Montecito — Chapter 51 – 54: The Nails in ExOh’s Coffin
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 FBI hunt stalled, news breaks of the Wimbys and ExOH Holdings as Hollis plans his next moves. Chapter 49 and 50 are available online at montecitojournal.net. – MJ Staff
When there is an oh-my-God, you-won’t-believe-this story, I am not the guy folks normally think to run to for the inside scoop. And even in this bizarro moment – where I was actually the only Montecito citizen who both knew the Wimbys and had witnessed the scene on Riven Rock – it seemed that the town’s elite gossips preferred to manufacture their own stories instead of speaking to me.
The Santa Barbara Independent, Noozhawk, and local ABC affiliate KEYT reported the few details provided by the Santa Barbara County Sherriff’s department: three family members missing from a “grizzly” scene. This information void created a fascinating social science petri dish as alternate versions of the story competed for the public’s ear:
The Wimbys were abducted by the Saudi Royal family.
Cyrus murdered Genevieve over a suspected affair.
Genevieve killed Cyrus in self-defense after years of abuse.
Cyrus was bi-polar: it was a murder-suicide.
Cyrus was in financial distress: he murdered his family then killed himself.
Cyrus was in financial distress: he faked his own death.
A Chinese / Turkish / Russian assassin murdered them all.
For a family that the Montecito community seemed to love and embrace, the Wimbys certainly did not come out of these imagined stories sounding like innocent victims. I wondered what this said about the petri dish. Had there been a layer of latent suspicion from the beginning, or did people just enjoy sordid tales?
Within days, the story graduated from local news to national news, and with the increased attention, the Santa Barbara County Sherriff’s office warmed to providing more details on an unnamed source basis.
“Mysterious Cyrus Wimby Presumed Dead; Fortune Missing,” read the headline in the Los Angeles Times.
“ExOh Holdings’ Founder Murdered,” read the Wall Street Journal. Within the article, the Journal softened their stance on the declaration of murder but still managed to quote a loose-lipped Sherriff’s deputy who said, “Given the volume of blood found on the scene, it is safe to say that Cyrus Wimby was tortured to death.”
And the cherry on top was a multi-page article in the Sunday Edition of the New York Times titled: “The Curious Case of Cyrus Wimby: Fraudster and Victim.”
While the Sherriff’s office and FBI had yet to discover a body, common wisdom held that Cyrus Wimby was indeed dead. Genevieve and Priscilla were officially declared kidnapping victims, but with each passing day, hope that they were alive dwindled. The staff of Montecito Union Elementary made the on-campus counselor available for students who knew Priscilla and were struggling with processing her disappearance. On the subsequent Friday Flag Day, the school had a special “memory moment” to honor Priscilla. Trip did not want to attend, but Isabel told us that it was beautiful.
Shocking as it was, this tragedy had a time limit on the psyche of Montecito. With the national news articles written and digested, and no new leads from the Sheriff’s office or the FBI, the Curious Case of Cyrus Wimby slowly faded from conversation. At least, for those with the luxury of moving on.
ExOh’s stock’s final day of trading was the day that Cyrus and family disappeared. I should have called the OTC and paused trading as soon as I discovered the scene on Riven Rock, but, in the midst of everything else, I forgot. It was far from my largest sin. Ironically, not a single share traded on that final day – the stock opened and closed at $65.05. This lack of activity only went to underscore the smoke-and-mirrors role that the entities in the Caymans and Hong Kong had played manipulating ExOh’s stock price. The rest of the investors had been passively enjoying the show from the comfort of their seats. Unfortunately, the lighthearted, rom-com movie they had been watching was about to turn apocalyptic.
As erstwhile CEO of a soon-to-be bankrupt company with no other identifiable employees, I was the only sucker who could be tasked with nailing ExOh’s coffin. I wrote the most anti-climactic, depressing press release in the history of press releases and filed the paperwork to officially de-list ExOh’s stock. The stock had already dropped to a single penny, but once it was de-listed, it was no longer salable, even at that nostalgic price.
Cricket had warned her parents that their faith-based investment in me was gone. Nevertheless, I called them as well to explain. They were gracious in the face of their loss and assured me that they were okay. In the moment I wished they would get angry, asking me things like “why didn’t you tell us?” and “how could you?” But they asked no questions other than inquiring about me and my health.
The answer to their unasked question was that I could not tell them without binding them in a catch-22. If they knew of my suspicions and sold their stock, they would have been guilty of insider trading, subject to financial penalties and criminal charges. In the battle of the rock and the hard place, losing money was the far better outcome.
If I were wishing for anger, though, I would soon get all of it I could handle. The first lawsuit arrived at my front door the following morning, filed by none other than John Colton. This irony was a hoot. I drove to Miramar Bank and Trust and showed John that he had been a signatory to every Board resolution of ExOh Holdings. After screaming of hacks, scams, and forgeries – all truths, I was sure – he calmed down and informed me that he would be withdrawing his lawsuit provided that I move my personal bank account from Miramar Bank and Trust. I laughed; my current balance of $18,761 and change was happy to find a new home.
The next lawsuit came from Huff Monroe and included the investors he introduced to Cyrus. This one refused to go away quietly. The depositions were excruciating. In the absence of any evidence that I had profited from the admitted fraud, the lawyers attacked me personally.
How could you not have known about …?
Why didn’t you …?
Don’t you think …?
I felt like the sacrificial lamb before a Congressional hearing.
At some bleary-eyed point in the process, stuck in the interior conference room of a Los Angeles law firm, I returned from the restroom to overhear Huff consulting with his lead attorney.
“Huff, the FBI has already declined to press criminal charges. We can beat this idiot up all day long, but it’s pretty clear he didn’t orchestrate this fraud,” Mr. lead attorney said.
“Can we sue him for being an idiot then?” Huff asked.
“Unfortunately, no,” Mr. lead attorney answered. “If stupidity was grounds for financial penalty, the poverty rate would be through the roof.”
Truer words have never been spoken.
The lawsuits were over but there were still indignities to be suffered. ExOh’s rubber-stamp lawyer was suspended from writing any more opinion letters for publicly traded companies for a single year. He had been paid one-hundred-thousand dollars for five minutes of work; I suspected that he greeted the suspension with a shrug and a grin.
ExOh’s CPA was exonerated by the Securities and Exchange Commission based on the affidavit that I had signed at Cyrus’s begging. He had not received nearly as much compensation as the lawyer, so this felt karmically just.
Unfortunately, based on that affidavit, and my position as both Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board, I received the brunt of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s ire. For the role I played, I received a permanent ban from serving on the Board of Directors of any publicly traded company. This ruling stung even though the practical effect on my future career path was as impactful as the National Football League permanently banning me from playing quarterback.
As to my career path, I did not upgrade to LinkedIn Premium and apply to every job in Santa Barbara County. Instead, I followed my heart and formed Fogbank Consulting. It was easy enough to pay the eight hundred dollars to the State of California and receive my brand-new taxpayer ID, but could I generate income? Could I build a business? Could I finally do right by my family?
In between my planning for Fogbank Consulting’s launch, Trip and I would study reading, writing, and vowel sounds for one hour a day. It was hard, tedious work; Trip had to force his brain to memorize things that non-dyslexic children internalized without thought. It was as if he had to dedicate part of his mental capacity to conscious inhaling and exhaling.
But with weeks of persistent practice under our belts – devoid of my foolish old mantra that we just needed to work harder – Trip made tremendous progress. It was clear he still hated the way reading aloud made him feel – occasionally getting frustrated to the point of an I am so stupid outburst – but he refused to let that feeling stop his progress.
A return to the second grade at MUS was around the corner and, with it, a less coddling audience. Again, I felt the sorrow of a parent who could not save his child from pain. For Trip to understand how far he had progressed – and return to school with the necessary confidence to fend off the devils of doubt – he needed to practice his ever-improving reading skills in front of anyone other than me. Thankfully, Cricket had just the group: the children of Storyteller’s.
As I parked in front of the modest one-story home on De La Vina where Storyteller Children’s Center was located, and Cricket dedicated her days to children in need, my nerves tingled. Kids can be cruel, I knew. Even disadvantaged ones.
I unloaded Trip’s wheelchair and helped him scoot from one seat to the next. Trip brought with him three of his favorite kids’ books – books he had only recently mastered – and a plan to entertain for a half hour. Over my shoulder was a duffle bag stuffed full of toys that Trip wanted to donate to Storyteller’s. The apple does not fall far from the tree.
We entered the home’s white picket fence, wheeled up the ramp, and found Cricket in the old home’s living room squatting beside a table of seven children and a pile of crayons. To the children of Storyteller’s, she was Ms. Cricket. She wore a once-white apron stained with colorful paint and chalk and dye and food remnants. In the deep front pockets, she was known to carry small lollipops for children having particularly tough days.
Despite the inhospitable world confronting these children, their smiles were electric. They did not behave as if the deck had been stacked against them. Instead, they seemed to understand that spending their days at Storyteller’s was a gift; a sign that perhaps good fortune had found them after all.
When I wheeled Trip into the Storyteller’s living room, his chair and half-body cast became instant attractions. The kids oohed and awed, wanting to examine the workings of the wheels and the brakes; asking if they could draw on Trip’s cast. I saw relief and camaraderie spread across Trip’s face; my nervousness melted away as well.
His first book was There is a Bird on Your Head. After a few early stumbles, he hit his stride. The kids moved from crisscross applesauce to sitting on their knees to get a better look at the pictures.
His second book was How I Became a Pirate. He read this one flawlessly, adding his pirate accents to the appropriate parts. Unbeknownst to me, he had an eyepatch in the front pocket of his shorts and read the book wearing the eyepatch; already he was showing off.
His third book – his favorite when he was a kindergartner – was The Book with No Pictures; there is magic in the words Blork, Bluurf, and Glug. Trip hammed it up like a stage actor, and the children howled.
As Trip read, my eyes were drawn to Cricket, sitting with the other Storyteller’s teachers in a row of mini school chairs. As happy as I was for Trip – and I was beaming – it was Cricket for whom my heart felt the greatest joy. This day represented a union of her worlds: home and work. A synthesis of everything she loved most. I had promised to give her this and inadvertently done my best to snatch it away. For this failure, I was most grateful.
Clyde Bostich – founder and CEO of CryptoWallet – had me wait in the company’s glass-walled corner conference room for twenty-eight minutes. The old me would have steamed at the indignity; the new me was happy to be there. This make ‘em wait so they know who’s important schtick was as old as Abraham, but it was much harder to pull off in the tech world’s standard office décor of limitless transparency. CryptoWallet’s new digs – an upgrade to commemorate the thirty-million-dollar equity raise – were an open play pit. The only walls were the clear glass ones separating the conference rooms. So, while Clyde made me wait, I watched him clear as day as he frittered away the twenty-eight minutes from his wall-less desk. He picked up his phone, typed on his computer, fiddled with a pencil, and – knowing that I was watching him – generally looked far more uncomfortable than I felt. Besides, Paul was sitting right there with me; Clyde could take all day as far as I was concerned.
When Clyde finally ventured into the conference room, he greeted me smugly. Again, I did not care.
“Sorry to hear that thing you were doing didn’t work out,” Clyde said. “Messy ending there, eh?”
“Sorry,” he said. “Poor choice of words.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
“So,” he leaned over the conference room table as if we were going to share a secret, “what happened?”
“Well…,” I began, pausing for effect, “I would love to tell you, but I am working closely with the FBI to help them wrap up the case and they’ve requested,” – air quotes – “that I not discuss the case publicly, so…,” I pantomimed locking my lips shut and throwing away the key. This had become my new approach when asked about the Wimbys and the scene on Riven Rock. The canned answer served two purposes. First, it allowed me to avoid discussing it, and I really did not want to discuss it. Second, it gave the impression that I was playing an integral part in an FBI investigation, immediately boosting my cachet. I would love to brag that the line and its logic were my inventions, but I would be lying. It was pure Cricket.
“Understood,” Clyde said. He leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs and laced fingers over one knee. “So, what can I help you with, Hollis?”
I could feel Paul nodding encouragingly as the meeting had finally reached its launching point. “Honestly, Clyde. I don’t think it’s what you can do for me, but what I can do for you.”
Clyde uncrossed his legs and rolled his eyes. “Hollis. I appreciate that—”
“Hear me out,” I interrupted. “If you’re not persuaded, I’ll promise to leave you alone.”
He cocked his head.
“What have you got to lose, Clyde?” Paul offered.
Like a Roman Emperor sparing the life of a gladiator, Clyde shrugged and gave me a thumbs up.
From that moment forward, I scared the ever-loving shit out of smug Mr. Bostich. I explained how I used a CryptoWallet account to hack into the RemoteToken server and eight bank accounts I did not own. I showed him my FBI dossier – redacted, of course – and illustrated how I could have used the portal to steal money if I had wanted to. By the time I was done, it was Clyde who looked to be suffering from gastrointestinal issues.
“How long did all that take you?” he asked.
“A week,” I said. “I was going slow to make sure you guys didn’t notice.”
He shook his head. “Can you fix these issues?”
“Yes, I can.”
“How much will it cost me?”
Per usual, I had not thoughtfully considered the business aspects of my proposal before this moment. My goal was to validate the concept of Fogbank Consulting; to prove that someone would hire me. But Clyde was now ready to discuss the dollars. “Well, I—”
“I’ve proposed a three-year consulting agreement,” Paul interrupted.
I froze. This was news to me.
“Go on,” Clyde said.
“We pay Hollis at the same rate we were paying him before he was fired, plus the 30% salary bump we all got after the capital raise,” Paul continued.
My eyes bugged. Paul was completely ad hoc, off script, and on the fly! And thank God, because I would have asked for a fraction of his suggestion and said thank you if I got it.
“He’s not an employee; he’s a contractor,” Paul added. “I’ll manage his work. It will be project-based with specific deliverables.”
“And this?” Clyde said, waving my redacted dossier like a flag. “What becomes of this?”
“He’s agreed to sign a non-disclosure agreement,” Paul said. “The only people who will ever see that document are the FBI.”
Clyde smiled: that was precisely what he wanted to hear. “Terrific—”
“But,” Paul interrupted, “to sign the NDA, Hollis demanded that the three-year consulting agreement be fully guaranteed. I explained to him that this was a big ask, but he informed me that this term was non-negotiable.”
Clyde un-smiled and drummed his fingers.
I kept my face expressionless. Paul did not need my help, and if I spoke, I was likely to ruin his fantastic improvisation routine.
“You think this is a good deal, Paul?” Clyde finally asked.
Paul nodded. “I think these holes need fixing, and, if anyone found out about this, we would get murdered.”
Again, I flinched.
“Sorry,” Paul said. “Poor choice of words.”
Clyde swiveled a full three-hundred-sixty-degree circle in his chair. “Fine,” he said, slapping the table and standing. “Paper it.”
He walked around the table to me and offered his hand. “It’s good to have you back, Hollis.”