The Mississippi Company
by Mark Kertzman
A tale of two individuals on opposite sides of a fraud stretching from India to the Asteroid Belt.
The front of the house was nondescript, tan adobe-walled and windowless. Only a door, solid and plain, broke the monotony of its public face. Were it not for the tiny number plate affixed to the wood of the door, Jon would never have been able to tell the difference between it and the almost two dozen neighbouring homes on this busy, dusty street.
He knocked and waited. Sweat dappled his brow and dripped ever so slowly out of his jet-black short hair. Drops edged down his face and into his shirt collar. His armpits were damp, and the suit jacket draped over his arm was getting wet with the sweat coming off his bare forearm.
In annoyance, he wiped at his face and swung the jacket over his shoulder.
The door opened, suddenly, halfway. In the dim-lit interior and through his sunglasses, Jon could just make out a petite female form looking out at him suspiciously.
“Hello?” the woman asked in English.
Jon took off his sunglasses, blinking in the harsh sunlight and looking deeper into the gloom behind the door.
“Are you Mrs. Parminder Koo?” he asked. He could now make out her black hair, worn long, and traditional multi-coloured sari trailing down to the floor.
“Yes,” she replied, a little hesitantly. “Can I help you?”
“My name is Jon Sharapov. I would like to ask you some questions about the complaint of theft that you made to the police.”
“Oh, yes, of course. Please come in.”
She opened the door wider, letting him in past her. As she closed and locked the door, he wandered a few steps in, grateful for the cooler air in the house. She stepped past him and led him into the front sitting room.
He was mildly surprised at the home’s interior. The outside had been very deceptive. The sitting room was luxurious, furnished with shining teak furniture and beautiful hand-woven rugs. Plants were scattered throughout the perimeter, interspersed with intricate carvings and sculptures.
“I will make tea,” she said. “Please excuse me a moment.”
As she left the room, he cocked an ear, listening carefully. Moving quietly, he put his jacket down, removing a small device from its inner pocket, but remained on his feet.
She returned quickly, bearing a tray holding two cups, a steaming little teapot, and a small plate of biscuits. She was mildly surprised that he was still standing, looking idly at one of the carvings.
“Make yourself comfortable,” she told him. “We can sit here.”
As Jon finally settled into one of the long, low couches, she poured the tea and handed him a cup.
“Thank you,” he responded, taking a sip and putting the saucer down on the broad, square teak table in front of him.
“You are not Indian,” she stated matter-of-factly as she took her own cup and sat.
He smiled. It made him look younger than his actual age.
“No, I’m not.”
“I didn’t think a non-Indian would be working in the police.”
“I’m not with the police.”
“You’re not?” Parminder was suddenly concerned, leaning forward suddenly.
Jon spread his hands placatingly, answering quickly to allay her suspicions, “I’m not with the local police. They may not have jurisdiction. I’m an investigator with UNASLED.”
“With Onnasled? What’s that?”
“UNASLED,” Jon corrected gently, “The United Nations Aerospace Law Enforcement Division.”
“I’ve never heard of it. What does it have to do with me?”
“You have made a complaint against a company involved in mining in the asteroid belt. For various reasons, Indian police might not have jurisdiction. That’s what I am here to determine, in part.”
Parminder said nothing, just looked at him.
“Do you mind if I record our conversation?” Jon motioned casually with the slim smartphone in his hand.
“No, I guess not.”
“Thank you.” He unobtrusively pushed a button on the smartphone, and gently set it on the table.
“Can I have your full name?” he began.
“Mrs. Parminder Koo.”
“You have made a complaint with the local police against a company, the Orbital Heavy Metals Extraction Company. Is that right?”
“What kind of complaint?”
“I accused them of stealing from me.”
“What did they steal?”
“Why don’t you tell me about it.”
“Well, first, my neighbour got me to buy into the company. Then the company promised to pay generous profits, but they never did. I can’t even get in touch with them, and my neighbour tells me it isn’t her problem any more.” She stopped, staring at Jon expectantly.
He leaned forward. “Who is your neighbour?”
“Mrs. Amanpour Sidha. I thought she was such a nice lady.”
“How did you meet her?”
“Oh, our children do the same activities, that sort of thing.”
“And she told you about this company.”
Parminder nodded vigorously. “Yes. She invited me over on some pretense or other, then sprung it on me. She forced me to buy this investment, but it’s not paying me anything.”
“Whom did you buy it from?”
Jon stopped a moment, leaning back. “You mean you gave her the money?”
“Yes.” Parminder nodded.
“How much money?”
“Is that new rupees?”
“Yes. It was all the money I could scrape together. I really needed to make some money quickly. That witch told me I could double or even triple my money.”
“You mean your neighbour, Mrs. Amanpour Sidha.”
“And what did she say about doubling your money?”
“Well, she told me that I could get returns of fifty percent.”
“She told you that?”
“Yes. And she showed me.”
“What did she show you?”
“What was in it?”
“All kinds of charts and figures. There was a holochart that showed what kind of return I could get.”
“What did it say?”
“Well, it had these bars, and percentages, and... oh, why don’t I just show you.”
“You mean you have a copy?”
“Oh yes. That witch gave me several copies, told me to tell all my friends. I’ll be right back.”
She rose, and glided quickly out of the room. Before Jon could do more than gather his thoughts, Parminder was back, clutching a black-rimmed holobrochure. She thrust it into Jon’s hands, causing the hologram on the front to flare energetically.
As Jon flipped through the brochure, she went on. “They’re out there, finding gold and silver, and not paying me a single rupee. It’s not fair. You have to help me.”
Jon looked up. “I’ll do my best. Can I keep this?”
“Sure. What do I care?”
He assumed that was a rhetorical question. Putting the brochure down next to his smartphone, he continued: “Where did Mrs. Sidha get these?”
“I don’t know. I think she said some man came to her door, selling units in this company.”
“Do you know his name?”
“Do you know who he is?”
“No. Why don’t you ask Mrs. Sidha?” Parminder replied, not bothering to conceal the snide tone in her voice.
Jon tapped the holobrochure idly, his fingers seeming to penetrate the little moonlet’s scarred surface. After a moment’s thought, he looked at Parminder. “I think I’d better have a talk with Mrs. Amanpour Sidha.”
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Kertzman