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For a Better City
About the Author: Peter W. J. Hayes is a recovered marketing executive and author of the Silver-Falchion nominated Vic Lenoski mystery series, based in Pittsburgh. His short stories have been finalists for the Derringer and Al Blanchard awards, and he is a past finalist for the Crime Writers Association (CWA) Debut Dagger Award. He can be found at

Live in the moment, the counselors in rehab told him. The way they explained it, Charlie always thought they meant slow down, forget the past and the future. Burrow into your here and now. He gave it a try, feeling vaguely silly. But he couldn’t dismiss the pedestrians as they hurried past the coffee shop’s front window. The panel trucks and black Town Cars idling in traffic. He flinched at a hissing sound and caught himself. Just steam from a frothing wand.

He didn’t like the “live in the moment” phrase. He preferred the idea of “centering,” as explained to him by Jeb, who ran the half-way house where he stayed. Charlie translated it as staying true to himself, without ignoring everything around him. That fit with his situational awareness training in the Army, before his return home and the headlong pitch into booze. 

He breathed in slowly. Whichever worked. He guessed today he would need all the help he could find.

Right on time, Ivan pushed through the front door and stopped, his pale eyes scanning the tables. He acknowledged Charlie with an upward flick of his chin and signaled toward the barista. Charlie returned the nod and watched Ivan’s shoulders swing to match each stride as he walked to the counter. The movement gave him a feral, aggressive quality, like a big cat advancing on prey. The young barista shrank into herself as he approached, and Charlie knew she’d seen it too.

Charlie let out his breath. When Ivan invited him to the coffee shop, he’d considered not showing up, but there were things he couldn’t reconcile. One was why Ivan—who didn’t live in the half-way house—was allowed in whenever he wanted. But most of all, it was the way Ivan’s kindness to residents evaporated if he thought no one was watching. In those moments, Charlie had seen Ivan’s gaze turn hard and calculating, as if he was assigning each person a value, defining them as a variable he might need later to solve an equation. Eight months ago, Charlie wouldn’t have cared. For some reason, now he did. He guessed it had something to do with his six months of sobriety, with needing to know if he could still handle himself in a tight spot.

So he’d decided to show up. Play it out.

Ivan placed his coffee on the table and sat in the chair across from him. “Charlie. You doing well? Hanging in there?” It was the easy, open-faced Ivan, the man of relaxed smiles and quick jokes. The one who remained non-judgmental about Charlie’s arrests and court-ordered rehab. 

“Working on it,” Charlie said, noncommittally. The universal answer of everyone in the half-way house. He’d seen people shift their inflection to fit their mood, signaling commitment, irony, or defeat.

Ivan’s pale eyes turned frank, his brow wrinkled in concern. “I worry about you, you know. I’m rooting for you. I want you to make it out of Jeb’s place.” Ivan tried his coffee and placed it back on the table. “I was thinking about what might hold you back. Stop you getting out as soon as you can.”


“I mean, look around.” Ivan swept his hand toward the window and looked outside. “All those people out there. Be good if you were with them.” His pale eyes turned hard, the same look Charlie had seen in the half-way house when Ivan thought no one was watching. 

Charlie followed Ivan’s gaze. Hanging from a building across the street was a banner proclaiming Arthur Horstop’s city council win. The photo showed a confident black man, round-faced, a red silk tie hanging from a perfectly tailored collar. Charlie saw confidence in Arthur’s eyes, and from the set of his mouth, certainty. He was a reformer. Below the photo was the phrase, ‘For a better city,’ and Charlie was certain Arthur believed that. He turned back to the table.

Ivan’s eyes were still hard. Charlie remembered the scuttlebutt that Ivan was connected the mob. “You glad Horstop won?” he asked, guessing at the answer.

Ivan blinked and turned back to him, the friendliness reappearing on his face as if someone had thrown a switch. “The guy we had was good. This guy is more complicated.”

Despite Ivan’s smile and light tone, Charlie heard barely hidden disgust and noted the word ‘we.’ He remembered the bribery scandal that sunk the incumbent, leading to Arthur’s win. 

More math that wasn’t hard to do.

“Anyway,” Ivan said, giving his paper coffee cup a quarter turn. “I think we have a solution for that. But I was talking about you. Listen, Charlie. You’re a good guy, I can see that, and I want to help you out. Did you find a job yet?”

This story appears in our SEP 2022 Issue
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