Montecito — Chapter 31 & 32: Entre Nous

By Michael Cox   |   November 8, 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 the Wimbys back from Fiji, Hollis helps with the opening of the Entre Nous tasting room. Chapter 29 and 30 are available online here!MJ Staff

Chapter 31

The Wimbys returned from Fiji just in time for the grand opening of the Entre Nous tasting room. In a mismatch for the ages, Cyrus had left me to herd the construction and interior design crews in his stead, and it was this work that filled most of my time while they were away. Each time I visited the site, I walked past Merci, where Cyrus and I met for our first coffee and where this entire journey began.

In contrast to the broader Country Mart – with its shades of brown and blends of Mission, Spanish, and retro-modern styles – the tasting room was done in blinding white. So much of it, in such a similar shade, that a coffee table staged in a small living room set claimed more than one damaged shin during the grand opening party. The only thing preventing more injuries was the size of the crowd: body to body. The people formed a negative image of the furniture, indirectly illuminating the safe zones.

To commemorate the event, Cyrus debuted a Vintner’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon called Priscilla and a new red blend – Cabernet, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre – called Rosaland, the name of Priscilla’s horse. The invitation-only guest list had been chosen by the Wimbys; my only contributions were Paul and Jenny. It was a who’s who of Montecito, including all of ExOh’s local investors and the inner circle of Miramar Bank’s John Colton. 

Cricket knew most everyone there including a celebrity couple that she had worked for back in her public relations days. The couple cornered her and begged her to ditch the Storytellers Children’s Center – at least temporarily – to help them turn their divorce into a PR bonanza; she graciously declined. While she seemed to be having fun, I felt extraneous as usual. My palate was not refined enough to appreciate great wine from good wine, and I was naturally suspicious of subtle, unverifiable claims. Priscilla and Rosaland were being sold for ninety dollars a bottle; a price Cyrus assured everyone was a steal. Plenty of tasters nodded in agreement, but I could barely tell the difference between these penthouse wines and their basement-dwelling cousins. 

Thanks to Cyrus, all attendees were automatically enrolled as Executive members of the Entre Nous wine club, earning free tastings for life. They probably did not care, given their income tax brackets, but this membership came with a minimum quarterly purchase of $200 that would be automatically charged to the credit card they casually swiped to complete their wine club enrollment.

I guess this should have made me happy. I was the CEO of the company owning fifty-one percent of this money printing machine. But I was a physical wreck, having now lost eighteen pounds since joining ExOh, all of them the wrong way. Perhaps that is why the wine did not taste unique or special. In those days, little that passed my lips was rewarding.

“Bula bula,” Genevieve whispered into my ear from behind, giving me a head-to-toe shiver.

I turned and traded cheek kisses. “Bula what?” I asked.

“Bula bula,” she repeated. “Fijian for hello.” 

“I learn something new every day,” I said, clinking my wine glass against hers. Our eyes met, as good fortune mandates, then drifted toward Cyrus. He was behind the pourer’s bar in the middle of an animated story while a semi-circle of onlookers listened raptly.

“Look at him,” Genevieve said. “In his element.”

I nodded. “Cyrus excels at this. He is a natural born—”

“He likes to talk,” Genevieve interrupted.

I nodded again, less certain that my acknowledgment was appropriate. “He certainly does.”

“But you and I know that success isn’t achieved by talking, right Hollis?”

Another, even weaker nod.

She laughed, seemingly to herself. “You can talk about the ribeye or the porterhouse or the filet mignon till you’re blue in the face. You can describe the lovely pasture in which the herd grazed. You can brag about the aging. You can paint the picture of exquisite marbling and fork-tender preparation. You can recite the flavor profile of your mesquite charcoal, and you can hint at the inclusion of a secret dry rub that harkens back to the East India Trading Company…”

Genevieve turned her eyes from Cyrus back to me and finished her wine in one gulp. “But no one is eating steak,” she continued, “until someone slits that cow’s throat.”

I swallowed, reflexively covering my Adam’s apple with my free hand.

“Where is Cricket?” Genevieve said, saving me from the awkwardness of having no reply.

I scanned the room but could not find her. “I don’t know.”

Genevieve narrowed her eyes. “Well, the last I heard, this was a work event.” She raised her empty wine glass, indicating the need for a refill. “See if you can round her up, Hollis. I’d like to catch up with her.”

Good luck with that, I laughed internally. If Genevieve thought Cricket was going to hop-to at the snap of some fingers, she was sadly mistaken. I have never met a more independent spirit in my life than Cricket. She never shied away from a challenge and she would not be outworked, but she also never submitted to subjugation. “I’ll see if I can track her down.”

“Do,” Genevieve said before moving on to another pod of far more important people. 

I had expected Genevieve to return from Fiji in the afterglow of vacation bliss, but I sensed no such thing. Beginning with the pre-vacation blow up over the care of her luggage, continuing through her scathing background commentary when Cyrus sent me to retrieve his fobs, to now, she seemed stressed. Anxious. Even perhaps angry.

I set my glass down on the white marble tasting bar and shimmied through the room to the exit, ostensibly to find Cricket.

Once outside the tasting room, the fresh air of freedom filled my lungs. I decided a few laps around the Country Mart would not hurt anyone. With my hands in my pockets and my gate set to stroll, I passed the barber shop and the toy store, lingered in front of an apothecary and a pizzeria under renovation, then turned a corner to find Cricket and Jenny sitting against a rock wall with plastic spoons, cups of Rori’s ice cream, and guilty smiles.

“Whoops,” Cricket said.

“Don’t worry,” I laughed, “I’m not the hall monitor.” I took a few steps closer, eyeing their ice creams. “But I do accept bribes.”

She handed me her spoon and I took a tiny bite of her favorite flavor: Salted Caramel. It was fantastic and did not, thankfully, result in more stomach queasiness for yours truly.

I leaned against the wall beside them. “The wine not doing it for you?”

“Meh,” Jenny said, shrugging.

“Ditto,” Cricket said. “Maybe I’m just over it.”

I nodded. There was no reason to argue, and I did not disagree. I thought of mentioning Genevieve’s request that Cricket return to the party, but I quickly shelved that notion. If anyone was required to genuflect for the Wimbys it was me, not Cricket.

“Do you mind if we go?” Cricket asked. “I think I’ve had enough Wimby extravagance for the week.”

“No,” I shook my head, “that’s fine.”

“Send Paul out,” Jenny said. “He has the keys. We’ll take Cricket home.”

I kissed Cricket on the cheek and said my goodbyes. Paul was easy to find on my return; he was sharing tasting notes with John Colton who – in addition to being the head of Miramar Bank and Trust and an ExOh Board member – was also an investor in CryptoWallet.

“Tobacco, really?” John Colton said as I invaded their circle.

“Notes of it,” Paul insisted. “I’m also getting…,” he stuck his nose in the glass of Vintner’s Reserve Cabernet, “nutmeg.”

“Interesting,” John said.

“Pardon me, gentlemen,” I said, “Paul, can I steal you away for a moment?”

He shook John’s hand and followed me toward the room’s open doors. “What’s up?”

“The girls want to leave,” I said. “They’re at Rori’s.”

“No sweat,” Paul said. “I was just about to blow my cover anyway.”

“What? No tobacco? No notes of nutmeg?”

Paul shook his head. “All I can taste is the essence of fermented grapes. And between you and me, pretty average ones.”

“So, I’ll put you down for a case,” I said.

Paul patted me on the arm. “See you soon.”

With Paul’s exit, any semblance of a safe zone was gone too. I did not want any more wine, but I asked the pourer for a quarter-glass of Pinot Noir so I could safely appear to be participating. Glass in hand, I spotted Cyrus and decided to make my way over, taking my place among his disciples.

“Hollis,” Cyrus said as soon as he spotted me, “How much was it that we raised for the Syrian refugees? It was five-hundred thousand, right?”

My stomach twisted as Cyrus’s eyes narrowed on me. I could feel the eyes of the others in his circle zeroing in for confirmation. “Just about,” I choked out, knowing the more accurate answer was just about half of that.

He nodded. “Ok. Just about five-hundred thousand,” he repeated, “and then my company, ExOh, matched that with one-and-a-half million. So, all together, we donated two million dollars to help alleviate one of the greatest human rights travesties of our time. Isn’t that right, Hollis?”

Cyrus’s eyes again found me; say it! they demanded. In truth, I had split the actual donation of two-hundred-twenty-five-thousand dollars between two charities with Syrian refuge relief efforts: CARE and Direct Relief, the latter a group headquartered in Santa Barbara that Cricket and her mother had been volunteering with for decades. As to ExOh’s matching donation, I had no idea. I had moved every penny of the rest of the recent equity raise to the company’s Hong Kong bank account, just as Cyrus had insisted. From that windfall, Cyrus pledged that he would pay himself the one million dollars that ExOh owed him for the company’s stake in Entre Nous and make the matching donations to charity. I had no doubt that Cyrus had paid himself, but the charities? Only Cyrus knew if he had actually pushed the button on those donations. Nevertheless, I squeamishly answered, “Exactly,” just as I knew I was obligated to do.

Cyrus nodded. “For those of you who do not know, Hollis Crawford here is ExOh’s Chief Executive Officer. Hollis, be sure to give these guys your card in case they want to learn more about ExOh, the next Amazon.com.”

I shook hands, smiled, and passed out my business card. With roughly one quarter of Cyrus’s charisma, I was not the crowd pleaser that he was. Soon, I found myself alone yet again.

Even though every fiber of my being wanted to leave, I vowed to stay to the end. After being criticized for departing the 4th of July party early, I would not repeat that mistake. I carried my prop of wine from pod to pod, faking genuine conversation; had I been wearing a step-counter, I would have gotten a good-day’s exercise in circling the room. When the crowd finally wound down to a handful, I felt like I had accomplished something, though I was saddened by how compromised my sense of accomplishment had become.

I tried to invade the final pod of nine by edging in next to Cyrus. It is possible that I was being oversensitive, but I could have sworn that he saw me and refused to expand the circle. Eventually, John Colton edged over to allow me in, just as Cyrus said, “Shall we?” and everyone began to gather their jackets and purses, heading for the exit. I took up the rear, clueless as to where we were headed. As if noticing me for the first time, Cyrus laid his gargantuan paw on my shoulder. “We’re going to Lucky’s,” he said, naming the venerable steakhouse at the end of Coast Village Road next to the Montecito Inn. “Would you help the pourers do inventory then lock up?”

“I don’t have the keys to—,” I began to say before he jangled a set of shiny silver keys in my face.

“Thanks, Hollis,” he said, turning to leave.

“Thanks, Hollis,” I heard from Genevieve in the distance.

And just like that, they were gone.

Chapter 32

Being treated like a servant would have hurt much more if I were a sensitive guy. Thankfully, I am not. The Wimbys walked off to their celebratory dinner at Lucky’s, and I locked up the tasting room and went home, grateful that I would not have to fake another smile that night. 

My life was already far more complicated and duplicitous than I preferred. Like Clark Kent, whiling away his time at the Daily Planet, I continued to do Cyrus’s bidding while leading a second life on the side. A life centered on unraveling the mystery of the RemoteToken fobs, which now strikes me as a bad title for an episode of Scooby Doo. 

On the day I discovered the fobs in Cyrus’s desk drawer, I FedEx-ed them to Fiji, just as Cyrus had demanded. But, before sending them, I took photos of each fob’s serial number. Under normal circumstances, and in normal hands, the serial numbers would be useless. But nothing about this was normal.

Back in the halcyon days of my collecting an actual paycheck as the Chief Operating Officer of CryptoWallet, my specialty was knotty challenges. CryptoWallet’s business plan was theoretically simple: seamlessly consolidate all of a person’s bank accounts, credit cards and – ta da! – crypto currencies into one hub. The CryptoWallet wallet meshed these disparate accounts and currencies into one, greatly simplifying a complex financial existence. It was a cool idea.

And, like most cool ideas, it was easier to say than to do. Banks are like paranoid neighbors who barricade themselves behind walls, fences, shrubbery, and No Trespassing signs. The last thing they want is for some other company to come between them and their customer. So, the coding necessary to accomplish CryptoWallet’s simple idea was beastly. When a customer logged into their CryptoWallet, the system had to simultaneously log into every individual account the customer maintained, pulling and consolidating the latest bits and bytes of information, then combining and reformatting it all into a single view.

As Isabel might say – so long as I was out of earshot – thanks for the history lesson, boomer. But this trip down memory lane has actual relevance: the thorniest bank accounts for CryptoWallet to log into were those guarded by RemoteToken fobs. Yes, Cyrus’s fobs. 

As described previously, RemoteToken fobs generate six-digit random numbers that explode every thirty seconds to be replaced by new numbers. These numbers serve as ever-changing passwords. The customer does not have to memorize anything, they just have to possess the fob. CryptoWallet did not have many customers with bank accounts guarded by RemoteToken fobs, but the company had designs on global dominance. To achieve that, they needed a RemoteToken solution. Needless to say, this was precisely the kind of knotty project that had my name all over it.

The challenge was that the underlying account password – the six-digit number – was always changing; storing it was useless. So, I worked with the programmers at RemoteToken to create code whereby our customer would enter the serial number on their fob and the current password the first time they linked the account. My code would then look inside the RemoteToken server to verify both the serial number and the code. If both numbers matched, the link was approved by RemoteToken in perpetuity.

To coax RemoteToken into accepting this work-around, I gave them several assurances. I promised that I would isolate the code that accessed their system on a separate server located in a galaxy far, far away from CryptoWallet’s actual business servers. If that were not good enough, I also promised that my code would act as a black box, receiving the serial number and exploding password, checking those numbers against RemoteToken and returning only a True or False answer to CryptoWallet. At no time would anyone at CryptoWallet ever be able to see inside the RemoteToken servers.

If CryptoWallet had followed through on my promises, the RemoteToken server would have been as impenetrable as ever. But, despite my arguing, flailing, complaining, crying, and general petulance, CryptoWallet did not follow through. Instead of spending its money on security, as I had promised, the company spent it on a splashy debut at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show and sent me packing in cardboard box number three.

As all this gobbledygook suggests, the serial numbers in my possession should have been useless. But CryptoWallet took a security short cut, betting that no one would figure out its secret. Certainly, they would not have suspected innocent-to-a-fault me. A man riding so tall on his high horse that they had to cut him loose. 

But they were wrong. So, with the serial numbers in hand and the hacking chops to exploit them, I set off in search of the answer to a question that had been nagging me since the first day Cyrus Wimby asked me to open a bank account and start transferring millions of dollars: what the hell was in that Hong Kong bank account?

Tune in next week for more Montecito

 

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