As the seconds and minutes and hours and days pass, zip-zip-zip-zip-zip of the tabled riffle shuffle keeps time better than any clock Hank ever saw in his life. And that was good, because there is no day or night here, no sleep or waking or chowtime or … anything, really. No sky, no earth, no sun, so moon, no stars. Just the chair that didn’t hurt his ass or feel particularly comfortable; the table of smooth and shiny wood, like something out of a fancy parlor; other than there’s just whiteness, just nothing blankness without horizon or shadow or any feature at all.
And the cards, of course. In his hands, which seem to move independently as they shuffle exactly one time every second. Zip-zip-zip-zip-zip, a riffle shuffle on the table, nothing fancy. Nothing else to see, nothing else to hear, nothing that ain’t coming from his own mind.
Well, that isn’t totally right. Since the very first shuffle just after Pip vanished into fat air, Hank has been able to see the results of each individual shuffle in complete detail and total clarity, and remembers them all. Like this one, which fell out after 93 days, on the 8,074,080th shuffle:
If there was a pattern there, Hank couldn’t see it. But something that would have made him piss himself back in the day happened just one week out of the gate, at shuffle 651,255:
Just five cards into the fifty-two was a g——— royal flush. Hank was already on to the next shuffle by the time he realized those lovely cards were in there all in a row, but it gave him one of his rare smiles–increasingly rare as time grinds on in this empty hellscape.
Then it happened eight days later. Then ten days after that. Then four days. Then eight days. Somewhere in the arrangement of the shuffle was a perfect royal flush, the same hand his brother laid onto the table just before Hank pulled his Colt and blew a hole right where the cheating bastard’s heart had been.
Only now, Hank sees that royal flushes aren’t quite the rare birds he thought when he was on Earth (or is he still on Earth now?). Rare, damn rare, but they’re gonna come up, especially if you’re playing Draw and you get more than one shot at it in a round.
Poor Will, Hank allows himself to think, and not for the first time. Hell, not for the hundredth time. There have been forty-nine royals all in a row like that, and every time, the image of Will pops into his head, the joyful surprise of drawing the best hand in the game followed by fear and then shock as his own brother leaps to his feet and draws to something else entirely and shoots.
Forty-nine royals–and, like all of the 31,202,450 hands that have come from his shuffles so far, he remembers every single one. It doesn’t seem possible that his brain, although he was always good with faces and even figuring with numbers, could possibly hold all that with perfect clarity. But it‘s all there. At shuffle 14,140,141, there was a Queen exactly every 13 cards: Spades, Diamonds, Hearts, Clubs. At 22,004,990, the Ace through Nine of Hearts showed up in a row. And so on and so on, although most of them seem like they have no pattern at all.
Christ on the Cross, it is boring. But even after all this time, he hasn’t gone insane or even lost attention on what he is doing. Zip-zip-zip-zip-zip.
After six or seven royals, Hank started playing a little game with himself, imagining that he was playing against one man, or two, or three, all the way up to eight hands at one table. Then he watched to see who would have gotten those five cards in a fair deal. Like, at shuffle 1,902,676, if he had one opponent, that son of a b—— would get one right off the top of the deck, while Hank would’ve been stuck with four to a standard flush and a lousy pair of sixes:
And at Day 221, hand 133,002,044, he himself would’ve gotten a royal in a three-handed game while one fellow landed a straight and the other got a full house that would’ve had the bastard shoving money into the pot like he was plugging a hole in the Titanic:
Yeah, he probably would’ve gotten plugged himself at … at that … hand …
Hank pauses, even as his hands keep riffling the constant zip-zip-zip-zip-zip, one per second like a pendulum that never winds down. His thought had been about his opponent pushing money into the pot like he was doing what, exactly? What the hell is a ‘Titanic’? The image in his mind was a sinking–
“Ship, correct, Mister Hart.”
“Jesus F—— Christ!” The sudden voice after a year of no sound but the cards makes Hank jump almost out of his seat, but his hands are as if glued to the deck and the table, so he doesn’t go far even as his heart seems to burst out of his chest. He realizes that it’s also the first time he’s heard his own voice in all that time. But it isn’t creaky or hoarse, as God knows it should be. Same as him not smelling bad after a year of not washing, and Hank never had much luck getting a smell out of himself in the first place.
Pip has returned, white suit, white beard, and as pale as a glass of sour milk, the only thing not white being his yellow teeth as he smiles too widely.
Resettling himself into that damnable chair, Hank fixes Pip with an annoyed glare and says, “So it’s been a year, yeah?”
“I don’t know why you seem surprised to see me,” Pip says with obvious insincerity. “You just finished shuffle number thirty-one million, five hundred and thirty-six thousand. Congratulations, Mister Hart–you’ve finished the first year of your part of our arrangement!”
“Whoa, Fatty–the first year? There’s a whole ’nother year of this bulls—?” His hands are still shuffling as he speaks, every arrangement appearing in his mind and immediately burning into his permanent memory, so there’s obviously more to go. “You said it would be a year. One year. I can’t take much more of this.”
Pip chuckles and says, “You can and you will, my friend. The contract is unbreakable.” His smile breaks a bit as he adds, “And I never said it would be one single year, Mister Hart. You said it and I chose not to contradict you.”