Montecito – Chapter 14 & 15: Trust Issues

By Michael Cox   |   September 13, 2022

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.” Cyrus and Hollis share a tense moment when trust issues come to the surface. Chapter 13 is available here. – MJ Staff

Chapter 14

The next morning, I received a group message from Cyrus to me, Umed, Kai, Noah, and Reuben on the mobile app named BatSignal, Cyrus’s preferred private messaging program. Cyrus liked its security, he said. Certainly, security was what BatSignal touted as its core asset. But from a technology perspective, it was no more secure externally than other similar apps. Curiously, where it did provide extra security was in protecting users from each other. Umed, Kai, Noah and Reuben seemed to enjoy the anonymity. Our group communique listed all participants with first names only and each person was identified by random objects, avatars, and photos. All except Cyrus and me, of course; he in French cuffs and an accompanying pocket square, me in my best navy blazer.

“Website is up. Looking sharp. Thank you, Umed,” Cyrus messaged.

The previous version of our website had been thin on details; more of a coming soon site than a true company profile. True to my pledge, I had resisted the urge to offer my services to Umed, letting him handle the task on his own. With the website finished, I felt relief. The same sort of satisfaction someone on a diet feels having made it to bed without diving into the ice cream carton in the back of the freezer.

And when I saw the work Umed had completed, I was proud that I had kept my nose out of it. The site looked terrific. Plenty of eye candy, graphic slides, and menus that performed intuitively. I was thrilled to see that Umed was up to the task. Cyrus had promised his team was Swiss Army precise and if the website were any indication, I could take him at his word. 

Under Investor Relations, were several PowerPoint presentations that I had developed at Cyrus’s direction. He was a verbal communicator, not a written one, so it took time to recreate his magic two-dimensionally. The presentations were packed with statistics, declarations, and promises that unfortunately bore no footnotes; Cyrus’s knowledge was the only flashlight in this dark forest. At the end of each presentation were brief bios of the core executive team of six.

I wrote these presentation bios myself – details provided by Cyrus – and our team had now held a handful of Zoom calls. Despite that, I was anxious to click the Team link, with its tantalizing promise of putting clear faces and complete backgrounds to all our names. 

At the top left was the company’s patriarch, Cyrus Wimby in French cuffs and blazer, his electric smile burning pixels off my laptop. Clicking on his picture led to a bio, mentioning his distinguished career working for the Saudi royal family and declaring him a graduate of … the University of Oxford? That must have been a mistake. Cyrus had told me that he was a graduate of the University of Amsterdam and approved me putting that in the investor presentations. I made note to let Umed know of the error. 

To Cyrus’s right was me. The picture looked like me. The bio read of me. 

On the next row down, came the other four members of the executive team. Wow, these guys cleaned up nice. Almost unrecognizably so. In our Zoom calls, everyone had scruffy beards and sleepy eyes. In these pictures, the rest of the team was clean shaven, freshly coifed, and dressed for business. The difference was stark. Noah’s photo in particular left me scratching my head. Acknowledging that Zoom calls using grainy computer video cameras can be hit or miss, I would have bet money that Noah’s eyes were brown. But the Noah on our website had vibrant blue eyes. Strange, I thought. Though, for all I knew, Noah wore tinted blue contacts or liked to photoshop himself for dating and hook-up apps. 

Also odd, the universities listed for the rest of the team did not match what Cyrus had me list in the investor presentations. Had Noah graduated from INSEAD in Paris or the National University of Singapore? Clear as day I could remember Cyrus telling us all that Kai had a graduate degree from the London School of Economics, but our website mentioned only a degree from the University of Hong Kong. Was Umed a graduate of the Delft University of Technology or the Technical University of Munich? And finally, had Reuben received his law degree from the University of Edinburgh or the University of Melbourne? The fact that all of them were inconsistent led me to conclude that Umed had just put in placeholders awaiting confirmation. Except of course, that did not explain why his own school would be mislabeled.

I took a deep breath, reminding myself that this was a just-released beta version of a website. There had been no committee meetings to debate the content or verify its accuracy. We were sculpting on the fly and mistakes were bound to happen. In short, take a chill pill Hollis; these are easy corrections.

 Below the executive team were at least one hundred smiling faces and names that I had never met before, organized by city – Shanghai or Beijing – and function. All the names were Chinese; all the schools and experiences were fresh to my Anglo eyes. 

I felt a tinge of guilt that I was supposed to be the Chief Executive Officer of this company, yet I had no idea of the human size and scope of our operations. I chastised myself; this was not the kind of executive I wanted to be. I needed to visit our China operations. I needed to see our people and facilities myself. I could not be the man who sat back from his Montecito perch and simply approved financial statements.

I rejoined the BatSignal discussion and echoed Cyrus’s praise for Umed’s work on the website. “Nice work, Umed,” I tapped out. “The website looks fantastic.”

“Hear, hear,” Cyrus replied.

“One thing I did notice,” I typed. “The bios in the investor presentations and under the Team section are different. Specifically, all the universities are different. The universities listed in the presentations were supplied by Cyrus. Not sure which is correct.”

“Ah,” Umed wrote. “I will fix.”

This felt sufficient. But something internally nagged me to ask for more clarity. “Which universities are the correct ones?”

A few minutes went by. “The ones Cyrus provided,” Umed wrote.

“Easy enough to fix, Umed,” Cyrus immediately chimed in. “Thanks for the eagle eyes, Hollis!”

Ok, ok, I thought. I appreciated the thanks for having caught the discrepancy, but something still was not right. If Cyrus’s list of universities was the correct one, then that meant that Umed had written the wrong university into his own online bio. Was that conceivable?

The old me would have blurted out an accusation; the new me wanted – needed – to see this as a simple, repairable error.

“No problem, guys,” I wrote, in the language of the new me. “Umed, you might have some explaining to do! Cyrus wrote that you graduated from Delft University of Technology, but you wrote that you were a graduate of Technical University of Munich. I think you’ve been caught!”

I waited; ten minutes went by. 

“Ah ha!” Cyrus wrote. “What can I say. Apologies to you both. Of course, Umed knows better than me where he went to university!” followed by a handful of exotic emojis I did not understand.

“I will fix the others on the website,” Umed immediately replied.

“Ok, great,” I wrote. “And I will update the presentations with your correct university and send to you so they can be uploaded.”

“Fantastic resolution, team,” Cyrus replied. “Nice work, everyone.”

I nodded at my screen as a cauldron of acid burned in my stomach. I had tried and dismissed both Rolaids and Tums; I was now taking over the counter Prevacid. I popped one and waited for relief. While I waited, I noticed for the first time that my fingers were shaking and that an unfamiliar trapezoidal tension was roping my back.

What was my problem? We had a beautiful, well-designed website. The few identified errors were now fixed. Everyone had been humble and quick to react. Mistakes happen. Why was my body trying to revolt?

Eventually the Prevacid slowed the belly boil, and my trapezius muscles relaxed. Part of me wanted to talk to Cricket about this tiny thing that had spooked me. Another part recognized that – professionally speaking – I was the boy who cried wolf. How many more times could I come to her and complain about small inconsistencies and discrepancies built into sandcastles of worry? Further, what was she going to do? I had already pushed my chips to the middle of the table; there was no recalling them.

This internal pep talk worked. My anxiety declined. My fingers stopped shaking. My stomach relaxed. My old demons had been, at least temporarily, defeated.

I did my job as promised, updating the investor presentations then sending them to Umed for posting.

“Updated presentations received and posted,” Umed wrote. “Team section of webpage updated as well. Now consistent. Thanks again for your help.”

Nanoseconds later, Cyrus again chimed in supportively. “Good work everyone.”

I chuckled to myself. Overreacting was one element of my fog. Thankfully, this time, I had managed to keep from revealing my lunacy to the rest of the team. This was good; this was progress. Maybe the new me was finally starting to gain the upper hand on the old me. 

Before the old me had a chance to strike back, I pressed my newfound advantage. I opened my LinkedIn profile and penned a post, announcing the new website and business relaunch. My network boasted a total of 341 connections – rural billboards collect more eyeballs on a Sunday – but for me, this was an important statement of ownership and a further blow to my demons of doubt. 

The move felt so good, I typed an email to Cricket’s parents, cc’ing her. “Wanted to share an update on ExOh Holdings,” I wrote in the subject line. In the body, I pasted a link to the redesigned website prefaced with, “Thank you for believing in me.” Within minutes, Cricket’s father replied: “Proud of you, Hollis. Let me know when I can invest!” Cricket wrote back privately with a series of applauding GIFs and the three words that matter most: “I love you.” 

Chapter 15

I successfully shifted my morning meetings with Cyrus from the Country Mart’s Merci to his home. More often than not, I had ended up paying the Merci bill; as great as the coffee and setting were, I could not afford it. From a financial perspective, I was a de facto retiree, and forty-dollar coffee bills were not in my budget.

Our meeting venue was now the Wimbys’ library room with a set time of 10 am. I was physically incapable of arriving late, but Cyrus lived by more flexible constraints. To while away the time, I brought books from the public library on trade policy and macroeconomics. I was still searching for that mythical how-to that would shed incremental light on ExOh’s China advantage. 

At thirty minutes after ten, the Wimbys’ nanny – whose job transitioned to maid when Priscilla was at camp or school – notified me that Cyrus wanted me to come back to his bedroom.

“Hollis!” he hollered as I entered his bedroom uneasily. Other people’s bedrooms made me uncomfortable; I will blame it on the fog. Cyrus was packing a suitcase which meant I was eye-to-garment with a stack of underwear and socks. Further discomfort ensued.

“Where are you headed?” I asked. 

“Coastal California fundraising trip,” he said. “Demand is high; need to strike while the iron is hot. We are headed to La Jolla, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Huntington Palisades, Malibu, Pebble Beach, and Carmel-by-the-Sea.”  

We? He had not mentioned it before this moment, and sudden schedule changes made me nervous, but a fundraising trip? What an exciting experience. “That’s a lot of driving,” I said, casually, biding my time for all of three seconds. “Uh, when you say we, do you mean–”

“Sorry,” Cyrus said, shaking his head, no. “John Colton and I,” he clarified. “These are his connections, his friends. It is just the two of us. Well, us and his Citation X.”  Cyrus smiled. “I don’t like to drive.”

John Colton, current patriarch of Miramar Bank and Trust, was now both a significant investor in ExOh and a member of the company’s three-strong Board of Directors. The connection to the bank and John was paying off: John seemed to know everyone that mattered in California and was now arranging private investor meetings. I presume the meetings and the Citation X was the proof of desire Cyrus had envisioned when he told me that he wanted to see John Colton work for it.

My jealousy aside, the prospect of more money coming in was tremendous news. If it was good for ExOh, it was good for me. 

“When I return in ten days,” Cyrus declared. “I will be dragging a treasure chest behind me. You worry about getting the stock relisted. Speaking of, do you have a status report on that? It’s just adding and subtracting, right?”

Cyrus laughed at his joke, but I sensed some genuine irritation. Either that or I was just nervous about continuing to prove my worth. “Our accountant is nearly done,” I said apologetically. “I’ve gone through his preliminary numbers and they look good. The only outstanding issue is verification of the transactions from Kai’s spreadsheets with the bank statements from the Hong Kong account. I told him that was fine, and I would get him the statements–”

Cyrus did not say a word, but his head whipped from his suitcase to my eyes. I instinctively froze.

“Why does he need the statements?” he said after a generous pause.

“I …,” I swallowed, “I think it’s just to double check.”

Cyrus shook his head. “That won’t do, Hollis.”

“I’m … I’m sorry, Cyrus,” I stuttered. “I didn’t think this would be a big deal.  It seemed like a reasonable request to me.”

“Reasonable?” he said. He hung his head. “Come. Sit.” He pointed to two wingback chairs in the corner of his bedroom. Scanning the full length and width of the room for the first time, I realized how massive it was. I could have fit four of Cricket and my bedrooms in here.

I dutifully took my seat. “I’m sorry, Cyrus.”

“Do not worry, my friend,” Cyrus said, his expression pained. “I wouldn’t expect this to make sense to you.” He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees and his fingers interwoven. “Here is the challenge. Our business – global trade – is at the heart of a political football game that began centuries ago. New leaders come and go, promising to open borders, to close borders, to free the economy, to seize the means of production. If you make pencils, you can enjoy this gamesmanship from the sidelines. But if you are in the business of global trade, you must operate with your eyes in the back of your head.”

Once again, I longed for the MBA I did not get and the Macroeconomics classes that I did not pay enough attention to.

 “Below that overarching challenge lies a sinister underbelly. I am the majority owner of ExOh Holdings, but I am also a brown man – a man of Muslim and Middle Eastern decent – living in a country of and run by white men. I am a visitor here; a visitor whose permission to remain can be rejected at the whim of your megalomaniac President.”

I nodded, feeling guilty on behalf of all fellow Americans.

“On top of that, the bank account is in Hong Kong and our principal business operations are in China.”

I nodded again, not sure what else to do.

“Add it all up, and it is a powder keg, my friend. That is why I structured ExOh Holdings the way I have. Everything is siloed; everything is separable. If I turn over the Hong Kong bank accounts to a U.S.-based accountant, they become discoverable by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Internal Revenue Service. They are one phone call from seizure. Who knows what that batshit crazy man in the White House will do next?”

A third nervous nod.

Cyrus shook his head. “I cannot do it. It would risk the entire company. There must be another way.”

I had never witnessed Cyrus so vulnerable. It appeared he was on the verge of anguished tears. I felt horrible that I had not anticipated this concern. Was it my fog, or was this insensitivity the kind of mistake many coddled white men would have made? “The accountant did offer another option,” I said, trying to recover from my unexpected gaffe.

Cyrus sighed. “And what would that be?” 

“Well,” I began, “he said that because we were only going for a Pink Sheets listing, he would accept a signed affidavit from an ExOh officer instead,” I said. “I know that your goal was to get ExOh off the Pink Sheets, but this could be a temporary solution.”

“Brilliant,” Cyrus said, his radiant smile returning. He slapped his knee. “Talk about burying the lead!”

I exhaled relief. “So, I’ll get you the form. You’ll need it to be notarized, and–”

“Wait, wait, wait, wait,” he interrupted, his forehead wrinkled like a Pug. “I can’t sign the form.”

I was shaking my head no before I could utter the words. “But I haven’t seen the bank statements either.”

“I understand,” he said calmly, “but you’ve reviewed the spreadsheet of transactions.”

“Yes, but…,” my latent stomachache surged, I stuck a hand in my pocket for pills but found none.

“You can do it!” Cyrus said, placing a hopeful hand on my leg, his fingers threatening to circumnavigate my knee.

“I think I’d feel better about signing the form,” I said in the same pitch Isabel uses when asking for something she knows she won’t get, “if I could see the bank statements.” My face cringed. “I mean, just to be sure. You know? Mistakes happen and–”

Again, I was interrupted by movement instead of noise. Cyrus dropped his eyes from me and hung his head like the clapper of a bell. I waited.

“Well, here we are,” he finally said. He spun the diamond wedding band around his finger as if tightening a screw but did not raise his head. “You came to me looking for an opportunity at ExOh. I took you on without really knowing you. I put you in a prestigious position. I revealed my vulnerabilities; I trusted you to fill those gaps.”

He lifted his head and met my eyes. I wanted to look away but could not. 

“This was always the job,” he pleaded. “From the beginning, I told you that we needed you to be the face of our U.S. presence. What is the issue? Do you not trust me?”

I pulled my eyes from his, focusing on his size sixteen shoes instead. “I do trust you, Cyrus.”

“I trust you as well,” he said. “I trust you even though I have learned that you have not always been forthright with me.”

My eyes darted back to his face.

“When we first sat for coffee at Merci?” he said. “You told me that you voluntarily left CryptoWallet because you were searching for a larger leadership role.”

Again, I averted my eyes, remembering that moment so clearly. He had not heard of CryptoWallet. What harm would it do? I had thought. A small, innocuous lie, or so I believed.

“I think we both know that story was not true,” Cyrus said.

I nodded. For someone who did not lie often, I certainly had chosen a poor time to play that card. 

“Despite that… indiscretion,” he said, “I have found you to be an excellent partner. I believe you are doing marvelous work, adding real value to the team. Certainly, it would have been well within my rights to let you go once I learned of your lie, but I did not.”

More sheepish nods. 

“Our problem,” he continued, “is far deeper than the job at hand. We have a trust issue.”

I shook my head, no. “I’m sorry, Cyrus. I do; I really do trust you.”

“I want to believe that,” he said. “But I’m not sure. And judging by your eyes, neither are you.”

I reflexively looked away, hiding my backstabbing eyes.

“Take your time, Hollis,” he said. “Take all the time you need. But if you want to be the Chief Executive Officer of ExOh Holdings, I need your unwavering, undivided, uncompromised trust. If you cannot do that, then I’m afraid we can’t work together.”  

Click here for Chapter 16 

 

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