Travis had seen jackpots come and go. But this time was different. This was the big one. Some strange force had allowed the biggest jackpot he'd ever seen for a quarter machine. He was going to win it this time. He was certain. He purred the words softly to himself, stubbed out his cigarette, and laid his head on the seat.
"One million, six hundred, three thousand . . . ."
Someone rapping on the window with a silver dollar startled Travis awake. He pulled himself onto one elbow and peered through the glass at a short white-haired man.
Travis threw his chin in the air and shouted, "I have no nickels for you, old man! Move along."
He stretched back down on the rear seat, hoping to dream of certified checks, and 7's, but the tapping continued. The short man wouldn't leave. He kept tapping. He just kept tap-tapping that silver dollar on the window.
Travis couldn't stand it. He braced himself up again and yelled through the glass, "What do you want, you pathetic old man?"
The man stared. Said nothing. His face was ancient and strained, with deep ravines and pitiable brown spots like the miles and miles of scrubland that connected Vegas to Fort Worth. Narrowed fingers, nervously quavering, held up the coin as if it were his last. He took in a long, slow, labored breath and straining, said, "You know how to win." And with that, he tucked the dollar in his pocket and slowly retreated across the parking lot of the Flamingo.
Later, on the long drive back to Fort Worth, Travis told Bee the story of the old man. A strange, weathered fellow he called him. He repeated the man's words and how he wasn't even sure if he'd been awake or asleep at the time.
"Well, you should have been with me, buddy-boy." Bryll lifted his hand to expose a bulging front pocket. He hooked his thumb on the steering wheel for only a moment, waited for Travis to notice, then quickly covered the bulge again. He smiled.
"I should have been with you?" Travis rubbed his stubbled jaw.
"I took this place! I damn near own it."
"You're ahead?" Travis nodded slowly. "Huh." He looked away, through the window, at the brown world smearing past him.
"Hundred forty three dollars, that's how much it comes to."
Travis thought of the man. "That's great," he said, and nothing more.
The Bee and the Toll Collector had met when they started working at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing the same exact day back in 1991. Travis was trained as a currency examiner, spending his days sitting in his tiny booth, flipping through an endless stream of bills for the one or two slopped with ink.
Bryll wrestled pallets, stacked high with Franklins, Jacksons or Washingtons.
Almost every night, they went out for a beer after work and quietly planned how they could walk off with just one sheet of Franklins, thirty two hundred bucks. To Travis it was just fun, nothing to be taken seriously. He wasn't about to get excited over a lousy thirty two Franklins.
However, to Bryll, the talk became more and more serious. Somehow, he would swipe just one sheet from the middle of a pallet-load and then somehow figure a way to get it out of the building. Somehow, he would get past the constant eye of the hundreds of micro-cameras. And somehow, he would get past the guards and the daily searches.
Lots of people had tried it. Some would discretely swallow a few defective bills headed for the shredder. Or painfully hide a few Jacksons in the most obvious of body cavities. A few stuffed bills into the trash, hoping to retrieve them later.
But by far, Travis's favorite episode was the guy, since nicknamed Stampede, who tried to heist six sheets of Franklins. Under the notice of a half-dozen guards, he grabbed the pages from the top of a stack, rolled them under his arm, widened his eyes, and took off like a running back for the Cowboys. "Get the hell out of my way!" he shouted as he lumbered toward the exit and into the arms of security.
Money or lack thereof, does strange things to people, Travis thought. Especially when you're hip-deep in somebody else's roll, all day, everyday.
Bryll eventually tried it. He had convinced himself that Uncle Sam had less regard, or maybe even a bit of contempt, for the Washingtons. After all, most of the warehouse was cluttered with pallet after pallet of singles and just keeping up with the demand caused the addition of the third shift.
Bryll got caught. Only the Bee had tried to pocket thirty two bucks, a lousy single sheet of Washingtons and wound up losing his job over it. Travis laughed as the security men escorted Bryll off the premises and took away his employee badge.
They didn't prosecute. The U.S. Treasury was never in the business of calling attention to itself. But the Bee found himself jumping from odd job to odd job after that incident. He was never quite the same again, but he never missed a trip to Vegas, and that was all that Travis cared about.
The next weekend, Travis and Bryll found themselves back in Vegas in the company of a Quad-7. Travis's wife, Sheila, had pleaded as usual for him not to go, but he was determined to find a way out for her and the kids. Living in a squatty three-bedroom house on the outskirts of Fort Worth was no kind of life. They had to pinch every penny just to send the kids to a decent school. Travis brought bagged lunches to work and carried a warm can of cola rather than pay the quarters to get a cold one from the machine.
Travis, the Toll Collector, knew the Quad-7 would change everything. One jackpot and everything would be all right, and that's why he spent his weekends in Vegas.