Montecito — Chapter 47 & 48: Unknown Agents
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 shocking revelation from Agent Randall, the FBI continues to question Hollis. Chapter 46 is available here. – MJ Staff
As I stared back at Agent Randall, her words – there is no Daniel Andrews – ricocheted around my cranium. I decided that I needed clarification. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Agent Randall said, slowly, as if she were talking to a child, “that no one by the name of Daniel Andrews is an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
That was indeed clearer, I thought. “Then who was I talking with?” I asked the two agents.
Agent Randall shook her head pityingly.
“Your guess is as good as ours at this point,” Agent Quinton said. “What did this Daniel Andrews want to speak with you about?”
I stared into my lap, trying to recall the shattered mirror of that meeting. “He was… ,” I looked up, “he wanted to talk about Cyrus Wimby. He said he was doing field work; filling out the file.”
“Filling out the file?” Agent Randall repeated dubiously.
“That’s what he said,” I pleaded. “He had a partner with him. Two, or maybe it was three guys,” I said. “Agent Smith was even bigger than Agent Andrews. He sat in on our meeting, but he never spoke. And then there was another one Andrews called Agent Green. He also looked like he was capable of squashing me. He never spoke either. Andrews sent him to the car. And I think…,” I remember the outline of someone else in the front passenger seat, “I think there was another guy waiting for them in the car.”
“What kind of car?” Agent Randall asked.
“It was one of those Sprinter vans.”
“A Mercedes?” Agent Randall asked, shaking her head. “That was your first clue, Mr. Crawford.”
I dropped my head, feeling myself shrink under the growing realization that I had made a colossal mistake.
“What did this Agent Andrews want to know about Cyrus Wimby?” Agent Quinton asked.
“He…,” my voice cracked, “he was asking me about the work Cyrus was doing. About ExOh Holdings. And I mean…,” I swallowed hard, praying that I already knew the answer to my next question, “Cyrus Wimby is why you are here, right?”
Agent Randall stood again and returned to rummaging my things.
“No,” Agent Quinton said. “We’re here because of Vladimir Petronovski. He is a—”
“He is a very bad guy,” Agent Randall interrupted.
“Indeed. We have been following up on various leads to re-create Petronovski’s movements over the last six months.”
“We only know of you,” Agent Randall added over her shoulder, “and the man you call Cyrus Wimby, through our reconnaissance efforts on Petronovski. You two are simply persons of interest.”
I had to be misunderstanding them, I thought. Ask again, the densest part of my brain requested, maybe they will answer differently this time, as if the FBI agents were Magic 8 Balls that just needed a good shake. “But … but you are here to arrest Cyrus Wimby, right?”
“Not yet,” Agent Quinton said. “Should we?”
I buried my forehead in the palms of my hands. What had I done? Were Daniel Andrews and his pals – if any of those names were real – good guys or bad guys? I had revealed all my double-crossing work to them. Work that minutes ago had been the crowning achievement of my life and now seemed like the kind of information that could put a bullseye on my back. Was Cyrus working for Petronovski or was it the other way around? I was confused, terrified, flabbergasted, and several other large, scary words.
“What did you share with this fake FBI agent?” Agent Quinton asked.
“I shared… everything,” I admitted.
Agent Randall guffawed. “You shared everything, did you Mr. Crawford? Let me guess, did your boss create a hostile work environment? Does he tell off-color jokes within earshot of the ladies? Does he refuse to recycle?” She picked up my garden hoe. “Does he eat genetically modified vegetables?”
“Sarah,” Agent Quinton said, “cut him some slack.”
“Sure, no problem,” Agent Randall said, setting the hoe back down. “I mean Mr. Crawford here claims he had no idea that he is riding around town with a fugitive on Interpol’s Red Notice list, but I’m sure he’s got the goods on Cyrus Wimby.” She turned her folding chair backwards, then sat, crisscrossing her arms across the chair’s back. “So, tell us, Mr. Crawford. Tell us all about your big, bad boss, Cyrus Wimby. Tell us everything.”
The good news was my initial intuition that Agent Randall and her piercing blue eyes would not be the most understanding of interrogators had proven correct. From my vantage in the fog, that was a notably accurate observation. Unfortunately, she was still sitting three feet away from me and seething like a recently branded bull. My hands shook as I turned back from her glare to my computer and sent my dossier on Cyrus to the printer. “Cyrus Wimby is a con man,” I began, forcing my voice to rise from shell-shocked whisper to something approaching confidence. “He is the mastermind of a global fraud that has bilked U.S. investors of more than forty-five-million dollars. Through a network of thieving partners, he has paid out tens of millions and stockpiled more than one-hundred-seventeen-million dollars in a bank account in Switzerland. I have tracked it all down and documented every counterparty, every transaction, and every account. That document,” I pointed to my wheezing printer, “spells out all the gory details.”
Agent Quinton cocked his head. “Don’t know about you, Sarah, but that’s a pretty good everything if you ask me.”
Agent Randall grunted her approval.
“You can prove this?” Agent Quinton asked.
“Yes,” I said, turning back to my computer and launching CryptoWallet. My hands still shook but seeing the FBI agents perk up at the story gave me some measure of hope that I was not quite the idiot Agent Randall described. “Once I infiltrated Cyrus Wimby’s bank accounts,” I began, pointing at my screen like a weatherman, “I linked them via this application so that they could be tracked more easily.” With a few more keystrokes, my CryptoWallet began to repopulate. “There are eight bank accounts in total. He uses seven of the eight to distribute money, but this one,” I pointed to the Zurich account, “is where he keeps…”
My voice trailed to silence as I stared at the screen.
“What are we looking at here, Mr. Crawford?” Agent Quinton asked.
“There’s a boatload of numbers on the screen,” Agent Randall added, “but I don’t see the honey pot.”
I clicked refresh hoping against hope that something would change. Again, the numbers filled the screen. The conclusion was the same.
“Speak, Mr. Crawford,” Agent Randall said.
I tapped the screen, highlighting the Zurich account. “This account. As of last Friday, it had more than one-hundred-seventeen-million dollars in it.”
“And as of today?” Agent Quinton asked.
“It’s…,” I shook my head. “It’s empty.” The blood drained from my face as I slumped in my chair. How could this be?
Agents Quinton and Randall stood from their stooped positions. “That’s a tad anticlimactic, don’t you think,” Agent Randall said. Now it was Agent Quinton’s turn to grunt in reply.
As I sat staring at my unchanging screen, I wondered how this situation could get any worse. I had enthusiastically linked up with a con man, I had burned through my retirement savings, I had naively turned over a trove of evidence to fake FBI agents, and I had turned my back on the treasure chest long enough for the bad guys to steal it out from under me. It seemed like I had done all the damage I could do; the old trope it is always darkest before the dawn ran through my head just in time to give me a brief smile before I heard the crunch of gravel underfoot. The other FBI agent – the one that had been guarding the Chevrolet Suburban – was sprinting down my driveway, looking frantic.
“Agent Quinton,” the new guy said. “The stakeout on Riven Rock.”
Riven Rock? I thought. Cyrus’s house?
“What about it?” Agent Quinton asked, still staring at my computer screen.
“I just received a message that four Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s department cruisers pulled through the gates, siren’s blaring.”
That is the thing about the old always darkest before the dawn nonsense. It is misleading on two fronts. First, it is incorrect, at least as it pertains to the colloquial meaning of the word dawn. Setting aside the effects of moonlight, the moment in a given night when a particular point on planet Earth is at its darkest is when the sun is aligned one-hundred-eighty degrees from that point; the point’s antemeridian. As the Earth rotates and sunrise approaches, the sky gets lighter, not darker, even if imperceptibly so. Second, while the saying was coined to provide a ray of hope to those in despair, it naively suggests that humans can accurately distinguish degrees of darkness. For the most part, we cannot. Therefore, while present conditions may appear very dark, that observation is meaningless. It can always get much, much darker.
“Hells bells,” Agent Randall said, shaking her head. “Mr. Crawford? You’re coming with us.”
Agents Quinton and Randall loaded me into the back of their Chevy Suburban, and we began our ascent up Olive Mill Road to the mansions of Riven Rock and a scene I was scared to imagine. How different from the first time I approached Cyrus Wimby’s gates. Back then, my imagination was unfettered, free to fantasize about how much better life might be on the other side of those gates. Better cars, better homes, better putting greens, better pools, better pizza ovens, and far better Key Lime pie. Perhaps it was a world I could join; though, only if I could become a better me.
So, I evolved. I did what I was told. I resisted the urge to object. I delivered on every deadline. And most importantly, I enabled Cyrus Wimby’s executive vision to flourish. In the lexicon of corporations, this was the definition of success. And in the end, I was indeed a changed me.
But not a better me.
The Suburban powered up Olive Mill at an achingly quiet thirty-five miles per hour. I sensed that the agents had some idea what awaited us, but, if so, they did not clue me in. Having proven myself to be easily suckered, maybe they just did not trust me.
Riven Rock Road snaked northwest from Olive Mill, and in a few minutes, we were out front of the Wimby estate. A Sherriff’s cruiser blocked the driveway, so we parked on the edge of the street where a sidewalk would have been if Montecito had sidewalks.
I was told to wait in the car while Agents Quinton and Randall approached the officer on guard. The other Agent – still nameless – sat beside me watching for signals.
“Are we—” I began, stopping when he raised a hand to silence me.
Through the windshield I watched the FBI agents debate their case with the Santa Barbara County officer. At one point, the local cop made a call on his walkie-talkie and suddenly, I was being waved to the front lines. If my heart was beating fast before, now it was sledgehammering the inside of my ribcage.
I joined the FBI Agents, received an approving head nod from the local cop, and we walked through the Wimbys’ gates. The house looked magnificent as always. The reflecting pool’s frogs and Koi went about their business, unfazed by the squadron of officers zigzagging the property like kids on an Easter Egg hunt. Agents Randall and Quinton escorted me silently, their expressions grim. Agent Quinton handed me a pair of latex gloves just like the ones he was donning himself.
“I won’t touch anything. I promise,” I said.
“Just put them on,” Agent Quinton insisted.
I wanted to ask what they learned from the cop at the end of the driveway, but I was too scared to talk. And I was scared – literally frightened – of what might be inside that house. It was a curious emotion given that I was surrounded by officers of the law equipped with guns. There was no reason for me to be afraid, but if someone had given me the chance to leave, I would have turned on a dime and sprinted.
We made it to the front door just as another local officer stepped out to meet and stop us. “What do the Feds want with this?” he asked.
Agent Quinton looked around the local officer into the home’s rambling foyer. He stepped back and shook his head. “Want isn’t really the word,” he said. “We have reason to believe that this incident is tied to a case we are working. I’m not really looking to have a pissing match at the moment, but I think, if you’ll let us through, we might be able to help.”
The officer jutted his chin at me. “Who is this?”
It was an obvious question. I was wearing an old pair of khakis, Sperry topsiders, and an untucked button down oxford; obscenely casual by the standards of my escorts.
“Hollis Crawford,” Agent Quinton said. “He’s a local; you don’t know him?”
The officer shook his head, no.
For reasons that make no sense in retrospect, I felt ashamed that the sheriff’s office and I were not on a first name basis. I was about to defend myself when the officer thought better of his answer. “Wait. Crawford? Are you related to Cricket Crawford?”
“She’s my wife,” I said.
He nodded. “You’re good,” he said to the Agents and stood aside.
Saved once again by my better half’s tireless ability to make friends and ingratiate herself. Absent her, I was as connected to this town as a transient in a tent.
Whatever perverse thrill I had at passing the front door entrance exam evaporated once I crossed the threshold. I recognized the Wimbys’ foyer in the way one recognizes classmates at a reunion: in pieces and then all at once.
The foyer was the Wimby home’s hub. The left spoke led to the sunken library where Cyrus and I had our meetings. To the right was a formal living room. Straight ahead was a wide wooden staircase leading to the second story’s bedrooms and offices. Behind the staircase, was a wall of ten-foot-tall, glass-filled sliding pocket doors that led to the patio, pool, and beyond. To the left of the staircase was a hallway that led diagonally to the kitchen, dining room, informal family room, and garage. Diagonally to the right was a two-bedroom, two-bath guest suite.
The foyer itself was normally outfitted like a luxurious waiting room. But this day, the couch, chairs, coffee table, grandfather clock, and low-slung antique bureau had been pushed back against the walls to make more room in the center for what can only be described as an arena. In the arena, under the massive Empire Chandelier, sat a single chair on bare wood floor.
I recognized the chair instantly though I had never sat in it. It was from the Wimbys’ formal dining room; a captain’s chair with six-inch-wide armrests. Two other dining chairs were positioned on the side, directly in front of the grandfather clock, and facing the center of the arena. Something was missing from the room, but I could not immediately identify it.
As I moved from the abstract to the specific, my vision played tricks on me. I took one step forward to regain my focus. Dots and squiggles danced in front of me. Was this what they called eye floaters? I took another step forward. The dots and squiggles stopped moving but did not disappear. I began to take another step forward when Agent Randall’s arm caught me in the chest.
“Stay out of the blood,” she said.
Blood? Following her eyes, I looked down. There, below my hovering right foot, was a half-circle of maroon, the flat side of the circle indirectly illuminating what was missing: the foyer’s rug.
I stepped back, planting my once hovering foot safely on dry wood, and saw the dots and squiggles for what they were: sprays of blood. The room looked as if someone had placed a spin art machine in the center, set it to high, and unleashed a torrent onto the turntable. The missing oriental rug revealed clean wood floor, but beyond its former borders, the couch was soaked, the clock was showered, the walls were peppered.
“Step over,” Agent Randall advised, calling me to approach the chair at the center of the arena.
I followed her instructions in the exaggerated fashion of someone afraid of nicking a tripwire. The chair loomed, seeming larger now that I had crossed the rug’s imaginary boundary. Below it sat a tangle of blood-smeared rope and wads of grey duct tape. On the chair’s wide, flat armrest were three bloody tubes, each roughly two inches long. One of the tubes had a ridge around it that winked in the light from the chandelier.
“What are those?” I said, my voice a hair above a whisper.
Agent Randall pulled a pencil from the breast pocket of her jacket and rearranged the tubes until I saw clearly what they were: a finger.
I swallowed. “That’s Cyrus Wimby’s finger,” I said.
“How can you be sure?” Agent Randall asked.
“Cyrus had really long fingers,” I said softly.
Agent Randall chuckled, morosely. “Indeed, he did. Some men would call that six inches.” She continued to pick at the segmented finger, until a dried crust of blood flaked off, revealing what I mistakenly thought was a ridge on a tube. “Do you recognize that ring?” she asked.
I nodded, squeezing my eyes shut. “It’s Cyrus’s wedding ring.”
All around us, men and women scurried, looking for ports of entry, gathering suspicious objects, marking all areas where a drop of blood appeared beyond the devastating spray pattern in the foyer. The two other chairs – positioned as a macabre audience – had slashed lengths of rope and duct tape below them as well, but far fewer splashes of blood.
“Why do you think these chairs are cleaner?” I asked.
Agent Randall looked up from a squat position by the center chair and answered with the confidence of someone who had seen it all before. “Because people were sitting there,” she said. “The blood landed on the witnesses instead of the chairs.”
I closed my eyes again. Was this where Genevieve and Priscilla sat? Were they tied up here? Were they sprayed with his blood? Were they forced to watch as Cyrus was tortured to death?
Agent Quinton appeared from one of the back hallways, “Sarah,” he hollered. “This way.”
I followed as well, afraid to be left alone with the now empty chairs.
“The drag pattern is through here,” Agent Quinton said, pointing to the kitchen tile. I could not see what he saw until I was at the far end of the room with the sunlight striking the tile from the opposite direction. Even on clean floors, the smudge of something heavy being dragged across the floor was evident.
“Through the garage,” I heard Agent Quinton say from farther way. This drag pattern was easier to spot; the garage had a layer of light brown dirt with a swept path through it.
“Through the drive,” Agent Quinton continued, walking further ahead on the driveway gravel, now trenched under the weight of the dragged object. “To a car waiting here,” he said, stopping at the end of the trench.
“No blood trail though,” Agent Randall said. “Mr. Crawford? Did there used to be a rug back there at the foot of the stairs?”
The missing rug. I nodded, yes.
“So, this is definitely a murder scene,” Agent Randall said. “You don’t roll a living man into a rug and drag him through the house.”
Agent Quinton nodded in agreement. “So, the working theory is that they rolled the victim’s body into the rug, dragged it to here, loaded it into their escape vehicle, then departed.” He tapped his chin with an index finger.
“What about Genevieve and Priscilla?” I interjected.
“Wimby’s family?” Agent Randall asked.
“Yes,” I said. “His wife and daughter. Do you …,” I did not want to finish the question, but I had to. “Do you think they were the ones sitting in those other chairs?”
She nodded, yes. “Stands to reason. Those chairs were positioned to force someone to watch what was happening.”
Even though I had feared this, hearing Agent Randall voice it made me shudder.
“No evidence of them thus far,” Agent Quinton said. “Perhaps they were taken separately.”
My eyes gravitated toward the gravel trench, imagining the oriental run holding Cyrus’s lifeless, bloody body, dragged then heaved into the back of some windowless van. I thought of Genevieve and Priscilla: were they bound and gagged? Were they watching? Were they loaded into the van as well, forced to sit alongside their dead husband and father? The surrounding gravel glinted a rainbow of sparkles back at me but something larger caught my eye. I bent to examine it. “Agent Quinton,” I called. “I ugh … I think this is your evidence.”
Agent Randall joined me, using her pencil to lift what I had found: A baby blue and red Rainbow Loom friendship bracelet with white Perler beads. “You recognize this?” she asked.
“It was Priscilla’s,” I said. “She made one just like it for my son.”
Agent Randall nodded – noting my ashen color – and patted my shoulder.
“Ok,” Agent Quinton said. “So, it looks like our escape vehicle likely contained the entire Wimby family. The father – presumed dead – and the mother and daughter – likely kidnapping victims.”
Agent Randall turned to me: “Do you know if Mr. Wimby had security cameras?”
I nodded. “He put them in a few months ago, right after Vlad showed up the first time.” I ran down the driveway to the gate with its entry keypad and hidden camera. “It’s right… here.” I pointed to what was once a security camera and was now a scattering of broken plastic and wires on the ground.
“Any more cameras?” Agent Randall asked.
I led them to the camera in Cyrus’s office; it too was in pieces.
“I assume he kept his computer here, right?” Agent Randall said, pointing to the empty desk.
I nodded, yes.
“We’ll get the techies involved and see if we can track down any online footage,” Agent Randall said before heading back downstairs.
I stayed behind. The last time I had been in this office was the day I discovered the RemoteToken fobs. Had they been returned to their original resting place when Cyrus returned from Fiji? Against any reasonable logic, I wanted to believe that the scene one floor below was a random act of horrific violence, unrelated to my divulgences to fake FBI agent, Daniel Andrews. I slid my latex-covered pinky under the drawer handle, praying it would be locked, its RemoteTokens safely inside. For an instant, I felt the drawer resist, sending my selfish hopes soaring. Then the resistance gave way and the door glided open revealing its vast emptiness. The fobs were gone.
I exited Cyrus’s office just as two other officers exited the Wimbys’ master bedroom. For whatever reason – perhaps the latex gloves – they breezed by me without acknowledgment. In their wake, I could smell Genevieve’s star jasmine perfume, a scent cloud stirred by the passage of bodies. Across the stairway landing lay Priscilla’s room, an explosion of pink paint and a large, framed photo of her horse, Rosaland.
A fresh burst of nausea blossomed in my stomach. Maybe Cyrus had earned some degree of retribution through his treachery, but not this. And maybe Genevieve had turned a blind eye when she should not have, but I did not see her as complicit. But Priscilla? She deserved none of this. And who did the Wimbys have to thank for the turning tide that brought this fresh hell to their doorstep? It was hard for me to feel anything other than directly responsible.
I made my way back down the wide stairs on gimpy knees. Not thirty minutes earlier, I was gut punched at the thought that my tipping off the fake FBI agent had led to yet another theft. If only it had just been money. Now, standing in the home of my former boss, it was impossible not to see a direct line between my mistake, the torture and death of Cyrus Wimby, and abduction of his wife and child. Even when I tried to do the right thing, I screwed it up.
Agents Quinton and Randall called me into an initial Q&A with the Santa Barbara County Sherriff’s office. The Sheriffs were stumped. They suspected robbery but found no evidence of missing property.
“The cars, the jewelry, the artwork; it’s all here. I found five hundred dollars at the top of a sock drawer,” one of the Sherriff’s deputies quipped. “If this is a robbery, it’s the sloppiest robbery I’ve ever seen.”
“It is a robbery,” Agent Quinton said, “but not the kind you were expecting.”
“Mr. Crawford?” Agent Randall said, “can you fill these guys in on the one-hundred-seventeen million reasons why someone would want to torture and kill Cyrus Wimby?”
So, for the second time that day I presented the abridged story of Cyrus Wimby’s con operation to a panel of law enforcement officials.
“Why did they need to kill him?” One of the officers asked, looking pained. There were not many murders in Santa Barbara County and certainly not gruesome scenes like this one.
“Well, um …,” I cleared my throat, “they needed Cyrus’s cooperation to get the money out of the Zurich account.” Yes, I said cooperation. I cannot recall a less accurate euphemism.
“Given what we know, it is also likely that there was some double-crossing and misleading between Mr. Wimby and his assailants,” Agent Randall added. “These people do not let that sort of behavior slide.”
When I finished, the officer from the Sherriff’s department who had greeted our crew at the front door and challenged our right to be on premises turned to Agent Quinton and said, “We look forward to handing this case over to the Feds as soon as you guys are ready.”
I passed around my contact information to the Sherriff’s crew in case they had follow up questions, and the FBI Agents agreed to take me home.
Agent Quinton sat with me in the back seat; him on the phone and me in silence. When we pulled up in front of my house, he put away his phone and turned to me. “Tomorrow morning, my best forensic accountant will be here from D.C.,” he said. “We are going to take that report of yours apart, paragraph by paragraph, and begin the hunt.”
This was my moment to exit the Suburban, but instead I sat, burying my head in my hands. I wanted to get as far away from this day as possible, yet I did not want to enter my house and face my family.
“Hey,” Agent Randall said from the front seat. “That was messed up back there, but it was not your fault.”
I lifted my head and nodded reluctantly.
“Agent Randall is correct,” Agent Quinton said. “It is foolish to blame the spark for the explosion.”
I nodded again. “Thank you,” I whispered.
“Bright and early tomorrow, Mr. Crawford,” Agent Randall said, just before I shut the Suburban’s door. “Try to get some sleep.”