Montecito — Chapter 49 & 50: Chasing Bytes and Bones
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 the discovery of a bloody scene at the Wimbys’, Hollis unpacks what he saw and knows with Cricket, and later the FBI. Chapter 47 and 48 are available online here. – MJ Staff
By the grace of the Almighty, Isabel and Trip were asleep when I walked in our front door. I did not have the mental strength to explain what I had witnessed to my children; I was still struggling to explain it to myself. I knew that my reprieve would be counted in mere hours but that was better than seconds.
Cricket was of course waiting for me and answering texts from roughly a thousand friends who had heard something and were concerned; Montecito is a small town after all. I kissed her, promised her that I was ok, and begged to stand in a scalding shower for ten minutes before we talked. I have never needed to scrub my skin clean quite so badly. If only I could have scrubbed my eyes too.
Pink from the shower, I climbed into bed. “What have you heard?” I asked.
“No one knows anything,” she said, “other than that something really bad must have happened.”
At first this surprised me, but on further consideration, I realized the reason for the mystery: there had been no ambulances.
“Remember the FBI agent who you joked was a Jehovah’s Witness?” I said.
“Well, he wasn’t either of those things.”
She cocked her head and squinted.
“Exactly,” I said.
From that perplexed expression, I began my story. Even the most exotic fantasies from the Montecito rumor mill had paled in comparison to the truth. Cricket’s facial expressions ranged from wide-eyed shock, to sour-lemon disgust. She knew far more truth about the Wimbys than the rest of Montecito, but even for her, the events of the day were impossible to process. The incongruity of it challenged the brain to construct alternate hypotheses, each one wilder than the next.
But maybe …
Do you think …
What if …
Unfortunately, these were impossible wishes; I had seen, and nearly stepped in, the blood of truth.
“What happens now?” she asked as midnight came and went.
“The FBI will be back here tomorrow morning to go through everything,” I said.
She shook her head, “I’m so sorry, Hollis.”
I kissed her forehead. “What in the world do you have to be sorry for?”
She laughed sweetly. “I have no idea,” she admitted, “but I certainly feel sorry.”
“You and me both,” I said.
“Hey,” she said, sitting up and pulling my chin to face her directly. “This isn’t your fault either, Hollis.”
“Ok,” I mumbled.
“What are we going to tell …,” she began, pausing for a tonsil-viewing yawn, “… the kids?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I mean, I can’t lie to them. Then again, I don’t think I need to burden them with the gruesome details. This will be hard for Trip to understand, especially considering all he’s been through and his friendship with Priscilla. But I don’t want to be one of those parents who assume their kids can’t handle the realities of the world. I’m thinking that maybe—”
Cricket’s first slight snore interrupted my stream of consciousness rambling. I nodded to myself; even this unbelievable story had a time limit. Whatever the right answer, hopefully it would occur to me in the morning.
I was unable to heed Agent Randall’s warning to get some sleep. In fact, as I laid in the dark, staring at the ceiling, it occurred to me that I might never sleep again. Suffering something between a cocaine high and a tainted trip, I tossed and turned until the first crack of sunlight freed me from the burden of further pretending.
I was in the kitchen making coffee when Isabel and Trip cornered me for an explanation of the previous day’s events.
“The police don’t really know what happened,” I began, choosing my words carefully. “It looks like Mr. Wimby was hurt.”
“Badly?” Isabel asked.
I cleared my throat. “Yes,” I said, holding fast to honesty as long as I could.
“What about Priscilla?” Trip asked.
Keep to the script, I reminded myself. “We don’t know for sure, Trip. Priscilla was not there. Her mom was not there either.” This response was technically true even if it was woefully inadequate.
“Where did they go?” Isabel asked.
“We don’t know that either,” I began before breaking my string of technical truths and embracing a lie: “I think they may have just decided to leave Montecito.” I counted this as a white lie that did more good than harm. My kids feared the prospect of kidnapping more than death, and I did not want to inspire nightmares of mothers and children being snatched from gated homes.
“Is Priscilla ok?” Trip asked, his eyes moist.
I bent over his chair and palmed the back of his head. I wanted so badly to assure him that she was fine. That Priscilla and her mom were on some great adventure, having fun, eating cotton candy, seeing the world. But I could not make the words come out. “I hope so, Trip.”
A knock at the front door signaled that my family time was over: 7:15 am; these guys were not joking about bright and early.
“Who are they?” Trip asked.
“They are the guys who will find Priscilla and her mom,” I said. “And I’m going to help them.” Trip broke into a wide smile: his dad the hero! Unfortunately, this only made me feel worse.
I greeted agents Quinton and Randall plus two fresh faces on the front porch and led them back to my gar-office. No one batted an eye at the conditions which made me far less self-conscious. Agents Quinton and Randall brought a folding table from the back of the suburban and a few extra chairs. Suit jackets came off, sleeves were rolled up, and everyone got to the grim task of chasing murderers and thieves.
The work began with a white board: who were the players? I organized them into insiders – a group that included Cyrus and the quartet of Umed, Kai, Noah, and Reuben – agents – principally ExOh’s stockbrokers, CPA, and rubber-stamp lawyers – and outsiders: the company’s investors.
“Have Larry, Curly, and Moe heard the news?” Agent Randall asked, referring to Umed, Kai, Noah, and Reuben.
“I… I don’t know,” I admitted.
“We’re not off to a good start here, Mr. Crawford,” Agent Randall said.
“How did you communicate with them?” Agent Quinton asked, trying a different approach.
“By…,” I cleared my throat, instinctively embarrassed at what I would say next. “By BatSignal.”
Agent Randall tossed her pencil in the air and dropped her head, defeated.
To prove that I was not referring to the actual-yet-fictional Batman, I whipped out my phone, opened the BatSignal app and typed out a message to the team: Have you heard the news?
BatSignal promptly informed me that the accounts of everyone except Cyrus and me had been deleted.
“Interesting,” Agent Randall said. “We’ll put a pin in that and revisit later.”
Agent Quinton shook his head. “This is all well and good, but the most important name is not on your whiteboard, Mr. Crawford. Where does VIP fit into this?”
“VIP?” I asked, the distant chime of familiarity echoing in my head.
“Vladimir Ignat Petronovski,” Agent Randall said. “The worst of your bad guys.”
“VIP,” I repeated, my eyes fixed to the floor. “There was a…,” I began, turning from the table to rifle my trusty manilla folders for the slip of paper that suddenly seemed like a smoking gun. “Back in May,” I continued, “Cyrus came up with this crazy transaction where he had ExOh purchase a fifty percent stake in his wine label. The price was one-million dollars, and I was the one who wired the money.” I found the piece of paper I was looking for and waved it like a flag. “Cyrus told me to wire the money to this bank account in Bermuda: an account for VIP Partners LLC. He said it was his personal account, but now I’m thinking… maybe not.” I handed the paper to Agent Randall. She examined it, then passed it to Agent Quinton; they shared a
“Your friend Cyrus must have been in very deep, Mr. Crawford,” Agent Randall said. “One million dollars typically buys a man a pretty long leash. But in this case, it bought Cyrus Wimby less than five months.”
I shook my head, recalling the moment when Cyrus handed me the slip of paper instructing me to wire the one million dollars. It happened on the day of our first meeting post Vlad’s ominous visit; the visit that included me riding shotgun in Vlad’s Mercedes. Cyrus had seemed so calm when discussing Vlad, dismissing my obvious skittishness like a parent who laughs away a claim of monsters under the bed. Damn, Cyrus was good, or – at least – he had been good. He had redirected my legitimate questions of him into self-reproach and personal doubt. It was textbook gaslighting, and I was Cyrus’s rube.
“Well,” Agent Quinton said, “now we’ve confirmed what we already believed.” He stood from his folding chair and began ripping chunks of pages from my heavy-duty-stapled dossier on Cyrus. “Let’s go get these guys.”
He passed the subsections of my report around the gar-office, assigning me to work principally with the forensic accountant, Agent Willows, a forty-nine-year-old former CPA who had worked with Irving Picard, recovering the money stolen in Bernie Madoff’s
“Let’s start by inventorying the known financial assets,” Agent Willows suggested. “Is there anything beyond the bank accounts?”
I nodded. “Well, their home here in Montecito is worth at least ten million. On top of that, you’ve got the furniture, artwork, and the three Porsches—”
“Hold it right there,” Agent Willows interrupted. “I’ve already been down that path. None of that is real.”
My forehead accordioned. “Well, of course it’s real. I mean—”
“Sorry,” he interrupted again. “I mean, none of those assets are real assets of Cyrus Wimby. The house was rented fully furnished. The cars are leased.”
My mouth hit the floor. Rented? Leased? Not that there was anything wrong with being a renter – I was one! – or that there was an obligation to notify your guests that they were standing on borrowed property, but this was far more sinister than a simple omission. Like everyone else who had visited the Wimby home, I had complimented the pizza oven – we modeled it on one we saw in Venice – the tapestries – found them at a fantastic bazaar in Morocco – the putting green – I had it shaped like the 14th at Pinehurst – and the pool – it was designed to match my family home on the outskirts of Riyadh. It was all lies made possible by Montecito’s tall-hedge obsession with privacy. Cyrus had approached a blank canvas and filled in his own details. “You’re kidding me,” I finally choked out.
“Cyrus Wimby’s only interest in those assets is the security deposit,” Agent Willows said, “and I think it’s safe to say he is going to forfeit that.”
“Ok, well,” I restarted. “Cyrus has a house in Fiji. I sent a package there this summer. I have the address—”
He shook his head before I finished. “That was a VRBO.”
“Uh…,” I searched my memory for more. “They moved here from Paris. Cyrus told me that they have a house in the 16th arrondissement.”
Agent Willows again shook his head, no.
I stared blankly in my own lap. Cyrus Wimby’s flaunted hard assets were all fakes. Just like his business. Just like his life.
“Let’s focus on the bank accounts then,” Agent Willows said. “Walk me through how you gained access.”
I shook my head to clear it, refocusing on the only assets that remained. As soon as I explained how I used the RemoteToken serial numbers, Agent Willows jumped through five derivatives of questions and explanations to the punchline: “Wait a minute! You hacked their server? That thing is like Fort Knox, and I know because I’ve been to Fort Knox.” For the first time in my life, I felt like a rock star; albeit a very gullible one.
Agent Willows and I started from the top of the funnel, picking apart each transaction and payee, beginning with the Miramar account controlled by me. As the money moved from the U.S. to Hong Kong, we examined each side transaction and the curiously named private corporations receiving payment. The research I had done identifying the owners of the accounts was “helpful,” Willows said – a verbal pat on the head – but he assured me that the FBI could tap resources that would peel the onion all the way back to its bulb.
With each bank – the limbs of a tree – Agent Willows unpacked the nuances for my benefit. It was like listening to the New York Philharmonic live instead of on cheap iPhone earbuds. I was getting a crash course in the art of money laundering, and finally understanding why Cyrus and friends had arranged their labyrinth this way. Agent Willows emphasized two rules in his explanation. First, a bank account with no money in it raises no suspicion. Second, banks and regulators move like sloths: if you move the money fast enough, they do not even see it.
Under that rubric, Cyrus’s setup was perfect. His seven feeder accounts almost never carried balances overnight: check. And when money moved, it sprinted: check. The Zurich account – based in secretive Switzerland where billionaires the world over stored their pocket change – was the perfect place to hide in plain sight. That is, until I found it.
After pruning all the branches of the tree, we finally reached the trunk: the Zurich account. The last time I viewed this account through my CryptoWallet, I was so stunned to see the zero balance that I had not registered where the money had gone. But now, with Agent Willows by my side, the rest of the picture became clear. On the morning that Agents Quinton and Randall appeared at my doorstep, all one-hundred-seventeen-million and change had been wired to an account at Bank Sepah.
“Bank Sepah?” I asked.
Agent Willows nodded. “Iran,” he said, then grabbed his phone to start making calls.
Iran? Before this moment, I would have failed to accurately identify Iran on a globe. Now the name was being thrown around my gar-office as casually as the agents were throwing back coffee. It is embarrassing to admit this, but I felt like I had finally been invited to have lunch at the cool kids’ table.
With Agent Willows calling in global favors, I sat down with Agent Quinton for a full debrief of my meeting with the man I now knew to be Vladimir Petronovski. I managed to keep it a secret that I almost peed myself that day, but I do not think my limited observations shed much light on the FBI’s principal target.
With the FBI’s prodding, we pored over my documents and memories for two days, teasing out the mundane and the potentially significant. My gar-office had never been more alive than in digging into the death of Cyrus Wimby.
Eventually, I had given them everything I had to offer; the remaining gaps would be filled with elbow grease and, more importantly, time. I cannot believe I am saying this, but I did not want them to leave. With the FBI camped out in my gar-office, I could pretend I too was a crimefighter and not an unemployed, ex-CEO of a bankrupt company who – according to the gossip around Montecito – may have played a part in ripping off Montecito’s finest and then murdering my co-conspirator.
Hours before the team packed up for good, Agent Willows got the call he had been waiting for regarding Bank Sepah.
“Is the money still there?” I asked when he hung up.
“Of course not,” he said. “The account was liquidated three days ago.”
“What country?” Agent Randall asked.
“Iran,” I said, in my best duh accent, trying desperately to be part of the team.
“Wrong,” Agent Willows said.
“But you said—” I argued.
“I said it was an Iranian bank but that doesn’t mean all the bank’s branches are in Iran.” He turned to Agent Randall. “Paris,” he said. “Liquidated in gold. Bank Sepah had to call in their reserves at the Banque de France.”
My heart sank. The killers were lost to the winds.
“Specie!” Agent Randall said, excited. “Now we’re cooking!”
My head swiveled back and forth between agents Randall and Willows. “What?” I asked. “Why is converting the money to gold and removing it from the bank a good thing? Haven’t we,” – yes, I said we, so shoot me – “lost the ability to track the money now? They’ve gone underground.”
“Fill your student in, Agent Willows,” Agent Randall said.
Agent Willows smiled. “You are correct, Hollis. Now that the money has been withdrawn, we cannot track it anymore. But you need to remember that electronic currency is global – simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. Knowing the name of the bank the money resides in might help you get the money, but it probably won’t help you get the bad guys.”
“And don’t be mistaken, Mr. Crawford,” Agent Randall said. “I could give two bits about the money. I want the hombres. And now that they have cashed out – in gold no less – they are anchored. Do you think they are carrying one-hundred-seventeen million in gold in their carry-on luggage?”
I shook my head, no.
“You’re a fast learner, Mr. Crawford,” Agent Randall said. “Indeed, they are not. So, the game just changed. No longer are we tracking bits and bytes; now, we are tracking skin and bones. They just left your world, and they entered mine.”
Like I said, I was at the cool kids’ table.
The FBI agents continued packing their things while I made a few thumb drives of everything for them to take on the road to their next horror show. This was not the end, of course, but this was the end of the first phase. And unfortunately, it was the end of my role. The bell had rung; lunch at the cool kids’ table was over.
I walked the group to the Suburban and said my goodbyes, thanking them for all they had taught me and the patience they had shown.
“What’s next for you, Mr. Crawford?” Agent Quinton said from the driver’s side window.
“I’m starting my own consulting shop,” I said, proud that I had a plan and was voicing it.
“Agent Willows?” Agent Randall said. “You think you could use the services of Mr. Crawford here on an ad hoc basis?”
“From time to time,” Agent Willows acknowledged.
“Sounds like we’ll be in touch,” Agent Quinton said, then pulled away.