At school the next day, I started asking questions. Jared hung by me whenever he could, but he had some club he had to go to after school. “Don’t do any sleuthing without me,” he said.
“I won’t. I told Pinky I’d help her in the salon after school.”
“Okay,” Jared said. “Let’s put our heads together at lunch.” He took off.
I wasn’t very good at putting my head together with someone else. I usually work alone, if I haven’t already told you that. Although, I had to admit, it was a lot easier solving mysteries when Jayden was around.
We met up at lunch and came up with a plan. I told Jared about the Stanley’s car also being stolen. “Do they know each other?” he asked.
“Good question,” I said. “I don’t know, but we’ll ask.” I wrote the question down in my notebook. “We’ll need to ask Mrs. Thornton some more questions.”
Jared tilted his head and started to whine like a puppy. I hit him playfully with my notebook and giggled. “Stop that.” He whined some more. I scooted farther down the bench. He whined some more. I scooted some more, until I had nowhere else to scoot. Then he stopped.
“We’ll need to ask what color the cars were. Mrs. Thornton’s was blue.” I jotted down a note. “We’ll have to ask the Stanleys what color theirs was.”
Just then I heard sobbing coming from the corner of the cafeteria. I turned to look and saw Ms. Strawberry crying in the corner. Strawberry isn’t really her name, but her hair always smells like strawberries because of the shampoo she uses, so everyone calls her that. It’s been so long since anyone addressed her by her real name I don’t even remember it. I asked her once if this bothered her, but she said she liked having a nickname. “It makes me feel accepted,” she said.
“Come on,” I said, not waiting to see if Jared would follow me.
There was already a crowd of kids surrounding her, but I elbowed my way through. “Excuse me,” I said, “Karrine from Crime Solvers here. Is there a crime to solve?”
Ms. Strawberry’s sobbing had died down to a sniffle by the time I made it to her. I whipped out a business card and handed it to her. She looked at the card and nodded. “Yes, Karrine, there is a crime. Someone stole my Mustang right out of the parking lot.” She sniffed, sobbed again, only it was more like an agonizing wail. I had to cover my ears, as did several people around me.
I turned to Jared, who wasn’t quite as pushy as I and was still only halfway to the center of the scene. I reached out, grabbed his hand, and pulled him the rest of the way through the crowd. My eyes danced with excitement. “It’s a crime wave!”
Ms. Strawberry was back to the sniffle now. “Can you help?”
I puffed out my chest, nearly insulted at the notion of the word CAN. “Of course I can help! There hasn’t been a crime yet I haven’t solved.”
Okay, forgive me my lack of modesty, but it really is true. I’ve solved every one of my crimes. Maybe some weren’t actually crimes…a lost little something here or there, but I’d solved the mystery nonetheless.
I took a contract out of my backpack and looked at Jared. “Never start without a contract.”
“You didn’t have Mrs. Thornton sign one.”
“Shh,” I said. I leaned over and whispered, “That’s on the house because I’m not really supposed to be working the crime, and she gives me lemonade all the time.”
Jared pulled his eyebrows together the way some people do when they’re thinking really hard. Then he said, “How is this any different?”
I rolled my eyes and shook my head. I was going to have to get rid of this tag-along conscience. I turned back to Ms. Strawberry and handed her the contract. She eagerly signed it and handed it back to me.
“Take us to the scene of the crime,” I said.
Ms. Strawberry nodded and led the way. We walked past the teacher’s lounge. I could see a bunch of teachers laughing and drinking coffee. This was interesting to me. I didn’t know teachers knew how to laugh. I thought they all were so busy yelling at students, they didn’t have time to be happy. This somehow made me feel a little less guilty.
We walked out a back door, which I didn’t even know existed, and entered the forbidden STAFF parking lot. I had never seen this side of the building before. A huge gate that had to be opened with a card blocked the entrance to the parking lot. My mother always complained about this because she had to drive by it when she dropped me off at school. She said it would be a whole lot more convenient if she could drop me off here instead of fighting the traffic in front of the school. Now that I was standing in it, it didn’t seem so special.
Ms. Strawberry walked three rows over, passing several really nice cars. I didn’t know much about cars, but I know my mother said anyone who drives an Infiniti must be rich. I guess teachers make more money than I thought. I quickly did the math in my head. At the elementary level a teacher had about thirty-two kids in her class for six hours each day. That’s a lot of bratty kids to look after every day, but when I thought about the junior high level, which I was, that was about 160 kids a day. Wow! That’s a lot of bratty kids to put up with. Maybe teachers don’t make enough.
She stopped in an empty parking spot. “This is it.” She sniffled again. “This is where I left my baby this morning.” She clutched a tissue to her chest and started crying again. “She misses me, I can feel it.” Then she sobbed.
I shook my head. If she didn’t stop crying all the time we’d never get this crime solved. I touched her arm to make her stop. “Ms. Strawberry, if you don’t stop crying we’ll never get anywhere in the investigation.”
She nodded rapidly and wiped her eyes with her tissue. “Yes, of course. I’m sorry.”
Suddenly I felt like the teacher. I began looking around.
“What are you doing?” Jared asked.
“I’m looking for anything out of the ordinary.”
“Like what?” Jared asked.
“Something left behind that a teacher wouldn’t normally leave.” We both started looking. I had almost given up when I spotted something, “Aha!” I cried. I bent down and picked up a chewing gum wrapper. I held it up “Tutti-frutti bubble gum chewer.” I turned to Ms. Strawberry and held it out to her. “Is this yours?”
“Of course it isn’t mine,” she said.
“Yes, but I know whose it might be.” I pursed my lips together and stomped back toward the school building. Jared and Ms. Strawberry rushed behind me.
“Where are we going?” Jared asked.
I turned abruptly, a wild look to my face, eyes bulging, glistening with excitement. “Last year, Willie Sparks got in trouble for leaving Tutti-frutti bubble gum under his desk.” I flapped my arms. I was excited. “The janitor found it when he was scraping off a piece from the floor under Willie’s desk. He looked up and saw a whole bunch of wads of gum. Willie got suspended for a week.”
“What does that have to do with this?” Jared asked.
“Karrine thinks Willie might have dropped this by my car.” Ms. Strawberry had a smile on her face. “Good thinking,” she said.
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