Montecito — Chapter 46: Another Visit From the Agents

By Michael Cox   |   January 10, 2023

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 Hollis’s home visit from Agent Andrews, he receives another knock at the door. Chapters 44 and 45 are available online here. – MJ Staff

Chapter 46

The next morning, we woke to crisp, fog-free skies. Sometimes paradise makes it hard not to smile. 

I confessed to Cricket that I could not take another run-in with Cyrus. She called me a wimp but agreed to let me stay home with Trip while she escorted Isabel to school. As penance, I would be Trip’s stand-in teacher for the day; a penalty I secretly enjoyed.

One of my sidelines of study during Trip’s hospital convalescence was researching how to teach reading and spelling to kids with dyslexia. I was sure to begin as a below average tutor, but my hourly fee was excellent. Already, Trip and I were developing a solid teacher-pupil relationship in math. Trip loved to talk and hated worksheets. So, I worked up a curriculum to make math a conversation about the things that interested him; needless to say, Legos featured heavily in these lesson plans.

Of course, I could not pretend to be Trip’s teacher forever. Both of us would eventually have to grow up. Trip would have a second of many surgeries the following week to begin the repair of nerve damage in his quadricep; his physical therapy would begin shortly thereafter. But already Montecito Union Elementary had made gracious arrangements to accommodate his massive wheelchair and – barring further setbacks – the plan was to have him back on campus by the beginning of November.

My growing up was harder to schedule. Technically, I was still the Chief Executive Officer of ExOh Holdings, but the clock on that experiment was nearly zero. I spoke hypothetically with Paul about my independent contractor idea and he thought it was perfect. He suggested that CryptoWallet had several delayed projects in need of someone with skills just like mine. This made me smile as I thought of all the bore holes I had dug in CryptoWallet’s supposed security. If Paul were right, and I landed CryptoWallet as an initial client, my new business would be off and running. Paul and I even brainstormed before coming up with the perfect name for my new shop: Fogbank Consulting.

As exciting as that was, it could not begin until the current chapter in my life was closed. And so, I waited.

Just after lunch – a meal I was beginning to enjoy again for the first time in months – the bell rang. Once again, I spied navy blue suits through the front door’s sidelight windows: the FBI was back. I wanted to throw the door open and scream hallelujah. Instead, I calmly opened the door and smiled. Despite the subdued relative greeting, I still wondered how often FBI agents were greeted with smiles.

Two new agents stood outside my door that afternoon, a man and a woman. As with Agents Andrews, Smith, and Green, they flashed their bi-fold wallet credentials and introduced themselves. 

The first to speak was Agent Quinton: brown eyes, a putting green of brown hair, and a brown tie. Lean and angular, he looked like a cross-country runner. His suit was navy but not nearly as tailored as the ones worn by Agent Andrews and crew. He looked nice. He looked professional. He looked somewhat like me. 

Next was Agent Randall, a five-feet-two African American woman with piercing obsidian eyes and a magnificent explosion of curly hair. She nodded; no smile. Physically, she was the polar opposite of Agent Smith from my last batch of FBI visitors, but she was no less intimidating. 

I said hello, hollered into the kitchen that I would be in the gar-office, and led the two agents around the house. Now a veteran of FBI visits, I scanned the street as we walked, noticing the black Chevrolet Suburban parked across the street and yet another agent standing outside the vehicle. I thought back to Agent Andrews and crew, with their P90X muscles, natty suits, and Mercedes Benz Sprinter. They must have been the advance guard, I reasoned; this was the calvary. Though I would have expected FBI agents to be assigned to this case and work it to conclusion, what did I know? Other than what I had seen on the silver screen, the answer was not much.

As before, I made the gar-office as hospitable as possible, finding and dusting off a second folding chair for my two visitors. We all took our seats; I smiled, waiting for my update.

“Appreciate you talking with us, Mr. Crawford,” Agent Quinton said. 

“Of course.” I assumed there would be many more meetings to come until the Cyrus Wimby affair could be filed away.

“We just have a few questions,” Agent Quinton said, flipping through a manilla folder until he found what he was looking for and holding it up for my viewing pleasure. “Have you seen this man before?”

I cocked my head slightly, examining the black and white photo. My mouth went slack.

“Maybe this picture will jog your memory,” Agent Quinton said, holding up a second photo of the man, this time taken in front of my home with yours truly standing next to him.

The photographed man was Vlad: menacing, didn’t-know-where-Cyrus-lived Vlad.

“How did …,” I started then stopped.

“Do you know this man?” Agent Quinton repeated.

“Yes,” I said. “Well, I mean, I have met him,” I clarified. “Obviously, right. There I am in a picture with him.” I chuckled uncomfortably as my mouth went sandpaper dry.

“How do you know this man?” Agent Quinton said, filing away his photos.

“Well,” I stammered. “He approached me in front of my house one day. It was a few months ago. I had never seen him before. He told me that his name was Vlad and that he was looking for my boss and then I told him that I was on my way to see my boss, so he told me to get in his car and he would drive us both over there.” My nervous recollections sounded like the sort of sloppy story my children would tell. Stay calm, Hollis, I told myself. These guys are on your team.

Agent Quinton turned to Agent Randall and nodded.

“Who is your boss?” Agent Randall asked, speaking for the first time. Unfortunately for me, her voice was as piercing as her eyes.

“Are you kidding me?” I said with a nervous laugh. Surely Agent Daniel Andrews had given the rest of the FBI team the backstory along with my dossier on Cyrus, right? Why were we repeating things? Did they just need to hear me validate prior information? What a waste of time. “Look, I appreciate the need to be thorough,” I said. “But I think if you’ll go back and read—”

“It’s actually a really easy question,” Agent Randall interrupted. “But if you’d rather be cute about it, we can move on. I really don’t care.”

I raised my hands in surrender. “I am sorry. I wasn’t meaning to—”

“How does your boss know Vladimir Petronovski?” Agent Randall again interrupted.

I flinched. Not that Vlad’s full name meant anything to me, but the full ring of it was ominous. “Well, I’m not certain, but Cyrus – Cyrus Wimby, that’s my boss’s name – Cyrus made it sound like he and Vlad had been business partners before,” I said. “Vlad was in town to get an update on the business I was involved in: ExOh Holdings.”

“I see,” Agent Quinton said. “So, were you present during their meeting?”

“I was only there for the beginning,” I said. “I was dismissed; Cyrus sent me home in an Uber.”

“Is this you exiting that meeting, approximately ten minutes after you arrived?” Agent Randall said, flashing yet another eight-by-ten black and white photo.

My forehead wrinkled. “Yes,” I said. “Where did you get these photos?”

Agent Randall filed the photo away without answer. “What do you know about Vladimir Petronovski, Mr. Crawford?”

Why were they asking about Vlad? He certainly seemed like a shady character, but shouldn’t they be asking me about Cyrus? A creeping fusion of anxiety, fear, and bewilderment weighed on me like a stone. “I really don’t know him at all,” I protested. “Somehow, you guys have found photographs that bookend the only time I ever met him; what are the chances of that?” Another nervous laugh. “We have never communicated other than that brief ten-minute period, and Cyrus didn’t tell me anything about their meeting other than what I’ve already relayed. That’s it; that’s all I know.”

The Agents again looked at each other, communicating in silent head nods and subtle twitches just as Agents Andrews and Smith had. They must teach this code at FBI school, I thought. Agent Quinton went back to his manilla folder and pulled out four more photos. “Do you recognize any of these men?”

I examined the photos one at a time. Three of the four were hard-looking men, reminiscent of Vlad. Thankfully, I had never seen any of them before. The fourth sent a shiver down my spine. 

“This one,” I finally said when my voice returned. “I don’t know his full name. I only know him as Landon. He was introduced to me as Cyrus’s long-time friend and was set to be the Chief Executive Officer of ExOh.” I paused. “But he died in a surfing accident, and then Cyrus asked me to take that job.”

Agent Randall snorted and shook her head. “Surfing accident? That’s a good one.”

“It’s true,” I argued as facts, lies, and mysteries swirled in my head like a storm cloud. “I was one of the people who found his body on the beach.”

“Sure, sure,” Agent Randall said. “One hundred percent accident.” She stood and moved to examine my gar-office in more detail. Not that there was anything to hide, but the naked exposure of a stranger rifling through my things made me uncomfortable. Even if my things were flat-tired bicycles and old garden equipment.

“What is your relationship with Cyrus… Wimby was it?” Agent Quinton asked.

Wimby was it? Was this guy joking? Was I supposed to believe that the last name of the chief bad guy had escaped his memory? I swallowed my frustration and smiled. “I work for Cyrus Wimby. I’m the Chief Executive Officer of ExOh Holdings,” I said. “At least for a little while.”

Agent Quinton cocked his head. “You expect your employment to terminate?”

“I don’t see how that can be avoided,” I said with another nervous laugh. “Do you?”

The agents looked at each other quizzically just as Cricket hollered from the back door of our house, “Do you guys want some water?” 

“Yes! Please!” I said. Lickety-split, Cricket appeared with three cold bottles. I greedily gulped mine down, soaking my sandpaper throat. 

“Can I get you anything else?” Cricket asked.

The agents awkwardly shook their heads, no.

“Ok,” she said. “Shout if you change your minds.” Then she left as quickly as she arrived. 

Agent Randall retook her seat, her eyebrows arched; Agent Quinton cracked a confused smile. They each took a sip of water then resumed their inquisition.

“How long have you worked for Cyrus Wimby?” Agent Quinton asked.

At this question, I likely rolled my eyes. Granted, rolling your eyes at a pair of FBI Agents is unlikely to be well received, but it happened reflexively. As before, I had already answered this question with Agent Andrews. Re-plowing old fields was a waste of all our time. I hoped we could jump through this validation exercise quickly and get on to new material. “Eight months,” I said.

“And tell me about your company,” Agent Quinton continued. “What does ExOh Holdings do?”

I sighed. Dumb move.

“Do you have a problem?” Agent Randall asked as much with her eyes as her voice.

I shook my head, no. “I’m sorry. It’s just – with all due respect – we’ve been over this already.”

Agent Quinton looked at his partner; Agent Randall shrugged. “We have?”

“Well,” I backtracked, “not me and you, we. But with Agent Daniel Andrews and his partner Agent Smith.”

 Agent Randall reclined, crossing her arms over her chest. Agent Quinton, meanwhile, leaned forward, elbows on knees, his hands clasped in prayer. My heart began to gallop.

“Tell me about Agent Daniel Andrews,” Agent Quinton said.

My eyes darted pleadingly from one agent to the other. “Agent Daniel Andrews?” I repeated as if the problem was that they had not heard me correctly. “Of the FBI? He’s the head of the Global Trade Surveillance unit, has a master’s degree from Cornell… is a guest lecturer at Harvard. He’s tall, muscular, looks like… like… like one of you?” I heard my voice squeak, my confidence disappearing like water circling a bathtub drain.

Again, the agents consulted each other in their indecipherable, wordless language. Agent Quinton turned from his partner back to me and rested his chin on top of his clasped hands. “Here’s the thing, Mr. Crawford. The FBI doesn’t have a Global Trade Surveillance unit.”

“And,” Agent Randall added, “There is no Agent Daniel Andrews.”  

Tune in next week for more Montecito


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