A Sure Thing is a short story set in the same world as The Murder of Crows. It takes place in Los Angeles, more than a decade before the events of See These Bones.
On his twelfth birthday, Clive Treeble’s Nana told him he was going to die.
He’d just finished an overly large slice of chocolate cake—oily as ever, because they couldn’t afford real eggs—when Nana took both of his cheeks in her wrinkled hands, tilted his head down to hers, and in one long exhalation that was at least seventy-percent alcohol, said:
“You’re gonna die young, Clivey. You’re gonna do something dumb, get caught, try to fight your way out of it, and then bam! There goes any chance of my daughter having grandchildren. Thanks for nothing, you rotten boy.”
Nana wasn’t, it should be said, a seer or an oracle—Dr. Nowhere hadn’t included prophecy in the list of superpowers he inflicted on the world—but she was the next best thing: seventy years old, drunk, and deeply disappointed with all that life had given her.
Thirteen years later, Clive was busy proving her right.
The Boiler Room was the worst kept secret in Los Angeles. Normally, that would be a bad thing for a criminal hangout, but the owners had leveraged their notoriety to the hilt, and on any given day, the vast majority of customers were straights: law-abiding citizens eager to see how the other half partied. Everyone came clothed in their criminal best—whatever that meant—and half the fun of a night at the Boiler Room appeared to be figuring out which of the patrons was a name and which ones were merely pretending.
If Clive got any attention at all as he walked through the door, having waited in line outside for almost twenty minutes, it was disdain for his worn jeans and drab navy button-down. Some people, the popular thought seemed to be, don’t even try to pretend they’re bad guys.
Which just went to show that straights didn’t know a damn thing about real criminals.
Jerry was waiting at a table in the corner, a glass of water in his many-ringed hand. Like Clive, he was dressed down compared to most of the other customers, though his button-down was black, freshly ironed, and tucked into equally black pants. Dark hair, beady eyes, and a twice-broken nose completed the picture.
“You look like an undertaker,” Clive told him, sliding into the booth across from the man he’d stolen his first car with, “or a prizefighter attending his own funeral.”
“And you look like you wandered in off the streets by accident,” said the other man, giving him the once-over. “It’s been a while, Clive. What part of look your best did you not get?”
“This is my best.” Clive shrugged. “Pickings have been slim since you moved up in the world. We don’t rub shoulders with the Company’s upper crust down in Hyde Park.”
“Hell, I haven’t even met the upper crust. That’s not for people like you or me to do. As for pickings? That’s why I’m here. Old Jerry doesn’t forget his friends from the neighborhood.”
That wasn’t quite how Clive remembered it, but he shrugged agreeably anyway. He wasn’t there to debate the past. “You said there’s a job?”
“Yeah. Big one.”
“Very. I’m talking a sure thing.”
Clive stiffened. “Company-sponsored?”
“And operated.” Jerry’s teeth gleamed white and shiny in the Boiler Room’s greasy light. Another change from when he’d been a snot-nosed kid in Hyde Park, part of their small gang that had gone from street hustles to shoplifting to full-on burglaries under the cover of night. “Only three of us normals on the team, and one of them just got pinched for a bank job he did last month. So, we have ourselves an opening, and I thought to myself, ‘Who do I know that’s got the experience and the cojones to say yes to a piece of this action?’”
“You won’t be sorry.”
“It’s not me you need to worry about. It’s the Company. Impress them, and you’ll be on easy street.”
“Nah.” Jerry shook his head, the oil he’d used to slick back his hair momentarily blinding as it reflected the light. “It’s not like we thought when we were kids. Salaried positions are only open to Powers, from the entrepreneur at the top all the way on down to the street enforcers. Far as I can tell, that’s never going to change. But there ain’t a lot of Powers in Los Angeles, and they need people like you and me for the smaller-scale stuff or to round out teams on the bigger jobs. Trust me, being a contract-hire has plenty of perks of its own.”
Given that Clive’s most recent ‘job’ had been a smash-and-grab that netted him all of twenty-seven bucks at the pawn shop, he wasn’t inclined to argue.
“So, what are we looking at?” he asked.
“Can’t tell you that. Not here. And not yet. Not until she’s decided whether to hire you for the job or not.”
“You’ll see.” Jerry didn’t say anything for a moment… just leaned back in his booth, as something ugly crept into his eyes. Then the familiar smarmy smile made its reappearance. “Have a drink—water or soda, not that rotgut you loved when we were growing up—and get comfortable. Company shows up when the Company wants, and it’s not for you or me to say otherwise.”
“You footing the tab?”
“This once, for old time’s sake… why the hell not?” Jerry ran a hand through his hair, though not a single strand was out of place. “Speaking of old times, how have things been with the family? Nana still terrifying the neighborhood kids?”
“She passed about five years ago. Year after my mom.”
“Damn. I thought the old bat was gonna live forever. All respect, of course. I had heard about your mom. Sorry she went so early. She was a hell of a lady.”
“Yeah.” Neither of them mentioned Clive’s dad, who had ghosted the scene almost twenty-six years earlier, when he found out his girlfriend was pregnant. “Things have been quiet since you and Shanna left.”
“You aren’t still holding a grudge about that, are you? You could have come downtown with us.”
As teenagers, they had been the lords of their tiny street gang. Jerry, Clive, and Shanna with her dark braids, who the two boys couldn’t help but orbit. Jerry had been the talker, Clive the quiet muscle, and Shanna… well, she was the thinker who kept everything running.
Hadn’t been much to recommend Hyde Park since she’d left.
“You know I had family to look after. As for grudges? Shanna makes her own decisions. Always has. Always will.” Clive shrugged, pretending that it didn’t still hurt. “Is she our third?”
“No. She took off a few years ago. Thought she might be going back to you, to be honest, but turns out she headed up north instead. Like you said, Shanna does what she wants.”
“So, it’s just you now?” pressed Jerry.
“Yeah. Rattling around the old house, leaks appearing as fast as I can patch them.”
“Well shit, son.” Jerry grinned. “That’s all about to come to an end. Once we do this job, you’re moving somewhere you can actually see the ocean. My condo has a few vacancies, and a view you wouldn’t believe!”
“Aren’t there things in the ocean? Mutants and sharks with legs and stuff?”
“I didn’t say you should go swimming in it! I get my fix from a distance. As for Dr. Nowhere’s uglier children… that shit’s what Capes are for, isn’t it? Especially with that new school pumping them out like products on an assembly line. Might as well make sure our tax dollars are put to good use.”
They both shared a laugh at that, loud enough that the nearest table of straights shot them a salvo of easily ignored glares. Then Clive waved down one of the Boiler Room’s waitresses.
“Cherry Coke,” he told her. “No ice.”
It was about fifteen minutes later that the waitress came over to collect their empty glasses. “Management’s covered your bill,” she told them, voice barely audible above the constant chatter in the common room. “If you gentlemen would proceed to the rear exit?”
The cheeky grin Jerry shot Clive said, clear as day, that he’d known all along he wouldn’t be paying for the drinks. He rose to his feet, the bone buttons on his shirt gleaming, and waved for Clive to take the lead.
Everyone entered the Boiler Room through the front but left through one of a multitude of doors at the sides and rear, escorted down a hallway that snaked around a dozen or more back rooms to eventually find their way out onto the city streets. Those exits, including one that descended into the sewer system, made it all but impossible for the few honest cops in the city to track the departures.
It’s kind of like a giant shell game, Clive reflected, and not for the first time, except all the criminals are hidden under the table instead of beneath a cup.
The straights had a lot of stories about what might be found in the rooms they were escorted past, from meat lockers stacked with bodies to vaults of gold and jewels to the main offices of the entrepreneur who ran the city’s underworld. Reality didn’t quite live up to those tales. Some of the storage rooms were just that. Others were short-term living spaces, where someone could, for the right price, lay low for a few days. And the rest? Well, they were where the Boiler Room’s real customers met to plan their next heists.
The conference rooms were available to anyone with the appropriate reputation, but only a few of the jobs Clive had worked on had merited a gathering of that sort. Still, he knew enough to not be surprised when a door just up ahead and to the right eased open to greet them.
Behind him, he could hear Jerry tense up. “Looks like this is our stop. Don’t fuckin’ let me down.”
What People are Saying…
“Great short, can’t wait for more.” – Cubertnine, Amazon
“A great little heist story set in the Broken world of See These Bones.” – Keith Mar, Amazon
“A fun little visit to our Post-Break World.” – Ziggy Nixon, Goodreads
Climb aboard for the heist that will make Clive Treeble’s career… or end it forever!