Montecito — 35 & 36: Chasing Accounts and Riding Horses
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 his hack of the RemoteToken fobs in place, Hollis prepares to hunt down where the ExOh money is going. Chapters 33 and 34 are available online at montecitojournal.net.
I reported to Cyrus’s library room that morning as instructed. I brought a travel mug of black coffee but there was no risk of me nodding off. My nerves were frayed, my right eyelid twitching painfully from the cocktail of sleep-deprivation and caffeine overdose. I arrived a few minutes early as always even though I knew I would be kept waiting. It was okay. More than ever, I needed time to think.
I remained in a cloud of shock. There had to be an explanation, but how could I ask for one without revealing how and why I was asking?
One thing was for certain, there was no abandoning this quest. My glitchy stomach assured me that any relief was conditional upon answers, and, right now, I had none. I hung my head, letting my neck crack, temporarily relieving the pain radiating in my temples.
Cyrus strode in whistling; a first. “How are things today, my friend?”
I cleared my throat. “Good, Cyrus. And you?”
“Whoa, my friend!” he said, as he took his seat. “You look like hell. Have you caught a bug of some sort?”
I shook my head no, trying to blink away my red rimmed eyes. “No, I mean, yes,” I stammered. “Seasonal allergies, I think. Having a hard time sleeping.”
“Indeed,” Cyrus said. “Get yourself some Benadryl or Zyrtec or something. You shouldn’t be out in public like this.”
I smiled sheepishly and nodded. “I’ll get it taken care of.”
“So,” he said, putting two feet on the coffee table and clasping his hands behind his head. “Tell me: how can we get ExOh upgraded to the NASDAQ exchange?”
“Well…,” I said, then yawned. I had done the research as Cyrus demanded, finishing in time to get a grand total of ninety minutes of beauty rest. The simple answer was that ExOh currently traded on an exchange that housed the lowest tier of publicly traded companies: stalled startups, shell companies, former bankruptcies, community banks, and a whole lot of businesses safely described as other – it was the land of misfit toys. The NASDAQ was for real public companies. To go from the sandlot to Yankee Stadium, the company would need to go through an audit, produce registration statements at a higher standard, upgrade nearly every aspect of its compliance. In short, ExOh would need to behave like a responsible adult. After my previous night’s discovery, I wasn’t sure this was even possible. “Sorry,” I said when my yawn subsided. “It is a pretty straight-forward process with several different routes by which–”
“Which route would we use?” Cyrus interrupted, indicating he wanted the answer not the backstory.
“Right,” I yawned again. “We would only qualify for the market capitalization and assets route which requires–”
“Brilliant,” he interrupted again. “So, is it just paperwork?”
“Well,” I said, concealing a third yawn, “it’s a lot of paperwork, but–”
“BUT,” I shouted, interrupting him this time. “We would need a full audit.”
He took his feet off the coffee table and sat up, elbows on knees. “Why?”
“I don’t know, Cyrus,” I said, leaning my elbows on my knees as well. “I guess they figure that some folks can’t be trusted.”
He turned his eyes to his bookshelves. “Well, fine. Find us an auditor here in town. Preferably one that wants to hitch their wagon to our star.”
“That won’t work,” I said. “ExOh would be required to use a specific kind of auditor. One that specializes in public companies. It’s called a PCAOB auditor, and–”
“Fine,” he interrupted. “Get us one of those then.”
I nodded, holding his gaze, contemplating how far to push this. “They are going to demand to see the bank statements, you know. No spreadsheets this time. No promises. No pinky swears. It’s all or nothing.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I interviewed three of them yesterday,” I said. “They each sent me checklists and all their checklists listed the same items.” This was a lie; I had not called anyone, but I suspected I was right, and I knew that Cyrus had not done his own research.
Cyrus looked angry but not flustered. He leaned back again, re-lacing his long fingers behind his head, staring at the ceiling. “Here’s the thing,” he began. “Huff Monroe has another four million dollars lined up for us. But he tells me that he can get us thirty million if we move the stock to the NASDAQ.”
I nodded excitedly. This was it. The fear versus greed pendulum in all its swinging glory. I did not yet fully understand the game Cyrus was playing, but Huff Monroe was giving him thirty million reasons to open his kimono. If Cyrus’s reticence was purely paranoia, thirty million dollars might inspire him to take a Xanax and accept the disinfecting benefits of sunlight. I could only hope.
“The company could certainly use thirty million dollars,” I began cautiously. “Why don’t we engage an accountant, turn over the bank statements, and get this–”
“Here’s what I want you to do,” Cyrus interrupted for the umpteenth time. “Send Huff an email. Tell him that you are working on getting the listing upgraded. Tell him that if he invests ten million now – before the NASDAQ listing – we will write him an option to purchase twenty million more at the same price after the NASDAQ listing.”
I shook my head, no. “I don’t think I can say that in good faith unless you are really willing to disclose–”
“You can and you will, Hollis.” He said.
“But Cyrus, I don’t—”
“I am assigning you to work on it, Hollis! You are the CEO of the company; this is your job. Phone an auditor every day between now and New Year’s until you find one that can handle our audit and its unique requirements. Work on it until you have exhausted every possible option. Then – and only then – will you no longer be working on it,” he said. “Are my instructions clear?”
I nodded; his instructions were indeed clear.
“Terrific. Then do whatever you need to do to feel confident that you are working on it as instructed. Understand?”
I dropped my head. “Ok,” I whispered. I wasn’t ready to call his bluff, and like every spineless man who played a small role in a greater tragedy, I hoped that the next guy down the line would have more courage than me.
“Excellent,” Cyrus said, standing to signal that my presence was no longer required. I gathered my papers and coffee mug and made my way to the front door only to be stopped by the click-clacking of Genevieve’s heels.
“Hollis!” she said, hurrying down the hallway. “Oh good, I was afraid I would miss you.”
“Hi, Genevieve,” I said, raising my coffee mug without moving in for a more formal hello. I was anxious to get back home; to be free of Cyrus’s gaze.
“Would you ask Cricket and Isabel to join us for horse riding on Saturday?”
“Oh, I…,” I looked at Cyrus who had made a big deal of acting as if including Trip in the jaunt had ruined his family weekend. “I thought you guys were having a family ride?”
“Not anymore,” Cyrus said.
“Cyrus is playing golf,” Genevieve said, rolling her eyes.
“Not just golf. I’ve been invited to play The Valley Club,” he said, miming a golf stroke. “John Colton is sponsoring me for membership.”
I had heard of The Valley Club but had never seen the club’s entrance nor did I know where in Montecito the club resided. In that sense, I knew of The Valley Club in the same way I knew of ménage à trois.
“Please. Will you ask Cricket and Isabel to join us?” Genevieve said, clasping her hands together in prayer. “It will be such fun. I haven’t caught up with Cricket in ages.”
I looked at the two Wimbys, nearly side-by-side, and felt the need to question all my assumptions about Genevieve. Did she have any idea what her husband was up to? Did she know anything other than that he was a business tycoon who clearly took care of her every need and desire? I recalled prior moments when it seemed Genevieve was more than just a kept woman. When she stood up to John Colton condescendingly suggesting she could “pay the rent” with her cooking. Or when she gave me that eerie speech at the Entre Nous opening; the one that concluded with a reminder that no one gets to steak without a dead cow. Those sparks seemed distant memories now, as she stood with pleadingly clasped hands, talking of horses.
Genevieve was not Cricket, I concluded. Where my wife was not-so-secretly our family’s Chairman, CEO, and Commander in Chief, Genevieve was simply a passenger in Cyrus’s first-class ride. Perhaps the life she led was too grand for penetrating questions. Or perhaps, standing at the edge of true knowledge, she instinctively backed away.
I felt sorry for Genevieve, though I respected her dilemma. Even with those we know best, we are blind to what we do not want to see.
“I’ll ask Cricket,” I said.
It took me more than an hour to craft the five sentences of my email to Huff Monroe. Surely, he would sense my hedged, cautious words. Surely, an investor with enough money to casually discuss tens of millions of dollars would intuitively step back at the first flash of warning. Surely, I would be saved from having to receive and transfer his money.
Surely not. The next day, ten million arrived in our Miramar account from Huff’s personal account in Texas. A wave of nausea came and went, but I powered through, recognizing the perverse silver lining. I knew once I moved the money, I would have a chance to watch the distributive aftermath via CryptoWallet. It was like my very own ant farm.
As I expected, I moved the money from the U.S. to Hong Kong then phoned Cyrus; thirty minutes later it disappeared. Just like our U.S. account, the Hong Kong account seemed to be nothing more than a passthrough. Every penny I transferred in was subsequently pushed to an HSBC bank account in Sydney, Australia. Was this the company’s operating account that I longed to see, and if so, could I access it?
I opened the pictures folder on my laptop and found the eight images of RemoteToken fobs; seven still with mysterious lineage. What were the chances that the HSBC account was attached to one of these remaining fobs? Fairly good, it seemed to me. While this should have made my stomach knot further, I felt relief. My body wanted to know the truth.
Ninety minutes later, I had the HSBC account added to the CryptoWallet. This time there were several large payments made to generically named Limited Liability Corporations located in the Cayman Islands, but still no sign of the lifeblood of a business: revenues. Nothing from Bloomingdale’s, Selfridges, et al, and no signs of paychecks, bills, consulting fees, or anything paid to anyone with a heartbeat. After each inflow from Hong Kong, the Cayman LLC’s each took their share. The balance was then wired to yet another ExOh account in yet another country: ICICI Bank in Mumbai. It was like watching the digestive track of an animal that ate money.
The sun set, the gar-office grew chilly, and I kept working. By process of elimination, I found the RemoteToken fob tied to the ICICI Bank account. In just under an hour – I was getting good at this – I had this latest account ready to be added to my CryptoWallet.
What-ifs and maybes sprinted through my mind as my cursor hovered over the Link Account button. I had been certain Hong Kong would fill the information gap. Then confident that Sydney would do it. Now, I was hopeful that Mumbai would hold the missing key. With each step down the ladder, my surety slacked. Was it possible that –
A hand landed softly on my shoulder, sending me screaming like a petrified child.
“Jesus, Hollis!” Cricket said. “You’re going to wake up Oprah.”
My heart was in my throat. “Oh my Goodness, Cricket, I’m so sorry. I don’t…,” I shook my head, struggling for words. “What… what time is it?”
“It’s after midnight, Hollis. You skipped dinner again. I know you’ve got a lot going on at work, but this is getting ridiculous.”
My stomach growled, confirming her timeline. “I’m sorry.”
“Come to bed, Hollis. Whatever it is, it can wait.”
I dutifully followed, stopping in the kitchen to swallow a handful of Cheerios and drink directly from the milk gallon. Cricket shook her head at me. “It’s like I have three kids now, and you’re the worst of the group.”
I apologized again and fell into bed as if I had been drugged.
That night, I dreamed that I had been only one bank account away from discovering exactly what I sought. That the layers of bank accounts were simple financial engineering; conveniences for paying taxes and making local transactions. That it was all there, and business was booming. ExOh was making money hand over fist. Our investors were soon to look like mini-Warren Buffetts. That it was all just a big misunderstanding.
The first sound I heard the following morning was that of a fork scraping a pancake through a puddle of syrup. It was 8:30 am on a Saturday, and Cricket had filled in for me as chief of Saturday morning breakfast. I groaned, sitting up in bed to a sleep-deprivation headache. Much like a hangover, there was no cure but time.
“There’s Mr. Sleepyhead,” Trip proclaimed as I trudged into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Cricket kissed my cheek while Isabel scrolled through Instagram on Cricket’s phone. We had not yet given into peer pressure and gotten Isabel a phone, but her twelfth birthday was in December and that was the agreed upon compromise date. To be honest, Cricket was looking forward to it; she would regain full custody of her own phone.
There were extra pancakes, so I tried a short stack on for size. They agreed with my stomach, so I helped myself to seconds. Even though my hacking mission might end disastrously – at least in terms of my employment – my gastrointestinal tract seemed to enjoy the hunt. Of course, my biorhythms were completely distorted by my lack of sleep and nutritionally deficient diet, but for the first time in months, I was not suffering from stomach cramps. On the pendulum of trade-offs, this was a win.
“What’s on the docket today?” I asked Cricket.
“I guess it goes without saying.”
She rolled her eyes. “We’re all riding horses with Genevieve and Priscilla today.”
I nodded. “Right, right, right, right,” I said. “Wait, I didn’t think you wanted to go?”
She squished her face, a signal that I had said something I was not supposed to say. She came in closer to me, whispering. “I didn’t want to. Trip does not care because he will be with Priscilla, but Isabel said that she would only go if I went, and that she really, really, really wanted to go. So, I am going. What are you going to do with your day off?”
I squished my face, a signal that I did not understand the meaning of the phrase day off.
“You know,” she said slowly, “Saturday? A day of rest and recuperation? A day to let the mind heal and the heart play?”
“Right,” I said. “I’ll be working.”
“What am I going to do with you, Hollis?”
I kissed her on the cheek and began to clean up the kitchen from the breakfast festivities; cleanup was my default job around the house. Already I was excited about the day in front of me. It just might prove to be enough time to reach the end of the RemoteToken thread, and – please, please, please – prove that all of this was just one big misunderstanding, fueled by my ignorance and paranoia. As much as I loved the hack-twenty-four-seven ethos, I was too old for this. I needed some sleep.
I drove the rest of the family the seven miles south to the stables in Carpinteria where Genevieve and Priscilla were waiting. A Polo match was about to begin on a beautiful carpet of green, and everywhere I looked were white pants and riding boots. Except of course for my family; Trip and Cricket were wearing blue jeans while Isabel had found a pair of khaki-colored pants that looked like a darn good alternate uniform for horse riding.
With the family set for the day, I took off for home. The fog of sleeplessness and the drive to discover the truth blinded me to everything else in my life. In retrospect, I must have believed my previous night’s dream; that my hacking quest was one sure to end in the discovery of an amusing misunderstanding. Else, why would I have just dropped the three people I loved most in the world with someone I did not trust?
Back in the gar-office, I linked the ICICI account from Mumbai, hopeful that this would be the honey pot. I was quickly absolved of my optimism. Like the Sydney account, Mumbai connected to a host of ambiguously named accounts – these in the Isle of Man, a place I had never heard of before – but revealed no revenues. After Mumbai’s Isle of Man leeches consumed their share of each inflow, the balance was passed to an account in Amsterdam.
I had five RemoteToken fobs remaining.
Amsterdam distributed funds to a handful of accounts in Monaco then dropped the balance to an account in Helsinki, Finland.
Four RemoteToken fobs remaining.
Finland distributed funds to accounts in Panama then passed the remainder to an account in Vienna, Austria.
Three RemoteToken fobs remaining.
Vienna made payments to accounts in Lichtenstein then passed the rest along to Brussels, Belgium.
Two RemoteToken fobs remaining.
Brussels paid accounts in Bermuda then spit out the balance to an account in Zurich, Switzerland.
I buried my head in my arms, bleary from four hours of playing whack-a-mole without a hit. I had hacked into seven bank accounts in seven countries, each time hoping that my worst fears would be resolved and each time feeling like a naive fool. All the accounts were empty. The thrill of the hunt – an endorphin-laced high that that had sustained me to this point – was eviscerated. In its place was pure dread.
Why had Cyrus done this? Why string together seven bank accounts that existed only as conduits? It seemed that the primary purpose was to keep the money in motion. I had read about such schemes before, orchestrated by covert drug cartels. These bandits knew that the banks and regulators were too slow to catch the action real time and quick to give up once the money left their borders. That pattern would certainly fit what I found here – swift, back-to-back-to-back transactions, each bank transfer a flight from one country to the next. My thoughts were venturing well off the fantasy grid at this point, and at each turn, the conclusions made me want to retrace my steps, close the doors behind me, and pretend I had seen nothing.
There was still this one final Zurich bank account. If only this account contained the verifying financial records I sought, all of the rest could be dismissed as needless drama manufactured by yours truly’s wild imagination. I wanted to be wrong; I needed to be wrong. Sure, the odds that this final Zurich bank account was the one were infinitesimally small, yet there remained a sliver of hope. But I knew, if I opened this final door, hoping to find that sliver, I would never be able to go back to a world in which I did not know the truth.
I picked my head off my arms and dove back into the RemoteToken server one final time. Any illusions that I had an escape hatch were as empty as the seven bank accounts I had already examined.
The first hack took hours; this one took minutes. I was as familiar with the laser room as a blind man in his kitchen. With a mirror of the fob’s passcode in hand, I went back to CryptoWallet and input the necessary information to link the accounts. Without thinking, I clicked the button to link them and watched as my screen filled with the Zurich account’s historical record.
My phone rang as my virtual wallet filled with new transactions. I rarely got phone calls and even when I did, I usually ignored them. My few friends knew this. That meant calls were almost always telemarketers, political pollsters, and kind people who just knew I needed reduced interest rates. Because of this, Cricket insisted I have a special ring tone just for her calls so that I would know when I needed to answer. So as information showered my screen, the acoustic intro riff of Damien Rice’s “Coconut Skins” echoed from my phone’s tinny speakers.
I pushed the answer icon, expecting to say hello and hear about the day riding horses, or options for dinner, or a vacation idea, or a just-arrived invitation, or simply, I love you. Instead, I was bombarded by the sound of ambulance sirens. I looked at the phone; the caller ID still read Cricket. “What’s going on?” I yelled, combatting the cacophony.
“Hollis? Hollis? Can you hear me?” Cricket yelled back.
“Yes, I hear you. What’s happening?” Somehow amidst all the background noise, I could hear Isabel’s muffled crying. I pictured her face buried into Cricket’s shirt.
“Hollis, I need you to meet us at Cottage Hospital right away,” Cricket said to me, followed by, “It’s going to be ok, baby. It’s going to be ok,” directed at our sobbing daughter.
I stood from my desk, sending my chair toppling backwards, and patted my empty pants pockets for my keys. I had just dropped the family at the stables: where were my goddamn keys? I knew nothing, but I was terrified, jumping straight through concerned and alarmed to DEFCON 1. “What is it, Cricket? Who’s hurt?”
I wish I could tell you that I would have been equally worried had the answer been Genevieve or Priscilla, but that would be a lie. In the nanosecond between my question and Cricket’s answer, I prayed the most selfish prayer of my life: let it be anyone else.
“Oh, Hollis,” she moaned. “It’s Trip.”