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Chasing the Dime


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1

The voice on the phone was a whisper. It had a forceful, almost desperate quality to it.

Henry Pierce told the caller he had the wrong number. But the voice became insistent.

"Where is Lilly?" the man asked.

"I don't know," Pierce said. "I don't know anything about her."

"This is her number. It's on the site."

"No, you have the wrong number. There is no one named Lilly here. And I don't know anything about any site. Okay?"

The caller hung up without responding. Then Pierce hung up, annoyed. He had plugged in the new phone only fifteen minutes earlier and already he had gotten two calls for someone named Lilly.

He put the phone down on the floor and looked around the almost empty apartment. All he had was the black leather couch he sat on, the six boxes of clothes in the bedroom and the new phone. And now the phone was going to be a problem.

Nicole had kept everything-the furniture, the books, the CDs and the house on Amalfi Drive. She didn't keep it, actually: he had given it all to her. The price of his guilt for letting things slip away. The new apartment was nice. It was high luxury and security, a premier address in Santa Monica. But he was going to miss the house on Amalfi. And the woman who was still living in it.

He looked down at the phone on the beige carpet, wondering if he should call Nicole and let her know he had moved from the hotel to the apartment and had the new number. But then he shook his head. He had already sent her the e-mail with all the new information.

To call her would be breaking the rules she had set and he had promised to follow on their last night together.

The phone rang. He leaned down and checked the caller ID screen this time. The call was coming from the Casa Del Mar again. It was the same guy. Pierce thought about letting it ring through to the message service that came with the new phone number, but then he picked up the phone and clicked the talk button.

"Look, man, I don't know what the problem is. You have the wrong number. There is nobody here named-"

The caller hung up without saying a word.

Pierce reached over to his backpack and pulled out the yellow pad on which his assistant had written down the voice mail instructions. Monica Purl had set up the phone service for him, as he had been too busy in the lab all week preparing for the following week's presentation. And because that was what personal assistants were for.

He tried to read the notes in the dying light of the day. The sun had just slipped beneath the Pacific and he had no lamps yet for the new apartment's living room. Most new places had sunken lights in the ceiling. Not this one. The apartments were newly renovated, with new kitchens and windows, but the building was old. And slab ceilings without internal wiring could not be renovated in a cost-effective way. Pierce didn't think about that when he rented the place. The bottom line was he needed lamps.

He quickly read through instructions on using the phone's caller ID and caller directory features. He saw that Monica had set him up with something called the convenience package-caller ID, caller directory, call waiting, call forwarding, call everything. And she noted on the page that she had already sent the new number out to his A-level e-mail list. There were almost eighty people on this list. People who he would want to be able to reach him at any time, almost all of them business associates or business associates he also considered friends.

Pierce pressed the talk button again and called the number Monica had listed for setting up and accessing his voice mail program. He then followed the instructions provided by an electronic voice for creating a pass code number. He decided on 92102-the day Nicole had told him that their three-year relationship was over.

He decided not to record a personal greeting. He would rather hide behind the disembodied electronic voice that announced the number and instructed the caller to leave a message. It was impersonal, but it was an impersonal world out there. He didn't have time to make everything personal.

When he was finished setting up the program a new electronic voice told him he had nine messages. Pierce was surprised by the number-his phone had not been put into service until that morning-but immediately hopeful that maybe one was from Nicole. Maybe several. He suddenly envisioned himself returning all the furniture Monica had ordered for him online. He saw himself carrying the cardboard boxes of his clothes back inside the house on Amalfi Drive.

But none of the messages were from Nicole. None of them were from Pierce's associates or associates/friends, either. Only one was for him-a "welcome to the system" message delivered by the now familiar electronic voice.

The next eight messages were all for Lilly, no last name mentioned. The same woman he had already fielded three calls for. All the messages were from men. Most of them gave hotel names and numbers to call back. A few gave cell numbers or what they said was a private office line. A few mentioned getting her number off the net or the site, without being more specific.

Pierce erased each message after listening to it. He then turned the page on his notebook and wrote down the name Lilly. He underlined it while he thought about things. Lilly- whoever she was-had apparently stopped using the number. It had been dropped back into circulation by the phone company and then reassigned to him. Judging by the allmale caller list, the number of calls from hotels and the tone of trepidation and anticipation in the voices he had listened to, Pierce guessed that Lilly might be a prostitute. Or an escort, if there was a difference. He felt a little trill of curiosity and intrigue go through him. Like he knew some secret he wasn't supposed to know. Like when he called up the security cameras on his screen at work and surreptitiously watched what was going on in the hallways and common areas of the office.

He wondered how long the phone number would have been out of use before it was reassigned to him. The number of calls to the line in one day indicated that the phone number was still out there-probably on the website mentioned in a few of the messages-and people still believed it was Lilly's valid number.

"Wrong number," he said out loud, though he rarely spoke to himself when he wasn't looking at a computer screen or engaged in an experiment in the lab.

He flipped the page back and looked at the information Monica had written down for him. She had included the phone company's customer service number. He could and should call to get the number changed. He also knew it would be an annoying inconvenience to have to resend and receive e-mail notifications correcting the number.

Something else made him hesitate about changing the number. He was intrigued. He admitted it to himself. Who was Lilly? Where was she? Why did she give up the telephone number but leave it on the website? There was a flaw in the logic flow there, and maybe that was what gripped him. How did she maintain her business if the website delivered the wrong number to the client base? The answer was that she didn't. She couldn't. Something was wrong and Pierce wanted to know what and why.

It was Friday evening. He decided to let things stand until Monday. He would call about changing the number then.

Pierce got up from the couch and walked through the empty living room to the master bedroom, where the six cardboard boxes of his clothing were lined against one wall and a sleeping bag was unrolled alongside another. Before moving into the apartment and needing it, he hadn't used the sleeping bag in almost three years-since a trip to Yosemite with Nicole. Back when he had time to do things, before the chase began, before his life became about only one thing.

He went onto the balcony and stared out at the cold blue ocean. He was twelve floors up.

The view stretched from Venice on the south side to the ridge of the mountains sliding into the sea off Malibu to the north. The sun was gone but there were violent slashes of orange and purple still in the sky. This high up, the sea breeze was cold and bracing. He put his hands in the pockets of his pants. The fingers of his left hand closed around a coin and he brought it out. A dime. Another reminder of what his life had become.

The neon lights on the Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier were on and flashing a repetitive pattern. It made him remember a time two years earlier when the company had rented the pier's entire amusement park for a private party celebrating the approval of the company's first batch of patents on molecular memory architecture. No tickets, no lines, no getting off a ride if you were having fun. He and Nicole had stayed in one of the open yellow gondolas of the Ferris wheel for at least a half hour. It had been cold that night, too, and they huddled against each other. They'd watched the sun go down. Now he couldn't look at the pier or even a sunset without thinking about her.

In acknowledging this about himself, he realized he had rented an apartment with views of the very things that would remind him of Nicole. There was a subliminal pathology there that he didn't want to explore.

He put the dime on his thumbnail and flipped it into the air. He watched it disappear into the darkness. There was a park below, a strip of green between the building and the beach. He had already noticed that homeless people snuck in at night and slept in sleeping bags under the trees. Maybe one of them would find the fallen dime.

The phone rang. He went back into the living room and saw the tiny LED screen glowing in the darkness. He picked up the phone and read the screen. The call was coming from the Century Plaza Hotel. He thought about it for two more rings and then answered without saying hello.

3

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