“Ah, I see the issue now. I neglected to fill in the details.” Pip motions for Hank to hang on to the eerie deck rather than hand them back. “What I ask you to do is to shuffle these special cards, again and again, until you have exhausted all possible arrangements. For example, one arrangement would be new-deck order, such as how they lie right now.”
“Wrong, dummy. You just saw me shuffle … um, twice …“ Hank says, but loses the thread as he spreads the cards in his hands and sees that his shuffles either never happened or he accidentally shuffled them right back into twos through aces for each suit. “Heh, would you look at that.”
“Well done, indeed, Mister Hart. My task for you is merely that you keep shuffling until you have gone through every last order possible. For example, all aces, then all twos, then all threes, and so on through each suit would be one arrangement; seven of hearts, three of clubs, seven of diamonds, three of spades, et cetera, et cetera is another. You see?”
“That’s it? That’s all I got to do to walk?”
“Correct, my good man. Now, you understand it could take quite a while.”
Hank considers. “Huh. Yeah. Could be a year, maybe more.”
“It very well could, Mister Hart. Obviously, that is something that should be included in your deliberation, but remember that no time will pass in the outside world whilst you shuffle and shuffle. You will remain in a kind of ‘twilight zone’, to coin a phrase, never suffering from hunger, fatigue, or pain. In fact, I would dare to venture that your conditions will be much more comfortable than this chilly cell, not to mention the pull of a rope about your neck.”
How long could this take? Hank asked himself, but couldn’t even approach an answer. But what did it matter? Yeah, shuffling and shuffling would be pretty boring after a while, but he could always take breaks, and what’s a year in no-time land compared to who-the-hell-knows-what awaits him on the other side, if anything does?
Pip chuckles and says in his nancy-boy accent, “I’m not an angel and I’m not a devil, Mister Hart, but it should be quite obvious that I have powerful and magical abilities.”
“Yeah, I did kinda notice that, now you mention it.”
“Very good. To make your task a bit less onerous, I shall endow you with the ability to shuffle this deck of cards once every second, second after second, for as long as you need. You will never need to sleep or eat, and in all honesty wouldn’t be able to anyway, as this will be your sole occupation until you see it through. And you needn’t worry about keeping track of how many arrangements remain; I shall inform you whenever you request a count.”His genial face turned serious “Before you agree, take note that our agreement shall bind the both of us to our ends of the deal, no matter what. It is entirely unbreakable.”
Jesus, an entire year—hell, or more—doing nothing but shuffling these spooky cards. Hank shivers at the tedium ahead, but reminds himself that boredom beats the noose by a long shot. “All right, Fatty. Let’s do it. I love cards like a brother, anyway.”
“More than you love a brother, as I understand it,” Pip says, not with his usual plastered smile but now with … a sneer? “In any case, fratricide doesn’t disqualify you from entering into this agreement. With your assent, we are now both thus bound.”
Hank feels ice travel through his veins and heart, but it’s too late now to follow his instincts to just hang instead of whatever it is he’s just gotten himself into.
“Now get to work,” the apparition snarls with a cold grin as the whole room—the whole world, so far as Hank can tell—falls away into a white void, the only thing in it now being himself, a table, a chair, and those cards, which his hands start shuffling without him even commanding them to begin. His hands shuffle again and again and again, one beat every second. Again and again.
His hands do the work, but Hank must pay attention to what they’re doing. When he tries not to, his gaze is pulled back and his focus forced onto the already stupefying task.
Pip is gone, as well. It’s just Hank and the cards now, the sound of zip zip zip over and over and over. It is going to be a very, very long year, or even more if that’s what it is going to take. Truth be told, he really has never thought about how many different arrangements fifty-two cards can take. I mean, who ever gave a rat’s ass about something like that? But now, as he does consider it, he sees there must be more than a million.
That’s a lot of seconds.
But that’s fine by him. His icy instinct aside, doing this has got to be better than the gallows, better than death.
At least, less than a hundred shuffles into the job, he sure as hell hopes so.
PART 3 COMING NEXT WEEK