THE SUNSHINE TAX
“Welcome to Nevada,” the convenience store manager said.
The manager’s name was Huey Dollop. He was fifty, and he had tobacco-stained teeth and a head shaped like a honeydew. His store was the first thing motorists driving from California to Las Vegas saw when they crossed the state border on 1-15. A concrete pillbox sitting off the highway with a neon Budweiser sign in the window.
The couple who came into Huey’s store looked beat. Two tired kids driving a Volvo they’d stopped making fifteen years ago. The girl had red hair, and eyes that said she’d seen a lot. The guy, maybe the same age, wore a Dodgers cap and was built like a stump. He made a bee-line for the cold beverages, leaving the girl at the counter.
“Good afternoon,” Huey said. “What can I do for you today?”
Huey said his lines with a smile on his face. It was the way he addressed every customer that came into his store. It always put them at ease.
“This is our first time visiting Las Vegas,” she said, nodding at her boyfriend in the back of the store. “Troy won a chunk of change on the lottery, and figured maybe it was time to give lady luck a spin.”
Huey nodded. He’d been running his store twenty years, and had heard a lot of stories. Most were hard luck. This one wasn’t, only the girl seemed afraid, like she sensed that they were about to get taken. A pair of virgins in Sin City.
“Ever gambled before?” Huey asked.
She nodded. Then said, “We taught ourselves on the Internet. It was fun. But …” Her voice trailed off, and she lowered her eyes and stared at the faded counter top.
Huey picked up an open can of Dr. Pepper, and took a sip. They made it with prune juice, gave it a unique flavor. He said, “But?”
“We weren’t playing with real money.” She lowered her voice. “Troy’s afraid of getting cheated in a real casino. You know, like once he starts to win.”
“Casinos don’t have to cheat,” Huey said.
“Hey, Amy, what you want to drink?”
“Yoo-Hoo,” the girl replied. To Huey she said, “What do you mean?”
“The house has an edge in every game. That’s how they pay their bills.”
“An edge? Like a percentage?”
“That’s right. Locals call it the sunshine tax.”
“But do people ever win?”
“Sure,” Huey said. “People win all the time.”
Amy leaned her thin frame against the counter. “People like Troy?”
“People just like Troy. Last week, a man came in who’d won a million dollars on a slot machine at the Bellagio, looked just like Troy.”
“The Bellagio. It’s a casino on the Strip. It’s got the fountains in the front.”
“Did he tell you which machine?”
Huey smiled, and took another sip of his soda. Troy came to the front. He placed two drinks and some food on the counter. He wore a faded tee shirt with the words I’M BLIND, I’M DEAF, I WANT TO BE A REF!
Amy said, “This man says the games aren’t rigged.”
“I told you that last night,” Troy said, taking his wallet out. Throwing a twenty down, he said, “We just need to know which casinos to play. They all don’t have the same rules. Guys at the shop told me that.”
Amy looked at Huey. “That true? Are some places better?”
Huey rang up the items. “Several casinos have liberal rules for blackjack, and looser slot machines. They’re definitely better places to gamble.”
“Which ones?” Troy asked.
Huey lifted his eyes and met the big man’s gaze. “The Riviera, the Sahara, the Stardust, and all the casinos in old downtown, like the Nugget and the Horseshoe.”
“What are loose slot machines?” the girl asked.
Huey tore the receipt from the register’s printer, and handed it to Troy along with his change. “The management sets them to pay out better. Sometimes they have signs outside that say ninety-eight percent payoff on slots. Go to those places.”
“What’s the payout like at the other casinos?” Amy said.
“About ninety-four to ninety-five percent,” Huey said.
“That much less? That’s cheating.”
Huey said, “That’s the sunshine tax.”
Troy put his change into his pocket, and handed Amy the receipt. Then he scooped his things off the counter. Huey saw the girl’s eyes wander, and said, “I’ll tell you one other little secret about the slot machines.”
She looked up at him expectantly.
“The looser machines are usually near the doors, or places where people congregate inside the casino,” Huey said. “The management does that to create excitement, and entice other people to play. Play those machines.”
“Near the doors,” the girl said.
“Thanks,” she said under her breath.
The couple started to leave. Huey said, “One more thing,” and they came back to the counter. “This is really important,” he said. “Always bet the maximum number of coins the machine will take. That’s the only way you can win the jackpot.”
Troy looked at the girl. “You remembering all this?”
Amy recited the names of the casinos, and the pearls about the slots, saying it like it was the most important thing she’d ever been told.
“Much obliged,” Troy said.
“Good luck,” Huey replied.
Through the curly-cues of the Budweiser sign, Huey watched the couple get into their old Volvo. The car started up, and went about twenty feet. Then it stopped, and the girl got out, and marched into the store.
“Forget something?” Huey asked as she approached the counter.
She was holding the receipt, and pointing at it.
“What’s this?” she asked.
Huey stared at a charge for $.75. He scratched his chin. His eyes drifted to the Three Musketeers bar on the counter, next to the cigarette lighters. Picking it up, he said, “Your boyfriend didn’t take his candy bar.”
She shook her head. “Troy don’t eat no candy.”
Huey put the candy bar on the shelf behind him. Then he hit the NO SALE button on the register. The cash drawer popped open, and he fished out three quarters, and laid them onto her palm. She left the store without saying a word.
The Volvo left a cloud of dirt in the parking lot. When it settled, another car had taken its place. Four young women piled out. In the back of the car, Huey saw pillows, and guessed the women were planning to share a room.
He took the candy bar off the shelf, and placed it back on the counter on the spot it had occupied since he’d opened his store. The women came in, and he smiled at them.
“Welcome to Nevada,” he said.
Copyright © 2005 by the International Association of Crime Writers