They mostly got by on confidence tricks, in those days. Got by, but didn’t do well. Grifting really wasn’t their thing. But with Len blacklisted from most of the crews in town, they didn’t have much choice.
“So, for this fee the Central City Blaze can run your advertisement for six issues,” he was saying, leaning across the counter to show the storekeeper. “But, you’re in luck, my friend. Thanks to this month’s special offer, it’s just another hundred dollars for twelve weeks.”
Len faked a blinding smile. His cheap suit itched.
The storekeeper leaned hard on his cane and looked delighted. “Well that’s just wonderful, son. I have the cash right here. Just a moment.” He disappeared behind a curtain.
Len scratched the back of his neck, not looking at the half-empty shelves around him.
The storekeeper returned with a stuffed envelope. “And thank you - I’m really very glad you came by today. I’m sure this will do wonders for the business. God knows we need it.”
Len’s smile didn’t didn’t betray the spike of ice in his gut.
You think you’re better than this family?
He ambled home to Mick, feeling the envelope in his pocket, and kicking the sidewalk.
He clattered into the apartment building. There was graffiti across a few of the mailboxes, something tediously racist that probably wasn’t about him. He pulled a key and a note out of the mailbox for Apt 5, where Wynters had been scrawled across the name space. Then he headed up the stairs, avoiding the broken handrail with its sharp edges.
“You here?” he called out as he came in through the door. The apartment was mostly one room. A half-kitchen took over most one long wall. A pull-out couch shoved against another filled most of the rest of the space, along with an upturned crate used as a coffee table. A makeshift curtain led through to a tiny bathroom.
After a moment, Mick came out through the curtain into the main room. “You get ‘em to pay up?” he asked, and went to the kitchen counter. “Coffee?”
Len sighed and dropped onto the sofa, staring at the ceiling. “Yeah. And, yeah.” Cracks interrupted his gaze, again and again.
A coffee appeared in front of him, and Mick sat back and regarded him. “You good?”
“I guess.” He shifted in his seat.
Mick raised a silent eyebrow.
“I just mean,” Len said, coming in at the middle of the conversation they’d had a hundred times. “How long we gonna keep doing this? I just think we could be doing…”
An impatient “What?” interrupted the silence.
Len shrugged. “Something else.”
“You still thinking about doing something bigger, huh?”
Sighing, he let Mick curl himself around him. “If Lewis wasn’t in the pockets of every Family running this shitty town, maybe we could.”
“You’re better than that bastard,” Mick said, in a tone of absolute faith that Len didn’t deserve.
Len stared at his hands and said nothing.
Waiting for a late-running Mick to emerge from upstairs, Len sat on a step, looking at the weeds poking through the cracks.
The apartment block was crumbling. The flight of concrete steps leading up to the door was missing chunks, jagged edges running all the way up to the door. The wall running down alongside the steps had mostly fallen down. A window on the first floor was broken and boarded over.
It was nowhere.
Two teenagers he knew a bit - neighbors, he guessed you could call them - smiled as they passed him on the stairs, then went back to arguing in ASL.
Above his head, a woman poked her head out of one window and called up to someone in the apartment above. A man obligingly opened it and answered her. Then he looked down at Len, who recognised the tired-looking man in his fifties as Clayton Harris. He was a distant cousin of Len’s mother. It had been a strange coincidence, running into him in a building they’d only moved into to lay low for a while, but not one that worried Len too much. Stranger things, and all that.
“You good, Len?” he called down.
Len inclined his head at him.
“There’s something I wanted to talk to you about,” Clayton said, as the woman below closed her window. “You free?”
“Not today.” Len indicated the bag he was holding. “Waiting on my disorganised partner. Tomorrow?”
Clayton smiled. “Sure, son. It can wait.”
It was a small fire, all things considered. Mrs Castillo’s apartment was tiny. She had three children. And a dog.
The other residents of the building stood out on the corner in the middle of the night and watched as the family were carried out, one by one.
Their teenage neighbors - a brother and sister, Len remembered - were crying on each others’ shoulders beside him. He turned away.
Len didn’t realise his hands were shaking until Mick appeared and enveloped them in his own bigger, safer ones. “We tried to get in to get them out,” Mick was murmuring in his ear. Len didn’t know who the rest of ‘we’ was. “Fire service was already here. They were already -” He cut off.
“She owed money,” Len managed to say. “A lot, I think.”
Mick grimaced. “Yeah.”
“You know who’s doing a lot of the enforcing around here, these days, don’t you?” Len forced out.
“Yeah...” Mick said again. He was quiet. So was the street, Len noticed suddenly, looking around at a dozen eerily silent people.
He swallowed. “That fucking dog never shut up.”
Mick wrapped himself around his partner, out there in public, for anyone to see.
Len gave himself a moment in Mick's arms. Then he slid out of his grasp and walked a little nearer to the building, staring up at the charred panels and shattered windows of one side of the fourth floor.
Sitting on the floor in the middle of his tiny apartment, Len found himself surrounded by a dozen other residents of the building. The throng perched on every surface and squeezed into every corner, Mick pressing beers into their hands.
“We want to call it a neighborhood watch," the Baxter girl signed, her brother translating for her. (Ellie, Len remembered after a moment. Apartment 12. He guessed she was about eighteen. Her brother, Steve, was maybe two years younger. No one asked how they paid their rent. Len had had a soft spot for the kids ever since he and Mick moved into the flat opposite theirs, and it had become clear that no one was looking after them except each other. Then he saw Ellie take down a would-be burglar attempting to get into old Mr Evans’ precarious ground floor apartment, and his grudging respect for them took on a tinge of weirded-out nervousness. There were some ridiculous rumours flying around about how the kids knew how to defend themselves so well. Len thought back to when he was on his own at eighteen, and wondered if they just had very developed survival skills.)
“That neighborhood watch shit is for more respectable neighbourhoods,” Mick was saying.
That got him a poke from the white-haired old lady crammed onto the sofa next to him. (Mrs Walker, Apartment 16, constantly being loudly threatened with eviction, somehow still there.) “Children!” she hissed, pointing at Steve. Who Len had recalled saying significantly worse things than that before.
Mick shrugged and swigged his beer.
Len had been learning a bit of ASL ever since they moved in opposite the kids. He was terrible, but he was trying. “You two should run it,” he attempted to sign back at Ellie, speaking aloud as he did.
Steve laughed and signed something presumably a bit more accurate to his sister, who smiled and shook her head. “You,” Ellie replied.
Len didn’t need that translated. He sighed. “Look, kid. You’re sincere. I appreciate that.” He looked around the room at the others. “All of you - it’s nice that you care about what’s going on around here - about what happened to the Castillos. But everyone’s best bet is just to keep our heads down. Nothing we can do about it.”
“Lot of people around here respect you,” Clayton said from where he sat on the edge of the crate. “Things been getting worse and worse around here. Too many bad incidents. Someone’s gotta do something. Else it’s them next,” he nodded at Ellie and Steve. “Or her,” he said, indicating Mrs Walker.
“Not our business,” Len said. “Not any of yours, either.” He glanced over at Mick. “We’re not staying long, and we don’t need to show up on any Family radars.”
“It became our business when they carried Mrs Castillo and her kids out of here,” Clayton said, looking everywhere except at Len.
Len felt his eyes narrow. He sat for a minute and peeled the label off his beer, squirming against the tension around him. “Look. I like you all,” he said at last. “But this is Family shit. Trust me. You don’t wanna get involved.”
“It’s not,” Clayton insisted. “Sure, a lot of us are in... situations. Not with them, though. You owe to anyone with Family connections?” he asked Mrs Walker, who shook her head. “And you kids,” he said, turning to Steve. “You don’t work for the Families, do you?”
Steve scowled and didn’t answer, but Ellie poked him for a translation. On getting it, she, too, shook her head at Clayton.
At the back of the room, Rosa (Apartment 19, Len figured probably a working girl) spoke up. “Look, we all know what side of town we live on. But this hasn’t never been Family territory. Didn’t any of you think maybe someone’s taking advantage of that?” She looked at Len. “Someone needs to protect this neighborhood.”
Len snorted. “You want to swap one protection racket for another? You people have problems.”
“What else do you want us to do?” Clayton said, looking up at him at last. “This is not about the mob, Len. None of us are even half that important. This is a pile of bad shit with not much connecting it.”
“No. One thing,” Ellie signed insistently. She looked at Len. “Your father.”
Len didn’t need that last part translating, either. He turned an angry glance on Clayton, assuming a source for the rumours. Clayton replied with a guilty one. “I got nothing to do with him,” Len growled back at Ellie.
Ellie met his eyes with a challenge and didn’t look away.
Len was still sitting in the centre of the floor long after everyone left.
You think you’re better than me?
They started small.
A word here. A connection made there. A favour done, and another asked for.
Soon they knew where Lewis Snart was, and where he was going to be.
And still Len didn’t do anything about it.
“I owe 15 grand,” Clayton said, from where he sat on Len and Mick’s sofa. Len was propped up against the windowsill, staring out of the window, while Mick made more bad coffee. “Didn’t start out that way,” Clayton continued morosely, “but, you know. Interest and whatnot. They’re gonna come collect eventually,” he added, his eyes wide.
“Who?” Len asked, though he knew by now. The answer was always the same.
Clayton’s eyebrows arched at Len. “He’s just a middleman, but he’s got fingers in all the pies. Works for gangs, loan sharks, you name it. They know he can handle the police.” He looked up at Len. “You know this, yeah?”
A car stuttered below the window. Len watched it struggling along on the street, half-dead but still going.
“He ain’t my responsibility,” Len said, after a long moment.
Clayton raised his eyebrows at him. “The Baxter kids think they been tracked down by people they don’t want to see,” he said cryptically, playing with his empty cup.
Len half-turned, risking a glance at him. “Do I need more of that story?”
A shrug. “Not really. What you need is to make sure he doesn’t come near them.”
Mick leaned heavily against the kitchen cabinet where the door was falling off its hinges.
Len turned back to the window. “I’ll do what I can.”
It wasn't until they were alone again that he felt Mick’s eyes on him. It was a while before he looked up. “What?”
“He’s gonna keep coming back,” Mick observed.
Len turned on him. “I’m aware,” he hissed. “He’s my old man. As everyone around here’s just so keen to keep reminding me.”
Mick stood down Len’s glare. “You do know why he’s harassing the folks in this building, don’t you?”
Slamming down his coffee cup, dousing the already-graying windowsill with splatters of off-white liquid, Len snapped, “I’m not a complete fool.”
“Oh? I was starting to wonder.”
There was nowhere in the apartment for him to storm off to. Len just walked out.
He pretended his blood didn’t run cold when he finally caught sight of Lewis Snart.
He and Mick had set up outside the building to wait for him, backed up by a guy from one of Len’s old crews, along with a couple of the more resolute residents, keeping just out of sight.
Len sat on his shaking hands on the low wall outside the building. Surrounded by people who had his back, and it wasn’t helping. He hadn’t seen the bastard in five years. He would have been more than happy to make that situation permanent.
From his position on one side of the door to the building, with Mick on the other, Len looked at his father across the small street separating them.
Cars ran between them at almost-reassuring intervals.
Beside him, Mick growled, and Len put up a hand to quiet him.
“This place is closed for business,” Len called out, his voice steadier than he was expecting. “You’re not gonna bother the nice people here anymore.”
Lewis smiled, all teeth. “The fuck’s it got to do with you? Now if you’ll let me go on with my legal right of way, I gotta see a kid about someone she owes money to.”
For a few furious, endless seconds, he was a teenager again, standing between his father and Lisa.
And then, he wasn't. “She’s eighteen, and you’re not going anywhere near her.”
Lewis shrugged and just got louder - an old, tired trick. “Not my problem how old she is. Owes my client.”
“Lewis Snart, petty enforcer?" Len’s shoulders shook a little with his cold laugh. "Threatening kids for - what is it today? An ex-pimp, or something?” Lewis’s eyebrow raise half-confirmed his theory. “Impressive work you’re doing there.”
“Think you’re better than me, son?” Lewis taunted.
Len let a few more cars pass, breathing into the space between them. “Leave, or we’ll make you." He aimed for menacing, hoping Lewis couldn't hear behind the lie.
Since he'd last seen his father, he'd worked dozens of successful jobs. He'd been to prison twice. He hadn't gone far, but he'd done more than the man in front of him had ever bothered thinking he would. Lewis had never been that imaginative.
Lewis looked between Len and a looming Mick beside him, who definitely was giving off a threatening vibe. “Fine,” he said at last, through clenched teeth. He pointed at Len. “Don’t think this is over.” Then he stalked away down the street.
Len all but fled upstairs, Mick trailing behind him. He went straight for the top kitchen cabinet, where he’d stashed a bottle of whiskey that had been part payment for a job a while back.
Mick watched him from the door. “You okay?”
He didn't answer. The bottle rattled against the glass as he poured. Then he collapsed onto the couch, exhaling properly for the first time since he saw the bastard.
Mick followed him, but let him sit in silence for a while.
Len didn’t raise his eyes from his drink. “I can’t…” He trailed off, then started again. “There’s no way out of this mess,” he muttered. “Not without -” He gestured around himself, aiming to indicate the building and its residents. “Escalating things.”
Mick made a thoughtful noise. “I’m always good with smashing the fucker’s head in,” he offered, almost cheerfully.
He looked sharply up at Mick. It was an old argument. “Even if I did want...” He stared back into his glass and shook his head. “There’s always someone else like him just around the corner.”
“You got more options than him,” Mick offered.
Len laughed, short and angry. “What the hell are you getting at?”
Meeting his eyes, Mick said, “He’s only got one solution to every problem. You’re better than that.”
Len held Mick’s gaze for a long time.
Ten days later, and Len once again found himself sitting near the bottom of the long, gray flight of steps up to the building entrance. It was lunchtime, but still quiet out on the small street. A few people hurried along the sidewalk, rushing from A to B without noticing the nowhere they passed through in between.
Steve appeared above him, wandering down the steps. He took off a big pair of headphones and sat on the edge of the step above Len's, rocking back and forth slightly as he looked around. “Quiet,” he observed.
“That’s probably a good sign,” Len agreed.
The kid grinned at him. “Everyone in the building’s calling you a hero, man.”
Len snorted and shook his head. “Fuck. That might be the worst thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
Steve shrugged. “You did a good thing.”
Len side-eyed him, and sighed. “You know I can’t guarantee him and his people won’t come back, right? And even if he doesn’t… Always someone waiting to fill the vacuum, in a place like this, kid.”
“I know,” Steve said softly, looking away far down the street. But his grin was back in a moment. “Still, you helped. You’ve given us all a break, y’know?”
“If you like,” Len said dubiously, but he couldn't help smiling back.
Ellie stuck her head out of a window one floor above them, banging on it to get their attention, then signed something at Steve. He waved dismissively up at her, then grinned at Len. “Gotta go. Got things to be doing,” he said.
Steve glared at him as he pulled himself up. “We do run a business, y’know,” he said.
“Doing what?” Len asked, curiosity finally winning out.
“Ellie’s learning to be a bookkeeper." He laughed. “Already is, kinda. I write essays.”
Len stared at him. “I don’t wanna know.”
He beamed at Len, then ran up the stairs two at at time. “Shout if you ever want your books looked at,” he called back. “You seem like the kind of guy who pays his taxes.”
Len tilted his head in nervous gratitude.
The kid grinned at him, pushing backwards through the building front door. “Later days and better lays!”
“Weird kids,” Len muttered as soon as the door was closed.
After a moment it opened again, Mick emerging with coffee. “I thought if you were gonna stand out here, I’d bring it to you.”
Nodding his thanks, Len's protective gaze quickly drifted back up to the building.
Mick leaned against the wall next to him. “You’ve done a deal with the devil,” he said quietly, following the line of Len's stare.
“Mm.” Len took a sip of coffee. “Well, you know what they say about the devil you know.”
Mick snorted. “Is your old man the devil you know, or the one you don’t?”
Len paused, cup halfway to his mouth, and tried not to smile. “Okay, in this scenario I might be losing track of who all the devils are.”
“Thought so.” Mick kicked the wall. “You know the Santinis could fuck this place up way worse than Lewis, if they wanted to, right?”
Len shook his head. “They won’t. They’re a known quantity. Lewis… isn’t.” He rolled back his shoulders and stood up, moving up to lean next to Mick. “Stop worrying,” he said with a dismissiveness that he didn't feel. “All I did was persuade the Santinis that Lewis’s sudden shift of fortunes wasn’t good for them.”
“And that they should keep a closer eye on what he’s doing,” Mick filled in.
“Yes.” Len held out against his Mick’s stare. “Oh go on, ask me,” he sighed after a minute, in the face of Mick's narrowing eyes.
“That can’t be all of it. What d’you offer them?”
Len shrugged. “Nothing I can’t afford.”
Mick continued to look at him for a moment, eventually shaking his head. “Ah, I give up. Long as the devil don’t drag you under, yeah? Either of ‘em.”
A slow nod was Len’s only reply.
Rolling his eyes, Mick got halfway to putting a fond arm around Len, and pulled back. “Sorry,” he muttered.
Len smiled, wrapped his own arm around Mick’s waist, and said, “Please. Been learning quite a bit about our diverse and interesting neighbors recently. I think about half of the good residents are G, L, B or T.”
“Like who?” Mick grinned.
“Not my place to gossip,” Len said, and got a groan in reply. Len smirked, leaning into his partner.
Mick gulped his coffee. “So. Now that we’ve fixed the problems of an entire apartment block, we gonna get back to work?”
Len nodded and made a thoughtful noise. “Hypothetical job might have come across my radar today.”
Shifting in his arms so he could turn his head to look at him, Mick raised his eyebrows incredulously. “A job job, boss?”
He shrugged. “There’s a possibility of something we could... run ourselves.” He glanced at Mick. “I’m done with the shit we’re pulling now. We’re better than that.”
A sly smile broke across Mick's face. “You’re better than that.” He reached behind for Len’s ass, earning himself a yelp, a lightly slapped hand and a returned half-smile.
Two floors above them, Ellie and Steve stuck their heads out of the window simultaneously. “Take it inside, boys,” Steve chided, as Ellie signed something that Len couldn’t read. “Oh, I’m not telling them that,” Steve objected in ASL and English simultaneously.
“Oh, go on,” Mick said.
“She’s encouraging you,” Steve summarized with an eye roll.
“My girlfriend’s coming over later,” Ellie signed down to them, Steve huffing a sigh before translating. “You guys want to come up and meet her?”
Len raised his eyes to a cloudless Central City sky. “Sure. And why don’t we all just move into the suburbs and get SUVs while we’re at it?”
Ellie grinned, signed “4 o’clock,” shoved Steve back inside, and closed the window.
“I think,” Len said, as he pulled away from Mick and then took his hand, “that’s our cue to do as the children suggest, and take this inside.”
Mick’s agreeable eyebrows bounced a few times as he let Len lead him indoors.