints.”

***