Montecito – Chapter 20 & 21: Ticking Stocks and Clocks

By Michael Cox   |   September 27, 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.” With ExOH now trading once again, the solid stock price and Cyrus’s urgency with matters is not bringing Hollis any comfort. Chapter 19 is available here. – MJ Staff

Chapter 20

I made sure to be online at 6:30 am – California time – when the re-tickered EXOH returned to the list of actively traded stocks. Much emphasis is placed on the first day’s trading outcome, but I knew that it was the long-term that mattered. Still, optics were important; Cyrus’s job would only get harder if the stock closed the day under its $10 offering price.

This potential complication became an afterthought within minutes. EXOH immediately zoomed from $10 to $15 and bounced between $15 and $20 for the remainder of the trading day. I watched for hours, my eyes glued to tiny upticks and downticks, volume waxing and waning. Each time the stock drifted down to $15, a new buy order would arrive on the scene – typically for 100 shares – to buffer the downward trend. 

When the trading day ended with our stock at $19.57, I called our lead broker at Humphrey Brothers to thank him for the market-making support.

“I didn’t do a thing,” he told me.

“What… what do you mean?”

He laughed. “All the trading was offshore.”

Once again, I was over my skis, embarrassed by what I did not know. “What do you mean?” I reluctantly repeated.

“I mean, nobody initiated an order through my desk. It was a handful of – I don’t know, hedge funds maybe – in the Cayman Islands trading with a couple of domestic desks in Hong Kong.”

I had no idea what to say or what this meant, but I was not going to ask for a third time. “Is that unique in your experience?”

Another laugh. “Never in my career has a Pink Sheets stock traded like that.”

I thanked him again – despite his insistence that he had been a bystander – and hung up.

I began to dial Cyrus next, but mid-dial, I received Cyrus’s inbound call.

“What a day!” I said, eager to celebrate the near doubling of EXOH’s price today.

“Yes,” he said. “Hey, I–”

“That was thrilling,” I interrupted. “I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.”

“Yes,” he repeated. “It was grand. Listen, I need an update on the balance of our Miramar bank account.” He sounded in a rush.

I logged into the account to check the balance. Cyrus’s coastal fundraising trip had been far more successful than even he had anticipated. The four million in commitment letters turned into five-point-five million in cash and grew further when Max Beauregard followed up the morning after Cyrus’s dinner with an investment of an even one-million dollars. 

“We have nine-million, six-hundred-twenty-two thousand in the account as of today.”

“Perfect,” Cyrus said, pausing. “Wire two million to the Hong Kong bank account right away.”

I swallowed a golf ball of discomfort. Two million was the biggest wire yet. Just typing in the numbers made my fingers shake. “What should I put on the memo line?”

“What?” he said.

“The note you put into the system indicating what the wire is for,” I explained.

“Oh, right,” he said, talking even faster. “Uh, expenses or intercompany loan. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Just put something in – whatever you want – and tell me when it’s done.”

I listed intercompany loan on the memo line and clicked submit. “It’s on its way,” I said. “Hey, it looks like you won that dinner party bet with Max Beau–”

“Great, thanks,” he interrupted and hung up the phone.

I looked at my mobile like it had sprouted horns. Why was he in such a rush? Perhaps the stress of the first day of trading had him under the gun. I tried to dismiss it, but the worry refused complete burial.

That evening I barely ate dinner yet again, and the rash on my hands crawled to my armpits. Even Trip commented that my scratching made me look like a monkey. I felt like a monkey too.

By bedtime – between the gastrointestinal discomfort, the itchy pits, and the strange vibe from Cyrus – I had reached an internal tipping point. I needed to talk to Cricket; I wanted to talk to her. But I feared that giving voice to my uncertainties would make them real and they could not be real. I was walking the tightrope with no net; looking down was not an option.

“I didn’t want to bring it up in front of the kids,” Cricket said as we were turning down the bed, “but I saw Genevieve’s post on Instagram today. Holy cow, Hollis! That is amazing! The stock doubled!”

“Nearly doubled,” I corrected, ever the stickler.

“Awww,” she mocked. “Not good enough for you? Let me tell you, dad is over the moon! He is planning to call into Mad Money tomorrow to get Cramer’s take… whoever Cramer is.”

“That’s terrific,” I said, faking a smile.

“What’s that face for?” she said, suggesting my fake smile was less than convincing. “Did you expect better?”

I crossed my arms over my chest and scratched my itchy pits, then buried the heels of my hands in my eye sockets. “I don’t know, Cricket. I’m just not feeling well.”

She smiled, but her forehead registered her concern. “What is it?”

“That’s the thing,” I groaned. “I don’t know. I just… I don’t feel good.”

“Physically?”

“Yes.”

“Anything else?”

“I… I don’t know.”

“Are we… are we good?” she asked.

“Oh God,” I said. “Of course. We are the only thing that I know for certain is good.”

She looked at me like I had grown horns.

“It’s nothing,” I began, “I’m just–”

“You haven’t been eating well,” she suggested.

While this was true, my issues were not driven by choices between nutritious food and junk. It was not what I was eating, it was how it was settling. I wanted to say this, but saying it would only open a door I wanted kept closed. “I know. That’s probably it.”

“And I can tell that you’re carrying a lot of stress. It looks like you’ve lost some weight.”

“Seven pounds,” I said, patting my tummy as if I was proud. I wanted to point out that bad nutrition and weight loss rarely go together, but, then again, I did not want to be talking about this at all. To talk was to invite scrutiny. I just wanted to go to sleep and wake up without the gnawing in my stomach. “But I am sure it will come back when things settle down.”

“Have you been sleeping well?” she asked. “Sleep is very important.”

Yes, it was important, and, no, I was not sleeping well. “I’ll work on it,” I suggested.

She looked at me skeptically. “You have to take care of yourself, Hollis. You’re too important to us.”

This made me smile despite my upset stomach. “Thank you, Cricket.”

We both climbed into bed. “Is there anything I can do?” she asked. “Anything?”

My mind reeled. The biographical inconsistencies. The Hong Kong bank statements. The offshore trading. The lack of verifiable documentation. The fanciful press releases. The all-powerful Cyrus’s occasional bouts of panic. Each understandable in isolation, but when combined?

And then there was my deepest, darkest fear, slowly gaining ground on all the others. What if I had not gotten this job despite my weaknesses but because of them? What if my ignorance and naivety were not hindrances to Cyrus’s grand plan but central elements of it?

I looked at my loving wife, her face imploring me to let her help. But there was nothing she could do. The truth was I no longer trusted myself. My instincts – man’s survival sirens from the days when our ancestors were still cracking the code of fire – had proven wonky. I could not walk away from millions of dollars over a hunch, and most certainly not over my hunch. After all, I was in the fog, and from within, nothing was certain. 

“No, Cricket,” I said. “It’s fine. It will all be just fine.”

Chapter 21

I am sure I slept at some point, but I cannot recall when. I checked the nightlight on my Timex Ironman at least fifty times, and it always seemed to be twenty minutes from the last time I checked. 

It pained me not to share my amorphous concerns with Cricket, but it would have hurt more to see the look in her eyes when she realized – once again – that I was failing. If I let her see the cracks, I feared she would lose what remained of her faith. It was nutrition, it was sleep, it was stress – it was anything but a return of my demons of professional destruction. 

The next morning began without an obvious emotional hangover. Cricket inquired and I responded: “much better, thank you.”

Our once-new routine was now our everyday routine: Cricket to Los Banõs for her Masters swim and me to MUS with the kids. Isabel and Trip no longer complained about the walk, and despite my defeated state of mind, I was grateful for the time with them.

Once home, I gathered my things from the gar-office and packed to meet Cyrus at his house to go over the state of ExOh and its plans. The fear and frustration I felt the prior evening was not gone, but I had to stop looking for what was wrong and find a way to make this work. ExOh’s stock continued to hover near $20 per share, which meant that the shares Cyrus promised me for my sweat equity were now worth two-million dollars; all I had to do was keep my nose down and my mouth shut long enough to cash them in. There was nothing more to discuss. I was the chief provider for my family, and this was my job, plain and simple.

Our house had a single-car driveway, so I always parked my car on the street in front of our three-foot-tall row of bushes; our miniature version of a hedge. I walked in a haze that morning, replaying Cricket’s questions and my evasive answers. I did not notice the black Mercedes S600 parked just across the street or the short, barrel-chested man leaning against its hood.

“You Hollis Crawford?” the man said just as I inserted the key into the driver-side door. As lost as I was in my own head, I am sure I jumped like a frightened rabbit.

“Uh, yeah,” I said, turning to eye this curious stranger. Sidewalks were non-existent on Montecito’s residential streets, and our non-vehicular traffic was limited to joggers and bikers. It was strange to see anyone standing on any street that was not within walking distance of the beach. 

I turned my head left and right, looking for witnesses. The man had said all of three words, but I was instinctively leery. His accent was Eastern European; perhaps Russian. His hair was slicked back, and he wore a trench-length black leather coat. Though he was shorter than me, his manner was menacing. He flicked the cigarette he had been smoking into the street and did not bother crushing it. I thought to explain to him that Santa Barbara County remained in a drought and cigarette butts were a major fire risk. But he met my eyes and what I saw was Tommy DeVito, Joe Pesci’s character from Goodfellas, so, I kept my unsolicited opinion to myself.

He approached me casually, hooking his left thumb into the waistband of his slacks to jack them up as his right hand tucked the butt end of his shirt in tight. “Very nice to meet you Mr. Crawford,” he said. “A lovely home you have here.” He looked around me as if seeing my tiny home for the first time, then stuck out his hand.

I shook his hand, doubting that I had blinked since he said my name. “Uh, thank you,” I said. “And you are?”

“My name is Vlad.”

“Vlad what?”

“Just Vlad,” he said, smiling. “That’s all that is important.”

I wanted to know his last name, but not badly enough to argue with him. “Ok. Well, nice to meet you, Vlad. How do you know my name?”

“Ah,” he said, “excellent question.” He removed his pack of cigarettes and tapped one out, offering it to me. I raised a hand. He took the cigarette for himself, then fished a zippo from his jacket pocket and took a drag deep enough to suck the lit end down one-half inch. “We have a common business partner.”

A mixture of fear and confusion caused my brain to cramp. “Who?” I asked.

He smiled. “Cyrus Wimby, of course.”

“Oh. Oh right, of course.”

“Are you planning to see Cyrus today?” he asked.

“Uh, well, yes,” I stumbled. “I was on my way to his place just now.”

“Fantastic,” he said. “I will drive you.”

I shook my head, no. All I could think of was my mother warning me not to get into the cars of strange men, and if I had ever met a stranger man, I could not recall him. “I’m fine,” I said.

“I insist,” he said, grabbing my elbow tightly enough that I knew I was indeed coming with him.

I should have told him to follow me, but I did not. Like a sheep to slaughter, I walked to his passenger door and got in his car. I cannot recall how many times I have watched scary movies, wishing the character in distress would resist or run; anything but quietly acquiescing. Yet, in that moment, I did exactly as they had done, assuming – as those fictional idiots had – that if I were agreeable, I would not be hurt. 

I fashioned my seatbelt – because God forbid I get in a car accident on the way to my murder – and waited. 

“Directions, please,” Vlad said.

“You don’t know?” I asked.

“If I knew, why would I be bothering with you,” he said, smiling wide enough for me to see the flash of gold on a back molar.

I started him on the way, advising to turn left here and right there. The drive was a hair longer than our walk to MUS and was completed in five minutes. He pulled up to the keypad that guarded the security gates. “Code?” he asked.

Without hesitation, I blurted the code, then admonished myself for being so quick to reveal secrets. I would not be the prisoner who bravely endured torture and confinement to safeguard what he knew, I concluded. I would be the one who asked for a pad and pen and drew my captors a map.

As the gates opened in response to the code, I surveyed the area looking for security cameras. Surely Cyrus had them, and if he did, he would know it was not me driving this sparkling Mercedes. But I never saw a camera.

“Beautiful,” Vlad said as he pulled through the gates. “Reminds me of the place he had in Tuscany.”

I cocked my head. “Cyrus lived in Italy?” I asked. “He never mentioned that to me.”

Vlad just laughed, inching closer to the area where the three gleaming Porches were normally parked. Just one today: Cyrus’s 911 Carrera. Vlad pulled perpendicular to the back end of the 911, forming a T that hemmed the car in. I could open the passenger side door only a foot wide, barely enough to squeeze through. “Could you give me a little more room?” I asked.

“You’ll manage,” Vlad said, hopping out of his side.

As always, Cyrus did not rush out to greet me. Vlad and I walked unaccompanied from the garage as if we lived there. As was Cyrus’s and my routine. I simply let myself in the front door – an extra wide stable door whose top half was open to ease my entry – and waited for Cyrus in the library room.

Also part of the routine: Cyrus kept me waiting. I sat on the sofa, nervously perched on the edge of a cushion, tapping my foot, and checking my watch. Three, five, ten minutes rolled by. Vlad walked around the room, pulling volumes from the shelves, occasionally cracking the spines to inspect their interiors.

“You think he’s read any of these?” Vlad asked.

“I… I assume so,” I stuttered.

He chuckled then went back to inspecting.

Up to this moment, I had operated on autopilot, but as we waited, rational thoughts and questions returned to my brain. What the hell were we doing here? What was going to happen when Cyrus finally showed up to his own meeting in his own home? I was nervous, but should I be scared? 

I heard the click clack of Cyrus’s leather soled shoes on Spanish tile and knew the answers would be coming soon, shifting myself even further to the edge of the sofa cushion in anticipation.

Cyrus entered with his head down, flipping pages of a stapled document as he walked toward one of the cane armchairs opposite the sofa. Vlad quietly turned, clasping his hands in front of his genitalia, cocking his head to wait for recognition.

Just before sitting, Cyrus tossed the document on the coffee table and finally looked up, sweeping his view from bug-eyed me on the couch to sinister-looking Vlad in the leather trench coat.

“My friend!” Cyrus said, throwing his arms wide and moving quickly to embrace Vlad.

One corner of Vlad’s mouth raised subtly, but otherwise he did not move. 

Cyrus grabbed Vlad’s shoulders and kissed both cheeks. “It has been far too long, my friend. Come, come.” He motioned toward the sofa. “Join us.”

Vlad broke from his pose, moving slowly to the cane armchair opposite Cyrus; the three of us now forming an equilateral triangle. “You’re a hard man to find, Cyrus Wimby,” Vlad said.

“Nonsense,” Cyrus said. “Here I am.”

Vlad shook his head, no. “I started with Landon, only to learn that he is no longer with this world.”

Cyrus nodded, his expression serious. “Yes. Landon died in a surfing accident. Tragic mishap, really.”

Vlad smirked, “Whatever you say.”

I leaned forward waiting for Cyrus to object, ready to do it myself if he did not. I saw Landon’s body, after all; he died in the surf. But Cyrus said nothing, and in the face of his silence, I could not summon my own voice.

“It did not matter,” Vlad continued. “I moved on, tracking down your old friend Abdullah.”

Cyrus swallowed but said nothing.

“Abdullah was rather reluctant to divulge your location,” Vlad said. “It took a little…,” he paused and smiled, “persuading, before he told me you were in Montecito. Even still I had to stalk this man here,” Vlad pointed to me, “to find you in the flesh.”

I had no idea who Abdullah was, and, judging by the slightly paled expression on Cyrus’s face, I decided it was not a good time to ask.

“Well, I wasn’t intending to be hard to find.” Cyrus said, turning to look at me. “And I’m glad my right-hand man, Hollis here, could lead you straight to me.” He smiled as affectionally as ever, but I felt frigid under his gaze.

“We have business to discuss,” Vlad declared, leaning forward, elbows perched on knees.

“Indeed, we do,” Cyrus said. “Tea? Coffee?”

“No,” Vlad said; Cyrus did not appear to be offering any to me, so I stayed silent, hoping to be forgotten.

Cyrus pinched his chin with those skeletal fingers and let his eyes drift into space. “On second thought,” he said, “I do not think we need Hollis for this discussion.”

Vlad smiled. “That is your choice.”

Cyrus would get no argument from me; I wanted out of there like a rat wants out of a python’s terrarium, but there was one small problem. “I, uh, rode here with Vlad,” I squeaked.

Cyrus forced a smile. “I will call you an Uber, my friend.” He picked up his phone and punched away. 

Vlad leaned back in his chair. I caught his eye, and he gave me a slight wink. 

“On its way,” Cyrus declared. “If you do not mind, wait beyond the gates. I’ll buzz you out now.”

I did not mind in the least. Without further delay, I stood. “Nice to meet you, Vlad,” I said, offering a quick bow. “Cyrus, we’ll talk later.”

“Tomorrow,” Cyrus said. “Here. Same time.”

I nodded, stepping aggressively past the coffee table at the price of an inch of skin from my shin. I did not acknowledge the pain or pause to inspect the wound. I was in motion, and I would not stop until I was beyond Cyrus’s gates, waiting for the Uber to take me home.  

Click Here for Chapter 22 & 23

 

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