No Laughing Matter – First Chapter

Chapter 1

“I give up on these chopsticks,” Bess Marvin said, frustrated and shaking her blond hair. “At this rate I’ll finish dinner by lunchtime tomorrow. Anybody else want to use a fork?”

Nancy Drew smiled at her friend from her position on the living-room carpet. “No thanks. Ned might want one,” she said, ruffling her boyfriend’s thick, chestnut hair. “He’s been trying to get that peapod in his mouth for twenty minutes.”

The three friends were sitting cross-legged around the Drews’ coffee table, white paper boxes of Chinese food in front of them. A blaze in the fireplace threw a warm glow over their faces.

“I never learned how to use these things either,” Ned said, throwing down his chopsticks. “I’m with you, Bess.”

While Bess went into the kitchen for forks, Nancy reached over and gave Ned a warm hug. It was great to have him home from college for winter break. She’d been looking forward to it for weeks. Her detective work had been keeping her busy, and her last case, an undercover assignment in a TV newsroom, had been especially hair-raising. She hoped they’d be able to spend all their free time together during Ned’s break.

“What’s that for?” Ned asked softly as he pulled back from the hug.

“Actually, it’s a message from George,” Nancy said, grinning at him. “She’s in Utah, skiing with her parents, but she told me to give you a hug for her. So consider yourself hugged.”

Bess returned from the kitchen with two forks and handed one to Ned. “What do you have planned for vacation?” she asked him.

“A little work. A little play. Oh, and a trip to prison,” Ned replied.

“Planning to get caught committing a major crime, Nickerson?” Nancy joked, raising an eyebrow. She scooped up the last bite of food with her chopsticks and popped it into her mouth.

Ned shook his head as he finished swallowing a forkful of spicy chicken and cashew nuts. “The trip’s for my business ethics class. We’re going to talk to a few inmates at a minimum-security prison tomorrow,” he explained. “Our teacher wants us to learn how and why people commit white-collar crimes — “

“Wait a second,” Bess interrupted, holding up a hand. “I always hear that expression, but I’m not really sure what it means.”

“Well, white-collar crimes are the kind you can commit while working in administrative jobs,” Ned explained. “Say you worked in a bank and used the computer system to steal money from people’s accounts. That would be a white-collar crime.”

Nancy reached for a paper napkin from the pile on the coffee table. “White-collar crimes usually aren’t violent, like murder or armed robbery,” she added. “They’re mostly crimes that are committed on paper.”

“Still, they sound serious,” Bess put in.

Ned agreed. Putting down his fork, he leaned against the sofa and stretched his long legs out in front of him. “That’s precisely why my professor wants us to talk to white-collar criminals about how they got involved in their crimes.”

“It would be a good way to scare students into staying clean,” Nancy commented. “Which prison are you going to visit?”

“It’s called Fairwood. You know, the one just outside River Heights.”

“The one Matt Goldin was sent to,” Bess said, finishing up the last of her rice.

Ned raised an eyebrow. “Who’s he?”

“I don’t know if you ever met Lisa Goldin. She went to high school with us,” Nancy said. “Her brother, Matt, was the accountant for the comedy club Over the Rainbow. He got caught stealing money from them a few months back.”

Bess shook her head. “It’s still hard to believe. I don’t know Matt that well, but he didn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d do something illegal.” Getting to her feet, she asked, “Are you guys done eating?”

Nancy nodded, and she and Ned helped Bess stack dishes and collect the food containers. While they loaded the dishwasher, Nancy kept thinking about Ned’s project. She’d always been fascinated by what made criminals break the law…

“The answer is yes, Nan,” Ned said out of the blue.

Nancy shot her boyfriend a puzzled glance. He was smiling at her, his brown eyes shining mischievously. “I knew you’d be intrigued by my visit to Fairwood, so I asked Professor Greer if you could come,” Ned explained. “She said it’d be fine.”

“I’d love to go. Thanks,” Nancy said, kissing him on the cheek.

“Just make sure they know you’re there only for a visit, Nancy,” Bess said with a giggle. She wiped her hands on a towel and sat down at the kitchen table. “Now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for — time to open the fortune cookies.”

She tore open the plastic bag containing the three cookies and handed it around.

Ned read his fortune first. “‘No matter how much bleach, white collar still gets dirty,'” he said.

Bess’s mouth dropped open. “That’s so weird!” she exclaimed, glancing from Nancy to Ned.

Nancy had noticed that Ned was having a hard time keeping a straight face. “Um, Bess, I think he’s joking,” she said.

“I can’t believe I fell for that!” Bess said, punching Ned’s arm. “What does it really say?”

Ned smiled at Nancy. “A visit to your girlfriend will make you very happy.”

At nine-thirty Monday morning, Nancy pulled into Ned’s driveway and honked her horn. Almost instantly Ned bounded out the front door, pulling on his ski jacket while balancing a piece of toast, his gloves, and a notebook. Nancy couldn’t believe how cute he looked.

“Hi!” he said, greeting her. “Thanks for picking me up. My car will be out of the shop today, so you won’t have to ferry me around anymore.”

Nancy tapped the tip of his nose. “No problem. We get to spend a little more time together.”

The drive back toward River Heights from Mapleton, where Ned lived, went quickly. A few miles past River Heights Nancy spotted a small sign at the side of the highway that read “Fairwood Correctional Facility.” She turned off and made her way up a long drive that curved through a stand of trees.

Ned squinted through the windshield as they rounded a sharp curve. “This place doesn’t look much like a prison,” he commented.

Nancy took in the group of low brown buildings beyond the trees. The buildings were all joined by enclosed walkways. They were very ordinary, except for the metal grates over the windows. “It’s a minimum-security facility, so I guess that explains why there’s no barbed wire above the gates or towers with guards.”

A few moments later Nancy pulled her Mustang into a space in the crowded visitors’ parking lot. The cold morning air made her pull her parka tight around herself as they followed the signs to the visitors’ entrance.

Inside, fluorescent light brightened the garish yellow walls to almost blinding. Nancy and Ned stopped at the visitors’ check-in counter. A tall man with receding dark hair and deep creases etched into his forehead sat behind the counter. His name tag read Sam Jenkins, Assistant Warden.

“May I help you?” he asked in a gravelly voice. When Ned explained why they were there, the assistant warden had them sign the visitors’ register. “Ms. Greer’s group is assembled in the lecture room. I’ll show you down there.”

He poked his head through a doorway behind the counter and said, “Cover for me, will you, Petra?”

The assistant warden then led Nancy and Ned down a hall into a larger building. Their footsteps echoed off the walls as they passed one open doorway after another. Mr. Jenkins pointed out the prisoners’ computer room, library, and one of the guard booths.

“I guess you’re not too worried about security,” Ned commented as an inmate, dressed in khaki pants and a blue shirt, walked by all alone.

“This is more a work camp than a prison,” Mr. Jenkins responded. “The other side of this building is the main cell area. The men live four to a room with a door that closes to give them some privacy. They have work schedules, but they get to choose what to do when. That’s the toughest part for a lot of these guys.

“When you’re on the outside, all you want is free time. In here, too much free time makes you crazy. These guys want to know what they’re doing every minute of every day. By keeping busy, they feel the time they spend here is somehow worthwhile.”

A moment later they entered what looked like a large, comfortable classroom. About a dozen of Ned’s classmates were sitting in the rows of folding chairs. Five inmates were at the front of the room, talking to a robust woman with chocolate-colored skin and alert brown eyes.

“That’s Professor Greer,” Ned whispered. He started introducing Nancy to some of his classmates but stopped when the teacher turned to the class and spoke.

“I’m glad to see you all made it this morning,” she began. “We all know why we’re here, so let’s get started.” She gestured to a short, heavyset inmate who had thinning dark hair.

“Hi, I’m Dennis Lassiter. I’d like to welcome the Emerson students to Fairwood,” the inmate said, getting to his feet. “The last time I spoke in front of a group of people they were all lying on the floor, with their hands up. Just kidding,” he added quickly. A few students giggled nervously. “I’m serving time for money laundering. Anybody want to take a crack at what that means?”

A girl with fair hair and glasses raised her hand. “Making dirty money clean?”

“Exactly,” Dennis Lassiter said with a smile. He seemed so charming and friendly. It was hard to believe that he could have done anything wrong.

“Dirty money is money that is made illegally,” the prisoner continued. “For example, certain types of gambling are illegal in this state. I made a lot of money by gambling, so I had to make it look as if I had earned it in a legal way. What I did was pretend that I made the money in my grocery business — that my business made more money and spent more money than it really did.”

Professor Greer spoke up from the edge of the room. “Can anybody guess how to do that?’

Ned raised his hand. “You’d write false receipts for things you sold and things you bought.”

“That’s exactly what I did. I made up sales receipts for food that I never sold, so it looked like I made more money than I really did. Then I created a phony supply company and made up bills to show that I bought a lot of groceries from them. I even opened an account for the supply company, where I deposited all the money I made from gambling. But I kept careful records of the fake receipts so that I could fool my accountant, the tax men, and the government.”

Glancing around, Nancy saw amazement on the students’ faces. They seemed to be as surprised as she was that this unassuming man would have tried to pull off this hoax.

Dennis Lassiter paused for a moment and took a deep breath. “You’re probably all wondering why I committed this crime.”

Nancy had been asking herself that question. Dennis Lassiter seemed so smart and sensible. Why did he have to launder money when it seemed as if he had a successful business?

“It’s very simple,” Lassiter said. “I was greedy, and I didn’t think I’d ever get caught. Just about everybody in here will tell you the same thing.”

After he had finished talking, the students asked questions and other inmates joined in the informal discussion. They talked about other white-collar crimes: forgery, credit-card fraud, and embezzlement. Then Professor Greer thanked the inmates and informed the students that they’d be taking a tour of the prison.

“But first we’ve been invited to have some refreshments,” Professor Greer said, gesturing toward the back of the room.

Turning in her chair, Nancy saw that a table was being set up with coffee, hot chocolate, doughnuts, and fresh fruit. Her heart leapt when she noticed the brown-haired, bearded inmate who was in charge of the food. It was Matt Goldin!

His face was more gaunt than Nancy remembered, and his blue workshirt hung loosely from his shoulders. Matt’s trial had ended just a few weeks earlier, but already he’d lost a noticeable amount of weight.

“Ned, you won’t believe…” Nancy’s voice trailed off when she realized that Ned was talking to Dennis Lassiter at the front of the room. Taking a deep breath, Nancy started in Matt’s direction. She didn’t know what she’d say to him, but she couldn’t just ignore him.

“Nancy! I thought that was you.”

Matt was trying to smile, but only one side of his mouth turned up. His skin was pale, and there were circles under his brown eyes. “Can I talk to you a minute — alone?” he asked, trembling slightly.

“Uh, sure,” she replied. Nancy wasn’t sure whether it was okay to leave the rest of the group, but Matt seemed so upset that she couldn’t say no.

She followed him out of the lecture room and into the hallway.

“Nancy, you’re the only one who can help me,” Matt said urgently.

“What do you mean? How can I help?” she asked. Matt had already been convicted. She didn’t know what she could possibly do for him now.

Matt fixed her with a desperate gaze. “I didn’t steal that money from Over the Rainbow. I was framed!”

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