Montecito — Chapter 6 & 7: A Job in the Fog
by MJ Staff
Take a sneak peek of Montecito by Michael Cox in this ongoing serialization of his yet-to-be-published book. This fictional story is inspired by “tales of true crime THAT HAPPENED HERE.” Hollis faces new attention and old problems after discovering the body of Landon, Cyrus’ friend from the dinner party. Chapter 5 is available here.
Montecito: Chapter 6
The Santa Barbara Independent called to ask me for a quote for their article on Landon’s death. I declined. News Channel KEYT asked if I would speak on camera. I declined that too. It felt strange that my accidental stumbling upon an already discovered dead body somehow made me a minor celebrity. I wanted nothing to do with any of that.
For a few days, the local news re-ran old stories reminding locals and visitors alike of the common safety procedures for a happy, successful – and most importantly, survived – surf adventure. Then, the story was gone.
As the hubbub died down, my impending personal financial disaster reemerged on my front burner; I still had no plan. By my math and logic, my one month’s severance from CryptoWallet bought me two weeks to formulate said plan. Already I was halfway through my grace period, and I had nothing to show for it.
For several days, Cricket and I danced around, but not with, the eight-hundred-pound gorilla that followed me around the house. But as the first week of my unemployment bled into the second with nary an update to be had, Cricket offered to help me conduct a postmortem on my time at CryptoWallet to see if there was anything to be gleamed from this latest failure.
I wanted to cross my arms and pout a petulant, no. I knew exactly why I had been fired. I had known it even before my best friend and fellow CryptoWallet executive, Paul – the man who had helped me land the job to begin with – reluctantly delivered the deathblow, explaining that I was being “released to pursue other opportunities.”
“For what it’s worth, I think you were right,” Paul had admitted, referring to the most recent executive squabble I had found myself embroiled in; the one that was the final straw and secured me a sturdy new cardboard box. “But being right is overrated,” Paul had continued. “I know this is hard for you to hear, Hollis, but sometimes you have got to back off. Sometimes you have got to let things go.”
This was not new news. Indeed, I could not let things go. I was argumentative. I missed cues as to the emotional state of others. I needed to prove that I was correct even at the cost of bruised feelings. I had an outsized passion for justice; even the slightest of wrongs required righting. In past employment exit interviews, I had been told I was tone deaf, stubborn, rigid, tedious, and generally lacked empathy. Unfortunately, these were all too accurate descriptions. I had also been described as weird, a freak, and a jerk. These descriptions lacked the necessary call to improvement; I could attempt to develop empathy, but I could not un-weird myself.
All of these were telltale signs of my substandard emotional intelligence, also known as Low EQ. Once, perhaps after the first or second firing, I self-deprecatingly referred to myself as on the spectrum. Cricket was quick to explain to me that the spectrum was an overused term that insensitively combined a host of legitimate, discrete disorders into a singular, amorphous one. Once again, there I was inadvertently offending. As an alternative, Cricket proposed we coin the phrase in the fog to describe all the unique joys of knowing, loving, and dealing with me, Hollis Crawford. The phrase was perfect: when it came to reading others, I was definitively in the fog.
So, even though I had a firm grasp on my deficiencies, I knew I had no alternative but to recite them again with Cricket, seeing if there were any silver linings under all the dark clouds.
“I’m not giving up on you,” Cricket concluded, “but I can’t tell where your head is.”
I began to raise a finger to point at my head; Cricket shook her head, no. It was not the time for a joke, apparently.
“Do you want me to go back to public relations?” she asked more pointedly.
“No,” I said.
“Then, what is your plan?”
“I don’t know.”
“Fine,” Cricket said, shaking her head. “You want more time? I will give you more time.” She stood from the kitchen table, signifying the end of our pep talk. “But I won’t hesitate to blow the whistle on your time if I have to,” she continued, “there’s too much on the line here. I’ve got a job. Two of them in fact. And I love both my jobs. All I’m asking you to do is try. Put yourself out there. Make calls. Network. Join LinkedIn.”
I puckered my face; she ignored me.
“Who knows where it will lead,” Cricket continued. “But one thing is for sure, you’re not going to land a job pretending to be Mr. Mom.”
She was right on all fronts, and still I had no plan.
That evening, as I emptied the dishwasher and folded laundry, my cell phone pinged the sound of an incoming text message.
Hollis, my friend, the message read. Thank you so much for your assistance with the tragedy that befell our dear friend Landon. It has been a very trying week both personally and professionally.
I can only imagine, I texted back.
Indeed, he added. With that in mind, I find myself in need of some help and the only person I could imagine turning to was you.
I stared at my phone as if it had just grown a leg. I had no idea what to write in reply. Thankfully Cyrus rescued me.
Could we meet for coffee to discuss?
Sure, I replied. Starbucks?
Surely not. He shot back. Merci. 10 am?
See you there, then. I wrote.
To keep her expectations in check, I did not tell Cricket of my morning coffee date with Cyrus. For all I knew, Cyrus was going on vacation and wanted me to gather mail and water plants in his absence. I wasn’t going to put Cricket through another game of rope-a-dope just because I had allowed myself to send up a green shoot of hope in my barren garden. Certainly, I felt a twinge of shame that a potential professional opportunity for yours truly could stem from Landon’s unfortunate demise. But leaping from clueless, through joyous, only to land on guilty, seemed a bit of an overreaction considering I had no idea what Cyrus had in mind. If I was lucky enough to have something to feel guilty about, I figured I would find a way to deal with that countervailing emotion when the time came.
Nestled in the heart of Montecito’s Country Mart, Merci was abuzz when I arrived at ten minutes before ten. I hovered awkwardly just outside the small stone wall that delineated Merci’s outdoor tables from those of the coffee shop next door and the grocery directly opposite. I grew hungry watching staff bring out petits fours and scones along with coffees of every size, shape, and hue. Just before 10 am, a table for two opened up, and I pounced indiscreetly. At ten after ten, I ordered an Americano, no cream no sugar; the waitress seemed disappointed with my lack of creativity. Join the club, I thought.
At fifteen after ten, I pulled out my phone for the fiftieth time, turning the cell signal on and off, checking to make sure I did not have the phone on silent, and refreshing my email inbox. None of it changed the truth that I had received no messages of any kind.
At twenty after ten, Cyrus arrived, cell phone pressed to his ear, speaking in an Arabic tongue. When he finally ended the call, I stuck out my hand for a shake and arched my eyebrows for an explanation.
“So very sorry, Hollis,” he said. “I’ve been sitting in the parking lot for nearly a half hour talking with my mother. She was devastated at the news of Landon’s passing and I could not get off the phone until she had calmed down.” He swallowed my offered hand between two of his, his flexible-straw fingers stretching well past my wrist and up my arm.
Embarrassment surged through my system. I was expecting an apology and now felt like I needed to offer one. “No problem, Cyrus,” I said, trying to reverse my judgmental eyebrows. “Does your mother live here?”
“No, no,” he said. “She is in Riyadh. It is her home; she would never leave.”
“You have other family there?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “All of my family; I am the only one who left. Mother turns ninety-two next week and more than two hundred people will attend her birthday celebration.”
Impressive, I thought. If I were to have a birthday party, I was certain it would take a cash bribe to get two hundred people to attend. As it stood, I typically tried to avoid acknowledging my birthday, and any celebration would happen only if Cricket was in the mood to host a subset of her best friends whose husbands happened also to get along with me.
A waitress passed nearby; Cyrus politely waved her over. He complimented her hair, asked about her afternoon plans for this glorious Montecito day, and placed an if-I-could-trouble-you order for a cappuccino, maple scone, yoghurt, and granola.
I tried to think of some equally flattering comments, but my mind was blank. “Do you offer refills?” I asked her sheepishly, holding up my empty mug.
“Well,” she began, embarrassed for me, “I’m happy to get you a refill, but we do charge for them.”
“Never mind,” I said.
The waitress nodded and was off. I tried to paper over my cheapness by claiming that I had probably already had too much caffeine.
“No such thing, my friend,” Cyrus said with a laugh.
As we waited for Cyrus’s coffee to arrive, my pulse leveled up. I wanted to hear what Cyrus’s big favor was, but he seemed content with chit chat, asking my opinion of his Entre Nous wines and, conversely, describing Landon’s poignant memorial ceremony in Palm Springs.
I considered asking more questions about his new business venture, but I had already learned so much at the previous week’s dinner party. The company was called ExOh Holdings and had been named by Priscilla in a cheeky take on “XO,” shorthand for “hugs and kisses.” At this revelation, I had only been able to shake my head. In my family, the kids name the hamster. If they are lucky, they get to name the dog. But in the Wimby family, the kid got to name a future billion-dollar company: rich people problems.
Cyrus’s story for how ExOh came to acquire its chief asset – the Free Trade Zone license that would level the playing field of global trade and save the world from the captivity of Amazon and Alibaba – was as jaw dropping as it was predictable. Like much of the business dealings borne from the non-democratic, developing world, ExOh’s trading license came to the company as part of a bribe. At the time, Cyrus was working as the chief negotiator for the sale of Saudi Arabian crude oil to the Chinese government. In exchange for favorable terms, Cyrus had been granted the license on which ExOh’s business model was based. It was gross. It was dirty. And to American ears, it was exactly how most of us assumed business in China was conducted.
But with Cyrus’s cappuccino finished, his scone half eaten, and his granola recently delivered, I decided I could not wait any longer. “So,” I began, “last night, you were saying that you needed some help?”
“Yes,” he said, dabbing the corners of his mouth with a napkin and taking a deep breath. “I find myself in a bit of a quandary. I’m in the United States on a B-1 Visa with special sponsorship from the Saudi Arabian government,” Cyrus explained. “I can stay as long as I’d like, but I cannot take a job. I can invest in ExOh, and I can serve on its Board of Directors, but I cannot be the company’s Chairman or Chief Executive Officer. Landon – dear Landon – was supposed to serve in these capacities. But with his passing…”
Cyrus swallowed a dainty spoonful of granola and yoghurt, leaving me to complete the thought. “I’m not sure I know…,” I began, my voice trailing off.
“The other night, at our dinner party, you mentioned your interest in joining my team,” Cyrus added. “At the time, I was confident I could work things out with Landon, and – under that assumption – felt that we did not truly need another executive. But now, given Landon’s death,” he paused to shake his head, “that assumption is turned on its head. Now, I am quite literally on the hunt for an executive to fill Landon’s shoes, and I couldn’t help but think of you.”
I sat back; my eyes open to saucers. I had not intended to pitch myself as the CEO of Cyrus’s company, but merely as an underling. This potential opportunity exceeded my expectations by an order of magnitude, but unfortunately, I did not think Cyrus had a firm grasp on my capabilities.
“Cyrus,” I said carefully, “I am flattered. And I want to help you; in fact, I’m convinced I can help you. But I’m not sure I’m capable of stepping into Landon’s shoes here. I… I am not a CEO.”
“Poppycock,” Cyrus said. “You are precisely what you tell the world you are.”
I closed my eyes and shook my head though I couldn’t help but blush.
“Remind me again of your background.” Cyrus said. “Your education; your previous posts?”
He asked me to remind him, but the truth was that I had never spoken of it. Nevertheless, I launched into the speech I had mentally prepared for the evening when Landon laughed me off the putting green. “I’ve been a Chief Technology Officer, the Head of Operations, and a lowly coding grunt,” I began. “Computer programming is my passion and I’ve run the programming teams of several companies, large and small.”
Cyrus looked almost relieved. “My friend. You are a tech wizard?”
I shook my head, no. “Wizard is an imprecise word that implies non-human skills,” I clarified. “I am a very good programmer, and I’ve used my very good programming in lots of ways at multiple companies.”
“Did you go to school for this programming expertise?”
I nodded. “Caltech. I had a double major in applied mathematics and computer science.”
“This is a good school?”
“Yes, yes,” I said, feeling the temptation to brag. “It’s an excellent school.” I thought about bringing up a few famous alums – Gordon Moore, Howard Hughes – but even from the vantage of the fog, I knew that sounded like trying too hard.
“That is wonderful,” Cyrus said. “Who do you work for now?”
I successfully stifled a cringe, denying myself another Olympic qualifying point. “I was at CryptoWallet, a startup here in Santa Barbara,” I said. “Do you know the company?”
He raised his eyebrows and shrugged. The fact that he did not know CryptoWallet reassured me that it would be ok to fudge the truth a little. “I was the Chief Operating Officer there,” I continued. “Great company. But my passion was building the product and once that was finished, well… it just wasn’t satisfying anymore.”
Cyrus nodded sympathetically.
His nod fueled my fire of white lies. “So, I resigned,” I continued. “I decided that I wanted to expand my wings beyond the technology side of a business and look for something that offered a larger management and leadership role.” As the words flowed from my mouth, guilt flowed in. This was what I wished had happened, but it could not have been a less accurate retelling.
Nevertheless, it seemed my lie had hammered Cyrus’s nail. “Well, you’re talking to the right company if your goal is to expand your leadership footprint,” he said.
I smiled even as my stomach knotted.
“May I ask a few silly housekeeping matters?” he continued. “You are a U.S. citizen, I presume?”
“And your credit history? Ever filed for bankruptcy? Ever served as a Board member of a company that filed for bankruptcy?”
My face scrunched. “Of course not,” I said. My cash balance was running low, but I was too conservative – aka scared – to borrow lots of money. And, unfortunately, I had never been asked to serve on the Board of anything.
“What about arrest records? Any DUIs? Domestic violence? A pile of unpaid parking tickets?”
“Of course not!” I repeated, louder this time.
He raised his hands. “I know,” he said. “But I have to ask. These are the sorts of disqualifiers that must be discussed.”
“Okay,” I said.
He leaned forward, speaking conspiratorially. “What would you say is your reputation in the Montecito community?”
I almost laughed, but the answer was more sad than funny. “I am known as Cricket’s husband.”
Cyrus laughed. “She is quite the hub of connections, isn’t she? Genevieve has been dying to get to know her since we got here.”
Once again, Cricket to my rescue. In all fairness, I was proud to be known as Cricket’s husband. It was better than being Hollis, the unemployed dad.
“So, you are squeaky clean,” Cyrus continued, “and your family is well known and respected in the community. And you have impressive academic credentials and prior experience as a C-suite executive.” He leaned further forward; his eyes opened wide with pleasure.
“Uh… yes. I guess,” I acknowledged.
“You’re perfect!” Cyrus said, smacking the iron tabletop, sending the dishware clattering. “This isn’t the Fortune 500,” he continued. “At least, not yet. I need someone that is flexible, comfortable with ambiguity, and keeps their eyes on the big picture. Do you think that describes you?”
No. It did not describe me. It described the opposite of me, or at least the opposite of the me I had always been. But where had that me gotten me? “Yes,” I said. “Absolutely.”
“Well,” he chuckled. “Permit me to make you an offer that I hope you won’t refuse…”
This was all happening so fast that my mouth fell.
“I want to offer you the position of Chief Executive Officer of ExOh,” Cyrus continued. “And I present you with the same package that Landon and I ultimately agreed to before his unfortunate accident. The ideal of ExOh is to be lean and mean. Corporate headquarters are here in Montecito, but the bulk of our operations will be in Shanghai. When you get settled, and our corporate foundation has solidified, I want you in Shanghai once a quarter to make sure everyone knows who is in charge.”
I couldn’t help but shake my head at the thought of it. What would Cricket, Isabel, and Trip think of dear old dad off to Shanghai on business? They would be prouder of me than they had ever been before, that was for sure.
“No physical offices in Montecito for now,” Cyrus continued. “I work from the fifth bedroom of my home and host meetings at the house or at restaurants around town. I assume you have a home office like everyone else in Montecito?”
I pictured the twelve hundred square feet that comprised our overcrowded home. I was not bunking the kids into a single bedroom just so that I could feel better about myself. That left the well-worn tradition of working from the garage; so common in broader Santa Barbara that they had a term for it: a gar-office. Our garage was a single-car affair with more cobwebs than windows, but it would work. “Yes,” I said.
“Very good. On to compensation and the agreement Landon and I struck.” He smiled regretfully. “Everyone on the team works for stock, not cash…”
Oh no, I thought, swallowing hard, picturing our already dwindling bank account.
“… In lieu of cash,” Cyrus continued. “ExOh is very – and I mean very – generous with stock grants. As I agreed with Landon, I will issue you one-million-dollars’ worth of ExOh’s restricted stock today and at each one-year anniversary of your tenure. If all goes as anticipated, your initial issuance of one million will be worth ten million dollars in a year’s time.”
Ten million dollars!?! My inner voice screamed. How in the world could I go from unemployed to ten million dollars? It was a sum I could not conjure, delivered over a timeframe I could not fathom.
And unfortunately, it was probably moot. How could I accept a job without a penny of cash coming in? My CryptoWallet pay had barely covered our expenses. My previous bouts of unemployment seriously dented our savings. All I had left was the retirement plan money that I had been forced to roll into an Individual Retirement Account every time I got fired. Breaking the seal on that money was a no-no. There would be taxes, fees, penalties, and – I was sure – some sort of announcement in the Montecito Gazette. I would probably get to keep about half of it at most. Most important of all: what would Cricket say?
I shook my head. “I am blown away, Cyrus,” I said. “This is an exciting proposition but not without its challenges. And of course, I need to make sure Cricket is on board.”
“I wouldn’t respect a man who didn’t consult the wisdom of his better half,” Cyrus said. “But please do remember, Hollis: I need you. I cannot help but feel that our meeting at this crossroads of time, place, and opportunity is heaven sent – for you and me, both.”
I nodded; my head filled with many of the same cosmic what ifs.
Cyrus waved down the server and asked for our check, which was already tucked into the pocket of her apron. He looked it over then touched the breast pocket of his coat. “Oh, this is embarrassing,” he said. “I’ve left my wallet at home. Let me run back and get it.”
“I’ve got it,” I said, motioning him to sit back down. Though if I had known I would end up paying $46 for a cup of coffee, I might have splurged for the refill.
He stood to leave; we shook hands. “I know it’s last minute, but Genevieve wanted me to ask if you and Cricket would come to dinner tonight?”
Cyrus laughed. “Yes: again. Genevieve loves to host dinner parties, and we are both enjoying meeting all the fine people of Montecito. Besides, Genevieve is making her Key Lime Pie tonight. This, you have to try.”