"Well, hell, this is like going into Dairy Queen and getting served by the woman wearing the crown,” Jackie Nevada said, and that was how Loretta met her, only they weren't at the Dairy Queen and they were talking the price of a dime bag, not of a Dilly Bar. But it’d be fair to say Loretta had heard of her already. She’d been looking at a picture of the woman not two hours before, when her supposed right hand, girl name of Ricki, had been trying to explain to her where the two thousand dollars Loretta had sent her to Lexington with had up and gone.
“Some kind of cardsharp,” Ricki had said, “and she didn’t play fair.”
“That supposed to make me more forgiving of you losing my money in a game you weren’t supposed to be sitting at a table to play in the first place?”
“It would have been some kind of thing if I’d won though, wouldn’t it?”
“Don’t trade so much on me liking you, ‘cause it ain’t exactly true at the moment.”
“Come on, Loretta, you know I’ll make it back.”
She did know. Ricki wasn’t so sharp as to ever be in danger of cutting herself, but she was canny and charming, and she had a good eye for opportunity. She’d told Loretta once that in another life, she’d been a used car salesman, all huckster and fleece. Money sniffed her out even after she’d lost it, like it wanted to get back in her pockets. So it was, for the most part, no harm, no foul, and Loretta wasn’t so sore over Ricki being took that she had it out for this Nevada woman over it all. But she did want to meet her, since Jackie Nevada had presumably come all that way just to get met. Most people didn’t seek Loretta out directly just to buy.
“You see a crown on my head?” Loretta said now.
“Don’t have to. I know bluegrass royalty when I’m in its presence.”
“Grass what you came here to discuss, regardless of the color?”
Jackie lifted a shoulder. “I’m not opposed to some quickie relaxation if the price is right.”
“Free market being what it is, price is always right.”
She put a briefcase up on the table. “Let’s say you take it out of this, if you like.”
Loretta knew what was inside without opening it. She crossed her arms, like she was trying to trap some kind of flutter of amusement inside her belly. “You want me to sell to you and pay for it out of my own money?”
“Cards last night made it my money fair and square, as I think you know.”
“Ricki implied otherwise.”
“Ricki can’t bluff.”
“That I know,” Loretta said. “I appreciate you bringing it by, but there wasn’t any need. I ain’t the kind of person goes around busting up card games over two thousand dollars. Which, last I saw it, fit sensibly enough in one hand and didn't need a briefcase.”
“Thought it would look more impressive this way.”
“What did you put it in, fives?”
“Ones, mostly. You’ll be well-equipped for any strip clubs you may choose to visit.” Jackie stood, leaving the briefcase behind her. “Take it or don’t take it, Miss McCready—as far as I’m concerned, you can hand it out bill by bill to the needy or shred it all into confetti. I wouldn’t have let one of yours in the game if I’d known, and I came here to make that clear.”
Loretta encountered it sometimes, the automatic defensiveness like a dog ducking its head to shield its throat, and she supposed she’d come by it honestly, taking over Mags’s work like she had. And there were still folks who remembered her short-lived partnership with Boyd Crowder. She’d rubbed elbows with violence most of her life and it had settled down on her like dust, and most of the time that was useful. But she found herself wanting to say that on her own, she’d never pulled the strings behind pulling a trigger. She’d done her share short of that, and ordered it done, but she wasn’t whatever bogeyman Jackie might maybe be thinking her. But that would be a foolish thing to run on about.
People who didn’t want to kill shouldn’t, in her experience, get too hasty announcing that. Or drawing lines at all.
And it was a fucked-up thing, wanting a stranger not to be afraid of her. A woman she hadn't ever even met before that conversation.
She cleared her throat. “You based out of Lexington, or do you float around?”
“I play the poker circuit at the casinos sometimes, and the day job means I travel a little, but I like the area. I’m mostly here.” She seemed to think “here” meant Kentucky generally, not Harlan, which was how Loretta knew she’d come from somewhere else, if she was under the impression the whole state was some kind of untextured map with one part being the same as any other.
She actually met precious few people who’d grown up anywhere but the holler. Her city buyers bought in the cities.
She bagged up some pot for Jackie Nevada on her own—her hands still knew that work almost better than they knew anything else—and handed it over. “I’d say compliments of the house, but it don’t seem accurate, given what you brought back. So with my compliments, instead.”
Jackie took it and tipped her a kind of salute. Loretta noticed her hands: nails manicured like a dream, but with no polish, nothing to draw attention to them when she shuffled.
Jackie seemed to notice her noticing. “What?”
“I was thinking I’d do the same as you, if I ever wanted to slip an ace up my sleeve. Not get fancy with my fingernails. Not that I’m that fancy with them now.”
“Oh, I like the red,” Jackie said, even though Loretta’s hands were in her pockets by then. Damn, but she had a sharp eye. Loretta could have used a dozen of her. “But you’re misconstruing me, Miss McCready. Like I said, I run an honest game. Polish is off the nails because when it was there I got to biting them, and when I was playing, and I tasted that paint on my fingers, well, if I had a good hand, I’d forget to spit them out like I would when I had a bad one.”
“No sense risking a tell.”
“None at all. A woman’s got to be careful what she lets give her away. You pass that along to your Ricki.”
“Maybe I’ll come up and see you sometime,” Loretta said.
Jackie raised her eyebrows. “Would I have to let you win if you did?”
“I’d take offense if you tried.”
“Then sure. I’d like a chance to win that money back off you, Miss McCready. You come see me anytime you like. I don’t have to leave my address for you, do I?”
“I can find most anybody.” She walked Jackie to the barn door, absurdly conscious of herself, of the flyaway strands of hair the wind was carrying around and brushing against her face, of the way she squinted into the sun when they got a look outside, of the mud drying on her boots. “And you can call me Loretta. Ain’t a soul calls me Miss McCready.” Though she did get Miss Bennett every so often, and that she was quicker to correct.
“How old are you?” Jackie said. It was a conversational tone, but it seemed to be from a different conversation, not the one they were having.
Loretta didn’t mind answering. “Twenty-four.”
“You adjust that up for a couple of years while you were getting all this off the ground?”
“Wasn’t worth the trouble of lying about it. Everybody here knew me anyway. The ones that can do the math knew my birthday well enough to do it, so what would’ve been the point?” She leaned against the doorframe. “Anyway, you strike me as a woman who knows the value of telling the truth, at least at the beginning. You ought to understand.”
“I do.” And Jackie disappeared the baggie into her coat pocket and then held out her hand, late autumn sun gleaming white on those unpainted nails which, Loretta thought, weren’t bitten at all, which meant either Jackie had lied about why she didn’t polish them—which Loretta couldn’t see the percentage in—or she had buffed them up before making the drive over. It troubled her how much she liked to think it was the second thing. How much she liked to think of Jackie taking time and an Emory board and getting herself ready.
She shook Jackie’s hand quicker than she thought through all that, at least, so she hadn’t turned entirely foolish. That was something.
She went to Lexington a couple days later—
“Three days,” Ricki said. “You’re for-real no-shit observing the three-day rule, damn but have you got it bad.”
“You I don’t even want to talk to until you get my two thousand dollars back.”
“Right now you’d pay it to me out of your own pocket for doing your hair for you, I bet.”
“A friend would do it for free.”
“You don’t got the right personality for friends,” Ricki said, “but if you come over here and stop scowling at me, I’ll see what I can do.”
The answer turned out to be not much, which Ricki maintained wasn’t clumsiness on her part but something she called classical beauty on Loretta’s, which was the kind of bullshit they taught girls to say in the Corbin Cut 'n' Curl Loretta had scooped her out of when she was nineteen. She put it up in a bun, was all, with a couple strands down all sloppy around her face, and the first thing Loretta could have done herself and the second she figured for mismanagement, however much Ricki said it was on purpose. Either way, it wasn’t worth any two thousand dollars, and she said as much.
“You’d best be more charming than this with Jackie Nevada,” Ricki said. “Or damn, girl, I don’t know how you ever get laid.”
She didn’t want to go so far as to talk about it, but it’d been a while. She supposed most folks in the county had sussed her out on that front and if they had, all of Kentucky had, the way Harlan people gossiped, but everybody knowing Loretta McCready liked girls hadn’t up and made more women of her inclination move out to the red-state boonies. She didn’t get much backtalk on the subject—“Why should I give a shit?” had been Ricki’s position on the matter. “If I thought you’d go for it, I’d marry you myself and walk you down the aisle in a white fucking gown if I could get half your property for it, and that’s legal and the weed ain’t, and you never asked if I cared about the weed”—but she didn’t get many dates, either. Not that the poker game with Jackie Nevada was any kind of a date, because it wasn’t.
But Loretta hadn’t been looked at like that lately by someone she liked the look of herself. And that was incentive enough to take a drive.
She found Jackie’s game without any trouble, like they’d both known she would.
And she found something out about Jackie, something that changed things. Leave it to dumbass Ricki to either not have told her or not have known herself.
Jackie was in a red and yellow plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up past her elbows, and when Loretta walked in, she was dealing out a round, her wrist flicking expertly to send cards across the table. When she looked up to smile, she kept on going and didn’t miss a beat.
“Ladies and gentleman, this is Loretta McCready, of some business renown. Loretta, this is—” And she went around the table and introduced a circle of people whose names Loretta didn’t keep track of at all.
She didn’t play well. It was possible Jackie even called the game early on account of it, because afterwards, when she offered Loretta a joint rolled from her own stash, she said, “I’d say that paid me back and then some, wouldn’t you?”
“Looks like,” Loretta said. “I have other things I’m good at.”
“I have no trouble imagining that’s true.”
“And you. You probably have a lot of things you’re good at, Marshal.” She met Jackie’s eyes steadily.
Jackie smiled. “If you know anything about the US Marshals, and I know you do, you’ll know we don’t have any real interest in your operation. The weed business is almost polite.”
“Politeness would have been introducing yourself proper when you came over, so I guess I’m the only one of us knows anything about it.”
“The gesture was genuine. Just because I’m with the law doesn’t mean I have any interest in making trouble.”
“Making trouble would be the reason people go into being law, I would think.”
“And what’s the reason you stay on the other side of it?”
Loretta shrugged. “Money.”
“I’m going to let you in on a little secret,” Jackie said. “We have money out here in the non-criminal world, too. At the moment, I even have more of it than you do.”
“On you currently, anyway.”
“On me currently. But isn’t it hell not spending it, always having to think about whether or not you’ll have to account for that new house, that new necklace, that bit of land? Wouldn’t you rather have less and use it more?”
“You’ve convinced me,” Loretta said. “I’m going home right now and giving it all up.”
“There ought to be a word for what you do,” Jackie said musingly. “Like you don’t even bother to bluff. Anyway, for what it’s worth, that’s quality product you’re selling. I spent the whole of Saturday watching Ferris Bueller and eating Thin Mints like I was back in college. Really mellow, and you snuck that little bit of vanilla in.”
Her fucked-up homage to Coover, who had almost been able to make the weed play dead and then get up and fetch the paper for him. Every time she toyed with it a little, she thought of him. She didn’t feel any kind of guilt over it—Raylan had been the one, and anyway Coover had come by that bullet fair and square—but it seemed like she carried all the dead around with her. Except Boon. Him, she was just glad about, the creepy motherfucker. She still wished Raylan had left the man’s hat on the ground.
In some other kind of life, she maybe might have told Jackie some of that. But it occurred to her that Jackie might have already known it, so much of it being on the record and all, and that soured her on the prospect even more than the badge had.
So instead, she lit the joint Jackie had given her and smoked it firmly, unflinchingly, like it was all no big deal. “Best in Kentucky. And like I said, our prices are competitive.”
“It was more of a nostalgia thing for me, but I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Well, you know where I am. Finding people being your line of work and all.”
“You’re the brightest star in a dim constellation, Loretta,” Jackie said.
The next time Loretta saw Jackie, it was because Ricki deposited her and Rachel Brooks both on her damn front porch like she was a dog bringing her a bedroom slipper.
“These two showed up at the barn looking for you,” Ricki said. Then she slouched down in the porch swing, her legs spread out like a boy's on the school-bus. Ricki didn’t carry a gun, but the pose, Loretta figured, was to let the ivory-and-bone hilt of that knife of hers jut forward from her hip. Which was typical.
Rachel Brooks looked Ricki over like she was thinking the same thing. “Ms. Poole, you ever heard the expression ‘bringing a knife to a gunfight’?”
“She calls me Ms. Poole,” Ricki said. “Do I look like any kind of miss? I do not fucking understand the government, Loretta.”
“I think my honor and virtue will be safe enough without you,” Loretta said. “You go on back and make sure things run smoothly.”
“You’re the boss,” Ricki said.
Rachel watched her go, faint amusement bowing her mouth. “She always that jumpy?”
“She thinks I broke Loretta’s heart,” Jackie said.
“My heart look broken to you?”
“Not to me, but it obviously does to your girl.”
“It must be some kind of time-honored tradition,” Rachel said, “to have shit going on in this office that the person who’s supposed to be in charge doesn’t learn about until half past whenever. You’ll fill me in on that on the way back.”
“You’re the boss,” Jackie said.
“Oh, that’s funny.” Rachel looked at Loretta. “Is that what she did with you? Break your heart by being so damn funny all the time?”
“Something like. But I doubt you came all the way from Lexington just to pat my hair over it. Especially since you could have called first and not scared off half my employees.”
“What can I say? I get a little kick walking into that plain-as-day crime scene of yours. But you’re right, we’re not here for that either. There’s a woman we have reason to believe is in the area. She’s been handling most of the prescription trade for Atlanta.”
“I don’t take that on,” Loretta said.
“I know. Which is why I’m talking to you, figuring maybe if you know something, you’ll give it up, being the public-minded ruler of your little fiefdom that you are. And because we go back, and I thought you might throw me a bone, on account of we still sometimes send a letter or two to the same address.”
“Nostalgia goes pretty far around here, but it doesn’t pay the cover charge for me getting in a war with Atlanta that I ain’t nearly equipped to handle.”
“You planning on sticking to that answer?”
“I don’t know what you could say to convince me to change my mind. People could die. I know they might not seem like the right kind of people to you all in Lexington, but they’re my people.”
“People are dying already,” Rachel said quietly. “And you know it. Maybe all those people sitting in their armchairs stoned out of their minds, letting their kids cry on the kitchen floor, maybe they’re wondering why you’re thinking they’re the wrong kind of people. It’s an epidemic, and you’re standing at ground zero saying what you really care about isn’t whether or not people will die, but whether or not you’ll be the one gets held responsible if they do. And I can’t make you feel any better about that. But that’s a chance on Atlanta blaming you and it’s a certainty on that pipeline staying open in Harlan. She’s a federal fugitive. Let us handle her.”
Oxy hadn’t been her daddy’s problem, but the image Rachel had given her reminded her of him: of the time she’d sloshed boiling water on her arm making some spaghetti and it had taken him such a long, draggy minute to get from the living room to the kitchen in answer to her holler. Her eyes stung a little.
But she wasn’t so damn teary she couldn’t look after her own, whatever Rachel said. “Compromise position, then.”
“You got two marshals you can spare a little, time to time?”
“At the moment, I’ll spare Jackie here right up until retirement.”
“Now, Rachel,” Jackie said, “you know I tell you eighty, ninety percent of things. That’s not fair.”
“And there’s Nelson.”
Loretta had met Nelson. “I want Tim.”
Rachel snorted. “Fair enough. All right, on some kind of time-share basis, duties and the law permitting, you’ve got Jackie and you’ve got Tim.”
“I give the call saying we’ve got strangers in town,” Loretta said, “you send one of them to Ricki’s place and one of them to the barn, and they keep an eye out. You’re cheaper than security.”
“You don’t want one of us here?” Jackie said.
“I can look out for myself,” Loretta said, keeping her gaze on Rachel. “Is that a deal, Marshal?”
Rachel shook hands with her as matter-of-factly as if they’d just had something notarized, and Loretta, feeling old all of a sudden, remembered when Rachel had nearabouts needed Raylan to translate for her whenever they’d been down in the holler. That was all gone now. She seemed like a woman who’d be comfortable anywhere, and Loretta wanted—well, it was hard to say. It was like she wanted to put on Rachel’s shoes and walk around in them like a little kid playing dress-up.
“She’s out at the Holiday Inn,” Loretta said. “Suns out by the pool, says it’s not warm enough here for her. For that matter, says the Holiday Inn’s not much, either.”
“I’ve seen your Holiday Inn,” Jackie said. “She might have a point.”
Loretta did glance over at her then. Jackie was looking at her like Loretta was a book Jackie had put her thumb into to hold her place.
When she looked at Jackie, Loretta knew exactly what she wanted. Which was the whole damn problem.
She didn’t go to war with Atlanta.
Ricki came over and tried to teach her how to knit before giving it up as a lost cause. She said, “Did you send that lawman girlfriend of yours over to spy on me?”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Loretta said. “And she’s just keeping an eye on you in case things jump off wrong.”
“Is that gonna happen?”
“I maybe got guilted into doing something white-hat could have consequences. But she was only supposed to come around if I called and said the situation looked like it was going to go that way.”
So she asked Jackie about it the next time she saw her, which was when Jackie came around again to buy from her, like there wasn’t anything strange about that at all, a US Marshal buying edibles—“For variety,” Jackie explained—from somebody she was apt to encounter in the course of her profession. She was wearing a golden-brown trenchcoat and Loretta had particular thoughts about it that weren’t helpful.
“Ricki said you’ve been parked on the other side of her street off-and-on.”
“I didn’t think the goal was for me to be inconspicuous, was it?”
“Rachel put you on the clock for that without me making the call?”
“Because you didn’t ask anybody to look out for you,” Jackie said. “So I wanted to at least look out for the person you wanted looked after.”
“And why come back here?” She wanted, almost, to take up a stick of chalk and draw some line on the floor between them, to insist upon it just so Jackie would stay on her own damn side. “So I’ll see how badass you are, buying drugs with that badge still on your hip?”
“I’m not trying to prove anything to you. You know, it was your boy Raylan who pointed me toward this line of work. I met him a few years ago and he said maybe I’d be good at it, and then he caught me trying to shoulder a bag of money nobody on the up-and-up was really looking for, and he said, well, if I brought it back, it’d be no harm, no foul. I wasn’t too upset. You win some, you lose some—and there were compensations. But the hell of it was, when I ended up dropping out of grad school and joining up with the Marshals, it was Raylan who put in a good word for me with Rachel. Even with him knowing I’d tried to take that money.”
“That wasn’t much of a story. And, knowing Raylan, I can guess what got left out of the middle.” She didn’t mean to mind that, but she did, mostly because she had written to Raylan since about Jackie and hadn’t known there was any kind of history there. But this was Harlan, where nobody could get away from ghosts like that.
“My point is, I came into this sideways, and I don’t see much of a point in getting mad about what doesn’t hurt anybody.”
“My opinion would be that could have been said without the story. And it doesn’t answer my question.”
“I come around here because I like you, and I don’t see your business as any good reason not to,” Jackie said. “But the other part of the story is Raylan still recommending me and Rachel still hiring me. I don’t know if Rachel knows about the money or not.”
“I’d leave off mentioning it to strangers, then.”
“I don’t think you’re petty enough to tell her. But that’s the other half of the story, if you were looking for it. I liked him not thinking any less of me and I don’t want her to think less of me, either. I don’t want to give her any reason to.”
“Buying pot’s a funny way to go about that.”
“The pot I can buy,” Jackie said. “But the thing is, Loretta, I can’t do everything I want and still look her in the eyes five mornings out of seven.”
But Loretta still saw her sometimes. Every few weeks, it seemed like Jackie was in Harlan for one thing or another.
Or sometimes Loretta went to Lexington. She brought oatmeal and chocolate chip pie there, Wildcat sweatshirts, nonsense gewgaws with horses on them, like if she brought some kind of souvenir back home, she’d have her alibi if anyone asked. Never mind that the only person brave enough to quiz her on it would be Ricki, and Ricki knew already, and had subsided into an awful un-Ricki-like silence that Loretta was kind of afraid meant Ricki was pitying her. At least she took all those UK shotglasses off Loretta's hands.
She lost a lot of money at Jackie’s poker table.
“You could win as kind of change of pace,” Ricki said.
“I ain’t losing on purpose.”
Ricki made a face like she wasn’t at all sure that was true. That girl had too high an opinion of her.
Jackie introduced her in all kinds of ways to the roving people who made up her games.
“This is Loretta, entrepreneur, probably on some kind of thirty under thirty list somewhere.”
“This is Loretta, drug queenpin and aspiring hand model.”
Then one night, Rachel was there, and Jackie just said, “This is Loretta McCready,” and Loretta played even worse than usual, which was truly saying something. About halfway through the night, though, her luck seemed to shift just enough to get her out of the hole. Afterwards, she and Jackie and Rachel sat around drinking a bottle of Pappy that Rachel had gotten as some kind of under-the-table gift from on high, and Loretta accused Jackie of cheating for her.
“She didn’t,” Rachel said. “I did. It was getting hard to watch you take that kind of beating.” Loretta had never seen her like this, dressed all casual, without her sleek office pumps and her tight bun, and she thought of Ricki talking about classical beauty. She could see, without any trouble at all, why Jackie wanted her good opinion. Loretta wanted it herself. “It was my duty, as an officer of the law, to not let that kind of bloodshed happen right under my nose.”
Jackie laughed. “I knew you were doing it.”
“You’d be a piss-poor dealer if you didn’t, wouldn’t you?”
“I’d call the two of you strange associates,” Loretta said, “being in the room with a known criminal and conspiring to keep money in her purse, and cloaking that all under justice.”
“Just drink,” Rachel said. “I haven’t seen you relaxed in all the time I’ve known you.”
Loretta drank. “Usually she introduces me a little fancier,” she said to Rachel. “Jackie.”
“I come out like an emcee and ask the crowd to give it up for her,” Jackie said dryly. “This is Loretta, the worst poker player in Eastern Kentucky.”
“Proud owner of one-third a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle.”
“Grateful recipient of a generous donation,” Rachel said.
Loretta wanted to say that she didn’t need the bourbon, didn’t need the money, didn’t need the company. But instead of saying any of that, she drank, because she was thinking about the negotiations coming up next week with Memphis and about the new cultivation technique Ricki wanted to try and about the way fear still landed on the back of her neck like a fly whenever she saw a car with tinted windows pull up beside her at some traffic light. It seemed like a lot to think about. Drinking made it a little easier, and now that she thought about that, it seemed to her that not a lot of people in her life had ever made anything easier.
If she’d asked herself at fourteen who she’d want to be in ten years, would she have said Mags?
That was what she wondered about herself sometimes, late at night, when she caught herself drinking cider in front of the refrigerator. At least it wasn't fucking apple pie.
She was good at it, anyway. There’d never been any chance she wouldn’t be.
“Some particular reason you made me drive all the way out here?” Rachel said.
Loretta poured her a glass of sweet tea, mostly just so she could have her fingers around something to stop the feeling they’d start shaking any minute, even though they looked still. “I wanted to talk shop. Mine, not yours, so it made more sense to do it here, as opposed to turning up at the courthouse and saying, hey, Chief, let’s you and me talk about that herbal business I run out in Harlan.”
“Out in Harlan,” Rachel said, “like you think I don’t know how far this little kingdom of yours spreads.”
“I got some reach. Jackie called me a queenpin once, I liked the sound of that.”
“You slip that in so I’d agree it’s a nice word or because you want me to know you like Jackie a little? Because if it’s the second, that I did know.” She drank her tea. “You make this yourself?”
“Couldn’t live with myself if I had to serve store-bought.”
“It’s good. You know that already, though.” Rachel moved her thumb over the glass, listening to it squeak on the condensation, and she studied Loretta while she did it. Loretta let her, and tried not to feel like she was a situation Rachel was trying to resolve. Like she had taken some other version of herself hostage and all Rachel wanted to do was see it all ended without any shots fired. “Are you and Jackie sleeping together?”
“If you wouldn’t trust her on that, I don’t know why you’d trust me.”
“Because Jackie’s a better liar than you are.”
“Jackie wouldn’t lie to you."
“All right. Then I’ll stop trying to guess what I’m here for if you’ll stop fidgeting and tell me.”
It wasn’t that she had never gone back on a plan before—she’d abandoned deals and fortunes and more than a few people along the way to getting where she was. If she had this conversation, she could undo it like picking out a line of stitches in a seam, because for all she’d never been able to learn how to knit, she knew just fine how to do her own repair-work, because it felt dangerous on every level to send out into the world any admission of failure, of unraveling. She knew how to fix herself up smooth and pretty like nothing had ever happened. It was maybe what she knew best.
But if she did this and then backed on it, she had the feeling she wouldn’t have much of an opinion of herself.
And that was the one way she truly did want to be a Bennett. The McCreadys never had had much self-respect until her, but the Bennetts were nothing but damn-fool self-assurance and self-regard from head to toe. People responded to that.
One way or another, if she opened her mouth right now, she’d lose the town, lose the county, lose the state.
Gain something, maybe. But there was a hell of a lot of uncertainty to that, and hadn't Rachel herself cautioned her to give up thinking about uncertainties?
Sometimes it was Raylan she thought of in times like this, even though, if she had to look hard at the matter, Raylan Givens wasn’t any kind of person to really be giving life-advice. But: Loretta, he’d say, God hates a coward.
“You leaving so much of my organization alone,” Loretta said, “is that because you genuinely don’t have an interest in seeing something harmless get run well or because you think I’m still that little girl you all met ten years ago?”
“I leave you alone because for one thing, marijuana isn’t in my office’s purview.” Which was what Jackie had said, and Raylan had said before her. “You keep things quiet and you don’t leave bodies behind you. The DEA might care, but I don’t, and my answer would be the same on that no matter who you were.”
“You ain’t so partial to me you’d overlook something you wouldn’t otherwise, is what you're saying.”
“Not at the level of a criminal empire, Loretta.”
It was funny, she supposed, how differently Rachel and Jackie thought about things like that. In Loretta’s world, all that really mattered was people and money. You held your place with your presence as much as with spilled blood and the occasional bribe, and you betrayed only for love, money, or necessity. What was legal or not never entered into it. Loretta had in herself the capacity to ignore so many things. If she were going to be frightened by anything, she figured she should be frightened by that—by the alienness of herself in their world. She would be a kind of exile there, her grammar never quite right in their language.
“I know you can’t promise any kind of safety,” Loretta said, “the world being what it is. And sooner or later, they’ll get off their asses and legalize it and everything I’ve got right now will have to look different if it’s going to survive.” She went for a drink of her own tea and then realized she hadn’t poured herself any, so she would just have to go on. “I guess I thought it would mean something to me, knowing whatever trouble came wouldn’t be coming from you.” And she had wanted to impress her. All these women lately had awakened a kind of neediness in her that she’d thought she’d stamped out a long time ago.
Rachel could have pulled the words out of her, but she seemed content to wait for them.
“I thought I’d turn things over to Ricki," Loretta said. "Get out of the business.”
Nothing around them seemed to act like one kind of world was coming to an end: all the pictures stayed straight on the walls. An itch on the sole of her foot that had been there before kept being there afterwards, unmoved by any kind of moral change, any gesture toward social respectability.
Only Rachel was different. “That,” she said, with a smile that made Loretta feel like her face was going to catch on fire from blushing, “is the best news I’ve heard all year.”
When Ricki heard about it, she felt differently. She paced and smoked and said, “Dammit, Loretta,” with her voice all choked up with tears. “You didn’t get me ready for this.”
“There ain’t any kind of getting ready, as far as I know,” Loretta said. “You just have to dive in sooner or later. Hell, I was eighteen when I stood up in a room full of people and told them why they should trust me with their money.”
“Yeah, and you were smarter at eighteen than I am now, you know that.” She put her cigarette out on the blue-and-white china plate Loretta had put out with some cookies on it, feeling like the whole event had needed a sense of ceremony, and looked at her like she was daring her to say something about it. “Are you dropping me to run and go play house with that marshal? Because the way she looks at you, she’d throw you a lay without you giving up your life for it.”
“It ain’t about her.” Or at least not any more than it was about Rachel or, going back further than that, and in a different direction, Mags.
Ricki picked up a cookie half an inch from where she’d stubbed out the cigarette and bit into it, managing somehow to make the sound seem skeptical.
“Not all the way,” Loretta said. “I don’t know, Ricki. You do one thing so long and it’s like you think your skin’s made out of it.”
“See?” Ricki said. “I can’t get all philosophical and shit. People understand me when I talk, I’m not gonna have your mysteriousness.” She put her arms around Loretta all at once. Everything else in her life that had ever happened with that kind of suddenness had been bad, but this was mostly bearable.
“And anyway,” she said, patting Ricki’s back purely because she didn’t know what else to do with her hands, “you’re not dropped. Who the hell else is gonna do my hair if you don’t come around anymore?”
She hadn’t meant for that to lead to Ricki doing her hair again that night, but Ricki had still been sniffly and talking through those occasional tears at a mile a minute planning what she was going to do with the operation, which Loretta tried not to have opinions about, even though it took her digging her fingernails into the arms of her kitchen chair not to talk. (She’d hemorrhage money, she’d lose Louisville, she’d—probably scrape it all back together again. Or she wouldn’t. Nobody said a kingdom had to last forever.)
Anyway, she kept quiet while Ricki did up another bun for her, this time with a braid built into it “because what the fuck, the first way didn’t get you laid last time so I thought I’d fancy it up a little.”
So Loretta went to Lexington.
Jackie didn’t seem to know anything about her life had changed over the last few days, because she dealt her in without a hitch: “This is Loretta, Kentucky’s answer to Audrey Hepburn, and a perennial loser at my table, not to jinx her before she even sits down. But looking like she does, I’m sure a few of you will take a fall for her sometime tonight. I know I will. We all ready?”
Then, halfway through the game, Loretta losing as badly as she usually did but minding it more because, hell, she needed to start stretching the money she had just a little bit more, she got aware of the way Jackie was looking at her. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but it was thinking that she couldn’t that made her look at Jackie’s hands, which had, for the first time in Loretta’s memory, polished fingernails. A dark cherry color. And she’d already left little teeth-marks in them, so she hadn’t been lying about that after all.
Loretta sat there in her dress with her hair up off her neck and looked at Jackie Nevada’s fingernails until it felt like even the felt of the table underneath her elbows was a sensation likely to tip her over the edge.
When the game was done for the night, she stayed in her chair as Jackie played hostess and took everybody else to the door, and then she came back for Loretta.
“You did better. I think you’ve improved a little at bluffing, but you still hold on to your cards for too long.”
“I don’t think that’s it,” Loretta said. “My whole problem—”
“I meant that more in the way of a metaphor,” Jackie said.
It was a fair enough point that Loretta stood up and kissed her: just put one hand behind her head, fingers in that silky hair, leaned in, and did it. Jackie tasted like the Tom Collins she’d been drinking and Loretta thought she could develop a fondness for it herself. And Jackie’s mouth was soft, but she drove Loretta through the rest of the kiss like that mouth was the only soft thing about her, like underneath it was so much bottomless want. She slipped one shoulder of Loretta’s jacket off her and kissed her neck and the hollow of her throat and then down towards her breasts because the jacket had been the only thing in the way of that scoop-neck.
“Gave up crime on Monday and you don’t come by until fucking Friday,” Jackie said.
“I had some affairs to put in order.” Jackie had knocked her hair all askew and Loretta felt funny with it like that, half up and half down, like they hadn’t decided all of this one way or the other yet. “And I didn’t want you to think I’d done it all for you—I got no expectations.”
“Never mind,” Jackie said. “Forget what I said. You’re still bad at bluffing.” She pulled the rest of Loretta’s hair down, popping the cheap little hair tie with her thumb in a way that made desire press up hot between Loretta's legs with the swiftness and pain of a cramp. “I’m going to get to go in to work and tell everybody I’m behind Loretta McCready hanging up her spurs.”
“I have to try you out first. I ain’t the type to commit without knowing what I’m getting into.”
Jackie leaned back against the poker table, her skirt coming up higher on her thighs.
“But,” Loretta admitted, “I think my inclination on the matter’s probably clear.”
Jackie used the sleeve of her denim jacket to pull her closer, as if Loretta could really have stayed away. “Let’s see if we can’t steam up the windows on that inclination a little and then see if I can still make you out through all the yes you’ll be saying.”
Yes then and yes later, yes like she’d stay over, yes like she’d try.
(“I don’t give things up easy,” she would say, sometime later.
Jackie was stretched out in bed, the TV light throwing shadows on her legs, only one half of her smile visible from the way her head was turned against Loretta’s shoulder. “Loretta, you gave up a crime empire.”
“Baby,” Loretta said, the word still feeling stolen from some other language, “you know what you do to me.” And it would not be entirely true—neither of them was much devoted to or even interested in the entire truth—but it was the myth of them. Good lives, Loretta would think, had been built on worse foundations.)