Chapter 1: Rebel Summit
“Caius said no weapons right?” Big D said as he lifted himself up over the seats of the M train, pressing his hands and feet on the stabilizing rails. He was watching Max balance a chef’s knife on his knee with the point down and the tip of the handle resting against his forehead. The very tall, stick-thin gangster hoisted himself over Max, staring daggers down. D’s question might have seemed like a threat, given their relative sizes and positions in the train car, but Max, the far smaller of the two, held all the power.
Max was annoyed, “Yeah,” he began, taking the knife by its handle and casually tossing it from his right to his left hand and back again. “I’m gonna stash it before we get there, it’s cool.” He silenced Big D’s concern with a flick of the wrist.
Overpowered, Big D ignored the slight Max had given with his somewhat cavalier response. He knew that he had no power, because he wasn’t even an official Treetop yet.
Both Big D and his brother Roly had joined the Treetops only two years previous. It is an important right of initiation for each member to create his or her own uniform. Big D’s uniform wasn’t even finished, as he still had to find and steal shoes, but size 24’s were few and far between.
The Treetop’s uniform was cheap, that was its operative characteristic. They came from the far Southeast suburbs, a place where incomes were very often subsidized by nickels earned recycling cans. Their uniform was just a dark T shirt and jeans, often sheared at the knees with a knife or a broken bottle. These uniforms were scavenged from fences and clotheslines, stolen from citizens and fished out of dumpsters, as they could not be paid for.
Big D had yet to find and steal shoes gigantic enough for his feet, so he’d had to buy them. Since he wasn’t able to steal his shoes, he was technically a prospective Treetop, and on a lower social rung than the others.
Simon, one of the founders of the Treetops on the same train, saw that Big D needed to be reminded of his station. “Fresh kicks, D, you rollin’ large, moneybags?” Simon purred with a sick grin on his face. This was, for Big D, a joke he’d heard since he’d begun initiation proceedings, and he was growing tired of it. His eyes flared and his lips spread apart showing his teeth.
Noticing the aggression growing, Max held a bare palm up above everyone, said “Not now,” and that was the end of it. Max was one of the most senior members of The Treetops, and also quite smart, so he held a position of expertise and authority. Max knew it was pointless to squabble, as the gang needed to stay calm and not act rashly. The Treetops’ destination was possibly now already drowned in bloodshed. They were heading to a speech, the audience of which was to be made up of representative groups from gangs all over the city, a tinder box of blades and egos.
It seemed that the impossible had happened. It seemed that Caius really had brought everyone together. It was rumored that he was very near to granting an immediate and retroactive amnesty to all on behalf of all. As he put it in his weekly radio hour, which was broadcast on a low frequency unknown to the police, “All beef will be squashed and put to bed.” It was fantasy, it was a fever dream. Many including Max wanted to believe that Caius could usher in an era of peace, but considered it a virtual impossibility.
This speech was meant to be some sort of coronation, or state-of-the union, or list of commands. If it was a coronation or a state of the union, many gangs would chaff under any kind of leadership. The Nomads, for one, didn’t even have an official territory, they lived by their wits wherever they found themselves, and would surely refuse bearing allegiance to anyone.
If the speech became a list of commands, there was no telling how many could die. Whatever happened, Caius would be killed, Max reasoned, very likely.
Max considered himself a student of human moves, of the way people kept their eyes open for ways to gain personal advantage. War was big business in the criminal underworld, just like in the straight world. Max knew that the peace Caius promised was a dream. Bad blood ran too deep and too many gang leaders were agents of chaos to make a lasting peace feasible. Threats had flown freely for many years, and gang backlogs were full of debts to collect and wrongs to revenge.
Despite all the bad blood, the speech was happening. The morning of Caius’ speech, Max, Art, and Simon had all received messages in letters slid under their front doors inviting them to a “rebel summit.” By that time, the grapevine had been alive with talk of Caius for months, and these invitations told everyone where and when they could see him; midnight, Norwood Park.
After much debate, the Treetops had decided to send a small running crew. The running crew consisted of Max, Art and Simon, the most senior of the Treetops, as well as Roly and Big D, brothers who seemed like they were from a fairy tale. Big D was tall and skinny, Roly was short and fat. Big D was dumb and trusting, Roly was clever and spiteful. Both of them could fight, and in defense of one another they were unstoppable.
The fact was that the Treetops’ crew was minuscule compared to the others. Many of the other gangs certainly would come in force, and likely outnumber The Treetops by five or six times. To reach Norwood Park, they needed to take the subway all the way from Evergreen, the southeastern suburb they called their ‘hood. This meant that if they had a crew of twenty or thirty, they would very likely draw stares from the Pigs, so they kept the crew as small as they could.
Every gang and every gang member had the same mortal enemy, the Pigs. They were all the same; liars and cheats, thieves and pushers, same as they said of the gangs. The thing the gangs really hated about the Pigs was not the deception in their words or the evil in their deeds, it was their self-righteous swagger. They walked their beats as if the neighborhoods belonged to them, but Caius had foretold of the day fast approaching when the Pigs would know what true power is and find themselves wanting.
Caius had risen to be a prominent figure in the world of the criminal underground through “The Bulletin,” his weekly radio show on 123.7 AM, a low-wattage independent radio station he ran out of his headquarters. All the gangs including The Treetops were avid listeners, as Caius’s brash anti-authoritarian take on lifestyle and philosophy appealed to them. “We must lay low on a day-to-day basis,” Caius said regularly, “but our time will come.”
Within each neighborhood, every gang had created a unique network of alleys, shortcuts, side streets and backdoors to avoid the Pigs. Caius had told them, if every gang’s network were connected, the Pigs could never find them. Caius sketched a plan with his words, that if a member of a gang had too much heat on him anywhere in the city, there could be a stash house on every block, and they would all be communal. He encouraged all to imagine a future war, one where the gangs could unite, recognizing that they all had the same true enemy.
Caius called it paradise, utopia, and more than anyone else had before, he made people believe in it. Caius, the revered one, he could make everything like it should be.
Roly sat across from Max and shrank his voice to a low growl. His eyes were stll and locked in to Max’s, holding them tight. “So what do you think? I’ve never met Caius, I don’t even know what he looks like, why am I gonna listen to this guy?” Roly’d heard the same rhetoric everyone had, and he knew that many were praying for the dawning of a new era, with some even counting on it.
“Everyone I’ve talked to who’s heard him speak says it’s like nothing else.” Max rolled his eyes and opened his mouth wide, as if the top part of his head was falling away from his face. “I don’t know, he might just be smooth, all I know is everybody’s gonna be there, and whatta you wanna be left behind?” As he finished his question, Max closed his mouth and looked into Roly’s eyes.
“All I’m saying is we’re leaving our territory, that’s all.” Roly’s face quivered.
Simon giggled, “You scared?”
Roly’s eyes narrowed and he tightened his lips, “No.”
Max interrupted, “Everybody listen up. I know this isn’t ideal, we’re gonna be exposed. But I think we can smash anyone, and if we can’t they’ll know us when we’re gone, and they’ll know where we come from.” He looked over the Treetops as he spoke, and it gave him no confidence.
Simon blew contempt through his lips, “Yeah our names will be on official documents at the morgue.”
Max normally enjoyed Simon’s gallows humor, but he wasn’t in the mood. “The morgue?” Max stared at Simon, trying to show him rage, but it came across like terror. At Simon’s jape, Art guffawed, but it was more in agreement than laughter.
Spurred on by the show of support, Simon continued. “Yeah this is about to get blown up, man. Caius said no weapons, but whatta they gonna do, check? Fuckin forget it, this’ll be a free-for-all, I ain’t scared though.”
“So it’s agreed, we pack blades at least,” Max raised the point of his butcher knife to be parallel with his line of sight. “Got mine,” Max grinned.
Big D seemed to be getting frustrated, but he wouldn’t dare try to tell Max anything, he’d learned his lesson. He just tried to change the topic and shift focus from Max, “None of us have heard Caius, though. So what—what if they’re right and he is the one?”
“What if who’s right? The one!?” Simon spoke quick and loud, loud enough so that everyone could hear his voice break. “Caius’s head of the Eastside Forty-Niners, what if he wants everyone to be a Forty-Niner? I’m not a fuckin Forty-Niner, I’m a Treetop, I’m-a stay a Treetop, too.”
As Simon spoke, Max eyed him suspiciously. “You holdin’ anything that shoots, Simon?”
Big D rushed Simon and held him by the collar, “I swear to god, if you fuck this up I’m gonna kill you.”
Simon laughed as he slid a knife out of his pocket and threw it on the ground. He sat back as far as he could and held his hands in the air. “Fuck me man, fine, I’m not carryin’ anything. I was gonna stash it same as Max, jesus.”
Roly looked at the knife for a few seconds considering, then pulled out his own knife and put it on the ground next to Simon’s. “I believe in Caius, I think there’s too much money at stake for anyone to fuck this up. So, we don’t wanna get caught with nuthin’. Stash all blades in the same place.”
“Money?” Art said, his voice laced with a mocking suspicion, “There’s money?” At the mention of money, Art’s ears picked up and his tail wagged. Art had been standing on a seat near the door between train cars, but as he spoke he lowered himself to the floor and stood in front of the others.
Roly knew that Art’s blood ran green, “Well if Caius brings us together, the way everybody’s saying, we can make real money.”
Big D hated when gang members talked about money. “This isn’t all about money, this is about finding a way to live together.”
Art rolled his eyes and stretched over a couple of seats on the train, laying still as he pretended to snore. Max seemed to shrink in his seat, pulling his feet close to him and wrapping his arms around his knees.
They were all frightened, this was new, heading to a speech. Workers and administrators and servants went to speeches; gangsters didn’t go to speeches.