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ace in the hole

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When she knocks on the door she doesn't expect who opens it; with a name like Jackie Nevada she wasn't sure who she was expecting, but Loretta figured the kind of woman runs an ongoing poker game wouldn't be kind of woman standing in front of her now. She's young. Pretty. Her nail polish has sparkles in it.

"Jackie Nevada?" Loretta asks.

Jackie looks at her. "So what if I am?" but not hostile, more like it's a joke they're sharing.

Loretta cocks an eyebrow at her "I ain't here to start shit," she says, "I'm just lookin for one of your players. McLeary?"

"Uh-huh," Jackie says. "You wanna come in?"

"Not really," Loretta says, but she steps inside just enough that Jackie can close the door behind her. "I know he comes around this game, so don't bother lyin to me about it."

"Uh-huh," Jackie says again. "Well, I ain't really in the business of giving up people who may or may not play in my games."

"Well, I ain't in the business of not getting what I want." Short, aggressive.

"And what do you want," Jackie asks, "—what's your name."

Loretta eyes her, but gives it up: "Loretta."

"Like the country singer?"

"I guess." Loretta looks around the apartment, done up in gilt-edged mirrors and the kind of white her foster mom would've called eggshell. "Jesus, what is this place?" she asks, craning her neck around to look over the place. "I thought poker games were supposed to go on in barrooms, with cigar smoke and shit."

"Not with the people I play. The owner's on vacation, two weeks in the Caymans," she says, carefree. "She won't mind, we use it for a night."

Loretta looks back to her. "So you know all that security system B&E shit?"

Jackie opens her eyes wide, innocent. "What'd I say gives you that impression? The owner's a friend of mine. She said I could hang out if I wanted—that's what I meant, that she wouldn't mind."

"Uh-huh." Loretta doesn't believe her for a second, and it's funny, that Jackie's still lying to her. Loretta wonders if she really thinks she can fool her or if she's just having fun. She seems smart enough, at least smart enough to run an illegal poker game and not get caught, so Loretta thinks about giving her the benefit of the doubt.

"You wanna buy in? These boys don't like new people in the game," Jackie says, "but they always make exceptions for pretty girls. I bet you clean up nice, you take off that coat and put on a dress or somethin."

Loretta scoffs. "I ain't much for poker," she says, not even touching the second part of that.

"Don't got the face for it?"

"Sure I got the face for it," Loretta says, "I just never been much for card games."

"No," Jackie says, "I get that." She looks at Loretta, considering, and taps her fingers against the back of one of the dark-wood chairs. "Not personally, of course. But you seem like the kinda girl don't like to hide your cards. Metaphorically, I mean. You seem like the kinda girl don't like to play games."

"I like to play games fine," Loretta says, "if I have to."

"And only if?"

"Pretty much."

Jackie tilts her head to the side, a little smile on her face. "I ain't seen the guy you're lookin for in months."

"You don't mind," Loretta says, "I think I'll stick around and see for myself."

*

There's not much to do to get the apartment ready—the lady who owns this place must have a cleaning service—and so Jackie takes her time pulling everything out of her bag. The chip holder, a sleek dark-wood thing that spins around like a lazy susan that Reno had gotten her for her twenty-first, when she was still at college cleaning out frat boys too full of themselves to know when to fold; better times, she thinks to herself. A few different decks, that she shuffles through out of habit. She watches Loretta's eyes on her hands: Loretta's slouched back against one of the walls, determined to seem at ease but just as determined not to sit down. Paranoid, but not jumpy. Jackie wonders who she really is, what she really does that she's looking for Jimmy McLeary, who's not much of a poker player and an even worse drug dealer. A dealer herself, maybe, though she looks like she's barely out of high school.

Jackie spins the chip holder to double-check the columns, and Loretta says, "Fancy." Sarcastic.

"Thanks," Jackie says, perfectly chipper. She tells Loretta about Reno getting it for her for her birthday, and tells her the thing about cleaning out frat boys, too, maybe to get into her good graces: it seems like the kind of thing a girl like Loretta might appreciate.

Loretta looks at her, expression flat as ever but her eyes calculating. "How much you make a week?" she asks.

"I'd play every night," Jackie tells her, "and win five or six nights a week. What do you think?"

"Depends," Loretta says. "Those frat boys playin with their money, or their daddies'?"

That surprises a grin out of Jackie. "Their daddies', mostly," she answers honestly.

"You go to UK?"

"Butler," Jackie says. "UK for grad school."

That surprises Loretta, Jackie can tell, about the grad school. All she asks, though, is, "Butler private?"

"Yep."

"Hell," Loretta says, "then I figure you should be in the Caymans right about now."

Jackie laughs, a real laugh. "Not quite that much," she says. "I had to pay my own way through school, though, and I did it. Scholarships too, on account of livin with my step-daddy and us not having even a tenth of the money we saw go through his book."

"Plus not reportin it if you did."

Jackie grins at her. "I like you," she says, blunt. "You don't wanna give me an inch."

"It ain't personal," Loretta says. "I just don't take much to people I think are protectin people I know wanna do me harm."

Jackie walks over to the sideboard with the grocery bag of liquor she brought with her, and starts setting out the bottles. "I ain't protectin McLeary," she tells Loretta. "I just haven't seen him around."

"Yeah," Loretta says, and Jackie knows she doesn't believe her. Jackie's offer to deal her in to the game had been idle, knowing it wouldn’t work, but she thinks now that she'd like to see Loretta play, whatever Loretta's professed disinterest. She doesn't seem interested in hiding much from Jackie, putting up a bored, disinterested front but not bothering to hide her distrust: she wants to see what she could do with a few thousand dollars on the line and a losing hand. That's when people show you who they really are, Jackie's always thought. She wants to see who Loretta really is.

"Well," Jackie says, "he shows up tonight, you can have him. Not til after the game, though—when he does show up he has cash, and an easy tell when he's bluffing."

Loretta scoffs a little. "If he shows up tonight he's comin with me."

"So you can do what?" Jackie asks, curious and nothing else. "Shoot him? That's how they do it out in coal country, right?"

Loretta narrows her eyes a little. If she asks how Jackie knows she's from coal country, Jackie might laugh in her face. Instead, she says, "Ain't none of your business."

Jackie goes back to setting out the liquor, before she asks, "So what is it you do? Deal in heroin, pills, weed? Moonshine, like in that movie?"

Loretta doesn't say anything, and she looks at Jackie hard, suspicious.

"Only reason I'm askin," Jackie goes on, perfectly casual, "is I don't touch the hard shit, but I might buy an ounce or two off of you if you got weed. I ain't a pothead," she says; "me and the girls in my sorority used to smoke in college, and I get nostalgic."

When she looks back at Loretta Loretta's got her eyebrows up, not bothering to hide her skepticism. "You puttin me on?"

"About what," Jackie asks, "the pot or the nostalgia?"

"The sorority."

"Oh yeah," Jackie says, waving her hand. "All four years at Butler."

Loretta just shakes her head. "Shoulda known," she says. "Just my luck, I gotta deal with some sorority chick."

"Aw, come on," Jackie says, smiling at her. "I ain't all that bad."

Loretta looks at her, like she's not altogether sure how to answer that. She's saved by a hard knock on the door; Jackie smiles at her, half charming and half a smirk, and goes to get the door.

The players filter in over the next quarter hour. Loretta stations herself in the corner, standing even when Jackie offers her a chair, arms crossed and face whittled sharp. Everyone glances at her, but no one goes over.

McLeary is the last one in: Jackie pours him a drink like the rest, shows him his seat. She glances at Loretta, and Loretta glares a little sharper.

It's a quiet game the first few hands; Jackie doesn't lose too much, just enough. Jackie thinks this whole evening is going to be remarkably uneventful, despite its beginning, when there's another knock at the door.

Everyone looks at each other, suddenly suspicious: the whole room tenses, shrinks down. Jackie glances across the table, to Loretta against the wall. Same sharp expression, but warier now.

Jackie gets up, opens the door. There are two women on the other side, and Jackie barely has time to register the badges around their necks and the guns on their hips when—

"US Marshals," one of the women calls out, "everyone put your hands in the air."

"Oh, you've gotta be shittin me," she hears Loretta say.

*

Everyone freezes for a moment, not even, and none of them even have a chance but the youngest and stupidest-looking of them still makes a somewhat spectacular if ill-advised dive across the table, toward the sideboard. Rachel, who is not Raylan Givens and doesn't care to be mistaken for him, doesn't shoot; he doesn't have a weapon in hand, yet, and no one else in the room seems to have any urge to Butch-and-Sundance their way out of this.

"Put your hands in the air," Rachel says again.

Instead, the man, who Rachel at this point is almost certain is James McLeary, bashes his elbow through the wood door of the sideboard, pulls out what looks to be a revolver, and starts shooting.

Rachel gets off a few shots in his direction; from next to her, Karen does the same. "Everyone on the ground," she shouts, but it's unnecessary: the rest of the group had either dropped or scattered at the sound of the first gunshots. McLeary too drops for cover, rolling under the table and tipping it forward. Glasses crash to the floor, shattering into crystalline bits and creating a small flood of alcohol; the poker chips clatter after them, playing cards sliding down into the mess and floating on the slick of whiskey and soda.

It's either a smart move or a lucky one: both Rachel and Karen stop shooting, afraid there's someone else under there with him.

"James McLeary," Rachel says, slowly approaching the overturned table. She picks her way around the shards. "I'm Chief Deputy Brooks and this is Director Goodall, of the U.S. Marshal Service," she says, cleanly and clearly. "We have a warrant for your arrest."

"For what?" McLeary shouts from behind the table. Rachel glances back at Karen, who mirrors her wryly amused look. If he's talking, he won't be hard to get out from there.

"I think you know," Karen says, clearly with less patience for the situation than Rachel.

"Nah, man, I got no idea," McLeary says, sounding genuinely confused.

Rachel and Karen glance at each other again: Karen has been circling around the edge of the room, past where one of the guests has cramped himself under a side table.

"You're wanted on possession—"

"That's back in Ohio, man!"

"—and jumping bail," Rachel finishes dryly and, she thinks, somewhat poetically. "We also hear you have connections to Detroit."

"Detroit?" McLeary says, but gets no further in his indignation: Karen has circled the edges of the room until she's directly behind McLeary. She looks at Rachel, shakes her head slightly—no one there with him—and then says,

"Drop the gun, McLeary."

Rachel grabs the edge of the table, pulling it down on top of the mess of cards and chips and glass. When McLeary is revealed behind it, however, he's dropped the gun, and has his hands over his head, albeit with a pissy and reluctant look on his face.

"You know, I usually expect more from you Detroit hardcase types," Karen says conversationally, still with her gun trained on McLeary as Rachel gets out the cuffs. "I'm disappointed, McLeary."

"Man," McLeary says, disbelieving and pissed, shaking his head.

Rachel locks the cuffs on, and pats his shoulder consolingly.

*

At the first gunshot Loretta's stomach folds into itself like a fist; her vision narrows down to what she needs and nothing more, edges blacked out. Behind her is a doorway into a living room, and she ducks into it, throwing herself to the floor.

She's barely pulled herself up next to the doorway, plenty of cover and still a sliver of a view into the other room, when Jackie throws herself down beside her. She scrambles around Loretta, sitting up next to her. She's put Loretta between herself and the doorway, Loretta notices: she doesn't mind, likes it better this way, but still. She recognizes that in Jackie, that instinct to survive, and she never expected to recognize anything in Jackie.

Deputy Brooks and her partner talk McLeary out from behind the table pretty fast. Loretta doesn't know the other deputy, and she wonders if she's the one they brought in to replace Raylan. She hasn't heard from Raylan since he moved to Florida, except for a glossy postcard addressed to her, nothing written on it except a Miami address and phone number, just in case scrawled at the bottom. It was dumb—he couldn't do anything for her from Florida and she wouldn't have asked even if he could, that debt cashed in a long time ago—but nice, she guessed. She'd stuck in to her fridge, the fake-looking blue of the water out of place on the yellowed plastic.

Next to her, Jackie cranes her head, looking past Loretta into the living room. The light is off in this room and they're outside the hard-edged path of the lamplight from outside the door, so everything is shadows, catching in the dip of Jackie's cheekbones, the hollows of her eyes. It takes Loretta a minute to realize the corner of her mouth is pulled up in a smirk. McLeary is protesting, "Detroit?" like he's never heard the word before in his life, and Loretta watches Jackie.

"Smart," Jackie whispers to her.

"Shut up," Loretta hisses back. The Marshals sound like they've got McLeary, but Loretta knows never to count on anything before it's happened, and sometimes not even then. She's learned how to stay quiet when she needs to stay quiet. It doesn't surprise her that Jackie hasn't. They're not so alike after all, Loretta thinks with bitter pride, Harlan pride, the kind of pride you've got when you don't have anything but.

Loretta peers around the doorframe again, sees the other Marshal rounding up the rest of the card players. Knows that means Deputy Brooks is either with McLeary or—

"Loretta," Deputy Brooks says, appearing in the doorway. She looks down at Loretta with that expression Loretta remembers, face perfectly smooth. A mask she puts up.

Loretta juts her chin out, a habit from when she was a kid that she's never shaken off. "Deputy Brooks."

"You know each other?" Jackie asks.

"It's Chief Brooks now, actually," Chief Brooks says. Neither of them answer Jackie; it would be a hard thing to explain. Loretta still thinks about that car ride, dusk gray and creeping around them, Chief Brooks tasked with driving her from Mags's house back to Child Services. The way she had told Loretta she could pick the radio station, that calm smooth look on her face like everything was okay, like Loretta hadn't just tried to kill Mags with her own hands, finger on the trigger, like this raging tearing feeling inside her wasn't as big and unbearable as Loretta thought it was. The way she'd glanced over at Loretta when she got the phone call, the way Loretta knew even before she made her say it that it was Mags, Mags dead, Loretta halfway to Lexington and not by her side. Rachel had listened to the tearing sob that clawed its way out of her throat, and listened to Loretta beg to take her back, the sudden crashing realization washing over her that she was never going to see Mags again. Rachel had said, I'm sorry, I can't. I'm sorry. Loretta has never forgiven her for it, but she's never forgotten the kind sad look in her eyes, either. It's a hard thing to explain.

The other Marshal steps up beside Rachel, but still with an eye to the other room. "This is Director Goodall," Rachel says, and the other marshal nods briskly. Loretta stands, and Jackie follows her.

"Nothing we can charge the rest of them with," the other Marshal says. "Unfortunately. And they all claim they'd never seen McLeary before today."

"Of course," Rachel says. She sighs. "Let them go."

"Well, this has been great," Jackie says, sweet as pie with a sarcastic edge that makes Loretta want to smile. "Have a nice afternoon, ma'am. Chief."

Rachel looks at them, amused. "Unfortunately," she says, not sounding like it's altogether unfortunate, I'd like to take you back to the courthouse. Routine questions," she says. "I somehow don't think you'll be able to claim you'd never met him," she tells Jackie.

"And me?" Loretta asks, flat and bored, hands stuffed in her coat pockets. She looks at Chief Brooks in a way she knows is a challenge, the way she knows lawmen hate. Lawwomen too, she's gonna guess.

"We want you in, too," Rachel says, looking at her unimpressed. "Come with me. Ms. Nevada, you have a car?"

"I do," Jackie says. Loretta's pretty sure she saw it on the way in: a convertible, grenadine-red, definitely stolen. Or won, maybe, with a particularly good bluff.

"Follow me to the station," Rachel tells her.

Jackie walks past her, gives her a look Loretta can't read. Card players, Loretta thinks, and follows.

*

The Marshal's office is something of a letdown; Jackie had expected or maybe just hoped for something out of the John Wayne movies she and Reno used to watch together when she was a kid. Not sure exactly what that would look like in the modern day, but at least something more than a linoleum-floored office in a staid municipal building.

The chief leads her back to the big office, Director Goodall following. Another marshal takes Loretta into a conference room. Chief Brooks sits her down, crosses her arms in front of her chest in a move like she learned it from a gangster movie. Or from coworkers who've watched too many gangster movies. Jackie raises her eyebrows, and so does Chief Brooks.

"Jackie Nevada," Chief Brooks says. She sounds unimpressed, either by her name or her person. Or both. "I'm Chief Rachel Brooks."

"Ma'am."

"We'd like you to answer a few questions," Chief Brooks says. "About James McLeary. Had you seen him before? Does he frequent your poker game?"

"Huh," Jackie says. Not sure she wants to answer, she says, "You know, Rachel was one of the names my step-daddy thought about naming me, before he landed on Jackie."

Chief Brooks just looks at her. It's Director Goodall who asks, "What was the other one?"

"What?"

"You said one of the names."

"Sierra," Jackie tells them.

It's Chief Brooks who says, "You're joking, right?"

"Hand to god."

"Good thing he changed his mind."

"Well," Jackie says, "his name was Reno, so I figure he wanted someone to carry on the legacy."

"And here you are," Chief Brooks says, sounding fed up, "doin your daddy proud anyway. Illegal poker games—you really did follow in the old man's footsteps, hm?"

"He'd be flattered you know about him," Jackie says.

"Don't let his ego grow too many sizes," Chief Brooks tells her dryly.

"I didn't know him," Jackie says, figuring that direct answers might get her out of here faster. "McLeary. He showed up to a few games now and then, but there wasn't much to know, you know. Just a local boy pothead, liked to lose his money every couple weeks cause he thought he was smart enough to play with the big kids."

Chief Brooks frowns. "You said he was a local boy?"

"With a name like McLeary, I figured it," Jackie says. "But then one night he was talkin about the place he grew up—Rabbit Holler, which I figure's gotta be local."

Chief Brooks trades a glance with Director Goodall. "It is," she says, mouth pulled tight in the corners.

"Will you hang on a minute?" Director Goodall says, and she and Chief Brooks go out into the bullpen.

*

Loretta doesn't give up a thing, not that Rachel was expecting her to. She threatens to call her lawyer until Rachel calls her bluff and she actually calls someone who appears to be an actual lawyer, and finally, Rachel lets her go.

Karen stands next to her, watching Loretta slink out the door. Rachel shakes her head.

"McLeary was never even near Detroit," Rachel says. "She must've gotten someone to feed us the tip."

"You'll still have him on bail jumping," Karen points out.

"Yeah," Rachel says. "Still doesn't soften the sting of being conned by a teenage pot dealer into doing her dirty work."

Karen looks over at her, amused. "You don't know that for sure."

"I'd bet money he was causing her problems," Rachel says. "And I'm not a betting woman."

"Well," Karen says, "I am. And it sounds like a solid bet to me."

Rachel walks over to her office window, pulling back the blinds. "More excitement than you were expecting for a routine check-in, hm?"

"Evidently Harlan County is never boring," Karen says, joining her at the window to look out over the gray expanse of parking lot. "And I thought this was going to be a vacation."

"Sorry," Rachel says, the corner of her mouth twitching.

Karen shrugs. "I liked this better than a vacation."

They watch Loretta walk out the front doors of the courthouse down below them. She pauses on the sidewalk and then looks up sharply, suspiciously, and then makes her way over to Jackie's convertible, Jackie in the driver's seat, waving her over.

Loretta gets in shotgun, and Jackie backs out of the spot in a looping arc, speeding out of the parking lot.

Rachel snorts. "That's exactly what I need."

Karen looks over at her. "You know, next time I need a vacation, maybe I'll come back."

They look at each other, and then out at the road, Jackie and Loretta driving off side by side.