Montecito — Chapter 29 & 30: Hidden Keys and Domestic Worries
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 a frantic call from Cyrus, Hollis rushes home from Hermosa Beach to Montecito. Chapter 27 and 28 are available online here! – MJ Staff
I called Cyrus as soon as I had navigated onto Interstate 405 and was officially en route. “I’ll be there in two hours,” I told him, feeling confident that this answer would satisfy him.
“Go straight to my house,” he barked. “Call me when you get to the gate.”
I drove recklessly, weaving in and out, crossing three lanes at a time, hitting ninety miles per hour for stretches. I had not driven like that since before Isabel was born; since before I had something to lose. By the time I cleared the tri-cities of Camarillo, Oxnard, and Ventura, I knew I would beat the herculean two hours I had estimated for the drive. In a perverted manner, my heart was pumping as if I had accomplished something. Something like swimming two miles in the open ocean? What a joke.
I pulled up to the Wimbys’ twelve-foot gate and grabbed my phone. But in a rare moment of keeping my priorities straight, I texted Paul: Hey Paul. Are you guys good?
Hey Hollis, he wrote. We are good. She did it!! Forty-two, thirty-one!! Top female finisher and sixth place overall!!
Joy and shame overwhelmed me. Cricket had done it. She had set her mind to a phenomenal feat and achieved it. Meanwhile I had deserted her at her moment of triumph. Tears welled in my eyes as my Subaru’s engine ran and my bladder pleaded for relief. What was I doing? God help me, Cyrus’s sudden emergency had better be worth what I had sacrificed.
Amazing, I wrote back. Please give her a hug from me.
I will, he replied. I hope the work emergency gets solved.
He did not say any more, and he did not need to. We both knew that I was in a boatload of domestic trouble. Thank you. Drive safe, I typed, then opened my phone app and dialed Cyrus again.
“You there?” he answered.
He gave me the new gate code; ever since Vlad’s surprise visit, I had been buzzed onto the estate without being privy to the access code. I parked my car while he stayed on the line. “How do I get into the house?”
“There’s a hide-a-key in the garden behind the pizza oven,” he said. “Looks like a pile of dog shit.”
Fitting, I thought, trudging to the back of the house. I found the fake pile of poop and extricated the key. “Got it.”
“Go to the door closest to the pool,” he said. “It is also the closest to the security system. As soon as you enter, go straight to the pantry beside the kitchen. There is a touchscreen in there that will be flashing. I’ll give you the codes when you’re in front of it.”
I did as instructed but felt queasy as INTRUDER ALERT! flashed on the touchpad, even though I knew exactly who the intruder was. “I’m here.”
He gave me one set of codes which I entered. On completion, a second screen flashed, requiring more codes. Then a third. A countdown timer blinked in the upper corner the entire time, making me feel like I was diffusing a bomb. “It’s off,” I said when the final code was received, and the touchscreen returned to a soothing color of blue.
“Go to my office,” he said.
Again, I followed instructions as my heart raced. It took a minute to wind through the estate, reaching his walnut paneled office with its views of the swimming pool and a distant glimpse of the putting green. “I’m at your desk,” I said, slightly out of breath.
“Go to the weeping fig in the corner of the room,” he said. “Just behind the trunk, there is a set of three keys. Grab them.”
Three soiled keys in hand, I said, “Done.”
“The gold one goes to the lower left drawer of my desk. Open it.”
I moved to his desk, nestled my cell between my shoulder and ear, and opened the drawer.
“Stop wedging the phone to your ear and put it on speaker, Hollis.”
I pressed speaker and held the phone in front of my face, looking at it as if it had sprouted horns. How did Cyrus know how I was holding my phone?
As if reading my mind, Cyrus said, “Yes. I’m watching you.”
My head swiveled until I saw the blinking red light from the corner behind the weeping fig.
“Found me,” Cyrus said.
My spine tingled.
“In the back of the drawer, behind the file folders, there are seven–” he stopped cold, the sound of muffled angry voices, one of which was his. “Fine,” he grunted, returning to the phone. “Eight – not seven – eight RemoteToken fobs. Do you see them?”
I did indeed see them. RemoteToken fobs looked like keyless entry car “keys,” with small screens that displayed six-digit numbers. The numbers were like exploding passwords considered by many to be the most secure passwords outside of fingerprints.
These fobs were also ancient technology, replaced by actual fingerprints, face recognition, and two-factor authentication. I knew of them because I was a tech geek, but my kids would never see one of these fobs in their lifetime. For Cyrus to have one fob was unique; to have seven – scratch that – eight of them was downright bizarre.
I picked up the tokens one by one, counting out all eight. Each was marked distinctly with either colored tape or fingernail polish. “I’ve got them,” I declared.
“Find the one with the red tape–”
“No, you fucking idiot!” I heard in the background; the idiot part barely muffled as Cyrus again tried to smother his phone, this time less successfully. Without question, the screamer was Genevieve.
After a few more seconds of heated exchange, Cyrus returned, faking calm. “The one with the yellow fingernail polish, I should have said, not the one with red tape.”
“It’s right here,” I said, holding it up to the weeping fig as proof.
“Good,” he said. “It’s got a countdown indicator on the screen. Beside the numbers are six little bars, each one representing five seconds. Let me know when all six bars are showing.”
I did not stop him from explaining how the RemoteToken worked, but I already knew. I knew more about RemoteTokens than Cyrus knew about China and Free Trade Zones and Saudi Arabian oil, but something cautioned me to hold my tongue for the moment. “Almost there,” I said, waiting ten more seconds, then, “ok, all six bars are showing.”
“Read me the number,” he said.
I could hear the clicking of his keyboard.
“Ok, I’m in,” he said to me, then repeated, “I’m in,” louder, but directed away from his phone, presumably toward Genevieve. She said something in reply. I could not make it out, but it did not sound nice.
“Are we good?” I asked. “Is that all you needed?” Please say no, I prayed. Surely Cyrus did not demand that I desert my family, hours from home, breaking every California Highway Patrol code to get to his house ASAP to read six digits off a RemoteToken fob. And for what? Why was this so ASAP important? Why did he desperately need access to whatever server or system or bank or… bank?
I heard light keyboard clicking on the other end of the line. “Is that all you needed?” I repeated. Please say no; please say no.
I set the fob down on his desk and buried my head in my hands.
“I am still watching,” he said through my phone’s speaker.
I sat up like a scolded child.
“There is one more thing,” he said. “I am about to BatSignal you our address in Fiji. I want you to take those eight RemoteTokens and FedEx them to me. In the same drawer where you found the fobs, I have FedEx envelopes and shipping forms that already have my billing info entered. Fill in our address and take the envelope directly to FedEx. Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred dollars. Go straight to the FedEx store, and—”
“It’s Sunday, Cyrus. The FedEx store is closed on Sunday.”
“Don’t interrupt me, Hollis! If the store is closed, there is a drop box on Coast Village Road, just past Jeannine’s Bakery. I want you to take your phone and make a little movie of yourself dropping those fobs into the addressed sealed envelope and feeding it into the drop box. I want that video delivered to me by BatSignal in fifteen minutes. Do you understand?”
I turned to look at the weeping fig, my face wrinkled in shock.
“Do you understand?” he repeated.
I nodded but said nothing.
“Good,” he said. “Fifteen minutes. Arm the security system on your way out.”
I returned to the-forehead in palms pose, still sitting in Cyrus’s desk chair.
“You should get going,” my phone cracked. “And don’t forget; I’ll be watching.”
With that eerie warning, he hung up.
With the understanding of a Saint, Cricket forgave my bailing on her in her moment of triumph. At least her mouth said it; her eyes begged to differ. They were the eyes of a gagged hostage, filled with rage, fear, and bewilderment. Each time I tried to discuss the situation – Cyrus’s call, his demands, the cost of saying no – she cut me off before I could explain. “It’s ok. I understand,” she would repeat, and then walk away.
This graciousness was the opposite of what I wanted. I wanted her to yell at me. I wanted tears and spittle. I wanted her to unleash hell on me. I deserved it in so many ways. For missing her pier-to-pier triumph. For side-stepping her attempts to discuss the Wimbys. For sinking so low professionally, that the phrase bet the farm had literal application. And perhaps worse of all, for hiding my discovery of Cyrus’s RemoteTokens.
With regard to this latest crime against my better half, the truth was, I did not yet know what the RemoteTokens meant or signified. Until I did, I wanted to keep their existence a secret. As demanded, I had sent the fobs along to Fiji in a bubble wrapped mailer. Physically they were gone, but I retained their electronic footprints. And with them, I was certain that I could figure out exactly what I was doing with Cyrus Wimby. Was I building a business? Was I handling critical tasks? Was I furthering legitimate ends? Or… was I not?
Once I understood, I would tell Cricket everything. We would either laugh about the silly misunderstandings or plot our family’s next pivot; a pivot that could well involve shoehorning all of us into the spare bedroom of Cricket’s parents’ house.
To formally apologize for my Hermosa Beach desertion – and in celebration of Cricket’s personal record – Paul and Jenny’s family joined ours for a backyard barbecue. It was my idea, and I was solely responsible for pulling it off. Normally, Cricket would take some of the load off, but she seemed fine letting me perform this small act of contrition without her helping hand.
The meal was my poor impersonation of Ina Garten; my go-to cookbooks whenever I was the family chef. That night I was grilling Ina’s Asian salmon and baking her roasted broccoli. I still had a few bottles of complimentary Entre Nous – was I going to receive a W-2 for wine as wages? – and I opened them all. With some accompanying coconut-infused rice, this was my cannot-miss meal; even Isabel, my picky eater, always cleaned her plate on the nights of this lineup.
On entry, the kids ran off to play, leaving the four adults to pretend there was no eight-hundred-pound gorilla defecating in the kitchen corner. I poured everyone a glass of wine and raised a toast to Cricket. With a few sips of lubrication, the gorilla shrunk to six-hundred pounds.
As men are wont to do, Paul followed me onto the patio to watch me grill the salmon. I was a stickler for grilling the right way: over charcoal in an original Weber grill. As a technology geek, I was a leading-edge adopter of gadgets and form-factors that promised efficiency. But when it came to grilling, I was a card-carrying caveman.
This time alone with Paul also gave me a chance to properly congratulate him on what amounted to a massive – but not unexpected – gut punch for me. The front page of the Santa Barbara Independent had relayed the news that morning: “Local Startup CryptoWallet Raises Fifty Million.” I had known, from the day I packed my cardboard box, that CryptoWallet was destined for success, but reading about Clyde Bostich – the man who fired me because I complained too much – and his metaphorical victory lap ripped the scab right off my wound. That said, Paul was still my friend – one of few – and I was genuinely happy for him even if I was jealous as hell.
“Congratulations on the equity raise,” I said to Paul as I lifted the charcoal chimney. “Wow. Fifty million dollars.”
He cringed. “I’m sorry, man.”
“Sorry? Cut it out!” I said. “I can’t be your friend if you’re going to pity me.”
“Not pity,” he said. “It just felt like talking about it was rubbing salt in the wound.”
I slid the grill grate in place and closed the lid. “Not at all,” I said. “I’m happy for you and happy for the company. Maybe not so much happy for Clyde, but – hey – two out of three isn’t bad.”
Paul seemed relieved that I was not jealous or at least camouflaging it well. This was not easy for me as I was generally an open book with my emotions. Time again, this had gotten me in trouble. I could not hide disgust, disappointment, or disdain, and any attempts to backtrack were fruitless. But if I was ever going to have a poker face this was the moment.
“So, what’s the plan for the fifty million?” I asked.
Paul smiled. “The usual. New office furniture. A bigger marketing budget. Expanding the sales team. Raises…”
I nodded, willing away judgment from my face.
“That’s terrific,” I said. “Just curious, but what about the security stuff? Has Clyde earmarked any of the money toward tightening up?”
Paul shook his head, no. “What can I say? It’s not at the top of Clyde’s to-do list at the moment.”
“Understood,” I said. “Clearly he and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on that.”
“Now there’s an understatement,” Paul laughed.
I joined Paul’s laugh, trying to keep the mood featherweight. “Even the issue with the tokens?” I pressed. “He didn’t deem that one a priority?”
“Tokens? The fob thingies?” Paul asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “You know; the random number generators for those old-school bank accounts.” My heart was thumping in my ears as my blood pressure skyrocketed. I was a down-on-his-luck pirate who had stumbled on a treasure map. Before I trudged off into the jungle, I needed to understand if the local tribesman were friendly or cannibals.
“Right,” Paul said. “Nah, we haven’t dealt with that yet. I think we only have a handful of those on the system.”
“Sure,” I said, nodding, “makes sense.”
“Nobody knows about it but you, anyway,” Paul said, slapping me on the back as I lifted the lid to place the salmon filets down for three minutes of intense heat.
My heart bounded into cardio territory at his words; it was exactly what I needed to hear. CryptoWallet had washed their hands of me and done nothing to fix the problems that I had been fired for complaining about. Deep breaths, I told myself. I chuckled nervously and threw myself under the bus as cover. “That’s me,” I said. “Chief of Worry. Head of Non-Issues.”
At one point, Paul asked about ExOh, and I replied only that I was keeping very busy, then let it drop. There was no need to elaborate.
I flipped the salmon filets once, and after another three minutes, moved them to the outer edges of the grill’s surface, keeping the lid off. In another nine minutes, they would be done and set aside to rest under a final coat of marinade. The kitchen beeper went off and I rescued the broccoli from the oven, tossing it with lemon juice, lemon zest, toasted pine nuts, and parmesan: perfect. I poured myself another glass of wine and threw away the first bottle empty, feeling a purposeful tingle.
I do not know if the Gorilla shrunk all the way down to a Spider Monkey, or if I just got tipsy enough to believe that everyone had a wonderful, carefree evening. I do know that the plates were licked and that by the time everyone had their vanilla gelato – Montecito’s very own Scoops – and berries, I heard several groans suggesting overconsumption. As far as I was concerned, those groans signaled success.
When we said our goodbyes, Jenny gave me a hug; another good sign. In my experience, the forgiveness of a wife’s best friend is often the hardest to win.
Cricket tried to help with the dishes, but I thanked her and sent her away.
I tasked Isabel with Trip duty and she welcomed the assignment. She had been suggesting that she would like to start babysitting for neighbors next year, so Trip served as both a guinea pig and an audition. She did good, helping Trip brush his teeth and dress for bed, then completing her daily reading requirement with a chapter of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, read to Trip as he snuggled with Charlie, his dog-headed security blanked.
Meanwhile, I stuffed the dishwasher and hand-washed what remained. With soap suds up to my elbows, I haphazardly scrubbed and rinsed, considering what Paul had said and how I would use it. His words – nobody knows about it but you, anyway – repeating in my head like the refrain to a lullaby.