Chapter 1: The Case of the Missing Chickens
“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.”
“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.”
Chapter 2: Looking For Clues
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.
“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.”
Chapter 3: The Case Is Cracked
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.”