THE NUCLEAR REACTOR NEVER WENT ONLINE.
The entire plant was beset by such incredible bad luck and untimely mishaps, it precipitated a storm of rolling heads from Michigan Power and Light, leaving a trail of blood all the way up to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Inferior bolts from questionable vendors, leaks in the coolant system, pipes that seemed to do nothing but terminate in solid concrete. No one with an ounce of sense was bringing uranium within a mile of the place.
For years, the stillborn power plant stood dormant and cold in the rural community of Hesperia.
Then, one day, the plant came to life.
The towers remained silent, but a flurry of clandestine activity gave that silence added sonority. Locals knew no power was being generated at the plant. The swarms of guards, and dark sedans that flowed in and out of the electrified gates, coupled with dismissive denial from all official sources, made the truth very clear; the Hesperia plant was now some sort of top-secret facility retrofitted by the government for a greater but undisclosed purpose.
Bobby’s Eat-N-Greet Diner, which stood at the crossroads a half mile from the plant’s outer gate, was the closest civilian establishment, and was where residents gathered over coffee to trade and distort unsubstantiated rumors. Though not a local, Elon Tessic was becoming something of a regular at the Eat-N-Greet, having popped in once a month since that
spring. It was always his first stop whenever he visited the plant. He could have arrived at the plant directly by helicopter, but Tessic much preferred the feel of the road and had instructed that his Jaguar be waiting for him at the airport. Eccentric? Maybe. Besides, it afforded him the opportunity for unauthorized side trips.
On an overcast afternoon in late September, Tessic breezed into the diner, setting off the jingle-bells above the door, alerting the owner that he had a customer. The owner, an elderly man named Bobby, was leaning over, wiping down the counter with a damp rag. When he saw Tessic, he straightened and smiled.
“I’ll be damned! Good to see you, Mr. Tessic.”
Tessic opened his overcoat, revealing a white suit hopelessly out of season for fall. But then, when you were Elon Tessic, you could wear anything you pleased. “Hello, Bobby. My travels bring me your way again.” Tessic looked around. It was three in the afternoon—an off hour. Only a couple of truckers sat in a corner, talking about wives and misery. Either they didn’t know who he was, or they didn’t care. Just as well. In these out-of-the-way places, Tessic often found himself the center of suspicious attention. It wasn’t only his clothes, but the prominent way he held himself, and his Israeli accent, so rich and exotic to the ears of the American heartland. As he had no talent for being inconspicuous, he rarely tried. Still it was nice to go unnoticed from time to time.
Bobby, however, gave Tessic his full attention, fumbling with spotted hands to get together a place setting.
“My waitress took sick this morning, so it’s just me and the cook today. I’ll have a booth ready for ya’ lickety-split.”
Tessic noted yet another colloquialism he did not know; a reminder that his command of English was still less than perfect.
“No need, Bobby,” he said. “Do you mind if I just sit at the counter?”
Bobby looked at him as if it might be a trick question. Tessic laughed and clapped him warmly on the shoulder. “It’s all right. Actually, I prefer it. I dine alone way too often.”
Bobby shrugged. “Suit yourself,” he said. Tessic slid onto a stool. The old man sounded apologetic. “I was sure you’d be used to more highfalutin black-tie kinds of establishments.”
“Highfalutin bores me. That’s why I come here.”
Tessic ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair, just a tad too long to be corporate. Like his clothes, it was genteelly defiant. He was a mote in the eye of the system, liked it that way, and as the twelfth richest man in the world, by the reckoning of Fortune magazine, he was one splinter that wouldn’t easily be removed.
“So will it be the usual, then?” Bobby asked.
Bobby went off to his pastry display case. “Lucky I even have it. If I woulda known you was comin’ I coulda baked it up fresh. As it is, I only got a couple of pieces left.” He took out a plate and a pie server, then gently lifted a piece of chess pie onto the plate. Even chilled, the thick filling oozed out over the plate, its chunky surface of nuts and chocolate slowly slipping on the rich nougat like a rock slide. Tessic dug in, took a mouthful, and savored the sweetness. Tessic considered himself a man who could appreciate the finer things in life—and knew they didn’t always come with a hefty price tag. It was this appreciation that balanced him, and kept him at ease in most any situation.
As Tessic ate, Bobby leaned in closer and whispered. “I got myself a nice piece of Tessitech stock last month.” He said it as if it were a classified secret. “Made me five hundred bucks
already. Guess I oughta thank you for helpin’ me get my granddaughter through college!”
“I didn’t know you had a granddaughter that old.”
Bobby nodded. “Got accepted to Princeton, and is hell bent on going. We’re working out some financial aid. But if Tessitech stock keeps climbing the way it’s been it might be the only financial aid she needs!”
“So much faith you have in my company!”
“Well, I figure the world’s going to hell in a handcart. Weapons technology’s got to be a growth industry.”
Tessic grinned dreamily around a mouthful of pie, then said: “I have challenged a dozen chefs to make a pie this good. None have succeeded.”
“No one will. Call it my little contribution to humanity.”
“I would very much like the recipe.”
“So would half the country.”
“If half the country comes in here, business must be good!”
Bobby sighed. “Business comes and goes. Mostly goes. I thought I’d start seeing some military men come in once they took over that plant and all. But it’s only been you. The others rarely come in or out of the plant. And when they do, they speed past this place like it don’t exist.” Bobby paused, and pretended to clean a glass, but his attention never left Tessic. “Y’ever gonna tell me what goes on in there?”
Tessic grinned. “Is that the price of your recipe?”
“I suppose we could swap national secrets, huh?”
“Secrets are secrets, eh? The government can buy my silence, but they can’t buy your recipe. I, on the other hand, would like to do just that.” He reached into the pocket of his overcoat, and produced a checkbook. Bobby waved it away.
“Hell, no! I was gonna give it to you anyway. You don’t have to pay me.”
“I insist.” Tessic scribbled in the checkbook. “You can put it toward your granddaughter’s tuition.” He folded the check and slipped it into Bobby’s apron pocket.
“Aw hell. Well, then that piece you just had is on the house.” He took a napkin, writing down the recipe from memory. “It don’t take a brain surgeon to make.” When he finished he handed it to Tessic. “You ain’t gonna sell it to Sara Lee, now, are you?”
“I give you my word.”
Tessic stood, straightening his overcoat.
“I suppose you won’t need to come here anymore, now that you got the recipe.”
“And miss your company?” Tessic pulled open the door. “Rest assured, you’ll see me again.”
Tessic left and drove off in his silver Jag. In the diner, Bobby cleaned up Tessic’s plate and then almost as an afterthought slipped the check from his pocket, suspecting that Tessic had given him a digit or two more than the recipe commanded. But the number that stared back at him was so laden with zeros it almost seemed to gain weight in his hand. It was enough to send all his grandchildren to Princeton. His wind stolen from him, he sucked a deep breath, and leaned on the counter to steady himself.
“Hey, Pops,” called one of the truckers at the far booth, “you gonna fill up this coffee or what?”
“Yeah, yeah, be right there.” He looked at Tessic’s check again, blinking as if the number might disappear. The man’s crazy! he thought. I can’t accept this.
But as he went back to pour coffee for the griping truckers, he realized yes, I most certainly can.
HALF A MILE AWAY, Tessic’s sound system blasted Vivaldi as he was waved through the guard gate of the plant. He was the
only civilian granted unrestricted access. One of the perks of having friends in high places, and a vested interest in the facility. With the gate closing behind him and the winding, forested road to the plant up ahead, Tessic changed his personal audio soundtrack to the Rolling Stones, to remind him that, at fifty-six, he wasn’t quite as old as he sometimes felt. He looked at the recipe-scribbled napkin that lay on the seat next to him and smiled. No recipe was worth what he had paid, but then, a mitzvah was not measured in dollars and cents. Besides, altruism was the best kind of business investment.
He shifted into a higher gear, singing along to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” feeling quite pleased with himself as he sped down his own particular path of enlightenment.