London, circa 1973. I was working in a merchant bank, which is what gentlemen used to call investment banks, some of which we now call memories. Getting around town was no easier then than it is now, but I had the answer: a "monkey bike."
It looked like a toy motorbike, but had a 50cc engine. It went really fast from zero to 30, but needed a following wind and a long downhill straight to reach 35. Who cared? It moved when everything else in London was standing still.
One day, one of the bankers came to see me with an urgent problem. He had £23 million--then worth about $55 million, now maybe $100 million--in bearer bonds, which had to be delivered to another bank halfway across town by close of business, i.e. in 45 minutes. Could I and my little bike get the bonds there in time?
You bet we could. Monkey see, monkey ride.
I signed for the yellow envelope and took off like a bat out of hell. I worked out that my best route took me near Heathrow Airport. Then it crossed my mind that I was holding bearer bonds. They are, as far as I know, the property of whoever has them in his hands. They were in my hands.
I can recall in close detail the thought process that followed. From Heathrow, I could fly to Brazil, which lacked an extradition treaty with the UK. I'd be in the air before anyone knew that I wouldn't be delivering the bonds that day, or any other day. Take the money and run. A detour to collect my passport, a dash out to Heathrow, and 24 hours later, made for life. In Brazil.
The downside: I could never return to the UK or see my family and friends again. Then, too, the bank, miffed, might send ugly, insistent fellows after me. That I had covered. $55 million buys an awful lot of security. I envisaged myself living in what we now call a gated community. Just me, a swimming pool, a murderously loyal security detail and hot and cold running babes.
The fantasy was so real I could almost taste it. I'd never been to Brazil, but with enough money, it doesn't matter where you are; it all tastes sweet.
When I reached as close to the airport as my route to the bank would take me, I stopped, parked, and smoked a cigarette. In retrospect, I probably knew exactly what I was going to do next, but at that moment, I was still considering my options.
I dropped the bonds off at the bank five minutes early.
Did I do what was right because it was the right thing to do? Or did I do it because I'm chicken? I wish it were the former, but let's face it, I'm poultry.
I have never doubted the decision I made. And though I have remained a nobody ever since, I have never had to look over my shoulder or worry when the doorbell rang. Well, almost never.
It must take a very special kind of person to steal a life. I guess I'm not that person. As a banker, of course, I should have taken the bonds as a bonus and not thought twice about it.
ROGER CROMBIE is a Bermuda-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®.
April 1, 2009
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