Todd Sloan and Noelle Trocoderro hurried down the hall to Mr. Merlin's classroom.
They had been helping their principal, Mrs. Jenkins, put cans of food in a box for a family whose house had burned down.
Mrs. Jenkins told them they didn't need tardy slips.
She said she would call Mr. Merlin over the public-address system to tell him they were on their way.
That made Todd feel important.
Just then JoAnn Dickens passed them in the hall.
She didn't say anything.
That's strange, Todd thought. JoAnn was always friendly. He wondered what was wrong.
JoAnn was the new girl in their class.
Her family had been in town for only a couple of months.
They owned a family-style restaurant.
Todd and his parents were planning to eat there tonight.
"JoAnn!" Todd called. "Wait up!"
JoAnn stopped. She had tears in her eyes, and her nose was running.
"What's wrong?" Todd asked.
"Something terrible happened last night," JoAnn answered, sobbing.
"Some people who ate at our restaurant said my parents' cooking made them sick.
"They want the Health Department to shut us down.
"If that happens, we may have to move.
"I don't want to move. I like it here."
"How did the people get sick?" Noelle asked.
"It's a mystery," JoAnn said.
"We buy all of our food locally so that we know it's fresh, and we keep our kitchen spotless."
JoAnn let out another sob. "I don't want to talk about it. It makes me too sad."
She turned and hurried on down the hall.
Todd and Noelle followed her.
They reached Mr. Merlin's class just as JoAnn handed him her tardy slip.
The rest of the students were copying spelling words off the chalkboard.
They weren't paying any attention to JoAnn. They didn't notice that she had been crying.
"Let's tell Mr. Merlin about JoAnn," Todd whispered to Noelle.
"That's a good idea," Noelle whispered back.
Mr. Merlin's class was known as the Third-Grade Detectives.
They helped the police solve crimes.
Sometimes they worked with Dr. Smiley.
She was Mr. Merlin's friend.
She was also a police scientist.
Dr. Smiley even had a police laboratory in the basement of her home.
She used it when she needed to work on a mystery after she got home.
Dr. Smiley let the Third-Grade Detectives use her laboratory when they were trying to solve a mystery, too.
"Mr. Merlin," Noelle whispered, "I think we have a new mystery to solve."
Todd told Mr. Merlin what had happened at JoAnn's family's restaurant. "If we can prove it wasn't her parents' fault, then maybe the Health Department won't shut them down."
"And JoAnn won't have to move," Noelle added.
"I wondered what was upsetting her," Mr. Merlin said. "Well, you'll need to talk to JoAnn first. Make sure she won't mind if we try to solve the mystery for her."
Todd and Noelle decided to talk to JoAnn at recess.
They took their seats and started copying their spelling words.
"Study these words carefully," Mr. Merlin told the class when everyone was finished.
"We'll have a test on them tomorrow.
"Now get out your science books," he said. "We're going to talk about edible tubers."
"Yuck!" Leon Dennis said. "I'd never eat tubers!"
"Me either," Misty Goforth said.
"We eat them all the time at our house," Amber Lee Johnson said.
Todd looked at Noelle and rolled his eyes. He'd always thought there was something weird about Amber Lee's family.
Mr. Merlin didn't say anything.
He just smiled.
He probably thinks Amber Lee's family is weird, too, Todd thought.
Mr. Merlin told the class to turn to page 25 in their books.
Todd saw a picture of a potato!
He had been eating tubers all his life, and he hadn't even known it.
Todd looked over at Amber Lee.
Maybe she wasn't so weird after all, he decided.
Mr. Merlin told them all about potatoes.
They were usually grown from the eyes of other potatoes.
The eyes were really buds that grew on the potato skin.
These buds produced sprouts.
"That's what happens to our potatoes if we don't use them right away!" Misty said. "They grow lots of sprouts!"
"Exactly," Mr. Merlin said.
"With proper sunshine, the leaves produce more food than the plant can use," Mr. Merlin continued.
"That's when the leaves send the extra food down to be stored in the root of the potato plant.
"Potatoes are really just thick roots that grow underground.
"As the potatoes get bigger, their skin gets tougher and tougher.
"That keeps the moisture inside and protects the potato from bacteria that can cause it to rot.
"Potatoes are good for us.
"They're full of nutrients."
"I love all kinds of potatoes," Leon said. "Baked, fried, boiled, raw -- "
Before Leon could finish, the recess bell rang, and Mr. Merlin's class headed outside.
JoAnn ran to a tree at the edge of the playground and sat down underneath it.
Todd and Noelle joined her.
They told JoAnn all about Mr. Merlin's Third-Grade Detectives.
"Now we want to solve your mystery," Todd said.
Text copyright © 2003 by George Edward Stanley