5. Rebel Summit
At the very center of Norwood Park, there was an expanse of flat ground roughly the size and shape of a regulation soccer field, an ideal staging area for a conference of dissidents. This area, referred to affectionately as Center Field, had in the past possessed an almost mystical allure. On certain nights when the air was moist and still, and a full moon was in the sky, it seemed to glow a dull green.
This glow was now more imaginary than anything, as the combination of substandard landscape work and a plague of litterbugs had conspired to rob the area of its mystic quality. Still, this seemingly otherworldly glow had made such an impression on those that had actually seen it that it became legend, and imbued Center Field with the sense that something significant would happen there someday.
Caius took the otherworldly importance that this area seemed to own and exploited it, Max felt, to seem something like a king. He further felt that if Caius chose this spot to act as a countermeasure against assassination, believing desperate gangsters would have a hard time murdering an emperor.
Besides the Heaters, the Numbers, War Helmet the Gents and the Rosies, other gangs started to show up, very few of which were known to the Treetops. Hi Rize, a gang from just the top five floors of the Curling Homes, one of the city’s largest housing projects, and who were a rare sight anywhere but their singular hood, were there. The Watchmen were there with their stetsons pulled down as far as they could go and all hanging binoculars from their necks. The Vikings were there wearing football helmets and brandishing baseball bats.
From this, Max could see that some gang members attending the speech were actually holding weapons without drawing static. He pulled his chef’s knife from the carrying pouch he wore on his hip and held it in front of him pointed to the stars. He did this to draw Mason’s ire, which was drawn immediately.
“They said no weapons, they see you with that knife you’re gonna lose it,” Mason warned.
“What about them?” Max said signaling toward the Vikings, whose bats and helmets, he figured, ought to be characterized as weapons.
“Yeah but that’s part of their uniform,” Mason said as though this explanation would satisfy.
Simon laughed, pulling two knives out of his own carrying case and tossing one to Art. “There, now knives are part of our uniform.” Art cackled showing his teeth and stowed the knife under his belt. The Treetops, excluding Roly and Big D, stood shoulder to shoulder.
Mason was frustrated. His forehead seeped sweat at a terrific rate, and his face shone beet red. “Stash the fucking knife.”
He could have been talking to any of them, but everyone knew he was talking to Simon. Simon smiled mistily and seemed to purr, less a spontaneous reaction than an insult. “Or what?”
Mason pulled a knife of his own out of the hidden spot on his person and stabbed it into the ground in front of him. He took two small steps backward from his knife, making his shoulders to be parallel with Simon’s and holding his tightly coiled fists in front of them. “Square up motherfucker.”
“About time,” Simon said, forcing his own blade into the dirt and stepping away from it as Mason had done from his. He stood with his arms at his sides, shrugged, and raised his fists. “You first.”
As it seemed to Simon, Mason’s fist had arrived in his face at the exact same time as he finished speaking and his face rippled in response. Simon staggered on his heels and tried to throw a punch of his own which feebly caught only air. Mason tripped him, driving his back into the ground with the full force of all his weight.
Simon retched in pain.
“Hey!” from the edge of Center Field, “No fighting!” Both of the combatants looked to the direction of the yell and saw a large muscly 30-something stomping toward them the him with fists balled at his hips.
Mason rolled off Simon, holding his arms in the air as high as he could, shaking his head from left to right with his mouth held wide open. “I didn’t start it, he fucked with me first!”
Seeing that the fight had concluded, the Forty-Niner uncurled his fists and slowed to a stop. He watched Mason for a moment, looking to see that the fight was over. Simon grunted as he pulled himself to his feet, bent down and grabbed his knife off the ground. As he slid the knife down the special leather sleeve he’d created in the back of his pants for that purpose, he spit on the ground and interlaced his fingers behind his back.
He pulled his clasped hands far back until he heard a slight pop sound from his shoulder, then he cracked his knuckles. Simon’s eyes drooped and his face melted from a grin into an impotent scoff.
“Testing, testing,” crackled the PA system from the eastern edge of Center Field as one of the Forty-Niners checked that it was working. The improvised amphitheater was choked with gang members, milling around, trying to stay together and spread out at the same time.
As Max loped across the field, balancing on one leg before leaping onto the other, he watched the crowd to see what gangs he could recognize. He didn’t recognize any of the city gangs, so he looked to see if there were any other suburban gangs in attendance. The more he watched the crowd and failed to see any familiar faces, the more tense he became. He was certain that this was a setup, and that Mason had brought them there to be surrounded. For what, he didn’t know.
“There’s no other gangs from the ‘burbs,” Max mentioned as he approached from behind and placed his hand on Mason’s shoulder. “Where’s your invitation?”
“What?” Mason said, knitting his eyebrows hard.
Max pushed roughly on the back of Mason’s shoulders and kept his voice soft yet impassioned as he spoke through clenched teeth. “Where’s your fucking invitation?” He thought that he’d been tricked.
“Well they’re here right? And we’re here, right?” Big D interjected, seeming to Max completely stupid.
“Right they’re here, so they must have an invitation.” Max turned around, standing face-to-face with Mason and stepping into his personal space. “So let’s see it.”
“I don’t have an invitation,” Mason admitted, hearing the Treetops wail in confusion and horror, finding themselves uninvited to a sea of unfriendly faces. “The Heaters are a city gang, the city gangs don’t need invitations, everybody just knew, we were all talking about it, about him, I’m just here to see Caius, not to trick you.”
Max searched Mason’s face, trying to see a twitch, any unconscious shift in expression that might indicate deceit. He made a fist with his left hand and rested his lips against the back of his knuckles. He closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing, trying to calm himself down.
The other Treetops circled around Max as he was deep in thought, looking at each other, with their eyes daring each other to say or do anything. As the moments drew on, Max unclenched his fist and dropped his right arm, before bringing it up quickly and slapping Roly loudly on the left cheek. “You’re too fucking smart Roly, what’s the game?”
After the slap Roly took a large step backwards, allowing Mason to step in front of him and shield him from Max’s wrath. The sound of the slap carried all the way across Center Field, and the crowd became enflamed, all seeming to shout and push up against one another at the same time. Big D tried to hold them apart but Max continued to throw punches at Roly, and Simon used the confusion created by all the commotion to punch Mason as hard as he could in the stomach.
“What’s going on?” A voice boomed from the PA system and everyone stopped fighting, parting the crowd and creating a clear path from the Treetops to Caius.
The entire crowd, as if they were well-trained animals, at the same moment all fell silent. They all watched Caius’s face expecting to see anger or at least annoyance, as could be expected, but they saw only peace.
He neither smiled nor frowned as he raised the microphone to hold it near his mouth. “This summit is meant for just this.”
The crowd moved all in unison, creating a huge circle with Max, Mason, Roly and Simon at its center; and Caius at its northernmost edge, holding sway over all and calling them to attention. Max screamed as loud as he could, “He lied to us! He said–”