Before - Bethan-Kris


“MR. ARSOV, would you be a dear and let me steal you for just five minutes?”

Lev hadn’t even turned the key in the deadbolt to latch the lock on his apartment door when the building’s manager came up behind him. He swore the old woman, Martha Mae, who looked like a strong gust of wind would make her bones rattle, kept a day planner right beside her door to track his schedule.

Because he couldn’t tell her no—the old girl knew it, too. She reminded him of a grandmother he never had, for fuck’s sake. What kind of an asshole would he be to refuse help to a senior citizen managing a sixty-unit building mostly by herself? The actual landlord—a company, not a real person—did very little for the tenants in their part of Harlem despite the fact that the city had been on the company’s ass for a few years now about the heating, lighting, and code issues.

To no avail, clearly.

One only needed to give the hallway he currently stood in a good glance to see the truth staring them right in the face. Water stains on the ceiling. Lights that flickered. Worn carpeting and holes in the walls where exposed wires and pipes ran between units.

The place wasn’t great. Sometimes, he took more cold showers in a month than he wanted to. Often, his one-bedroom apartment wasn’t worth the rent he paid to keep it every month. It kept him off the streets, though.

That’s all Lev needed considering the streets had been a real fucking reality for him just a few short years earlier when he finally hit eighteen, and the foster care system that he grew up inside decided ... fuck him. Out on his ass he went with the same garbage bag of clothes and personal items that he’d hauled between homes for the better part of his entire teenage life. He only entered the system because his father passed away in a drive-by shooting in the Bronx when he was two months shy of his thirteenth birthday, and his mother was ... well, who knew?

Life had not been kind to Lev Arsov—he still struggled to get by because education had been a secondary thought in his mind when surviving needed to come first. It kicked him in the ass now when all he could manage to get for job opportunities were ones that included back-breaking manual labor or severely underpaid positions in the back of kitchens washing dishes and hauling garbage.

He did those for a while. Until he landed something a bit better—and dangerous—through the connections he made while proving he was the kind of employee that would do what he was told, keep his head down, and his mouth shut about the things he saw while he did it. In a place like New York City, where corruption was everywhere, he was appreciated by certain individuals. Even if those individuals were criminals. He figured ... whatever kept the flickering lights on and the shitty roof over his head, right?

“Well, could I be a bother and steal you to help me?” Martha Mae asked again.

Plastering a smile on his face, Lev turned the key in the lock and kept a tight hold on the backpack hanging over his shoulder. Spinning to face the woman who peeked out around the doorjamb of her apartment unit at the very end of the basement floor, she was only a head taller than the goddamn doorknob. In her usual get-up for the evenings, from the rollers in her white hair to the pink, fleece nightdress, her smile welcomed him. Her large, glassy blue eyes always held a bit of hesitation, though.

Like she knew he wouldn’t say no. But she still wondered if he might.

“She holed up there again?” he asked.

Martha Mae sighed. “I tried—I really did.”

He was sure she did. It wouldn’t be the first time. It wasn’t exactly like the old woman was equipped to handle the newest situation that landed in her hands in the form of a truant granddaughter dealing with some serious issues. The kind of things her grandmother certainly couldn’t manage on her own.

But that was the system. It fucked everybody six ways to Sunday. The only thing the system afforded Lev was the skill of survival, and the knowledge that he could and would do whatever he needed to do at the end of the day.

Was he supposed to be thankful?

He wasn’t.

Lev resisted the urge to check his watch if only because he didn’t want