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A Caribbean Scam

There are the petty street scammers, and then there are those that think big…

Mr Lombardi was first introduced to me by my partner, Mike. At that time, our office consisted of a ship’s container with one end hacked off and a large wooden door fitted. A couple of electric lights swung from the ceiling and the furniture comprised two ancient, rusting desks and an orange filing cabinet that had been discovered adjacent to the garbage bins of a local lawyer’s office. The rear of this somewhat desperate office had been partitioned off and shelves had been installed and this area was grandiosely known as “The Provisioning Store”.

Velda, our Gorgonian secretary, more like a gargoyle than a sentient being, sat at one of the desks taking phone calls and forging the petty cash books (on account of which she very shortly left our employ) whilst I sat at the other, sifting through mountains of paperwork and directing our small empire. Across the lawn, ten yards away, was the lagoon, and there were two decrepit jetties with our fleet of four sailing yachts lying stern-to.

As if to lend credibility to our operation, we emphasised that ours was a small, family concern; a business where “personal service” were the key words; a small company operating in a picturesque, natural environment, a far cry from the computerised anonymity of the larger, better-established charter outfits. We did this, for we felt that it was necessary to alleviate the anxieties of newly-arrived clients who, having spent a large sum of money on a sailing holiday, now found that our company actually consisted of four somewhat run-down yachts, and that we operated from someone’s back garden, business being directed from the bowels of a recently-scrapped ship’s container in an advanced state of corrosion.

In many ways, we were regarded with ridicule, not only by our rival charter companies, who all had real offices with air conditioning and electric typewriters, but also by the local population who were reluctant to acknowledge that yacht chartering might be a serious profession. It was, rather, deemed to be a frivolous diversion, an inconsequential and faintly ludicrous occupation indulged by eccentric expatriates with nothing better to do than mess about in boats. Of course this perception altered markedly in later years when our annual turnover exceeded a million dollars and I wore long trousers for important meetings with bank managers and lawyers.

Mr Lombardi had rented a house which lay close to our purported office and the one that he had rented was cared for by Mike in the absence of the owner. Mike was pleased to have found a tenant for the house and smiled as he walked into the container and said to me “I’d like you to meet Mr Lombardi”.

I learned later that Mr Lombardi’s forename was Antonio yet, in all the time he spent in the island, I never heard anyone refer to him other than as Mr Lombardi. He was a man with presence, a quiet, dignified but nonetheless commanding presence, and you felt that to have addressed him by his first name would have been presumptuous.

He was a short man, perhaps five foot five inches, and lightly built – slim, spruce and elegant. He did not have the swarthiness that one habitually associates with Italians, yet his light-olive complexion and well-groomed, oiled black hair and Italian-sounding name immediately implied his origins.

I put him at around forty, though he may have been older. His features were unblemished, and he wore expensive, gold-rimmed sunglasses, though I later saw that he had small, dark, intelligent eyes. His nose was thin, and his mouth delicate, tight-lipped and set in a firm jaw.

He was immaculately dressed in an open-neck cotton shirt with short sleeves and long trousers with a razor crease in each leg, white socks and a pair of polished, brown leather, slip-on shoes with a small, gold buckle. A thin gold chain hung around his neck and I noticed a gold ring on the wedding finger. He carried a small, leather handbag of the type much favoured by Continentals.

Mr Lombardi spoke very little when Mike introduced him to me, other than to make one or two pleasant, polite remarks about yacht chartering. If he was shocked by our office, he was courteous enough not to show it. When he had gone, I asked Mike who he was. Mike said that he was a very wealthy man who owned a shipping line and intended to base some of his ships in the island. By all accounts, he had made an excellent impression on everyone from the Governor General and Prime Minister downwards; his credentials were impeccable and, in short, he was exactly the sort of fellow to be courted with open arms by an impoverished Caribbean island.

Mr Lombardi was very soon celebrated throughout the island. He was wined and dined by all the important people and, wherever he went, he spared no expense, tipping handsomely, entertaining lavishly. One of his ships arrived in harbour – a touch dilapidated, it has to be said, and even rust-streaked …. but, well, it had arrived for a major refit and it had “Lombardi Shipping” painted down the side in great white lettering and so there were nods of approval by those who held his acquaintance.

Everyone was keen to let it be known that they were on familiar term with Mr Lombardi. In the better restaurants, diners would casually bring his name into the conversation. “I was just saying to Mr Lombardi the other day ….” Or “I was having dinner with Mr Lombardi last night and ….”. There was barely a soul who did not hint that he was in some way intimately connected with Mr Lombardi.

Very soon, the island was eating out of Mr Lombardi’s hand. Lines of credit were established and the local banks considered it nothing short of an honour to handle the business transactions of such an esteemed client. Restaurants, airlines, local industries and development corporations were all happy to advance their services (and their funds) on the basis of his signature. The latter was good enough for them. Few people would have been vulgar enough to expect cash from Mr Lombardi. It seemed improbable that his delicate hands had ever been soiled by bank notes. It was as if John Paul Getty had descended upon the island, and all and sundry had resolved to benefit in some way from his presence. The rewards of deference would be substantial.

Mr Lombardi’s business interests naturally took him out of the island from time to time. During these periods, the Captain and First officer of his ship, which had now started its refit, would be accommodated in the house that Mr Lombardi rented. But one September morning, the perplexed First Mate came to Mike and asked him if he had seen Mr Lombardi. Mike replied that he had not but supposed that he was out of the island on some business matter.

“Yes,” said the First Mate, “he WAS out of the island. But he was due back a week ago. We haven’t heard a word from him and our salaries are overdue. In fact we don’t have any money left”. Mike sympathised but told them not to worry. Mr Lombardi would be back soon.

Not surprisingly, Mr Lombardi did not come back soon. Or, indeed, ever again. Indebted to the tune of a million or so dollars, he simply vanished. Further investigation revealed that Lombardi Shipping did not exist other than as a series of letters painted down the side of a rusty old freighter which was worth no more than its scrap value.

As if to confirm everyone’s worst fears, Interpol officers then announced that they were very familiar with the gentleman whose description fitted Mr Lombardi’s. They said that he had operated in the Caribbean region before and they thought it extremely unlikely that he would ever be seen again. They were the only ones who were right.

In the weeks that followed Mr Lombardi’s disappearance, it was most interesting to listen to the large number of well-heeled island officials who denied their losses and claimed that they had “always thought” that there was something “not quite right” about Mr Lombardi.

But in fact, this was the only occasion during my many years in the islands, when I saw a nation of negroes blush.

Narendra Sethia

Narendra Sethia is an accomplished sailor who lives in the Caribbean.