It was half-way through the next morning before the search warrant for the Durans’ finca came through. Max and Miranda were just closing down their computers before heading out towards Maria de la Salut again with the warrant when Federico breezed into the office.
“What do I get for pushing through all your medicine tests so fast?” he asked cheerfully, grinning at Miranda.
“Not much.” Miranda stood up from her chair and put on her jacket. “What did you find out?”
Federico pretended to look hurt. “I get nothing, after working my fingers to the bone?” He put a hand up to mock-shield himself from her glare and added hastily, “Okay, okay. Well, I tested all those tablets you gave me. Some of them were a genuine heart medication, but over half of them were just mild anti-histamines. They looked very similar, but for someone with a heart condition? Useless.”
Max snapped his fingers. “Just as we thought. Thanks, Rico. I’ll buy you a drink when this case is over.”
Federico smiled. “Well, I’m not going to get anything from Miranda, so I’ll take that drink. Thanks.”
“No Senora Calvo on her doorstep,” Max remarked, as his car approached the Durans’ finca. “We might escape being lured inside the house of cats and bad coffee.”
“I thought you liked her. She told me she thought you were such a nice young man,” said Miranda.
Max had barely had time to shudder at this when they both saw a motorbike leaving the gate of the Durans’ property, a few hundred yards ahead. The rider was slim and female. Black curls streamed from beneath the back of her open-face helmet. It was Paula Duran, and she seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere. She didn’t seem to have noticed the approaching BMW, as she had turned out of the gate in the opposite direction and was now speeding away from them.
Max looked at Miranda. “Do we get on with the search? Or follow her to see where she’s going?”
“Follow her. But let’s keep our distance.”
Max was an expert at keeping a discreet distance from the vehicle he was following, but Paula was going at such a speed that he had to keep up a fair pace not to lose sight of her. They weaved through the country lanes for ten minutes.
“She’s not heading into town,” said Miranda. “Or to see Alvaro. She’s heading out towards the coast, but I don’t know this area well.”
“There’s not much around here until you get to the coastal resorts. She’s staying away from the main roads. The only things around here are woods and farms.”
They followed Paula down a few more minor roads before she headed into a wooded lane. There were no other vehicles in sight now, and Max dropped further back so that she wouldn’t hear their engine too close behind her. Paula’s motorbike sped down the wooded lane until she slowed and took a sharp left turn, disappearing from view. Shortly afterwards they heard the bike’s engine slow and cut out.
“She’s stopped,” Max said, cutting his own engine immediately and coasting to a halt at the side of the lane. They got out, taking care to shut the car doors quietly, and jogged down the wooded lane to the point where Paula had turned off. A smaller dusty lane, only fit for farm vehicles or motorbikes, wound through the trees ahead of them. Paula’s motorbike was propped up against a rock about fifty yards away.
Max and Miranda trod cautiously towards the parked bike, trying to make as little noise as possible. As they reached it they saw some buildings further on, just visible through the dense trees. To their right, a broken farm gate leaned open and led into a neglected-looking yard. There were a few tumbledown stone buildings, overgrown with brambles and weeds. Although the place looked as though it hadn’t been used as a farm for years, there were a few signs that people had been here more recently. In the doorway of the nearest stone outbuilding there was a new-looking stack of plastic tubs of animal feed, with some full plastic sacks visible behind them. In the middle of the yard was a small trailer, suitable for hitching up to the back of a vehicle or pulling by hand. On the trailer were a number of large metal cages. The trailer and cages were new-looking and had obviously been used recently.
Across the yard, and through more woodland, another building could just be glimpsed – some sort of large barn. There were sounds of someone moving about in that direction, dragging something heavy. Knowing this must be Paula, and not wishing to be seen by her, Max and Miranda dodged behind the trailer and took cover. Miranda leaned across and looked more closely at the metal cages. She pulled out a glossy black feather and showed it to Max, who raised his eyebrows and nodded. He looked across at the plastic tubs in the doorway of the stone building, and suggested with a jerk of his head that they should check these out. Keeping low, they hurried across the yard from the shelter of the trailer and ducked inside the doorway. Max bent to look at the labels on the tubs of animal feed and the sacks. “Poultry feed,” he whispered. Miranda tapped him on the arm and pointed behind him to a small stack of straw bales, very like those at Avícola Son Reno.
Emerging from the stone outbuilding, Max and Miranda made their way through the trees towards the barn where Paula was. Trying to be silent, they moved through the undergrowth. Ahead of them they could see the barn, which seemed to be in fairly good repair and had a wooden door facing them. As they got closer they saw Paula just outside the barn door, bending over a large plastic sack of feed and scooping out some of the contents into a smaller container. She had her back to them but Miranda still dropped to a crouch in the cover of some bushes, followed by Max. They waited for a few moments while Paula completed her task. Finally, she opened the door of the barn and carried her container of feed inside. In the seconds before she closed the door behind her, a noise could be heard from within the barn. It was the sound of hens calling and clucking.
With the barn door closed behind Paula, Max and Miranda rose from their hiding place and crept quickly through the brambles and weeds to reach the far side of the barn. Here, they were safe from being seen by Paula if she came out of the door. Flattening themselves against the wooden wall, they reached a place where there were some dirty windows high above them. The windows were a couple of feet above even Max’s head as they gazed up.
“Boost me up,” Miranda whispered, and Max cupped his hands obediently to make a foothold for her to push herself up. Bracing his back against the wall, he boosted her above his head and held her legs to steady her. Miranda’s hands grabbed for the windowsill, and she used her sleeve to rub a patch of dirt from the glass. After staring through the window for a long moment she whispered, “Okay, let me down.” As Max lowered her, she lost her balance and almost crashed to the ground, which would probably have made enough noise to alert Paula to their presence. Luckily, Max managed to grab her before she hit the floor. He clutched her tightly against him for a few seconds before lowering her until her feet could touch the floor. This near-disaster left them both needing to lean against the barn wall to get their breath back. Miranda had found it strangely distracting to be held so closely, even if only momentarily, and she took a moment to banish unsettling thoughts before whispering, “Three guesses what I saw inside the barn?”
“Three hundred stolen chickens?”
“Right first time.”
At this moment they heard the barn door open, around the corner from their hiding place, and Paula’s voice sounded quite clearly. She was obviously speaking to someone on the phone.
“Yes, I’m here now, don’t worry. I’ve fed them, I’m just going to refill the water, and then I’ll go home.”
There was a pause, while someone else must have been replying.
“Of course they don’t. No one’s going to look here. Now, what about tonight. Why does it have to be tonight?”
“Oh, I see. So I guess it has to be tonight.”
“The what? Mallorquina? You know I don’t care what kind. Whatever you say.”
“The same time, then? Pick me and the trailer up by three-thirty, then we can be in and out by four.”
“Okay. No, I won’t forget the water. See you later.”
Max and Miranda heard the squeal of a bolt as Paula closed the barn door, and the swish of her legs through the weeds as she headed back towards the yard, presumably to fetch water for the poultry. They exchanged meaningful glances.
“We have to get back to the car, quickly,” Max whispered. “We have to get out of here before she does. If she leaves first, and sees our car in the lane, she’ll know someone followed her.”
Miranda nodded and they hurried as quietly as possible through the trees, trying to head in the direction of the lane without going near the yard, farm buildings or Paula. With a few scratches from thorns – Max looked ruefully at a tear in the sleeve of a favourite shirt – they reached a stone wall and scrambled over it into the lane where Paula’s bike was still propped against a rock. They were back at the car in a very short time. Max reversed as quietly as possible until he reached a place where he could turn around and head out of the wooded lanes towards the nearest proper road.
“So we’ve found the stolen chickens, anyway,” he said, turning the car towards Maria de la Salut.
Miranda nodded. “Yes, they’ve got food and water but they’re not living in the luxury they’re used to with Senor Gasson. It’s pretty crowded in there.”
“And we can prove that Paula was involved with the theft. I’d like to know who that property belongs to.”
“I can hazard a guess, but let’s check it out.” Miranda got out her phone and put in a call to the office in Palma. She had taken note of the road signs to get the rough location of the old hidden farm, and there had been a faded board on the yard gate which had read Bencomo. She described this, and the location, to her colleague in the office and asked them to run a check on the land registry and try to find out who owned the remote property.
“From that conversation Paula was having, it sounds like there’s going to be another theft tonight,” Max said.
“Yes, and you know why it has to be tonight, don’t you? Tomorrow the security alarms and cameras are being installed. This could be the last chance for the thieves.”
“Of course. And the robbery is planned for four o’clock in the morning, or just before that. But who was she talking to? Alvaro?”
“I’m not so sure. Let’s make a stop at Avícola Son Reno now, and then tonight -”
“I know what you’re going to suggest,” said Max. “A stakeout. We’re going to be sharing a barn with the chickens tonight, right?”
Max and Miranda agreed that the search of the Durans’ property could wait until the following day. If they were hoping to gain conclusive evidence by catching the chicken thieves in the act that night, there was no point in alerting Paula to their suspicions by turning up to search her cottage first. “If she hasn’t got rid of any pills there by now, she’s not likely to get rid of them before tomorrow. She has no idea we’re on to her.”
“We won’t tell any of the Gasson family we’re planning to stakeout their barns tonight. Whoever Paula is working with, we don’t want them to be scared off. I think Sol Seguro might be a useful ally, though.”
Their brief visit to Avícola Son Reno gave them some more useful information. Marcelo was still confined to the house, resting, and Alvaro seemed to be his main carer. Luis Gasson and Sol Seguro had both been working around the barns when Max and Miranda arrived. Miranda engaged Luis in conversation while Max made an excuse to follow Seguro into one of the barns where he could talk to him without being overheard. When both conversations were over, Max and Miranda met up again and headed for the car.
“What did you find out?” Miranda asked, as Max started the engine.
“That Castellana Negra chickens lay white eggs?”
“Okay, okay. Seguro is very happy to help us. He will hide himself around the farm gate just before four in the morning. That way, if anyone tries to run from us, he can hold them for us. He’s a strong guy.”
“All right. If there’s only Paula and one other person, we shouldn’t need any help from Uniform to round them up.”
“I found out something else from Seguro too.” Max’s expression suggested that whatever he had found out was significant.
“This evening he’s been told to move the Mallorquina hens into the barn furthest from the house. He has no idea why. There’s no good reason to change the flocks over.”
“Unless - someone wants to make it easier to steal the Mallorquina hens without being heard from the house! Paula mentioned them in her phone call, didn’t she? Who asked him to move the flocks?”
Max paused for effect. “Luis did.”
“Luis?” Miranda’s eyebrows went up in surprise, before her face became thoughtful. “Do you know, somehow I’m not surprised.”
Max turned the car on to the main road to Palma. “I thought it was Paula and Alvaro who were supposed to be a couple.”
“Yes, but it’s never made sense to me. Alvaro just doesn’t seem like Paula’s type. And the more I’ve seen of him, the more I can’t believe he’s the one stealing his father’s poultry and switching his pills.”
Max considered. “So, what if Paula was seeing both brothers? If Luis was the one she was serious about and they were just using Alvaro as a decoy to hide their relationship?”
“I think we’re getting to the truth at last. Let’s get back to the office and put everything we know together. Then we’d better plan what we’re going to do tonight.”
“Seguro’s given me the entry codes for the barns. If we get there about midnight, no one should hear us going in. I’ll pick you up about eleven.”
The rare yellow-and-black Mallorquina chickens, the pride of Senor Gasson’s heart, were very interested in the presence of the two strangers who had entered their darkened barn just after midnight. They got up from their roosts and pecked around Max and Miranda’s ankles, looked hopeful that they might have pockets full of corn, and generally wouldn’t leave them alone, until Max suggested climbing right up on to the top of the neat stack of hay bales. “It might be out of their reach.” It was a bit of a stretch for Miranda to reach the top but he hauled her up and they settled themselves, now looking down at the chickens below, who made a few disappointed token flaps towards them and then seemed to shrug and wander off to peck at the water dispensers or find perches for the night. An unexpected pun came into Miranda’s head – We have a bird’s eye view from up here – but she left it unspoken. Max really didn’t need any encouragement.
The straw bales were a bit prickly, but not horribly uncomfortable. Max took his jacket off and rolled it under his head for a pillow. Their only light came from the small torch Miranda was holding, one of two they had brought. As a precaution against dozing off, she set the alarm on her watch for twenty to four. “We might as well take turns to get some sleep,” she said. “I’ll keep watch first, if you like.”
She pulled off her shoes and lay down next to Max, digging her shoulder blades into the straw in an attempt to get more comfortable. She turned off the torch to save the battery and pushed it into the pocket of her trousers where she wouldn’t lose it. Lying in the dark with her eyes wide open, Miranda listened to the quiet sounds of the barn. Gentle clucking from the sleepy chickens. Small rustles from the straw at each slight human movement. Max’s breathing close to her. Her senses alerted at the distant sound of a car passing the farm, but it gave no sign of slowing or stopping and was soon gone.
“Well, this is cosy.” Max’s voice from the darkness near her ear made her jump slightly.
“Go to sleep, Max.”
There was a rustling noise as he pushed himself up on to his elbow. “Do you know, I’ve started to get quite interested in all these rare chickens. Senor Gasson is full of information, no? He can’t stop talking about his beloved birds.”
Not put off, Max went on, “Did you know, for example, that the Minorcan chickens are the largest Mediterranean breed of chicken?”
“Really?” Miranda tried to sound discouraging.
“And did you know that the Penedesenca hens are famous for laying dark brown eggs?”
“Max. Go to sleep. I’ll wake you at two and you can take a turn on watch.”
She heard him chuckle as he lay down again and settled himself into the straw. “Good night, Miranda.”
It was quiet again. At least he doesn’t snore, she thought.
For what seemed like a long time – but she did not check her watch – Miranda lay staring into the dark again. Total darkness sometimes triggered her claustrophobia, but she felt safe enough here with the airy spaciousness of the barn around and above her. Unexpectedly, the knowledge that Max was sleeping only inches away made her feel safe too. She strained her ears for any untoward noises, but there were none. And eventually, despite her best professional intentions, her eyelids drifted shut and Miranda was asleep.
Someone was patting her shoulder, and whispering very low, “Miranda? It’s time to wake up.”
She wasn’t in her bed, but lying on something less comfortable than her mattress. Her back was cold, but her face and front were pressed against something lovely and warm. Not really awake, she managed a sleepy “Mmm-hmm?” and curled herself tighter, her fingers clutching warm fabric that wasn’t her duvet cover.
“Miranda. Wake up.”
She began to wake up properly and realised where she was. It was straw beneath her, and she was in a barn at Avícola Son Reno, waiting to catch chicken thieves. As she forced her sleep-blurred eyes open, Miranda realised that the hand gently patting her shoulder belonged to Max. At some time during the past few hours, she seemed to have rolled towards him in her sleep until now her face was buried in the warmth of his chest and her fingers were clutching his shirt. It was possible she had even been drooling on him. She let go very quickly, rolled away from him in embarrassment and sat up, trying to regain her composure. The darkness in the barn had given way to the greyness before dawn, and the temperature had dropped. The chickens all seemed to be huddled up on their roosts, asleep. Miranda looked at the lighted face of her watch. It was almost a quarter to four.
“Sorry,” she said. “I don’t think my watch alarm went off.”
“It’s okay. I’ve been awake for a while.” He was looking at her with a strange expression she couldn’t read, but he didn’t make any teasing comments about waking to find her snuggled up to him, and she was grateful.
In preparation for a night in a barn, Miranda had put on a pullover, but it was surprisingly cold now that she was away from Max’s warmth. She wrapped her arms around her knees and shivered a little. Max reached behind his head for the rolled jacket he had been using for a pillow and held it out to her. “Here. Put this on.”
Her discomfort overcame her reluctance. “Thanks,” she said, shrugging her arms into the jacket. “It’s freezing.”
“It will soon warm up when the sun rises.” Max rubbed his eyes. He had bits of straw in his curly hair, and Miranda suspected she probably didn’t look any tidier. “We’d better get down from here before they arrive.”
He lowered himself from the stack of bales on to the ground. Miranda followed him quickly despite the height of the drop, only stumbling slightly as her feet hit the floor. Max steadied her with an outstretched arm and breathed in her ear, “Let’s get behind the straw, where they can’t see us.” There was space enough between the straw-stack and the barn wall for them to conceal themselves out of sight of the door.
They waited for another ten minutes before they heard the sound they had been listening for on the path outside. There was a faint squeak of wheels, followed by a small metallic clunk as the trailer, or whatever it was, was lowered to the path. The keypad beeped quietly and the door unlocked with a click.
The sleeping chickens stirred as the door opened, but didn’t take much notice. A slim form slipped around the edge of the door in the semi-darkness and glanced around, then withdrew again. There were a few more quiet metallic noises before the door was pushed open a little wider and two figures moved through it. Even in this dim light they were clearly carrying a large metal carrying cage between them, big enough to contain perhaps a dozen hens. They set it down in the straw and straightened up.
Unsurprisingly, the slim figure who had entered first was Paula Duran, less glamorous than usual in jeans, a baggy sweatshirt and with her dark curls bundled into a woollen cap. The other figure was a tall, dark young man, serious-faced as he opened the door of the cage and competently began to grab sleepy hens and bundle them into it.
It was Luis Gasson.
Max stepped out from behind the straw bales, causing Paula to shriek and put her hand to her heart. “Palma police. Luis Gasson, Paula Duran, you’re under arrest for the theft of chickens.”
“And attempted murder,” said Miranda, joining him. “We need to talk to you about some fake heart pills.”
Luis didn’t even try to run, although Miranda knew that he probably wouldn’t have got past Max or the muscular Sol Seguro at the farm gate. He just put down the chicken he was holding, turned to face Max and Miranda and slowly, resignedly, raised his hands.
Paula did make a dash for the door, but didn’t get more than a few steps outside it before Miranda brought her down. Kneeling astride Paula’s back, reaching for her handcuffs, Miranda said, “I don’t think you’re going to be on time for work at the pharmacy today.”
“Luis resented his father’s old-fashioned ways,” Miranda explained to Inés, much later that day. “Marcelo loves his birds but Luis wanted to run the farm with more intensive methods so they could make more money. Marcelo wouldn’t hear of any changes which might make the chickens’ lives less happy, and he wasn’t ready to let Luis take over the farm.”
Max took up the story. “So Luis and Paula decided to steal some of the best breeding stock and start their own poultry business. The land where they hid the chickens belonged to her family but her parents had no idea she was using it. We don’t know how they were planning to stop Marcelo finding out eventually. If he heard about a new flock of rare breed birds on the island, he would have been sure to suspect it involved some of his stolen stock.”
“We think that’s why they came up with a more drastic plan,” said Miranda. “Paula had access to drugs in the pharmacy where she worked. She’s confessed that they switched some of Marcelo’s heart medication for the other pills which would have been useless. They were hoping to cause his death and claim the farm for themselves. Maybe they hoped the stress of the chicken thefts would finish him off.”
“She’d also got hold of sedatives to make sure that Marcelo and Alvaro slept heavily on the night of each poultry raid,” Max explained. “Between them, Luis and Paula had plenty of opportunities to put the sleeping pills in food or drink. And we found some more packets of the stolen medication in her cottage.”
“We can’t be sure, but if they’d got more impatient to get rid of Marcelo, it’s possible that they might have tried to give him a dose of something more fatal in the future.”
Inés was satisfied. “Well, it looks like Senor Gasson and his chickens can roost a little safer tonight, at least,” she commented. “Good work.”
As they tidied their desks for the evening, Max mused, “Now that Luis and Paula are in custody, I wonder how Marcelo will get on with just Alvaro as heir to the chicken empire?”
Miranda looked thoughtful. “I think he might get on better than you think. Marcelo’s heart seems to have survived the shock of finding out what’s been happening, and Alvaro really seems to share his father’s love for the rare birds. It’ll probably take him a while to get over Paula, but he told me today he was going to do all he could to support his father. He was going over to Paula’s hiding place with the Spanish police this afternoon to identify the stolen birds and bring them back to the farm. I think he and his dad will be fine – in the end.”
“Hey, you’re back! A little bird told me that you cracked the case,” Christian said, grinning as Max and Miranda walked into Joan’s Bar that evening.
“And you didn’t - chicken out,” Carmen offered, smirking as she reached for glasses for their drinks.
Miranda looked accusingly at Max. “You told them to say that, didn’t you?”
Max was laughing as he swung himself onto a bar stool and waved Miranda to the stool next to him. “You’re so suspicious, Miranda. I just told Christian we’d done some egg-cellent detective work on this case.”
Miranda punched him on the arm and accepted her favourite gin and tonic from Carmen. She settled back, sipping her drink and looking at the “specials” board next to the bar.
“Would you like something to eat, Miranda?” Carmen asked, following her gaze. “We have some nice Spanish chicken stew tonight and some grilled seafood skewers.”
“I think I’ll try the seafood tonight, thanks, Carmen,” Miranda said. “I’ve seen enough poultry this week to last me for a long, long time.”