Montecito — Chapter 55 – 58: Until We Meet Again

By Michael Cox   |   February 7, 2023

This marks the final installment of Montecito by Michael Cox. Please see a message from the author following the final chapter. Chapters 51 – 54 are available here. – MJ Staff

Chapter 55

As with her first visit, Agent Randall showed up at my front door unannounced. She was alone this time, dressed in jeans and a hoodie, and driving her own bright red Mini Cooper, not the Bureau’s black Chevy Suburban. I froze, instinctively afraid I had done something wrong.

“At ease, Mr. Crawford,” Agent Randall said. “It’s a Saturday; I’m in jeans. How many more disarming signals can I send?”

“Call me Hollis,” I said, breaking into a smile.

Cricket came to the front door to greet our visitor and invited her inside. Isabel said a sheepish hello; Trip asked her to scribble an FBI badge on his cast.

“Do you have a few minutes to talk?” Agent Randall asked.

“Sure,” I said, recognizing that this would not be a family conversation. “Would you like to go to my office?”

“God no,” she said, shaking her head at the thought of my grungy gar-office. “I’m hungry, and I’m buying. Just tell me where we should go.”

Cricket gave wide-eyed Agent Randall a goodbye hug and the two of us climbed into her Mini. I directed her to Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone and my favorite food in town: Mony’s Tacos.

“You’re telling me that the best Mexican food in Santa Barbara is next to a strip club?” Agent Randall asked, perplexed by Mony’s proximity to Santa Barbara’s Spearmint Rhino Gentlemen’s Club. 

“Just wait,” I said.

We ordered at the counter, took our complimentary, fresh-from-the-fryer tortilla chips, and ventured to the eclectic buffet of salsas where Agent Randall got her first hint that Mony’s was not your average taqueria.

“Pistachio salsa?” she said.

“Just wait,” I repeated.

After a short wait on the sidewalk, we pounced on one of the rare open tables and set upon the chips like a couple of vultures.

“Officially,” Agent Randall said, licking her fingers, “I am not here.”


“We haven’t spoken,” she continued. “You haven’t seen me.”

“Ok,” I repeated. “It’s nice not to see or speak to you.”

“With that out of the way,” she said, sliding a grainy eight-by-ten photo across the table, “Do you recognize that man?”

I put my hand to my mouth in the manner of a genteel woman about to say oh dear! Of course, I recognized that man. Tall, muscular, aviator sunglasses, dapper navy suit; I saw that man every time my doorbell rang. “That’s Agent Daniel Andrews!”

“I think we’ve established that this man is not an FBI agent,” Agent Randall said.

“Sorry,” I said. “Where was this photo taken?”

“Security camera, Bank Sepah, Paris,” she said. “Your Daniel Andrews is the man who liquidated Cyrus Wimby’s bank account.”

I shook my head in disbelief. “Well who is he … really?”

“His name isn’t important,” she said, waving away my question. “He’s a gun for hire. This is the first time he’s associated with Vladimir Petronovski, so we’re backfilling to see what else we might have missed. Regardless, it’s an important lead.”

Our burritos arrived on cue. Agent Randall had followed my lead and ordered adobada with rice, beans, onions, cilantro, and a sprinkle of cheese wrapped in a large flour tortilla and then grilled. She availed herself of a fork and knife for the first bite. “Holy strip club!” she said.

“I know.”

She put the knife and fork down and picked up the burrito with her hands. “The whole time we were hanging out in your spider cave, we could have been eating this?”

“Sorry,” I said with a smile.

“You should be,” she mumbled with a full mouth.

“Can I ask you a question?” I said between bites.

“Shoot,” she said, a speck of rice flying onto the table. “Excuse me.”

I set my burrito down and folded my hands. This question had been bugging me ever since my final visit to Riven Rock and had only grown larger as time passed. “Why did the killers take Cyrus’s body? Why not just leave it?”

Agent Randall continued to chew then took a sip of Diet Coke to wash down the remnants. “It’s a good question,” she began. “This was clearly an execution with a purpose, right?”

I nodded. 

“So, the killers wanted to send a message. Sometimes that message is best sent by mutilating the body and putting it on display as a warning to others …”

I recoiled.

“… Other times, that warning is unnecessary. Everyone who needs to know, knows. If that is the case, then it is in the killers’ best interest to dispose of the body. After all, even the pros make mistakes.”

“What kind of mistakes?” I asked. 

“There could be skin cells, hair, blood, or fingerprints,” she said. “There is situational evidence: did the killer use a knife or a gun? Given the angle of penetration, was the killer left- or right-handed? If we were to recover a weapon, can we trace it? Also, by taking the body, the killers have even deprived us of a positive identification of the victim. As you saw, we have plenty of blood, but Cyrus Wimby was not a known criminal; we do not have his DNA on file to match with the crime scene samples.”

“So, you can’t even be certain that was Cyrus’s blood?” I asked. 

“Certain?” She shook her head. “No.”

At the look of confusion on my face, she added, “but we’ve seen no evidence to suggest that it was anyone else’s blood. So, for now, we go with what we’ve got.”

In the moment, none of this felt real. I was on the set of a movie, asking about a fictional murder. “Do you usually have a body at the scene?”

She nodded, yes. “Even the pros rarely have the time or luxury of removing the body,” she said. “This rich-assed town of yours – with the monstrous hedges and security gates – might be the best place to commit murder I’ve ever seen. If it were not for the nosey neighbor who called the cops because the Wimbys’ gate was suspiciously open, we might not have discovered the scene for days.”

“So…,” I grimaced at the thought of my next question. “What do you think they did with Cyrus’s body?”

Agent Randall took a big bite of her adobada and began talking with her mouth full. “If there were a murderer’s handbook, it would be best practice to remove the body and then dissolve it in lye heated to three-hundred degrees…,” she paused to take a slurping sip from her Diet Coke, “… that would really be the perfect way to get rid of the body.”

I was sorry I asked. I am not sure why a description of what the killers might have done to the already dead body of Cyrus Wimby bothered me so much, but it haunted my daydreams for weeks to come. More amazing in the moment, Agent Randall kept right on eating.

With three-quarters of her burrito inhaled, she set it down and caught her breath. “Well,” she said, “since I am not here and not speaking with you, how about a few more updates?”

“I was hoping something like that might be on your agenda,” I said.

“Where to begin…,” she said, scratching her chin. “First off, your pals Larry, Curley, and Moe?”

She was referring to Umed, Kai, Noah, and Reuben, I knew. “Yes,” I said. “Are they ok?”

“Who knows?” she said. “The four people you identified by those names and biographies do not exist.”

At this point, I should not have been surprised if Agent Randall sprouted a second head, but I could not help myself from uttering a ridiculous, “That’s impossible.”

Agent Randall rolled her eyes. “Their true identities and loyalties continue to elude us. It’s one of the many TBDs of this case.”

I shook my head. Being reminded of my gullibility stung. How much suffering could have been avoided had I only been less desperate to have a job? “I’m… I’m sorry,” I said.

“Cut out the self-flagellation, Hollis,” Agent Randall said. “You ran with the big boys. There is no shame in getting fooled once. It’s the possibility of getting fooled a second time that has me worried, and that is the reason why I’m breaking protocol to not eat the most fabulous burrito in the world with you.”

My eyes opened wide. The second time? 

She nodded at my unspoken concern. “Despite my early optimism, we have not made the progress I had hoped for. These guys are good. They have not yet stumbled.”

My heart rate was soaring. What began as a friendly reunion now felt ominous. “Am I – is my family – in danger?”

Agent Randall shook her head. “I have to be honest with you, Hollis. You should be dead already.”

I was no doctor, but I suspected Agent Randall might be right there in the fog with me. Either that or this was a cruel joke. I dropped my chin and cocked an eye begging for clarity.

“The unturned stones of Vladimir Petronovski and Cyrus Wimby’s networks do not reveal many living associates,” Agent Randall said. “Including many of those who were once willing parts of the
inner circle.”

I swallowed and placed my remaining burrito back on its plate.

“Look,” she said. “They appear to be long gone at this point. This is a small town and folks like Petronovski do not wander around unnoticed. There is every reason to believe that you will never hear from them again.”

My heart rate slowed from chased-by-a-tiger to running-the-forty-yard-dash.

“But do pay attention,” she continued. “Keep your eyes and ears open. If you notice anything remotely suspicious, let us know.” She fished a card from her jeans pocket and slid it across the table. “That’s my cell. Day or night; 24/7.”

I shook my head nervously. “Do we need surveillance? The witness protection program? Should we move or–”

She raised a hand. “Calm down, Hollis. There has been no threat. In the eyes of the FBI, you are not in danger. I am only relaying this message because you are a smart guy who might notice something that the rest of the world misses. I am just asking you to keep that radar tuned and sharp. While I think it is shocking that you are still alive, I also think it is highly unlikely that the bad guys will bother reaching out to you again. You are yesterday’s news; they don’t need you anymore.”

The fact that the bad guys did not need me anymore was little solace from the perspective of me wanting to live a long, torture-free life.

Agent Randall finished her burrito and the remaining chips, running a finger around the pistachio salsa container to siphon out the final drips. I folded my napkin and placed it on the table; I had not eaten a bite since Agent Randall told me to watch out. 

“You going to finish that?” she asked.

I shook my head.

“Let me get a to-go box,” she said. “I’ll lop off the end and share it with Agent Quinton. He’s a taco man, but I think this might swing his vote.”

I could not help but smile. 

Chapter 56

In time, my mind no longer fixated on Cyrus, the blood, Cyrus’s disembodied finger, or the fact that everyone involved with his murder was still roaming free. Instead, when my thoughts wandered back to Riven Rock, I only thought of Genevieve and Priscilla. Were they being treated well? Were they still alive?

I also no longer thought of myself as the cause of the fall of the house of Wimby. Cyrus had brought that on his family. But I wished I could have found a bloodless way to stop him. I did wonder at the eerie timing that brought fake FBI Agent Daniel Andrews and friends to my doorstep at precisely the moment when I was most vulnerable to being fooled. How many pieces had to fall in place for those events to occur in such a narrow, precise window? The odds were staggering, yet it happened.

Most days, I could shelve these thoughts, returning my mental energies to productive endeavors. With Fogbank Consulting now a legitimate business – thanks to Paul – I was busy doing work I loved and collecting actual cash compensation: two revolutionary changes in my life. 

One of my most pleasant discoveries was that being an independent contractor instead of an employee was like running a marathon at sixty percent of my actual weight. Without the tedious team meetings, lunches with colleagues, coffee breaks, and annoying office mates – see previous discussion of my residence in the fog – my efficiency was off the charts. I was getting paid more and working less. I was happier. This efficiency opened the door for Fogbank Consulting to add new clients. Why not shoot for the moon, I thought as I targeted Agent Willows and the FBI. True to his word, Agent Willows and I had a meeting scheduled for just after the New Year.

As the calendar rolled to November, Trip was ready to return to Montecito Union School. On his first day back – in what was now our family tradition – we traversed the short distance to MUS on foot, with me pushing the wheelchair. As Isabel, Cricket, Trip, and I scooted up San Ysidro toward the campus, other parents honked in approval.

When we reached campus, I turned to wheel Trip toward his classroom as always, but Cricket pulled my sleeve, directing us toward the school’s central courtyard. I froze. The courtyard was home of the Flag Day ceremony where I first met Cyrus and Genevieve. I did not want to go back there. I pulled; Cricket pulled harder. I reluctantly gave in.

As we spilled from the breezeway into the courtyard, we were met with a sudden chorus of cheers. Welcome back Trip! signs hung from the exterior of the school’s auditorium. A three-deep throng of parents cheered and hooted. Students, led by the Principal and Superintendent, leapt to their feet for a foot-stomping rendition of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”. 

Wait a second, I thought naively. I knew that Trip loved that song, but how did they know? Apparently, while I had been busy feeling sorry for myself and judging everyone else, Trip had been making friends.

Isabel took over as Trip’s chauffeur and wheeled him into the mass of clapping, stomping students; soon, he was mobbed. 

I am not sure when I began to cry, but by the time I realized that Cricket was squeezing me breathless, I could feel the droplets slaloming down my cheeks to splash on her shoulder. Trip was not the only one to receive a hero’s welcome that day. While students surrounded his wheelchair, parents surrounded Cricket and me, joining in our hug. 

The great irony was that I had always believed it was an accomplishment that would give me the necessary sense of worthiness to feel at home in Montecito. How could I have been more wrong? I had accomplished nothing; I had been a party to more destruction than creation and some of the people in this crowd were themselves victims of that destruction. Yet, on that day – surrounded by those who barely knew me and could care less about my professional qualifications or net worth – I finally felt the connection. It had been there all along.

Chapter 57

In winter, those who inhabit gar-offices earn their stripes. Of course, there are plush garage offices in Montecito; those with track lighting, automatic doors, and insulation. But they do not really count. Those deluxe imposters are to gar-offices as glamping is to camping.

That year, Montecito’s winter came early and lingered long. Yes, I recognize that forty-five degrees is hardly winter by most of America’s standards, but when you are working in an uninsulated shed that retains only the air temperature you are trying to avoid – heat in the summer and cold in the winter – forty-five degrees makes for very uncomfortable typing. 

Cricket bought me some fingerless gloves and I dug through the attic to find an old wool hat, a scarf, and a space heater. My computer was particularly upset by the frosty conditions, often stalling inexplicably and whining at high volume. Nevertheless, I pressed onward, boosting my internal temperature with coffee, tea, and hot water with lemon, until my bladder burst and/or the air warmed sufficiently to strip off the layers.

As Christmas approached, my first project for CryptoWallet was nearly complete. Working with Clyde through Paul was an absolute joy, and the work showed it. Already the scope of my assignment was expanding. If only we had learned of this professional arrangement sooner. Then again, I am not so sure that the old me would have appreciated what the new me knows. Perhaps this painful, devastating journey was a required prerequisite.

The first semester at Montecito Union Elementary would be over in a few days. After the holiday break, Isabel would begin her final semester of elementary school. After that, junior high, marriage, motherhood, and retirement; God I was getting old.

Trip continued to recover swiftly. He graduated to a walker ahead of schedule, and in the spring, he would have plastic surgery on his partially missing ear. In the meantime, he had begun wearing the costume ears of Spock. Where I would have grown my hair longer and hidden the injury, he chose to magnify it, purposely diffusing any silly second-grade meanness. His proud ownership of this setback was yet another example of Cricket’s resilience in his DNA. 

Holiday cards were rolling in daily, and thanks to Cricket, we had hundreds to look forward to. Our family card had been mailed out just after Thanksgiving. I had proposed a photo taken on the day of Cricket’s pier-to-pier triumph, but Trip wanted the cover shot to record this as the year of his shattered leg. At his request, we staged a hospital room and dressed as doctors and nurses; we made light just as everyone seemed to desire.

Between Christmas and New Year’s, we would have our annual Holiday Card Oscars dinner party with Paul and Jenny’s family. This family tradition predated our children, but now they were active participants. Of course, there was an Oscar for best card, but there were also ones for best photo and best inscription. Conversely, there were awards for worst card, worst photo, and worst inscription, the latter usually being awarded to a braggadocious, multiple-page letter written in third person. Even from the vantage of the fog, I knew better.

On this particular day, I was working away in the gar-office when Cricket walked in to drop off the day’s mail delivery for my initial review. Her day at Storyteller’s was complete; soon, she would pick up the kids and be mom again. She kissed me on the cheek as I typed then dropped the mail beside my computer.

“Who do you know in Saint-Tropez?” she asked.

I waited for the punch line of the joke.

She pointed to the stack of mail and raised her eyebrows. 

“Saint-Tropez? Is that in the Caribbean?” I asked.

She laughed. “Close. It’s in France, and someone there wants to wish you holiday cheer.”

I thanked her distractedly and went back to my work, trying to solve a nettlesome coding problem that had vexed me all morning. After several failed iterations, I took a pee break that had been calling for at least an hour and turned to the mail.

The bills were all in my name, unfortunately, so mail opening was often a gloomy process of tallying the looming account credits. But on this day – December 15th – I also received my paycheck, delivered in the form of an actual paper check since I was a consultant and not an employee. I was grateful for this trivial inconvenience; at least there was something to deposit.

Last in my stack of mail was the card postmarked from Saint-Tropez, which had apparently seceded from the Caribbean and joined the European Union without my knowledge. I took a second to admire the heft and density of the card. This was heavy stock. The kind impossibly expensive wedding invitations were printed on (or so I was told). I slid my pointer finger under the lip of the envelope and ripped. Immediately, a faint aroma sent my mind reeling. I knew that scent, didn’t I? But from where and why? Then it hit me.

It was star jasmine.

My shaking hands rattled the envelope’s jagged lip. With each shake, more wafts of star jasmine emerged. Carefully, I reached into the envelope – as if I were afraid something inside might bite – and pulled out the cream-colored card. 

The cardstock was elegantly simple; no monogram or return address, just an embossed navy border. Precise script handwriting covered both sides of the card, but my eyes were magnetically drawn to the front and my name.

Dearest Hollis,

I had hoped to deliver this in person, but – well – I think you know. I am sad that our once fruitful relationship has come to such an ugly end. These things happen in my line of work, but that does not make them any less regrettable. 

On the back of this card, you will find the Key Lime Pie recipe you hounded me for so many times. Good luck. Though, I should warn you that no matter how many times you attempt to replicate my pie, you will never succeed. There is one essential ingredient in my Key Lime Pie that it seems you do not possess: loyalty.

Until we meet again…

Chapter 58

When I finished reading the note, the final tumbler of a combination lock deep in the recess of my brain spun into place. The lock’s fence fell, it clicked, and a vault door opened. Behind that door, a host of disjointed observations, ideas, memories, and clues lined up into a single, undeniable conclusion: I had severely underestimated
Genevieve Wimby.

While I am not socially aware, I have always prided myself on being self-aware. I know my faults and they are many. Acknowledging that, I will admit to a certain level of embedded male chauvinism. I hope – and I think my track record supports – that my male chauvinism is the good kind, to the extent that is not an oxymoron. I have never ever assumed a woman was inherently less talented or capable than me. Exhibit A: I married a woman who I categorically believe is superior to me in every manner that does not involve coding a computer. 

However, it is also true that I persistently allow my judgment to be clouded by the stereotype that women – by nature – are less vicious, less conniving, less manipulative, less evil, less bad than their hairy, lumpy, XY chromosome counterparts. For this broad-brushed insensitivity, I apologize. I am a pig.

I had not overlooked Genevieve’s presence at every turn in our winding journey, but I had narrowly cast her as the supporting wife, not the puppeteer. In essence, I had finished a novel without a clear understanding of whose point of view I was witness to. If I had been so unaware as to miss the true protagonist of this story, what did I really know about any of the events of the last year? 

No one is eating steak until someone slits that cow’s throat, Genevieve once told me. A wiser man, less blind to the fallibility of his biases, would have understood at that moment who was really in charge. But I missed it along with so much else.

I missed that it was Genevieve, not Cyrus, who organized the dinner parties and cultivated the invite list. She cased the networks at Lotusland, the Montecito Club, the Polo Club, the Valley Club – wherever the rich comfortably congregated – found her marks and lured them to innocent gatherings where Cyrus would work his
magical schtick. 

I missed that it was Genevieve who wrote Cyrus’s Central California Economic Summit speech and, thus, it was she who came up with the idea of the fictitious ExOh Global Relief Charities. That invention was the evil masterstroke that tipped more than twenty-million dollars into ExOh’s coffers.

I missed the implications of the frantic call from Fiji when it was Genevieve, not Cyrus, who knew which of the eight RemoteToken fobs was needed to access the bank account – the one with the yellow fingernail polish, not the one with red tape. 

And I missed the meaning of her mocking rhetorical question: you want to man the helm? As in, you want to be in charge, Cyrus? Perhaps Genevieve had decided that this flavor of confidence scam demanded a man front-and-center? Or perhaps it was simply Cyrus’s turn to be the quarterback of their evil enterprise? Either way, Genevieve was justifiably questioning Cyrus’s facility for the role he was playing. 

These were the obvious misses. In time, I was sure I would discover more clues I had blindly walked past or willfully sidestepped.

Other than knowing Genevieve was alive and that I was a duped fool, little else seemed clear. Who sent the fake FBI agents to my house? Who had all the money? Was Cyrus dead? Had Genevieve killed him? Was Vladimir Petronovski a murderer, a partner, an unwitting scapegoat, or some combination of all three?

Maybe when the shock wore off, I would better understand what it meant that Genevieve was alive and well and taunting me from six-thousand miles away. Only one thing seemed for certain: I had eaten my fill of Key Lime Pie. 

Cricket knocked on the jamb of the open gar-office door, interrupting my reverie. “Why don’t you walk with me to pick up the kids?” she asked, waving a hand in front of her nose. “I think you need some fresh air. Smells like you have a rodent for an officemate.”

I nodded, standing to stretch my back. “New candle,” I groaned. “Rose petals, cedarwood, lavender, and mouse droppings.”

She laughed as I innocently placed Genevieve’s card back in its envelope and the envelope on the top of the teetering stack of notes and materials that compiled my Wimby files. I would tell Cricket about the card, of course, but not right now.

“Shall we?” I said, offering Cricket my arm.

She took it, and together we walked from my gar-office into the crisp blue Montecito sun. Our future uncertain; our gratitude unwavering.

Until we meet again, Genevieve. Until we meet again.

This concludes Montecito! We are so happy to have shared this yet-to-be-published story with you, our readers. Please read on for a message from the author, Michael Cox:

Dear Readers,

When my friend Jen Hulford first suggested that she connect me with Gwyn Lurie to discuss the idea of serializing my novel Montecito in the Montecito Journal, I didn’t take the idea seriously. Books aren’t read that way, I internally dismissed. No one will read it. It will be embarrassing. But after collecting a few more rejections from disinterested Literary Agents – and being on the verge of giving up my dream of becoming a writer – I reconsidered. And vibrant force of positivity that she is, Jen graciously introduced me to Gwyn, confident that serializing a novel in the days of binge watching 13 episodes of a television series in one weekend was a can’t miss idea.

The first installment of Montecito hit the press in July of 2022. The initial idea formulated by Gwyn, Tim Buckley, and Zach Rosen was to print the first four chapters, one per week, and then release the rest in online-only format. I was grateful; I was giddy. My dream scenario was that the shine of the first four chapters and the uniqueness of this experiment would provide just enough momentum to keep a few dozen readers following along each week into the distant horizon. 

But something unexpected – at least by me – happened. Over the course of those first few weeks, there was an almost audible buzz. People were reading! People not related to me were saying that they liked it! 

Nimble in the face of new information, Gwyn, Tim, and Zach ditched the initial plan and kept printing chapters, not quite committing to print the whole novel but willing to keep going until the inevitable drop off reared its head. Twelve chapters? Twenty? Thirty? Readers kept reading, and thus, the Montecito Journal kept printing.

And now – ninety-three-thousand words and fifty-eight chapters later – we have reached the finale. 

It has been an absolute thrill to share Montecito with all of you. Readers who noticed the email address in my bio and wrote to let me know you were enjoying the story, brought disproportionate joy to this experience. Seriously, I wanted to leap through the world wide web and hug each of you; a show of affection that would have made Hollis distinctly uncomfortable.

I am deeply indebted to Gwyn Lurie, Tim Buckley, and Zach Rosen, who embraced the unknown and gave this experiment – and me – a chance. And of course, the airplane doesn’t even leave the hangar without Jen Hulford reading my novel, believing in it, and making the introductions that turned an idea into reality. Further down that rabbit hole, the only reason Jen Hulford read my novel in the first place was because my wife, Maggie Catbagan, was beating the bushes to convince her friends to give my work a shot. As Cricket was Hollis’s connection to the social world, Maggie is mine, and I owe her much more than a thank you.

If any of you would like to connect with me to ask questions about the story or – as likely – to correct my grammatical errors, please write: I would love to hear from you. As of now, Montecito is still searching for its knight in shining armor – aka, a Literary Agent – and ultimately a publisher. If any of you have suggestions – or have a Literary Agent friend in search of the next Big Little Lies or the first Montecito – I’m all ears! Hopefully one day, I will have good news to share with those of you who kindly asked where you could buy the book.

But if nothing else ever comes of this serialization beyond what the Montecito Journal has made possible, it will still count as one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. Thank you all for sticking with Hollis to the end; I hope the story made you laugh, shake your head, and – at least once – surprised you.  


Michael Cox


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