Chasing The Dime Excerpt

Chapter One

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 she?” 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 on the line 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 most of all 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 premiere 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 ceilings. 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 up service for him 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 80 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 then again it was an impersonal world out there.

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. Maybe she’d had a change of heart. 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 associate/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 for calling 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 all male 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 web site mentioned on 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 web site? There was a flaw in the logic flow there and maybe that was what gripped him. How did she maintain her business if the web site 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 make the 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 along side 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 only about one thing.

He went out 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 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 at the moment.

He put the dime on his thumbnail and flipped it into the air. He watched it until it disappeared 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.

“Are you calling for Lilly?” he asked.

A long moment of silence went by but Pierce knew someone was there. He could hear television sounds in the background.

“Hello? Is this call for Lilly?”

Finally a man’s voice answered.

“Yes, is she there?”

“She’s not here at the moment. Can I ask how you got this number?”

“From the site.

“What site?”

The caller hung up. Pierce held the phone to his ear for a moment and then clicked it off. He walked across the room to return the phone to its cradle when it when it rang again. Pierce hit the talk button without looking at the caller ID display.

“You’ve got the wrong number,” he said.

“Wait, Einstein, is that you?”

Pierce smiled. It wasn’t a wrong number. He recognized the voice. It belonged to Cody Zeller, one of the A list recipients of his new number. Zeller often called him Einstein, one of the college nicknames Pierce still endured. Zeller was a friend first and a business associate second. He was a computer security consultant who had designed numerous systems for Pierce over the years as his company grew and moved from larger space to larger space.

“Sorry, Code,” Pierce said. “I thought you were somebody else. This new number is getting a lot of calls for somebody else.”

“New number, new place, does this mean you’re free, white and single again?”

“I guess so.”

“Man, what happened with Nicki?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about it.”

He knew talking about it with friends would add a permanency to the end of their relationship.

“I’ll tell you what happened,” Zeller said. “Too much time in the lab and not enough between the sheets. I warned you about that, man.”

Zeller laughed. He’d always had a way and looking at a situation or set of facts and cutting away the bullshit. And his laughter told Pierce he was not overly sympathetic to his plight. Zeller was unmarried and Pierce could never remember him in a long term relationship. As far back as college he promised Pierce and their friends he would never practice monogamy in his lifetime. He also knew the woman in question. In his capacity as a security expert he also handled online back-grounding of employment applicants and investors for Pierce. In that role he worked closely at times with Nicole James, the company’s intelligence officer. Make that former intelligence officer now.

“Yeah, I know,” Pierce said, though he didn’t want to talk about this with Zeller. “I should’ve listened.”

“Well, maybe this means you’ll be able to take your spoon out of retirement and meet me out at Zuma one of these mornings.

Zeller lived in Malibu and surfed every morning. It had been nearly ten years since Pierce had been a regular on the waves with him. In fact, he had not even taken his board with him when he moved out of the house on Amalfi. It was up on the rafters in the garage.

“I don’t know, Code. I’ve still got the project, you know. I don’t think my time is going to change much just because she —”

“That’s right, she was only your fiancé, not the project.”

“I don’t mean it like that. I just don’t think I’m —“

“What about tonight? I’II come down. We hit the town like the old days. Put on your black jeans, baby.”

Zeller laughed in encouragement. Pierce didn’t. There had never been old days like that. Pierce had never been a player. He was blue jeans not black jeans. He’d rather spend the night in the lab looking into a scanning tunneling microscope than pursuing sex in a club with an engine fueled by alcohol.

“I think I’m going to pass, man. I’ve got a lot of stuff to do and I need to go back to the lab tonight.”

“Hank, man, you’ve got to give the molecules a rest. One night out. Come on, it will straighten you out, shake up your own molecules for once. You can tell me all about what happened with you and Nicki and I’II pretend to feel sorry for you. I promise.”

Zeller was the only one on the planet who called him Hank, a name Pierce hated. But Pierce was smart enough to know that telling Zeller to stop was out of the question because that would prompt his friend to use the name at all times.

“Call me next time, all right?”

Zeller reluctantly backed off and Pierce promised to keep the next weekend open for a night out. He made no promises about surfing. They hung up and Pierce put the phone in its cradle. He picked up his backpack and headed for the apartment door.

Chapter Two

Pierce used his scramble card to enter the garage attached to Amedeo Technologies and parked his 540 in his assigned space. The entrance to the building came open as he approached, the approval coming from the night man at the dais behind the double-glass doors.

“Thanks, Rudolpho,” Pierce said as he went by.

He used his electronic key to take the elevator to the third floor where the administrative offices were located. He looked up at the camera in the corner and nodded, though he doubted Rudolpho was watching him. It was all being digitized and recorded for later. If ever needed.

In the third floor hallway he worked the combo-lock on his office door and went in.

“Lights,” he said as he went behind his desk.

The overhead lights came on. He turned his computer on and put in the passwords after it booted up. He plugged in the phone line so he could quickly check his e-mail messages before going to work. It was 8 p.m. He liked working at night, having the lab to himself.

For security reasons he never left the computer on or attached to a phone line when he wasn’t working on it. For the same reason he carried no cell phone, pager or personal digital assistant. Though he had one, he rarely carried a laptop computer either. Pierce was paranoid by nature — just a gene splice away from schizophrenia according to Nicole — but also a cautious and practical researcher. He knew that every time he plugged an outside line into his computer or opened a cellular transmission it was as dangerous as sticking a needle into his arm or having sex with a stranger. You never knew what you might be bringing into the pipeline. For some people that was probably part of the thrill of sex. But it wasn’t part of the thrill of chasing the dime.

He had several messages but only three that he decided to read this night. The first was from Nicole and he opened it immediately, again with a hope in his heart that made him uncomfortable because it verged on being maudlin.

But the message was not what he was looking for. It was short, to the point and so professional it was devoid of any reference to their ill-fated romance. Just a former employee’s last sign off before moving on to bigger and better things—in career and romance.

I’m out of here. Everything’s in the files. (by the way, the Bronson deal finally hit the media — SJMN got it first. Nothing new but you might want to check it out.) Thanks for everything and good luck.

Pierce stared at the message for a long time. He noted that it had been sent at 4:55 p.m., just a few hours earlier. There was no sense in replying because her e-mail address would have been wiped from the system at 5 p.m. when she turned in her scramble card. She was gone and there seemed to be nothing so permanent as being wiped from the system.

She had called him Hewlett and he wondered about that for a long moment. In the past she had used the name as an endearment. A secret name only a lover would use. It was based on his initials — HP, as in Hewlett-Packard, the huge computer manufacturer that these days was one of the Goliaths to Pierce’s David. She always said it with a sweet smile in her voice. Only she could get away with nicknaming him with a competitor’s name. But her using it in this final message, what did it mean? Was she smiling sweetly when she wrote this? Smiling sadly? Was she faltering, changing her mind about them? Was there still a chance, a hope of redemption?

Pierce had never been able to judge the motives of Nicole James. He couldn’t now. He put his hands back on the keyboard and saved the message, moving it to a file where he kept all of her e-mails going back the entire three years of their relationship. The history of their time together — good and bad, moving from co-workers to lovers — could be read in the messages. Almost a thousand messages from her. He knew keeping them was obsessive but it was a routine for him. He also had files for e-mail storage in regard to a number of his business relationships. The file for Nicole had started out that way, but then they moved from business associates to what he thought would be partners in life.

He scrolled through the e-mail list in the Nicole James file, reading the captions in the subject lines the way a man might look through photos of an old girlfriend. He outright smiled at a few of them. Nicole was always the master of the witty or sarcastic subject line. Later, by necessity he knew, she mastered the cutting line and then the hurtful line. One line caught his eye during the scroll — Where do you live? — and he opened the message. It had been sent four months before and was as good a clue as any as to what would become of them. In his mind this message represented the start of the descent for them — the point of no return.

I was just wondering where you live because I haven’t seen you at Amalfi in four nights.

Obviously this is not working, Henry. We need to talk but you are never home to talk. Do I have to come to that lab to talk about us? That would certainly be sad.

He remembered going home to talk to her after that one and it resulting in their first break up. He spent four days in a hotel, living out of a suitcase, lobbying her by phone, e-mail and flowers before being invited to return to Amalfi Drive. A genuine effort on his part followed. He came home every night by eight for at least a week it seemed before he started to slip and his lab shifts began lasting into the small hours again.

Pierce closed the message and then the file. Someday he planned to print out the whole scroll of messages and read it like a novel. He knew it would be the very common, very unoriginal story of how a man’s obsession led him to lose the thing that was most important to him. If it were a novel he would call it Chasing the Dime.

He went back to the current e-mail list and the next message he read was from his partner Charlie Condon. It was just an end of the week reminder about the presentation scheduled for the next week, as if Pierce needed to be reminded. The subject line read RE: Proteus and was a return on a message Pierce had sent Charlie a few days before.

It’s all set with God. He’s coming in Wednesday for a ten o’clock Thursday. The harpoon is sharpened and ready. Be there or be square.

Pierce didn’t bother replying. It was a given that he would be there. A lot was riding on it. No, everything was riding on it. The God referred to in the message was Maurice Goddard. He was a New Yorker, an ET investor Charlie was hoping would be their whale. He was coming in to look at the Proteus project before making his final decision. They were giving him a first look at Proteus, hoping it would be the closer on the deal. The following Monday they would file for patent protection on Proteus and begin seeking other investors if Goddard didn’t come on board.

The last message he read was from Clyde Vernon, head of Amedeo security. Pierce figured he could guess what it said before he opened it and he wasn’t wrong.

Trying to reach you. We need to talk about Nicole James. Please call me ASAP.
Clyde Vernon

Pierce knew Vernon wanted to know how much Nicole knew and the circumstances of her abrupt departure. Vernon wanted to know what action he would need to take.

Pierce smirked at the security man’s inclusion of his full name. He then decided not to waste time on the other e-mails and turned off the computer, careful to unplug the phone line as well. He left the office and went down the hallway past the wall of fame to Nicole’s office. Her former office.

Pierce had the override combination for all doors on the third floor. He used it now to open the door and step into the office.

“Lights” he said.

But the overhead lights did not respond. The office’s audio receptor was still registered to Nicole’s voice. That would likely be changed on Monday. Pierce went to the wall switch and turned on the lights.

The top of the desk was clear. She had said she’d be gone by Friday at five and she had made good on the promise, probably sending him that e-mail as her last official act at Amedeo Technologies.

Pierce walked around and sat down in her chair. He could still pick up a scent of her perfume — a whisper of lilac. He opened the top drawer. It was empty except for a paperclip. She was gone. That was for sure. He checked the three other drawers and they were all empty except for a small box he found in the bottom drawer. He took it out and opened it. It was half full of business cards. He took one out and looked at it.

Nicole R. James
Director of Competitive Intelligence
Public Information Officer
Amedeo Technologies
Santa Monica, California

After a while he put the card back in the box and the box back in the drawer. He got up and went to the row of file cabinets against the wall opposite the desk.

She’d insisted on hard copies of all intelligence files. There were four double drawer cabinets. Pierce took out his keys and used one to unlock a drawer labeled Bronson. He opened the drawer and took out the blue file — under Nicole’s filing system the most current file on any competitor was blue. He opened the file and glanced through the printouts and a photocopy of a news clipping from the business section of the San Jose Mercury News. He’d seen everything before except for the clipping.

It was a short story about one of his chief competitors in the private arena getting an infusion of cash. It was dated two days earlier. He had heard about the deal in general already — through Nicole. Word traveled fast in the emerging technologies world. A lot faster than through the news media. But the story was a confirmation of everything he’d already heard — and then some.

By Raoul Puig
Santa Cruz-based Bronson Technologies has agreed to a partnership with Japan’s Tagawa Corporation that will provide funding for the firm’s molecular electronics project, the parties announced Wednesday.

Under terms of the agreement Tagawa will provide $12 million in research funds over the next four years. In return Tagawa will hold a twenty-percent interest in Bronson.

Elliot Bronson, president of the six-year-old company, said the money will help put his company into the lead in the vaunted race to develop the first practical molecular computer. Bronson and a host of private companies, universities and governmental agencies are engaged in a race to develop molecular-based random access memory (RAM) and link it to integrated circuitry. Though practical application of molecular computing is still seen by some as at least a decade away, it is believed by its proponents that it will revolutionize the world of electronics. It is also seen as a potential threat to the multi-billion dollar silicon-based computer industry.

The potential value and application of molecular computing is seen as limitless and therefore the race to develop it is heated. Molecular computer chips will be infinitely more powerful and smaller  than the silicon-based chips that currently support the electronics field.

“From diagnostic computers that can be dropped into the bloodstream to the creation of “smart streets” with microscopic computers contained in the asphalt, molecular computers will change this world,” Bronson said Tuesday. “And this company is going to be there to help change it.”

Among Bronson’s chief competitors in the private arena are Amedeo Technologies of Los Angeles and Midas Molecular in Raleigh, N.C. Also, Hewlett-Packard has partnered with scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles. And more than a dozen other universities and private firms are putting significant funding into research into nano-technology and molecular RAM. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is partially or wholly funding many of these programs.

A handful of companies have chosen to seek private backing instead of relying on the government or universities. Bronson explained the decision makes the company more nimble, able to move quickly with projects and experimentation without having to seek government or university approval.

“The government and these big universities are like battleships,” Bronson said. “Once they get moving in the right direction, then watch out. But it takes them a long while to make the turns and get pointed the right way. This field is too competitive and changes too rapidly for that. It’s better to be a speed boat at the moment.”

Non-reliance on government or university funding also means less sharing of the wealth as patents in the arena become more valuable in years to come.

Several significant advances in the development of molecular computing have occurred in the last five years with Amedeo Tech seemingly leading the way.

Amedeo is the oldest company in the race. Henry Pierce, 34, the chemist who founded the company a year after leaving Stanford, has registered numerous patents in the areas of molecular circuitry and the creation of molecular memory and logic gates — the basic components of computing.

Bronson said he hopes to now level the playing field with the funding from Tagawa.

“I think it will be a long and interesting race but we’re going to be there at the finish line,” he said. “With this deal I guarantee it.”

The move to a significant source of financial support — a “whale” in the parlance of the emerging technologies investment arena — is becoming favored by the smaller companies. Bronson’s move follows Midas Molecular, which secured $10 million in funding from a Canadian investor earlier this year.

“There is no two ways about it, you need the money to be competitive,” Bronson said. “The basic tools of this science are expensive. To outfit a lab costs more than a million before you even get to the research.”

Amedeo’s Pierce did not return calls but sources in the industry indicated his company is also seeking a significant investor.

“Everybody is out hunting whales,” said Daniel F. Daly, a partner in Daly & Mills, a Florida-based investment firm that has monitored the emergence of nano-technology. “Money from the  hundred thousand dollar investor gets eaten up too quickly so everybody’s into one-stop shopping — finding the one investor who will see a project all the way through.”

Pierce closed the file, the newspaper clip inside it. Little in the story was new to him but he was intrigued by the first quote from Bronson mentioning molecular diagnostics. He wondered if Bronson was towing the industry line, talking up the sexier side of the science, or did he know something about Proteus. Was he talking directly to Pierce?
Using the newspaper and his new found Japanese money to throw down the gauntlet?

If he was, then he had a shock coming soon. Pierce put the file back in its place in the drawer.

“You sold out too cheap, Elliot,” he said as he closed it.

As he left the office he turned off the light by hand.

Outside in the hallway, Pierce momentarily scanned what they called the wall of fame. Framed articles on Amedeo and Pierce and the patents and the research covered the wall for twenty feet. During business hours when employees were about in the offices he never stopped to look at these. It was only in private moments that he glimpsed the wall of fame and felt a sense of pride. It was a scoreboard of sorts. Most of the articles came from science journals and the language was impenetrable by the layman. But a few times the company and its work poked through into the general media. Pierce stopped before the piece that privately made him the most proud. It was a Fortune Magazine cover nearly five years old. It showed a photograph of him — in his ponytail days — holding a plastic model of the simple molecular circuit he had just received a patent for. The caption to the right side of his smile asked, “The Most Important Patent of the Next Millennium?”

Then in small type beneath this it added, “He thinks so. 29-year-old wunderkind Henry Pierce holds the molecular switch that could be the key to a new era in computing and electronics.”

The moment was only five years old but it filled Pierce with a sense of nostalgia as he looked at the framed magazine cover. The embarrassing label of wunderkind not withstanding, Pierce’s life changed when that magazine hit the general public. The chase started in earnest after that. The investors came to him, rather than the other way around. The competitors came. Charlie Condon came. Even Jay Leno’s people came calling about the long-haired, surfer chemist and his molecules. The best moment of all that Pierce remembered was when he wrote the check that paid off the scanning electron microscope.

The pressure came then too. The pressure to perform, to make the next stride. And then the next. Given the choice, he wouldn’t go back. Not a chance. But Pierce liked to remember the moment for all that he didn’t know then. There was nothing wrong with that.