Montecito — Chapter 24 & 25: Pitching the Summit

By Michael Cox   |   October 11, 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.” After some tense moments, Hollis and Cyrus prepare for the Central Coast Economic Summit. Chapter 23 is available here. – MJ Staff

Montecito 

by Michael Cox

Chapter 24

Cyrus may have been certain that a flood of investor money was on the horizon, but I was suddenly an anxious bean counter. It felt like the company’s obligations were soon to outstrip its assets. If Cyrus were to be proven right, the tap would turn at the Central California Economic Summit. 

The Summit was an annual three-day boondoggle snuggled next to the 4th of July, organized to bring hundreds of bankers, investors, and economists to America’s Riviera for our version of summer. In contrast to most of the country, Santa Barbara’s summertime temperatures settled into the low-to-mid 70s, even with the sun in full blaze. This year-round pleasantness seeded the we live in paradise snobbery that civic planners were anxious to perpetuate.

The Summit’s keynote dinner was held at Montecito’s famous Coral Casino. The Coral, as the locals call it, was a luxurious beach club tangential to the Four Seasons Biltmore. The Coral’s glamor was in its bygone day’s simplicity. In cahoots, Cyrus had chosen to dress for the business casual event in a tuxedo. And not just any tuxedo, but the sort that Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. would have approved. An elegant, throw-back tux; he looked like he needed a cigar and a champagne coupe. 

Set on a perch overlooking Butterfly Beach, the centerpiece of the Coral was an Olympic-sized swimming pool around which Montecito and Santa Barbara’s grandest have luxuriated for decades. Olympic swimming pools – fifty-meter pools – are rarities to begin with; they are incredibly expensive to build and maintain and, let’s face it, unnecessary; most people are too lazy to swim half that distance. But planting one of these glorious pools right next to the Pacific Ocean – effectively on the beach – feels almost obscene. And in keeping with the obscenity, the initiation fee for new members of the Coral was nearly a quarter-million dollars.

As the story goes, the Coral’s pool is technically fifty meters plus one foot. Why? When the club was under construction, some inaugural members got themselves wound up over the idea of turning the Coral into a commercial venture; one that could host swimming competitions, inviting the sport of swimming’s great unwashed inside. To quash that dream, another member – one with his finger in the construction – secretly changed the blueprints for the pool, adding an extra foot. The switcharoo was not discovered until construction was complete and irrevocable. With the pool’s length beyond regulation, there would be no public swimming events at the Coral. Welcome to Montecito; please show yourself out.

Guests entered the Coral’s ballroom through a glass-lined courtyard staring down at the Pacific and Butterfly Beach. People tended to congregate at this wall, standing slack jawed while one of their party drew the short straw and trudged off to retrieve cocktails for the group. It was here, holding court, that I found Cyrus. I had not watched him operate a large audience before, but he was just as magnetic as he was in small groups. Towering over most in attendance with his brown skin, electric smile, and a laugh amped higher than normal; the crowd’s eyes gravitated to him no matter where they were meant to focus. 

I, meanwhile, ventured from one corner of the ballroom to another, doing my best to appear purposeful in my movements so my aloneness would not draw attention. For someone who is a tad uncomfortable around other humans, humans in crowds made me want to lock myself in a closet. This is where I felt my fog issues most acutely. I was confident that I had absolutely nothing interesting or exciting to say to any of these people; it was a well-earned confidence.

The bar was one of the stops on my ‘round-the-ballroom circuit. I was drinking soda water and lime in a whiskey tumbler, making it look like a vodka soda. And by that measure, I should have been falling down drunk as I was on my fifth. The bar was, of course, offering Entre Nous wine exclusively. While I had my uncertainties, I was also wowed by Cyrus. He lured and seduced in ways I could not have conceived.

The Summit had chosen Cyrus because he and ExOh were a local economic novelty. The County counted Tourism and Real Estate as its two biggest industries. Gaining momentum behind these granddaddies, software and technology startups were sprouting, spurred on by the amazing engineering department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. But Cyrus – with his New Zealand and Saudi Arabian roots and background in the oil industry – and ExOh – with its focus on the old-as-Magellan business of global trade – were a rainbow unicorn. The Summit simply had to hear from him.

And of course, as my social opposite, Cyrus loved the stage. I had offered to translate the notes of my PowerPoint presentation into a draft speech; this sent him into a roiling belly laugh. Genevieve would write his speech, he assured me, and it would be fantastic.

The speech was to be delivered between the salad and entrée courses. Much of it was familiar to me or anyone who had been invited to enjoy dinner at the Wimby house. But he was so smooth on stage that previously spoken words held greater gravitas: ExOh was not just facilitating trade, it was freeing the world.

As the CEO of ExOh, I was anxious for Cyrus to set his hat on the stage and start dancing for money. The wire to VIP Partners – aka Cyrus – and another three-million-dollar wire to Hong Kong had the Miramar bank account below one million for the first time since fundraising began. This made me nervous in the same way that draining my own savings account made me nervous: just because.

“This may be the biggest financial opportunity since Bill Gates decided to license the c-prompt,” Cyrus said, bringing his speech to a rousing conclusion. “A back door to one-point-five billion shoppers who do not know what it is like to easily purchase something made in the U.S. of A. I wake up each day pinching myself.”

Heads wagged around the room. He had them right where he wanted them.

“And the best part is the scalability of the business. It is and was cash flow positive from the first day. I have already raised every penny of equity I will ever need…”

I leaned so far forward that my head nearly clanked my water glass. What is he saying? I wanted to stand and waive my white napkin in protest.

“… Many of you are already shareholders. Congratulations to you! Our stock restarted trading just over two months ago and, already, it has nearly quadrupled. As wonderful as that is, it is just the beginning of our stock’s ascent. ExOh’s business plan is now fully funded and ready to take on Amazon and Alibaba …”

No, no, no! We need more money! I dropped my forehead into my hands, massaging both temples.

“In fact, we at ExOh are already considering our legacy; a legacy that begins today.” He moved from the podium to the center of the stage, advancing his slide show beyond what seemed to be its finale. The next slide read, The ExOh Global Relief Charities.

My title might have been Chief Executive Officer of ExOh, but I was a pure observer at this point.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the ExOh Global Relief Charities will provide monetary support to counteract human atrocities around the world. Initially, we will focus on the plight of Syrian refugees…”

I looked around the room; not a single person was on their phone.

“ExOh Holdings Incorporated will match all donations to the ExOh Global Relief Charities five-to-one! Our goal today is to raise two-hundred thousand dollars from the Summit and match that with one million dollars from ExOh. Who is with me?”

There was a rousing round of applause that made me cringe. I was not a veteran of the fundraiser circuit but I was uncomfortably familiar with the mechanism Cyrus was about to launch: the paddle-raise auction. Montecito Union Elementary School’s annual fundraiser ended in much the same way: an auction that begins with, who here today is willing to commit fifty thousand dollars to this worthy cause? and painstakingly descends to a version of, if you haven’t raised your hand at this point, just give us one hundred dollars so you can show your face at Pierre Lafond.

Within ten excruciating minutes of cajoling, clapping, and paddle raising, Cyrus had raised two-hundred-twenty-five thousand dollars from this generous crowd. 

“I am blown away by your spirit of giving,” he said. “I want to introduce you all to ExOh’s Chief Executive Officer, Hollis Crawford; Hollis will you stand please?”

I reluctantly stood and a spotlight found me. I squinted and shaded my face.

“Hollis and I will be oceanside after dessert to get your contact information and accept your generosity on behalf of ExOh Global Relief Charities.”

Cyrus took his seat at the table front-and-center of the stage and the Coral’s waitstaff promptly delivered plates of what can be best described as above-average conference food to everyone. I pushed mine around – my stomach was practicing its contortionist’s routine – gnawing only on the dinner roll which was too bland to cause issues. For dessert, a pale version of Genevieve’s Key Lime pie mocked me. I took a small taste, hoping for a bit of the old magic. It was good, but not transcendent; I pushed it away as well.

As soon as the first Summit attendee stood from dessert, I hopped into the oceanside lobby, hoping to get Cyrus’s ear before any of the ExOh Global Relief Charities donors showed up. But it did not happen. Cyrus mingled in the ballroom as a circle grew around me.

A large man with a boisterous Texas accent, cowboy hat, and bolero nominated himself as the group’s spokesperson and cut to the chase: “Who do we make the checks out to?” he asked.

“Excellent question,” I said.

Chapter 25

At the conclusion of the Summit event at the Coral, a group of wealthy investors cornered Cyrus and Genevieve, demanding a chance to squeeze their way into ExOh’s apparently closed capital raise. No, no, he demurred. Yes, yes, they insisted. After his arm was sufficiently twisted, Genevieve stepped in, offering to host the group of anxious investors for a 4th of July party at their home. Her offer was greeted with hoots of celebration, as if she were a mother who had finally relented to her children’s pleas for ice cream.

Terrific, I thought, standing on the outside of Cyrus’s circle as the impromptu Independence Day celebration was planned. I had been so distracted of late, that it had not occurred to me that one of my favorite holidays was just around the corner. Hearing of Cyrus’s party made me nostalgic for the Crawford’s own 4th of July tradition. We would spend our day in and out of the waves at Miramar Beach, then hop on our bicycles and head to a second beach, East Beach (beach hopping is an important aspect of life in Montecito). There, we would spread out on blankets, eat to-go from Mony’s, and watch the fireworks launched from boats off Stearns Wharf. Occasionally it was freezing cold – near sixty degrees in Montecito speak – or foggy, but it did not matter. Even when the fireworks looked more like cloud-to-cloud lightning than fireflies, it was a day to savor.

I was still smiling at the thought when Cyrus began to list what he would need from me in order to host the party. My smile faded. “If you don’t mind,” I said, “we have a 4th of July family tradition of our own. Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to make your party.”

Cyrus nodded, threw a paternal arm over my shoulders, and whispered, “I’m not asking.”

To salve the wounds of our upset family plans, he volunteered Genevieve to take Cricket, Isabel, and Trip horse riding with her and Priscilla that morning. While the rest of my family was excited for the opportunity to ride, I read it as more interruption of the sacred traditions that bind blood-relatives into the long narrative of family.

With my morning free, I filled my holiday with the mundane. I got my Subaru washed at the Chevron on Coast Village Road so it would feel less self-conscious in the crowd of Range Rovers and Porsches at the Wimby house. I bought three mature tomato plants from La Sumida Nursery and planted them in our backyard. Knowing that my evening picnic at East Beach would not happen, I treated myself to an adobada burrito from Mony’s and ate every last bite, ever-growing stomach pain be damned.

When we arrived at the Wimby home, the driveway gates were yawning. Instead of winding back to find my own parking spot, red-vested valets were waiting to whisk my thankfully clean car away. The greeter who had worked every prior Wimby party – the one every parent would have loved as a babysitter – had been replaced with a blonde in a black dress so short it might have fit her when she was twelve years old. She looked stolen straight from Hugh Hefner’s grotto. 

Cricket took a glass and said her thanks, but when she turned to me, there was curiosity in her eyes. It was not the buxom blonde; Cricket was always pointing out pretty women to me, admiring some facet of their beauty. She was not intimidated or bothered by any sense of competition. It was the upped ante that she recognized and the meaning behind it that she questioned. The Wimbys’ parties were always big; this was exponentially bigger. Why? We continued into the party with the observation unvoiced.

As at the Summit, Cyrus was surrounded by a gaggle of out-of-towners with money to burn. I recognized the Texan – same hat, new bolero – and several of the others, but I decided not to invade the circle. There was nothing I could add to Cyrus’s spiel.

Instead, I walked the party, hand in hand with Cricket. She paused to say hello several times, but she too seemed content to be with me alone. In a month, she would compete in the Dwight Crum Pier-to-Pier, a two-mile open ocean swim from Hermosa Beach to Manhattan Beach. The endless training had turned her always fit body into a loaded spring. She had eyes on her personal best time, recorded during her All-American, senior year of college. If she failed to break that old mark, it would not be for lack of effort.

I on the other hand was beginning to look like the disappearing man. I had by this point lost eleven pounds since I began working for Cyrus and ExOh, and the dark gar-office was draining the remaining color from my skin. Increasingly, we looked like a May-December marriage even though I was technically the younger spouse by three months.

But that did not matter this night. I was so proud to be holding her hand; to call her mine. If I had to suffer with my own demons of discomfort to finally do good by my family, so be it. I would have gladly paid a higher price if asked.

Genevieve too was holding court. When she spotted Cricket, she waved her over, but Cricket gave my hand an extra squeeze and stayed by my side. Genevieve was not willing to give up; she broke from her circle, gave Cricket a two-kiss hello, and forcibly pulled her from my grip. 

She could steal the flesh but not the memory.

This evening, the pizza oven was churning out massive skillets of paella, individualized into miniature Chinese food containers. I cannot count how many bottles of Entre Nous were consumed, but the cash raised from recycling the empties would have been its own charitable contribution.

Reluctantly, I made my way back to Cyrus’s court, which now filled the library room. Huff Monroe, the Texan who was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Cyrus, was jovially sloshing wine as he listened to Cyrus’s stories, which had journeyed beyond ExOh to other global conquests. Several times, Cyrus made a show of saying, “Genevieve isn’t here, is she?” scanning the room for his gorgeous wife, then tucking in to tell a quieter story to which most of the room was not privy. It did not matter to me, but I could tell others on the outer rings desperately wanted to be closer; to be the ear into which those salacious details were delivered. Everyone seemed to want a piece of Cyrus.

Several more times, I heard Cyrus publicly declare ExOh’s fundraising closed. More quietly, I heard him say that he would only accept more cash if the investors had the ability to “move the needle,” a phrase equivalent to, make me an offer I cannot refuse.

As before, I was superfluous. Perhaps this should have bothered me, but it did not. I knew my strengths and salesmanship was not on the list.

At some point, the servers switched from paella to muffin-sized pecan pies. They smelled wonderful; I passed.

The light dimmed, and I finally found Cricket again, this time separate from Genevieve, though still the hub of several conversations. I gave her elbow a slight pinch; she turned and gave me a kiss.

“Let’s sneak out of here and rescue the kids,” I whispered.

“Can we?” she whispered back.

I looked over my shoulder at Cyrus, still regaling the crowd. “I think he can handle it.”

“You’re on,” she said. “Besides… we need to talk.”

I cocked my head curiously as we moved to leave. She was too busy waving, nodding, and smiling to notice.

The valets were sitting on their hands when we came out the front door. My Subaru was easy to find – it was the only one at the party – and we were quickly on our way. 

“So—” I began, halting at her raised hand. 

“First, your wallet,” she said with a hand-it-over wag of her fingers. “I need cash for the babysitter. Quick: what’s four times fourteen?”

I fished out my wallet and tossed it into her lap, laughing. My wife was whip smart, but she did not fill her brain with rote math facts. Instead, she disguised her questions as quizzes for me. “Fifty-six,” I answered.

She counted out the bills while I drove, both curious and anxious to learn what we needed to discuss.

“That was over the top, don’t you think?” she finally said, the money folded discretely into her palm as if she were planning to grease a bouncer. 

“What was over the top?”

“That display.”

“The party?”

“Yes, Hollis,” she sighed, “the party.”

“It was like all the others,” I said, “maybe a little bit… more.”

She guffawed. “Everything about the Wimbys is more. This was gratuitously more.”

“It’s the Fourth of July,” I argued, my spine stiffening. Even as I pushed back, I knew: Cricket had picked up the scent of the same inconsistencies plaguing me. 

She shook her head dismissively. “No,” she said. “Something was different.”

I squinched my face. “Come on,” I said. “I think it was pretty much in line with all—”

“Why do they try so hard, Hollis?” she interrupted. “Why do two people that beautiful and that rich work so hard to win friends and backers? It doesn’t make sense.”

“Well,” I stammered. As usual – possessing only half the information – Cricket was two steps ahead of me, distilling the randomness into its underlying essence. I decided to attempt feeding her the excuses I had chewed myself. “Technically, they are still new to Montecito,” I began. “And Cyrus is raising money for ExOh, so he has to be in sell mode all the time. And…” I stopped at the resumption of her declining head shakes.

“That’s not it,” she said. “To be fair, I thought those same things the first half-dozen times we went to their house, but not this time. There was…,” her voice trailed off as I turned onto our street, only a quarter mile from home. “It seems crazy to say this, because – I mean – look at them. They have everything. But tonight, there was a sense of…”

I knew what she was going to say, and I closed my eyes in dread; admittedly, an ill-advised move while driving a car.

“… desperation,” she concluded.

I nudged my Subaru next to the diminutive hedge fronting our house and shut off the engine. While I did not trust myself, I leaned on Cricket like a flashlight in a dark cave. Yet, even as she gave voice to my private concerns, I did not want to hear them. The moment I acknowledged these doubts as legitimate, our ExOh lottery ticket – currently worth four-million dollars – would disappear. Did I really want to be that guy? The one who walked away from millions over a couple of inconsistencies and a hunch. 

I had to face it: the hand I now held was the best one I was going to get. I could not bear to repeat the mistake I had made with CryptoWallet. It was going to be a successful company and I had managed to get kicked out of the band just before the first album went gold. This one had to – it just had to – work.

I placed a gentle hand on Cricket’s knee and employed the time-honored words of centuries worth of stalling husbands: “Can we talk about this later?” 

“Fireworks?” she frowned with arched eyebrows.

“I hear there might be some,” I said, unbuckling my seatbelt and hopping from the car before she could object.

We burst through the front door just as both kids emerged from their respective showers ready for bed. Judging by their wide eyes, you would have thought we were springing them from jail. We paid the babysitter and hustled the pajama-clad kids into the car for a final sprint to the beach.

Luckily, it was a fog-free night, meaning we did not need to make it all the way to East Beach to guarantee a view of the show. With that in mind, we found street parking on Hill Road just behind the Four Seasons Biltmore and dashed over its grounds and through its lobby – Isabel riding on my back, Trip riding on Cricket’s. With seconds to spare, we found two spots on the elevated concrete wall looming over Butterfly Beach and wedged our kids in. Trip turned to me – his dog-headed security blanket clutched in his hands – and said, “I can’t believe we made it, dad,” just as the first salvo of fireworks burst above the Santa Barbara Harbor.

Click here for Chapter 26

 

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