Deadwood Jail, South Dakota, 1877.
A man lies upon the wooden bench that serves as a bed, running his fingers over a face he keeps shaven even after two weeks in stir. This is the card sharp “Hard Hank“ Hart—“Triple H” to his friends.
Or would be, that is, if Hank still had any. Most of the men he once called friends had preceded him to gallows just like the one being assembled rather loudly on the other side of the cell’s barred window; and the rest, to a man, had ended up shot dead for cheating … or sure looking like they were, anyhow.
Hank would know, too, since he’s the one who pulled the trigger.
It was the fate of the most recent probably-cheating rat—two full houses in a row doesn’t inspire trust, even between brothers—that landed him in this jail, on this bench, with this neck about to carry the weight of this whole body.
At least they let him have a deck of cards, which he absent-mindedly cuts and whirls, catches with pinky and thumb breaks, and bottom-deals to himself any card he chooses, again and again and again. Since he gave up on school and headed West eleven years ago, these fifty-two friends have been the only ones he can really count on, the only ones who never betrayed him … or, goddamn, really looked like they had done. Or like they were about to, whatever. You can’t be too careful, although he does feel a bit bad about his brother. Turned out there was just one ace of spades in the deck, after all.
“But that doesn’t matter now, does it, Mister Hart?”
“Jesus!” Hank barks as he shoots right off his back to sitting bolt upright in less than a second, his right hand reflexively slapping against his hip where his Colt always sat day or night. It isn’t there now, of course.
“No need for that, I promise you.” The fat man lets out a chuckle after he says this, looking genuinely amused but also, remarkably, slightly empathetic. “Even if they allowed you your pistol in here, it would be of no use. In any case, you may consider me a friend.”
Hank takes in the stout man with his white hair flowing down to his clean collar, well-trimmed beard, and spotless white ice cream suit with matching city shoes. Which, Hank notices, are also without a speck of dust on them, let alone mud, let alone horse shit from the street. He also definitely notices the slight limey accent, a highbrow kind of voice, not cockney or Irish or any of that common-man sound. This is all damnably unsettling, even for Hard Hank, who thinks he’s seen pretty much all there is to see out here in the Territories.
Not to mention the fact that there is no way this portly-ass egg-sucker could have gotten inside the cell without a sound. Ah, hell, Hank thinks. I know what this is.
“All right, Tubby. I’m dead, is that it? I had a heart attack, huh?” He gives the white-haired, white-clad apparition another once-over, relaxing into a seating position on the bunk. “So you’re, what, the angel of death? I know you ain’t no angel angel, come to take me to Heaven, and you sure as s— ain’t no friend to me. I know where I’m goin’, either now or when they get done with me out there.”
“Indeed not, Mister Hart. I’m not an angel, of death or any other kind. And as far as Heaven goes … well, you have as much chance of leading me there as I have of leading you.” The cheery smile crooks a tiny bit into a smirk as the visitor takes in Hank’s gimlet expression, then relaxes back again. “And, before you should ask, allow me to peremptorily assure you: I’m not the Devil or one of his demons, either. I represent only myself, come to help you.”
“Right, sure. And what’s your rake?”
“The rake?” The smile never vanishes, even as the figure’s brow furrows in momentary confusion before he answers himself with pleasure, “Ah! The house cut in poker, of course. There is no rake, Mister Hart. I have no need for money—or for anything else, in point of fact. I offer what I hope is a most compelling … deal, if you will permit me a little poker terminology of my own. And I offer it for no other reason than to provide for my own satisfaction.”
This, Henry Hart knows in his bones, is the purposely vague spiel of a confidence man. But he has nothing for this fat angel/devil/whatever to steal—what’s he gonna do, make the rope itchier on Hank’s way down?—so he ignores the flood of suspicion. Actually, despite himself, anything with an angle is automatically professionally interesting to him, no matter which end of the stick he’s holding. “That’s just fine. So you plan to share this deal before I get the drop or what?”
“Hm? Oh, I see! Yes, of course.” From what appears to be thin air but must be from one of his immaculate white suit’s pockets, the stranger pulls his own deck of playing cards, but these glow white with blood-red hearts and diamonds and somehow blacker-than-black clubs and spades. He fans the cards in almost a full circle before bringing them back together with a barely perceptible shake of his wrist.
Hank sits up with the first true smile he’s felt since his brother’s untimely demise. “Cards!” he yells without care for the guards hearing him, since he’s obviously dead. He can literally not believe his luck. “You wanna play cards for my soul? Let’s go, Fatty, or whatever your name is.”
“Call me Pip,“ the visitor says, pointing to the ten hearts on a card he makes rise from the deck like he’s a New Orleans steamboat entertainer. “Like these pips, eh? You see?”
He sees, all right. The ten hearts on the iridescent surface are pulsing. Pumping.
“You have told many a man that you know more about these fifty-two ‘friends’ than any personage, living or dead, yes?”
“Can’t deny it,” Hank says, not bothering to ask how this stranger knows all this garbage. “It’s true, too.”
“I don’t doubt it. Then you know how many different arrangements of cards are possible, I assume.”
“Assume your head into your ass, Fatso. I never thought about it, but I reckon there’s quite a few.”
“You reckon correctly, Mister Hart. Now—”
“Enough already. What’s your game? Faro, Stud, Draw, Brag, what? I’ll beat your pink a— back to hell in a heartbeat.”
“I’m sure I don’t know the way to that place any better than I do to heaven, Mister Hart, although I’m certain it’s a nice place to visit. And I’m not much of a gamesman, I’m afraid.” He hands the cards to Hank, who marvels at the fifty-two glowing rectangles. “No, my task for you is merely to shuffle these cards. They are special, as you can see, and will never fray, dog-ear, fade, or tear. Nor will your hands ever tire from shuffling them. In point of fact, the shuffling of these cards will energize you rather than enervate you.”
This Limey sodomite, this Pip guy, is definitely some kind of spirit or angel or something, no matter what he says, Hank sees. But what does he have to lose? He riffles off half the deck from his right hand to his left, shuffles the two halves together with a rapid brrrrt! and lets them slide together—shlllp!—into a new, perfect stack. With a crooked smile more usual to him, he does it again before holding the deck back out to Pip. “Done. Twice, to show you how much I care. Now what, I come back to life and walk free?”
“You’re not dead in the first place, Mister Hart. You’re just not moving forward in time until we either conclude our deal or you reject it. At that point, September 14, 1877 shall continue with you either doomed to hang or you living out the rest of your natural-born life without this warrant of death upon you.” Pip seems to think for a moment, then smiles even more widely than before, which just in itself is a bit unnerving. He’s too cheery, almost, like a man who’s just picked the watch from your pocket and is about to ask you the time.
That, or this fat boy is just a crazy son of a b——, Hank thinks.
“Actually, let me ‘sweeten’ this deal, as you might say: If you accept my rather generous offer, I shall make it such that, upon the completion of your assigned task, you will be able to commit any crime at all with utter compunction for the rest of your days without fear of any retribution whatsoever. And the rest of your days? I promise that, as part of our deal, they shall number exactly forty years. You can expect to live to seventy-six years of age.”
Hank is about to ask how any of this could be possible, how Pip could change reality and whatnot, when he reminds himself that no guard has come to tell them to shut up, not a sound has come from the construction of the gallows, and not a breath of wind has whispered through the bars of his window since the fat guy first appeared. His gorge almost rises with dread wariness, but any chance to live was a good one as far as he was concerned. Especially with forty more years of consequence-free gambling, whoring, even killing now and then.
“Mister Hart? Are you in or are you out?”
“Of what? Tell me the g—— rumpus already. You wanted me to shuffle the cards, I shuffled the cards. Now what?”
PART 2 COMING NEXT WEEK