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I woke up to find three sheep staring pensively down at me.
I stared back, wondering how they'd gotten into Michael's and my bedroom. And whether they'd been there long enough to cause a cleanup nightmare. And why they were staring at my hair, which might be dry and in need of conditioner, but in no way resembled hay. And—
I finally realized that the sheep hadn't invaded my home. In fact, you could argue that I was invading theirs. I was sleeping in a pen in our local fair's sheep and llama exhibition barn. Sleeping solo, without my husband, Michael, at my side and our twin two-a-half-year-olds down the hall. I'd probably awakened because one of the sheep had baaed. I should turn over and get some more sleep before—
Not coming from the sheep. I sat up and shoved the sleeping bag as far down as it would go. Then I looked around. I didn't see anyone. It was only just starting to get light outside, as I could see through the sides of the barn, which was actually a lot more like a giant carport, all roof and no walls. The sheep were looking over the fence between their pen and the one in which I'd been sleeping. I turned a little farther, and saw that our family's five llamas, in the pen on my other side, were also watching me with the keen interest llamas always took in human behavior.
Maybe I'd imagined the voice.
I turned all the way round to see a small, meek-looking man standing in the aisle between the rows of pens. He was wearing a green and yellow John Deere baseball cap and a green t-shirt that said KEEP CALM AND JOIN 4-H. Presumably a farmer.
I glanced at my watch. It was 6:33 A.M. This had better be important.
"Can I help you?" I asked aloud.
"Having trouble finding some chickens," he said.
I waited to hear more, but he just stared back at me.
"That could be because this is the sheep barn," I said, in the careful, calm voice and very precise pronunciation that would have revealed to anyone who knew me that I was not happy about being awakened by someone too clueless to read his fair map. "If you're looking for chickens, you should try the chicken tent. You can find it—"
"I know where the chicken tent is." He sounded offended. "I'm the volunteer monitor for it."
"Oh! I'm so sorry." I peered at him as if I needed glasses, though actually my eyesight was still pretty close to twenty–twenty. "I'm not at my best in the morning." Especially not before dawn. "You said you're having trouble finding some chickens? What chickens?" When I'd gone to bed—not all that long ago, actually—the chicken tent had been half full of birds brought in by farmers who were arriving early to the fair.
"Pair of bantam Russian Orloffs," the farmer said. "Owners came in this morning and had a conniption fit when they found them missing. They think they've been stolen. Could just be that they left the cage unlatched or something, but I figured you'd want to know about it."
Suddenly I was very wide awake.
"Have you called the police?" I asked as I scrambled the rest of the way out of my sleeping bag.
"Not yet." He looked sheepish."Wasn't sure if I was supposed to. Tried to find the mayor, but he's not around, so I thought I'd tell you. You're his go-to girl on this fair project, right?"
"Deputy director," I corrected him, managing not to snarl it. "Call the police while I put my shoes on." Except for my shoes and socks, I was already dressed. Given the very public nature of my bedroom stall in the sheep barn, I'd decided to sleep in my clothes.
I listened in on his call while rummaging through my baggage for clean socks and donning them and my tennis shoes.
"Hey, Debbie Ann? Bill Dauber. I'm over at the fair. We got us a chicken thief out here.… Uh-huh. Sometime last night.… Right."
He hung up and tucked the phone back in his pocket.
"Vern Shiffley's already over here," he reported. "Debbie Ann will have him meet us at the chicken tent."
"Great," I said. "I'd like to be there when he talks to the owners of the missing chickens. What's their name, anyway?"
"Russian Orloffs," Dauber said. "Bantam mahogany Russian Orloffs. They've got black and dark brown feathers—"
"I meant the owners. What's their name?"
The farmer looked blank and frowned, as if this were a trick question. My fingers itched to open up my notebook-that-tells-me-when-to-breathe and add an item to the day's to-do list: Demote Bill Dauber and find a competent head volunteer for the chicken tent.
"Baskerville, or Bensonville, or something like that," he said finally. "Hobby farmers, not longtime chicken folks, or I'd know them. Want me to wait for you?"
Probably his subtle way of asking how much longer I'd take to get dressed. I'd have been on my way already if I hadn't been trying to untie a stubborn knot in one shoelace. Served me right for just kicking them off and crawling into my sleeping bag last night.
"No, you go on back," I said. "I'll be right along."
He nodded and dashed out. I finished with my shoe and started to follow. But as I was about to leave the barn, I turned to glance around, wondering how many people had overheard our conversation. If someone really had stolen the missing chickens, it would upset the rest of the exhibitors. Not just the chicken owners, but everyone who'd brought animals.
The pen where I'd been sleeping was in the front right corner of the barn. From it I could look out over the small sea of pens. The aisles running between them—either up and down or across the barn—were empty. About a third of the pens were filled with small clumps of sheep. Here and there, I could spot the taller forms of alpacas or llamas—the latter being the hated rivals against whom our beloved family llamas would be competing here at the fair. Scattered throughout were pens where the animals' owners had set up camp, both to keep watch over their livestock and to save the expense of a hotel room. The few humans I could see were still peacefully curled up in their sleeping bags, cots, or folding recliners.
Dauber hadn't been loud. So with luck, no one else here had heard us, and maybe tongues wouldn't start wagging before I found out what was going on. Through the open sides of the barn, I could see the goat barn to the left of us and the pig barn on the right—downwind, thank goodness, at least for the moment. All peaceful looking. Maybe the problem was confined to the chicken tent. After all, chickens were a lot more portable than sheep, goats, cows, pigs, or horses, and thus a lot easier to steal.
I ducked back into the pen long enough to scribble a quick note to Michael, who was coming in this morning, bringing our sons, Josh and Jamie—we'd decided to give the boys one more peaceful night at home before plunging them into the excitement of the fair. Then, after placing the note very visibly on top of my sleeping bag, I hurried to follow the volunteer.
The animal barns and poultry tents surrounded a large open area where the farm equipment manufacturers had parked their displays of tractors and other large machinery. To my left was a sea of John Deere equipment, all of it painted in the company's distinctive trademark forest green. To the right I could see at least half an acre of the equally distinctive orange of Kubota. Beyond the sea of green I could glimpse a few splashes of Caterpillar yellow. A couple of farmers with towels over their shoulders and shaving kits in their hands were standing in the pathway, calmly discussing the finer points of a piece of Kubota equipment that looked like a cross between a tractor and an overgrown hedgehog. I didn't see anyone else around. I nodded good morning as I passed the mechanical hedgehog fanciers.
From across the field, I could hear the crowing, honking, and gobbling that meant the occupants of the poultry tents were waking up. But no human shrieks and wails. That was a good sign, wasn't it? I followed the path between the green and orange toward the chicken tent.
Any optimism vanished when I entered the tent. I saw no loose chickens, only chickens safely in cages or in the arms of their owners—more of both fowl and humans already than there had been last night. But the whole tent seemed more like a busy barnyard where a flock of particularly lively chickens was foraging. No, make that where a bunch of foraging chickens had suddenly been frightened by a fox. People dashed up and down the aisles, carrying cages or individual birds. Other people merely darted about aimlessly, gathering in clumps to talk, scattering when anyone new came near, then clumping again nearby.
But they all seemed to steer clear of the far corner of the barn. I could see the tall form of Vern Shiffley, the senior deputy who was in charge of the police presence at the fair. He was talking to someone.
Two someones, as I could see when I finally shoved my way through the agitated flock of chicken owners. Presumably the Baskervilles or Bensonvilles or whatever their names were—the owners of the missing fowl. Both were short and round and rather nondescript. The man was wearing khaki pants and a beige shirt. The woman wore a flower-print dress in shades of beige and pale pink so muted that it looked faded even though I suspected it was brand new. She was holding a small brown and black chicken and stroking it absently.
"Hey, Meg." Vern waved me over. "Meg Langslow's the assistant director of the fair," he said to the couple.
The two turned their eyes toward me without appreciably moving their heads. I almost flinched under their mute, accusing stares.
"I'm so sorry about this," I said. "Vern, what can we do to help?"
"Any chance you could round up some volunteers to help us search for the chickens?" Vern said.
"Absolutely." I pulled out my notebook-that-tells-me-when-to-breathe, as I call my trusty planner and to-do list, and began scribbling some notes on who to enlist. Then I noticed Bill Dauber, the tent volunteer, standing at my elbow. No, he was standing a little behind me, as if he didn't want to be seen.
"Organize a search," I told him, in a low voice.
"Roger!" He dashed off, as if glad to have an excuse to leave.
"They could be miles from here by now," the man said. The woman sniffled and the chicken she was holding squawked and struggled—I deduced that the woman had tightened her grip.
"They could, and we'll be doing what we can to track them down," Vern said. "But whoever did this took the chickens, not the cages. For all we know, it could have been a prank. Maybe someone just set them loose. Or maybe someone did steal them, but it can be hard holding on to one riled up chicken—and this guy was trying to carry two? I'd say there's a good chance one or both will turn up if we do a good search nearby."
I hoped if they did turn up they'd still be alive. Should I have some knowledgeable person check the fried chicken stand to see if any of their supplies were a little too fresh?
"How did they manage to steal the chickens?" I asked aloud.
"We had only two officers patrolling the whole fairground last night," Vern said. "We figured since it was only farmers here at night it wouldn't be a high-crime area. Unfortunately, it would be pretty easy for someone to watch until they knew the pattern of their patrols and then elude them."
"But we had a volunteer who was supposed to be here in the tent all night," I pointed out.
"He was here." The husband of the bantam-owning couple, his voice unexpectedly fierce. "He slept through the whole thing."
"Mr. Dauber had himself a lawn chair over near the tent entrance," Vern said. "Looks like he made himself a mite too comfortable and dozed off. My best guess is that the chicken thief slipped in through the back entrance."
No wonder Dauber had been so eager to leave.
"Your best guess," the man echoed. "Have you done any forensics?"
Vern winced slightly, no doubt wishing himself back to the day when CSI and other TV cop shows hadn't made "forensics" a household word.
"You forget, we're just a rural sheriff's department in a small and very cash-poor county." Vern's accent suddenly sounded a lot more country than usual. "We have to call in someone to do forensics, and it's hard to justify it for anything less than a murder."
From the way the wife was looking at him, I suspected she was almost willing to provide the murder.
"What about Horace?" I asked. "He's in town for the fair."
"If you think he'd be willing," Vern said.
I was already dialing his number while Vern turned to the couple to explain.
"Horace Hollinsgsworth, Ms. Langslow's cousin, is a veteran crime scene analyst from York County," he said. "With luck, she can talk him into doing the forensics for us."
Luck was with us. Horace was awake and very eager to be of service, probably because another cousin, Rose Noire, was panicking that she hadn't prepared enough stock to sell in her organic herbal products booth and had recruited him to help.
"Are you sure you don't mind?" I asked.
"If I never tie another little pink ribbon on another little purple flowered bag of stuff that makes me sneeze, I'll die a happy man," Horace said. "Beats me why people pay money for a bunch of dried weeds. But don't tell Rose Noire I said that."
"If she asks, I'll tell her you reluctantly agreed to help out for the good of the fair," I said.
"I'll be right over."
I relayed this good news to Vern.
"That's great!" He turned back to the couple. "Now, folks, I don't want you to touch anything until Mr. Hollingsworth gets here. Do you have someplace else you can keep your other chicken?"
I spotted Mr. Dauber, who was buttonholing people to recruit them for the search and assigned him the additional task of finding a new cage for the forlorn fowl, who seemed in ever-increasing danger of being hugged to death. Given how fast Mr. Dauber scrambled to follow my orders, I deduced he was feeling guilty about his failure to protect the bantams. As well he might. And it probably wasn't a bad idea to put some distance between him and the red-faced, scowling husband of the couple who owned the bantams.
"Before you leave," Vern was saying. "One question occurs to me—have you had your birds microchipped?"
"Microchipped?" the husband repeated. "We—"
He clutched his chest and keeled over.
Copyright © 2013 by Donna Andrews