Three weeks after Tess walks out of Terry Benedict's life, hopefully forever, there's a knock on the door of her hotel room in Los Angeles.
There has been a blessed lack of door-knockings in Tess's life of late, so she's not entirely thrilled by the interruption. She'd been indulging in quite a pleasant wallow, thanks.
The knock comes again -- actually, a staccato series of knocks, in a familiar rat-tat-a-tat-tat pattern. Her chest clenches. It can't actually be Danny, who is off serving his additional three to six months for violating parole, but for an instant, she can't imagine who else it could possibly be.
Rat-tat-a-tat-tat. Shave and a haircut.
She yanks the door open.
"Hey, Tess," Rusty says, slouching heavily against the doorway. He's got a half-empty bag of potato chips tucked under his arm and a manic glint in his eyes. "Long time no see."
"Nowhere near long enough," Tess retorts, narrowing her eyes at him. "Are you bleeding? Oh, Christ, you're bleeding, get the hell inside before anyone sees you."
"Cool," Rusty agrees, and staggers into her room.
Here's a thing most people don't know: Tess met Rusty first.
Not in the sense that she met Rusty before Danny did, because no, those two had been thick as thieves (literally, ha) long before Tess showed up. But Rusty was the first of the pair that Tess met, years before she ever laid eyes on Danny Ocean. She was working on her MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York in the late 1980s, juggling her courseload with working reception at a SoHo art gallery and going to meetings with a human rights activist group in the Village (to call it an "organization" would imply any real, well, organization -- it was more of a kaffeeklatsch that attended the occasional protest here and there), and she wound up bumping elbows with Rusty a few times at rallies and coffee shop talks. She never was sure, later, if Rusty had been genuinely interested in the group or if he'd been running a con on one of the other members. Probably the latter. But he was charming and attractive and intelligent, so she'd chatted him up a few times. They never got particularly close. He'd been a fairly regular presence for a few months, spring going into summer, hoisted signs at a Free Mandela rally and marched with a few of her artist friends in Pride. (She stopped trying to flirt with him after that, assuming it was a lost cause.) As the dense, humid heat of August settled into the city, he'd just stopped coming around, and that was that. She'd never given him much thought.
About five years later, her new fiance Danny invited her out to drinks with a few of his "old buddies from school", and there was Rusty. She blinked at him a few times. He introduced himself smoothly without missing a beat and gave no indication that he'd ever seen her before in his life, but a few drinks in, when Danny'd stepped away to get another round, he gave her a wink and a smirk and she knew he remembered.
They never discussed it. She didn't spend much time with that crowd, anyway. Danny knew better than to let her mingle too much with his fellow criminals. She wasn't stupid; she'd have figured it out eventually.
Maybe she'd always known.
What little first aid training she's had lapsed years ago, but Tess is a practical woman, and she knows how to patch up a minor head wound. It's not as bad as it looks, once you wipe off the blood.
"Blunt object?" she guesses, dabbing Rusty's temple with an alcohol wipe. The actual cut isn't too bad, and it's not deep enough to need stitches. "Not a bat, though, no splinters."
Rusty rolls his eyes. "You know, you're worryingly bloodthirsty sometimes. No, he just punched me. Wore a ring, though. Sharp little fucker."
"He punched the side of your head?"
"He was aiming for my face. I evaded. Wouldn't want to spoil my dashing good looks."
"The heterosexual women of the world thank you. Couldn't you have just ducked?"
"I didn't have much room to maneuver."
"You seem to have maneuvered your way out of the situation without too much damage."
Rusty shrugs. "He wasn't really trying to hurt me. Just a warning shot."
"Yeah?" Tess rummages through her purse and emerges with a small box of band-aids. Not ideal, but it'll have to do. "What was the warning?"
He hesitates a moment, then gives her a crooked smile. "You do realize Benedict's got a tail on you, right?"
She's been trying not to acknowledge that, thanks. But it stands to reason. Why else would Rusty have wound up at her door? "Yeah," she sighs. "I kinda figured."
There's a reason she's living out of a hotel.
She stays put until just past midnight. Rusty turns on the TV, muted, and she keeps the curtains drawn. He pays her remaining bill in cash, left with an apologetic note on the nightstand, and they leave Tess's rental car behind, too. She doesn't ask about the provenance of Rusty's station wagon, parked a few blocks away, and he doesn't ask why she's only got one piece of luggage. (She'd walked away from Terry Benedict. It's not like she could go back for her things.)
They switch cars outside of San Diego, and are crossing the border into Arizona by dawn.
She's not...on the run from Terry. Not really. She's not scared for her personal safety. Not while Danny's still in prison, at least, and even after, she doesn't think Terry would come after her in that way. He's vindictive, but not violent. Not when it comes to matters of the heart.
Had she been the one to cross him in business, well, she might not feel so secure.
So no, she's not trying to hide from Terry. Not exactly.
But just for a little while, she'd like to feel truly free of him.
They stop in Phoenix, and she assumes that's where Rusty will leave it. He helped her shake off Terry's tail; that's more than enough. She can handle herself from here. He drops her off at a nice hotel and pays for the room in cash for the week. She thanks him and goes upstairs to her new room, then falls directly into bed and sleeps for ten hours straight. When she finally gets up, her head feels clear for the first time in weeks, and she's starving.
Somehow, though, she's not surprised to find Rusty at the Mexican joint down the street, and she slides into the booth opposite him like they'd planned this.
Rusty just pushes his half-eaten plate of nachos across the table to her and flags down a waiter for another menu.
They linger in Phoenix for the full week. She doesn't know where Rusty is sleeping or what he spends his days doing, and doesn't ask. Tess sleeps luxuriously late every morning and then generally makes her way to the art museum. It's nothing special, but they have a solid collection of contemporary and Renaissance art, lesser works of some of the great masters and some very nice pieces by lesser ones, and although she's always prefered painting to other media, she finds the Thorne Miniature Rooms quite charming.
She reads the New York Times in its entirety every evening (despite her years in Vegas, she's an East Coast girl at heart) and tries not to think too hard about her future. She's got a decent amount in savings -- she'd hardly spent a dime of her own money as Terry's kept woman, so her modest income from running his private gallery had gone a lot further than it would have otherwise -- so she doesn't need to jump into the first job that will hire her, thankfully. But she does need to figure something out eventually. She won't lie to herself: those years with Terry, being kept like a trophy on a shelf, had been a nice respite from the real world. After Danny's betrayal (and that's certainly how it had felt at the time), and having to deal with the emotional and financial fallout from the divorce, it had been wonderful to just feel taken care of for a while. But seeing Danny again at the casino had been a real slap in the face. She'd seen herself through his eyes, all at once -- pampered and elegant and lonely, isolated from all her old friends and the passionate, vital art world she'd so loved -- and hated herself for it.
Tess likes nice things. She won't apologize for that. But she also likes having a purpose, doing some good in the world, and she's embarrassed at how far she'd let that drift.
Exactly one week after she checked into the hotel in Phoenix, Rusty knocks at her door (rat-tat-a-tat-tat) and says it's time to go.
"Anywhere in particular?" she asks. She's already packed.
He shrugs. "Your call. But make it a quick one. I'd rather be out of town before the Hicks brothers read their dad's will."
Tess has years of practice in not asking -- with Danny, sure, but also with Terry, in his own way. She lets the little bubble of curiosity at the corner of her mind pop and fizzle before it can stick. "How about Denver? They just received a major gift of western American paintings that I've been hearing some good buzz about."
"Works for me," Rusty says.
It's a lot longer of a drive from Phoenix to Denver than it was from L.A. to Phoenix, even though they're taking the direct route this time instead of the somewhat roundabout one Rusty had used to dodge the tail in L.A. They stop for the evening in Albuquerque. Tess orders room service alone while Rusty does...whatever Rusty does when he's in a new city. She quickly bores of the local TV options, but it's too early to fall asleep and she's restless in her own skin.
Rusty stops by her room around eight o'clock, tossing her a brown paper packet. She accepts it somewhat warily. Inside, she finds a handful of luridly colored comic books. She gives Rusty a skeptical look.
"You like art," he says, almost defensively. "Comics are art. And they tell a story, which is more than you can say for Picasso."
"Guernica," she retorts, though it's never been her favorite. She misses her Picasso, the woman with the guitar. Terry's Picasso, she supposes now, enshrined in that mockery of a museum in his casino where only the very wealthy will ever gawk at it. But in a way, it's still hers. It's always been hers.
He waves a dismissive hand. "Exception that proves the rule."
Tess stares down at the stack of superhero comics, still somewhat bemused. She actually used to like comics as a kid. Archie and Betty and Veronica featured regularly throughout her childhood, along with a few others. Tintin, of course, and the comic strips in the Sunday papers, Blondie and Peanuts and Dick Tracy. Not superheroes so much, though. She's seen a couple of Batman and Superman movies over the years, but they're not really her style.
"Why Catwoman?" she finally asks.
"Strong female character," Rusty says. "Figured you'd appreciate that. Also, thief. You should know what you're getting into, if you really do intend to take Danny back." He tosses her an ironic salute and heads down the hall to his own room.
She considers tossing the comics into the trash, but, well, she's really bored. May as well give them a try.
She tries. Superhero comics aren't her thing. She can appreciate the artistry; she just thinks the stories are dumb and improbable. Tess can only suspend her disbelief so far.
She does read through every single comic Rusty gave her, though. It's only polite.
There's a long stretch of nothing in particular after they pass Santa Fe; a bit of topography, the laughingly named little town of Las Vegas, New Mexico, and then the world outside becomes all brown and flat. Hardly even a cactus to break up the monotony. Rusty has an industrial-sized can of Pringles in the driver's side cup holder, and he munches occasionally. Tess finishes up the last of the Catwoman comics. Reading in the car gives her a headache, but she's long since lost interest in the campy dialogue, so she just skims through the story by illustration alone. She thinks she prefers it this way.
Catwoman seduces a museum guard. Tess sighs and looks out the window at nothing in particular.
"Did you ever use a honey trap on a mark?" she asks Rusty, the lingo feeling awkward and clunky when spoken aloud. She's pretty sure Rusty has to swallow back a laugh.
"Of course," he says. "Misdirection is crucial in a good con, and nothing's more distracting than sex."
"How do you manage it? If it's not someone you're attracted to, I mean."
He slants a glance over at her. "Come on, Tess, you never faked it? Not even with Terry?"
Tess frowns. "I cared about Terry, you know. Including the sex. He was pretty good in bed."
Not quite like Danny, though, who'd been smooth as silk and deeply attentive to Tess's needs. His voice alone, god. She misses his voice.
"Sure," Rusty says with a shudder. "Ugh. Sorry I asked. But when you're on a con...you're not entirely yourself. If that person is seducing the mark, then it's 'cause there's something seductive about them. That's what I see. The part of them that's attractive to the person I'm pretending to be."
She takes that in, lets it settle. "Did Danny ever seduce anyone for a scam?"
"It really doesn't happen as often as you seem to think," Rusty says, almost gently. "Not on most jobs. But yeah, when it was necessary, sure. He's pretty good at it."
Tess believes him.
Mountains finally emerge out of the empty landscape, sprouting up imposingly near the Colorado border. They'd agreed to swap drivers here, at about the midway point of the day's drive, and Rusty insists that they stop at the Dairy Queen in Raton first. Tess hasn't been to one in years. There had been a roadside Dairy Queen near where she'd grown up in Connecticut, and it had been a special treat on the occasional hot summer night. These days, they serve a lot more than just ice cream. Maybe they had back then, too, but she'd certainly never noticed.
Rusty gets a plate of food and a large cup of ice cream with all kinds of candy mixed in, a heart attack waiting to happen. She doesn't understand how he can eat all that junk at his age and still stay in shape. Maybe crime involves a lot of cardio. She contents herself with a chicken sandwich and a small vanilla cone dipped in chocolate sprinkles. It tastes just like she hadn't realized she remembered.
The road curves and climbs through the Raton Pass, and the hint of vanilla on her lips lingers all the way up into Colorado.
She gets through the new collection at the Denver Art Museum in less than a day, but Rusty pulls a vanishing act on her for the better part of three. Tess doesn't mind much. She hasn't spent a lot of time in Denver, and she likes this little high-altitude city nestled in among the mountains. There's a certain cleanness in the air. It's mid-spring, but the peaks are all still dusted with snow, even though the weather is warm in the city. She wanders aimlessly, and eventually makes her way back to the museum, because it's where she feels most at home.
When Rusty returns, he brings her more comics. This time it's Wonder Woman. Tess finds her story more appealing than Catwoman's, but the colors are too bright and less interesting.
Nebraska is even duller than northern New Mexico. Everything is flat. More green than brown, as spring settles in, but they leave the mountains behind in Denver and never glimpse anything remotely topographical again.
They somehow fall into an argument about cinema, largely based around Rusty wanting to find a theater playing some new WWII movie that got awful reviews, and Tess understandably rejecting this notion. It turns out that Rusty is a sucker for period dramas, and he's surprised to learn that Tess would prefer a classic noir over any kind of war movie, any day.
"I guess that makes some kinda sense," he mutters. "You always were Danny's femme fatale."
She glares at him. "What's that supposed to mean? I never got him into any kind of trouble. He handled that just fine on his own."
"He just robbed three casinos blind for you!"
"Well, I sure as hell didn't ask him to! Anyway, aren't you the one who put it all together?"
Rusty scowls, chewing on a disgusting piece of jerky. "He's always been the ideas man. I just make it happen."
"You're the one who got rich off it," she points out. "Not me."
They stew in silence for thirty-odd miles of absolutely fucking empty landscape.
"I like the cinematography in noir," she blurts out, finally, when she can't handle it anymore. "The play of light and shadow. The boldness of it. Film noir is the closest movies ever came to art."
Early on in their relationship, Danny had sat her down and forced her to watch a VHS of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, on the grounds that any true noir fan ought to appreciate it. To her surprise, she'd loved it. Something about the brightness of the toons in contrast to the dull grays and browns of the human world, the pointed skewering of the genre, the utter ridiculousness of the whole premise. Danny had watched her watch the movie the whole time, taking such obvious pride in her every reaction as though he'd been the one who'd written the damn thing.
Danny always did know how to make her laugh.
Rusty glances at her and then back at the road. He taps out a light tattoo on the steering wheel, shave and a haircut, and she can see Roger Rabbit vibrating with the need to explode into song, two bits…!
She wonders if he knew why Danny used that pattern of knocks, or if he'd just absorbed it as something ineffably Danny and never really wondered why.
No, Rusty notices everything. It's what he's best at.
"No wonder you fell for Danny," he remarks, but there's no real bite to it. "He's always had that sort of classic movie star look."
Tess smiles. "I think he likes to think he has a Humphrey Bogart vibe going on, but the world-weary cynic style has never really suited him."
"Nah, not Bogart," Rusty agrees. "More Sinatra, maybe. Rat Pack. Classy, charming, always a bit above the fray."
She hums in agreement. Danny's not much of a singer, but she can see it for sure.
The Joslyn in Omaha doesn't have much of a collection to speak of, but on this long stretch of nothing through the flyover states, it's worth the visit just to clear her mind. There's a Raymond Jonson piece that she finds rather appealing, at least, and she makes a note to seek out more of his work in the future before remembering that she has no gallery to curate anymore.
Well, one never knows what the future might hold.
She doesn't expect Omaha to be a long visit, and sure enough, Rusty's back within thirty-six hours with a new car (a fairly respectable Honda) and a newly released comic book, Gotham Noir.
This one, she might even consider art.
They spend some time debating the best route to Minneapolis, but there's no real heat behind it. It's just a choice between two different stretches of Iowa. So a whole lot of nothing no matter which way you swing it.
Iowa apparently breaks Rusty, because when it's Tess's turn at the wheel, he tries to engage her in road trip games.
"I spy with my little eye, something that starts with C."
"I'm not playing, Rusty."
"C'mon, Tess. Starts with C."
"There are fifty miles of cornfields in all directions, even if you veer off the road it's not like we're gonna go anywhere. I spy something that starts with C."
Tess sighs. "Corn."
"One point to the lady in the driver's seat!" Rusty crows. "Your turn."
She resigns herself to her fate. "Okay, fine. I spy something--"
"With your little eye, Tess."
She shoots him a glare. "I spy with my little fucking eye, something that starts with R."
Rusty smirks at her. He never properly smiles, Tess thinks; it's always a bit sideways, a bit crooked, quicksilver. "Rusty."
"Self-centered, much? No."
"Ew, no. Closer, though."
"What does that even -- wait, the road? That's it? The road." He shakes his head. "Wow, you really are that boring."
"Says the guy whose grand contribution to the game was corn. No wonder Danny is the ideas guy."
He could choose to take offense at that, but he laughs it off instead. "I can get creative in a pinch. All right, my turn. I spy--"
"How did you meet him?" she asks, all at once, because she's always wondered. "The two of you -- it's like you've always just been there, but there must've been a first time at some point."
Tess's face heats up a little as the unintended double entendre sinks in, but Rusty's apparently in a forgiving mood, because again, he lets it slide unremarked upon. He fishes a bag of goldfish crackers out of the glove compartment -- she has no idea when he stashed them there -- and munches thoughtfully for a minute. "What's Danny told you?" he finally asks.
If she were feeling meaner, she might ask snidely if he's trying to make sure their stories line up. But Rusty's been downright friendly today, for Rusty, and she knows there's an element of genuine curiosity to his question. "The first time he introduced us, he said you were college buddies," she says. "But Danny never actually went to college, did he?"
"Not in the traditional sense, no," Rusty says judiciously. "Though he was smart enough for it."
"He's smarter than plenty of Ph.D.s I've met," Tess agrees. "I'd never have fallen for him if he was stupid. But that's not the point."
"He wasn't exactly lying," Rusty goes on. "We did meet in college, at a frat party. Neither of us were students, though. We were running low-key scams on the frats. I was...eighteen or nineteen, I think, and he's only a couple of years older, so we both fit right in. Wound up trying to hustle each other at pool. Damn stupid waste of time."
He's smiling to himself, though, a private, sincere sort of smile that Tess never sees. She's seen photos of Danny at around twenty -- dark, unruly hair, heavy eyebrows, and a sly, piercing grin. He always seemed to have an easy, confident grace. Now she tries to picture Rusty at that age, his baby face softer and rounder, blond hair flopping in his eyes, all that sharp nervous energy of his twitchier, less graceful, more coltish. Imagines Danny laying on the charm and Rusty grinning widely and easily, young enough to be loose and unguarded, eager to show off, to impress.
Of course they'd zeroed right in on each other.
"Anyway," Rusty says eventually. "Saul damn near knocked our heads together when he found out about it. He'd been meaning to introduce us for a while. You ever meet Saul?"
"Danny's mentor," she says. "Yes, a few times. Sweet older gentleman."
Rusty snorts. "Right. To you, maybe. He can be a real hard-ass when he wants to be. But give the old man credit, he's still got it."
"He was with you in Vegas," Tess says slowly, realizing. "Him and...oh, what was his name, another one of your 'college buddies.' Fred? Phil?"
"How many of you were in on that?" A hell of a lot, Tess thinks, putting it together. Heist like that, they would've needed a pretty sizeable team.
"Eleven, all told," Rusty says. "You know Reuben, right? Through Terry? Yeah, he bankrolled us. I don't think you ever met any of the other guys."
Rusty shrugs. "Just how it shook out. Debbie was unavailable, and Lou can't stand me anyway."
Tess sometimes forgets that Danny even has a sister. "Danny hasn't spoken to Debbie in years."
"That's part of it, yeah. Can we get back to the game now?"
It's still hours until they hit Minneapolis. Tess shrugs. "Go ahead."
"I spy with my little eye, something that starts with S."
"Sky," she says, certain of it, because that's all there is on this stretch of Iowa: corn and road and sky.
"I spy with my little eye, something fucking weird."
Tess swallows back a laugh. "It's an iconic piece of modern sculpture."
Rusty narrows his eyes suspiciously. "It's a giant spoon with a giant cherry. And the cherry is pissing out of its stem. How the hell is this art?"
Privately, Tess agrees. Spoonbridge and Cherry is just plain ridiculous. "If your superhero comics are art, so is this."
Rusty just shakes his head.
It's the first time he's actually accompanied her to one of the museums in any of the cities they've stopped in, though, and Tess realizes she's kind of enjoying herself.
The comics he picks up for her in Minneapolis are particularly garish and absurd, and the first time the Tick bellows his battlecry "SPOON!", Tess laughs so hard she can't breathe.
Next up is Chicago -- the Art Institute, obviously, because Tess has never actually seen Seurat's masterwork in person. Rusty tags along on the first day, like he had in Minneapolis, and they spend a solid half hour discussing A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which is about twenty-nine minutes longer than she would've expected his patience to last. She's pretty sure he's working through the logistics of stealing it the whole time.
It shouldn't surprise her that Rusty can carry on actual intelligent conversations about art -- god knows Danny can, and Rusty wouldn't be a good thief if he didn't appreciate the value of what he stole. But it's a real pleasure to debate the merits of the various lesser Picassos on display with someone who speaks the language.
("I like that you like it," Terry had said of her -- no, his Picasso, damn it, as though it were just another tasteful bauble he could use to ornament her.)
They're in Chicago for the better part of two weeks, and apart from that first museum day, Rusty mostly leaves Tess be. He casually lets slip that he's helping a friend out with a quick job, since they were passing through town anyway, and she's surprised at how little it bothers her. She hopes he's not actually going to steal the Seurat, though. It's much too large to fence easily.
He's in the room next to hers at the hotel, and he slips her a new comic every night. The latest batch -- Sandman -- is darker and more interesting than Rusty's usual superhero fare, more along the lines of fantasy or even mythology, and although the subject matter skirts closer to horror than Tess would prefer, she finds herself becoming engrossed. There's a Hieronymus Bosch-esque quality to the artwork that is equally off-putting and intriguing. She's not sure she wants to know where the story is going, but she can't stop reading.
On their last evening in Chicago, Rusty takes her out to an Irish pub not far from the expressway. "This one's Danny's favorite, when he's in Chicago," he says by way of explanation.
Tess had never been to Chicago before this trip, with or without Danny. She's not entirely sure whether this is a subtle dig on Rusty's part -- a way of showing off that he knows her husband better than she does. She decides instead to be honored that he's bringer her a bit further into Danny's heart, keeping him present with them even as he's still behind bars a thousand miles across the country.
The pub feels very Danny, all dark wood paneling and exposed brick and a warm, old-timey vibe. She's instantly comfortable here in a way she never was in any of Terry's glitzy restaurants.
They head over to a booth that's already occupied by a youngish man in a Cubs cap. Rusty introduces him as Linus Caldwell, the friend he'd been doing a favor over the past two weeks. There's something naggingly familiar about Linus's face, though Tess would swear they'd never met; eventually, she just assumes that he'd been in Vegas with all the others, and she must've seen him in passing on the casino floor a few times. He's a friendly enough guy, not quite as young as he projects himself to be, and he's clearly somewhat in awe of Rusty. He tells stories and jokes in the same breezy fashion that Danny and Rusty do, although he still sounds a bit too practiced at it, and he flirts lightly with Tess but immediately backs down when Rusty shoots him a look. So she's still Danny's girl, after all.
The guys start with beer but progress quickly to scotch and bourbon, and Tess keeps pace as best she can. She used to be able to knock back tequila shots with the best of them, but she hasn't had more than the occasional glass of wine over the past few years -- Terry didn't like his women drunk -- and she feels the alcohol more quickly than she'd expected.
"So you two know each other through Danny, right?" Linus asks, a few rounds in.
"Yeah," Rusty says, at the same time that Tess says, "Actually, I met Rusty first."
"Huh," Linus says. "How'd that happen?"
Rusty slants her a quick sideways glance. "Mutual friends," he says. "Back in the late '80s. Just in passing, though."
"The '80s, huh?" Linus grins. He has an easy smile, wide and friendly, quite unlike Rusty's quicksilver smirks. Whatever his other talents, the kid has a knack for projecting sincerity. "I would've loved to see this guy back then. Please tell me he had a mullet."
Tess smiles. "Sorry to disappoint. His hair was a lot longer back then, though."
"And my style has always been classic," Rusty says smoothly. "Linus, you wanna get us another round?"
"Sure thing." Linus flashes a little wad of cash and grins again as he gets to his feet. "Your treat."
Rusty frowns after him, patting the pockets of his jacket. "Little shit," he mutters. "Even Danny never made a lift that smooth."
The pub has gotten more crowded as the evening wears on; it'll probably take Linus a few minutes to get their drinks. Tess's head buzzes from the alcohol, and it's easier to say: "I always did wonder what you were doing with our group, back then. Were you running a con?"
"On your little activist committee? Nah," Rusty says. "I really did know one of your friends -- Alex, you remember, the FIT kid? Redhead?"
"Oh." Tess frowns. Maybe. It seems so…pedestrian, that Rusty really had been hanging out with them just because he'd felt like it. "I thought...well, you just kinda disappeared."
"I'm not saying I wasn't running a con at the time," Rusty clarifies. "I did have to leave town pretty quick at one point. Alex knew a guy who -- well, anyway, it was a bit of a long game."
She's starting to remember Alex now, hazily. Redhead, right. Fashion student. "Was he your boyfriend?"
Rusty blinks a few times. "What makes you ask?"
"Nothing really. Just thinking about Alex. He dated a few guys in my class at SVA. Didn't you all march in Pride together?"
"You don't have to be gay to walk in Pride."
"No, of course not. Lots of people do, these days. But not so much back then." She definitely remembers the '80s. She'd lost more than a few friends in the art world over that decade and change. "It's no big deal, you know. If you were. Anyway, I used to wonder if that's why you and I never…"
"Nah," Rusty says, not meeting her eyes. "I was on a job at the time. Never a good idea to get mixed up with civilians while you're working. Tends to end messily."
"Like me and Danny?" She smiles ruefully. "He was definitely in the process of robbing my gallery when we first met. I'm impressed that he managed to hide it from me for so long, actually."
"He didn't, really," Rusty says. "You just chose not to see." When she looks up at him sharply, he puts his hands up, a placating gesture. "Hey, Tess, I didn't mean anything by it. I just meant -- it's Danny. Guy like that…" He shakes his head. "There's a whole lot you'd be willing to ignore, for someone like Danny."
Something twists a little in her chest. She opens her mouth to ask -- but Linus returns then, with the next round, so instead she knocks back her scotch and soda. It makes her eyes water.
They're both hungover on their way out of Chicago, and Rusty insisted on breakfast at a Cracker Barrel even though the smell of fried food makes her nauseous. Tess kind of hates her life at the moment. So maybe that explains why she finally addresses the elephant in the room (well, car) somewhere in Indiana, of all places.
"You and Danny," she says, while it's her turn at the wheel and he's functionally trapped. From the vaguely betrayed look he shoots her over his sunglasses, he knows it, too. "That happened at some point, right?"
She keeps her eyes on the road, but in her peripheral vision, she can see him weighing his options. His first instinct is probably to deny everything, but he doesn't, which is nice. She hates it when guys treat her like she's an idiot.
He visibly ponders a few different possible responses before finally settling on: "How much do you actually want to know?"
It's a good question. She forces herself to consider it carefully. "I don't need all the gory details," she says. "And I don't mean to pry. You've known each other a long time, there's a lot of history there, and I'd rather hear it from Danny. But once I came into the picture--"
"No," he says at once, then reconsiders. "Not once he got serious about you, anyway. He's bisexual, not a cheat."
Tess lifts an eyebrow.
"Okay, he is a cheat, but that's just cards."
And the whole thievery thing, but from Rusty's perspective… "Fair enough." Some asshole in a Jeep Wrangler has been veering between lanes for the past few miles, and now he's trying to pass her on the right. She steps a little harder on the gas just to piss him off. "But after I, um…"
"After you left him?" Rusty says, a touch too sharply.
Tess sighs, biting back a retort and counting to ten slowly in her head. She shifts out of the left lane and lets the Wrangler pass. "Okay, I guess I deserved that. It's none of my business."
They drive on in silence for a few long minutes. Rusty pulls a packet of sunflower seeds out of the glove compartment and starts cracking them between his teeth, rolling his window down a few inches to toss the shells out. It's deeply irritating, but she doesn't comment.
"We haven't since," Rusty finally says, long after she assumed the subject was closed. "After you left, he was...not in a great place, emotionally. And then he was in jail, which was also not a great place, but in a more literal sense. And then we had a job to do. Part of which involved winning you back, apparently. So no, Tess, I have not fucked your husband lately."
Maybe it's unfair of her, but she is a little relieved to hear it.
Tess doesn't remember how exactly she found out that Danny was bi, and it's never been particularly important to her. They'd been introduced through a mutual friend, Peter, who worked in the gallery with Tess and who was flamingly gay, so at first she'd just assumed Danny was his latest squeeze. Hindsight being 20/20, she realizes that Danny probably had been, at least inasmuch as a relationship with Peter got him access to a rather lucrative collection of antique jewelry. Peter had quit the gallery after the scandal of the theft, but Danny kept coming around to see her. No one had ever even suspected him.
Her husband, Tess has to acknowledge, is an exceptionally talented thief.
Beyond a touch of voyeuristic curiosity, Tess has never much cared that Danny had had relationships with men as well as women. In general, he seemed to prefer women; overall, though, he preferred Tess, and that was what mattered most. She has her character flaws, but jealousy was never foremost among them.
Rusty, though. She'd always known, deep down, that if Danny were ever to leave her, it would be for Rusty; it was only after Danny went to jail that she understood. It wasn't so much Rusty, the man, but the lifestyle he represented. The thrill of the con, the sheer joy in the game of it -- that's what Rusty can give him, and Tess never can.
She can learn to live with it, though, if she wants Danny back. If she loves him. And she does, damn it. She really does.
Rusty doesn't buy her any new comics in Detroit, and she's less impressed with their Institute of Arts than she expected to be. So that whole side jaunt is kind of a bust overall.
Tess had considered swinging by the Cleveland Museum of Art, since it's relatively close to Detroit anyway, but Rusty's been in a mood and when he tells her he needs to hit up Baltimore next, she just suggests that he drop her off in Washington so that she can do the Smithsonian. He grunts agreement and claims the wheel for the first leg of the trip.
Detroit to D.C. is at least an eight-hour drive, and Tess is tired of this cold war. An hour into Ohio, she tentatively clears her throat.
"I spy with my little eye, something that starts with A."
For a long moment, she thinks Rusty is just going to ignore her, like he's ignored countless of Danny's minor bad habits and indiscretions over the years. It makes her sad to think that she might just be another petty annoyance to him now.
But eventually he sighs. "Automobile?"
"I'm not that old-fashioned, thanks," Tess says, in mock outrage. "I may like film noir, but I'm not living in one."
"Okay, okay. Uh, anthill?"
"You think I could spot something that small at the speed you're driving?"
"Now you're just listing animals that start with A."
"Okay, how about...absolutely nothing."
She gives him a small smile. "Give up, Rusty?"
"Yeah, sure." Something she likes about Rusty: despite his line of work, he's not particularly competitive. Winning games is all well and good, especially professionally, but mostly he just enjoys playing. "What starts with A?"
"Apology," she says.
He lifts an eyebrow. "If you're asking me to--"
"No, no. I am. I'm sorry, Rusty," she tells him, and means it. "I really shouldn't have pried. Whatever you and Danny have -- it doesn't matter. It's between you and Danny."
"You have a right to know if your own husband is sleeping around," he says evenly.
"Yes, I do. But who he did or didn't sleep with before our relationship, or during our separation -- that's none of my business, and I'm sorry."
He doesn't say anything for a long while. They're approaching the outskirts of Cleveland.
"It's not about the sex, you know," Rusty finally tells her. "Danny is…" He trails off.
She thinks about Danny, the way he can light up an entire room with his smile, how he can make you the very center of his attention, like nothing else in the world matters. How smart he is, the way his brain can spin in twelve different directions at once without a hint of it ever showing on his face, how he's always ten steps ahead of everyone else but never mean about it, never rubs it in their faces. And he's generous -- with his money, sure, but also his time, his attention, his care. Everyone around him is the brighter for it.
"I know," she says.
They stop in Cleveland for lunch, and then Rusty pulls right up into the museum parking lot. It adds an extra day to their trip, but he doesn't seem to mind.
He disappears for a full week while she's in D.C. Fortunately, the Smithsonian is very large, and she's only ever explored a handful of its composite museums. May as well broaden her horizons.
She thinks Air and Space is overrated, and the National Gallery is nice enough but not terribly diverse in its offerings, but finds herself unexpectedly charmed by the Sackler. She's never spent much time with East Asian art -- it's not her primary milieu -- but after weeks on the road with Rusty's comics, something about the strong lines and bold colors of woodblock prints, of painted screens, resonates with her in a way it never has before. She spends hours upon hours there, and emerges bemused to discover that evening has fallen on the city.
There's a message waiting for her at the hotel that night. Rusty will meet her in New York.
She buys a train ticket for first thing the next morning. The ride up leaves her feeling isolated and adrift. Tess used to enjoy traveling alone -- time to herself, to think and to plan -- but now it just seems empty. She's gotten used to the company.
Rusty maintains an apartment in Chinatown, not too far from her old Soho gallery. The building doesn't look like much from the outside, but the lobby is clean and clearly well-maintained, and although there's no elevator, it's only one flight up. She can manage that much with her lone suitcase.
There's a doorbell, but she knocks instead, shave and a haircut.
"Hey, Tess," he says. "Come on in."
She follows him in, looking around curiously. Rusty is likely a millionaire -- at least, he certainly is after the casino heist -- but you wouldn't know it from his place. It's on the smaller side, and doesn't get much natural light. There's some genuinely nice art on the walls, though, and he's made good use of the space, arranging the sparse furniture in a way that makes it feel like there's more room than he actually has. It's remarkably uncluttered, too, which is surprising in light of Rusty's personal habits. Then again, maybe he's just never here long enough to mess it up.
"Sorry for ditching you in Washington," he tosses over his shoulder as he heads down a narrow hallway. "I had to dump the car, and -- well, it's kind of a long story."
"That's all right," Tess says, taking a seat on the couch. Well, it has pretensions of couch-ness. It's really more of a loveseat. "I don't mind taking the train. I just didn't expect that New York was going to be our next stop."
"Yeah, I thought you might want to check out the Duchamp in Philly next," Rusty calls from the other room. "It's a real beaut."
Tess shrugs. "I've seen it." She had kind of wanted to go back, though. Not that there aren't plenty of wonderful museums in New York, but, well, she'd spent years here. She's seen everything this city has to offer ten times over.
She always assumed that she'd end up back in New York, had always dreamed of a job at the MoMA or Whitney. But...not yet, she thinks now. There's still plenty of road to cover first.
"Not that I'm not thrilled to see your apartment," she calls, after a few quiet minutes. "But is there a reason you wanted me to come here in particular?"
He sticks his head back out. "Yeah. Got a thing for you. Come here."
For a second, she genuinely wonders if he's trying to seduce her. She's been up to more than a few artists' rooms to check out their "etchings" in her day. Hell, she's pretty sure that's the line she'd used on Danny, way back when.
She's not sure how she feels about this, if it is. Danny probably wouldn't mind -- he's probably fantasized about being the filling of a Tess-and-Rusty sandwich for years -- but...
Rusty rolls his eyes. "Not like that, Christ. Like I don't have enough complications in my life right now. But seriously, Tess."
"Another comic book?" she asks lightly as she goes to him, refusing to be embarrassed by the momentary misunderstanding. "Really, Rusty…"
She sees it.
"...you shouldn't have," she finishes weakly.
He grins, a little crookedly. "It's art. You like art."
It's her Picasso, Woman with a guitar, all bold lines and subdued but shimmering colors, disjointed and unfocused and melancholy, like she's not quite finished yet, but getting there.
"You stole from Terry?" She swallows. "Again?"
He shrugs. "He'll never miss it. I've got a really excellent forger who works out of Baltimore. It was an easy swap."
"How did you know it was my favorite?"
Again, he just shrugs. "Lucky guess."
Rusty never guesses. He observes, and analyzes, and plans meticulously. A theft like this would've taken more than the week he was missing from D.C. How long has he been orchestrating this little gift?
"I…" She swallows hard, not sure what to say. "I don't have anywhere to put it."
"Yeah, I figured, what with the whole lack of permanent residence and all." He runs his thumb along the edge of the frame. "I can store it in the meantime. You gonna find a place here in New York, or you wanna go back to Connecticut for a while?"
"I'm not sure yet. Once Danny gets out -- I don't know." She runs a hand through her hair. "Everything's so up in the air right now."
They stand there awkwardly for a little while, just looking at the Picasso. She really loves this painting.
"Well," Rusty finally says, clearing his throat. "I gotta head back out tonight. Got to see a guy about a thing."
"Of course," Tess says. She fiddles with her purse strap. "Where to next?"
Rusty studies her for a minute. "Boston."
She hums noncommittally. "Nice town. I love the Museum of Fine Arts. They have a couple of really lovely Monets."
"Yeah, but I bet you like the Turner better."
Tess smiles a little. "Maybe."
"Got room in the car," Rusty says casually. "If you've got nothing better to do."
There's at least another month or two before Danny gets out. She really doesn't.
"Sure," Tess says. "Let's go."