New Fiction: Reunion (Chapter 1)
February 4, 2002
Here is the first installment of a new serial. This story focuses on four individuals, reunited after a lapse of more than two decades. Chapter one sets establishes the setting and locale, and introduces the main characters, the Catalysts of Liberty.
As he steered the 4X4 tracker through the falling snow, the song, which hadn’t entered his mind in almost two decades, returned sharply to the forefront of his thoughts. It was more a jingle than an actual “song,” and really, they’d only sung it in the company of each other (and only as a joke). The silly little melody had long ago been written on a paper napkin at a the Rinky-Dink Bar in Wheeling, WV over the course of several beers. But they’d made it their own private joke, and on those occasions when they’d be heading into a combat situation against an adversary, one of the team members would invariably sing it aloud amidst the laughter of the others. For a moment a little of the tension--the utter seriousness of the situation into which they were headed--would vanish, though only for an instant.
And as he drove through the night on unfamiliar roads, following a MapQuest printout that was not entirely accurate, Wellington found the lyrics playing in his mind like children at a fairground:
All hail the Catalysts of Liberty
We’ll stop at nothing shy of victory!
The Peppersmith will make your eyes so badly burn,
The Never-mind will make you forget what you have learned,
The Persuader will make you consider something new,
And when XX-Y gets done with you you’ll know that you are through!
The Catalysts of Liberty will fight both day and night,
To stop all that is evil, and uphold all that’s right!
It was intentionally cornball--an “homage” of sorts to the low-budget 1960s super-hero cartoons such as Captain America which they’d watched religiously in their youth. And now it had, to his regret, scraped and crawled its way from the recesses of his mind, a nagging reminder of what once was--an up tempo rhythmic number that contradicted the staccato pulse of the windshield wiper blades.
The jingle repeated again and again in his mind, and he turned the radio on and scanned the dial for an immediate distration. The sounds of Christmas resounded up and down the FM spectrum, reminding him that it was Christmas eve, and causing him to ask himself why he was not home with his wife and children, why he’d accepted Shelley’s invitation. As he stared at the steering wheel which he held with gloved hands--always gloved hands--he knew the bitter answer.
He wondered whether they’d all be there, whether Shelley had worked her charms and had pulled each of them from the comforts of home on this holiest of nights for her own selfish yet-to-be-disclosed purposes. He’d not seen them--any of them--in over two decades. Not since Colorado and Canada. Not since the Twins.
While Gene Autrey sang of Rudolph’s red nose through quad speakers, Wellington’s mind flashed back to a different red that was crimson, as images of twisted flesh and blood-soaked concrete returned with painful acuity. The Hoover Dam had been a place of slaughter, and Wellington, an apathetic participant.
They were once someone’s babies
He increased the volume on the radio, tapping gloved hands on the steering wheel.
and we murdered them.
His mind drifted to other, less destructive thoughts as he drove absently. Wellington fought off the urge to scream for several long minutes and was relieved as he, at last, reached the driveway to Shelley’s ocean-side home.
He was greeted at the front door by Shelley, whose beauty and youth radically defied her 59 years. Blythe and Peppersmith had already arrived and were seated in an oversized living room that was nearly the size of the entire first floor of Wellington’s modest home. Awkward reintroductions were made. The reunion seemed forced and, Wellington realized sharply, that it had been. Aside from Shelley, they’d each aged accordingly and predictably. Blythe, the once dashing, physically fit model of a hero, looked worn and tired. His face held a permanent scowl, not unlike Alastir Sim as Ebeneezer Scrooge before being haunted by Christmas ghosts, though his physique was more reminiscent of Sydney Greenstreet.
Peppersmith sat with a walking stick by his side. His eyes were sunken and rested behind thick eyeglasses with black plastic frames. He wore his trousers too high, as if he were age 79 instead of 59. While Shelley excused herself from the room, the three men conversed politely, as politely as strangers can converse, for they had become estranged from each another.
“I dare say, you’re looking quite good for someone your age,” Blythe remarked to Wellington as he sipped brandy from a thin crystal glass.
“As are you,” Wellington said.
“You’re a liar, but I thank you for the compliment.”
Peppersmith sipped quietly at his drink. “This transcends surreal, us being here, I mean.”
Were it not for the state-of-the-art entertainment system that encompassed the entire west wall of the living room, one could almost the past had devoured the present. However, the sound of vocalist Jim Kerr of Simple Minds noting that he would “stay until your love is alive and kicking” provided a contrast to the otherwise Victorian unity of the room. The room was elaborately decorated in 19th century period-piece furniture and fixtures. One felt almost embarrassed to be seated on the sofa or chairs--as if doing so somehow violated an unspoken museum policy.
A 15-foot tall Douglas Fir, adorned in fine silver and gold bulbs, stood next to the fireplace which glowed a semi-bright red-orange. Atop the fireplace were several framed photographs, one of which was of the Catalysts, circa 1977.
Wellington noticed the photograph and walked toward the fireplace. He held the photo in his hand, surprised at just how much they’d each changed. Except Shelley. Shelley looked scarcely older now than she did in the photograph. Peppersmith and Blythe looked at the photo, laughing at the polyester fabrics; the wide lapels and oversized belts; the large, stylized “P” that adorned the chest of Peppersmith’s uniform; and the tacky orange boots that Blythe had so cherished. They laughed, recalling the time they’d “designed” their Catalyst uniforms. Blythe, recalling how the Peppersmith and the Persuader had equally wanted to use the letter “P” on the chest area of their uniforms--so much so that they finally agreed to a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors--chuckled loudly.
The next hour was spent recalling some of the less-intense moments shared by the Catalysts of Liberty. The conversation became less forced as the evening progressed.
The sound of metal on metal was faint, like the slow dripping of a faucet in the dead of night, but it was, nonetheless, audible during those dangerously quiet few seconds when one track on the disc player would fade out before a new track would begin. A faint, far off, metal clink-clink-clinking that occurred not rhythmically, but in a sporadic manner.
Blythe suddenly asked, “What the devil is that sound?”
He tried to describe it but was interrupted by the opening bars of Dean Martin asking, “Ain’t that a kick in the head?”
Shelley offered to refresh everyone’s beverage then walked into the enclosed kitchen; she had been unusually quiet this evening, particularly considering that it was she who was hosting this gathering of four.
Blythe looked to Wellington and Peppersmith and asked, “You heard it, didn’t you?”
Neither could confirm having heard the sound which Blythe could only describe as a faint, muted ringing.
“I’m not as young as I once was and my hearing’s not as good,” Peppersmith remarked.
“I’ll have to second that remark,” Wellington added.
Blythe was unpersuaded but he realized that in the grand scheme the sound was of little consequence. He walked slowly across the living room atop Oriental carpets toward the picture window; the snows had stopped and a most spectacular view of the ocean was visible. The moon hung heavy and low in the night sky and radiated atop the ocean bed like a solitary living entity. The water moved steadily toward shore with utmost perseverance. Blythe pressed a hand against the window and felt the coldness of December upon his fingertips. He’d always hated the East coast during winter, yet here he was, along with Peppersmith and Wellington, at the Jersey shore in December--on Christmas eve to be precise. And for what reason? It had been nearly two dozen years since he’d last seen them. Yet Shelley, who’d always been the charmingly persuasive type had charmingly persuaded each of them to forsake whatever holiday plans they may have otherwise had made and join her in her Jersey shore mansion on this particular evening. Why?
She appeared again, holding a silver tray upon which rested four antique, long-stemmed glasses, each half-filled with Absinthe.
“Still drinking la feé verte,” Peppersmith noted.
Shelley placed the tray on a nearby coffee table. They each took a glass from the tray and held it in the air.
“To old times,” she said.
“Old times,” they each repeated, their minds remembering their world as it once was.
1977. It seemed like not very long ago. Yet a quarter of a century had passed since that time, and Peppersmith felt as if the years had simply burned away like newspapers in a fiery warehouse. In 1977 he was 38 years of age, and he was invincible. They all were. Blythe, Wellington, and Shelley--especially Shelley. Shelley, their nimble acrobat who called herself XX-Y, with eyes so piercing they would slice through an adversary long before her weekly weapon-of-choice ever got the chance.
The recently published Time-Life book Millennium listed the following “fun facts” in its chapter on the 1970s:
*A candy bar cost 10 cents.
*Asteroids was an ultra-modern video game.
*The Fox television broadcasting network did not exist.
*Jaws was the highest grossing film.
*A major-league baseball ticket could be purchased for as little as $1 in certain cities.
*The Catalysts of Liberty lived like kings and queens in a fortress fully funded by taxpayer dollars.
They were the best at what they did, and their wages rivaled the top professional athletes, researchers, pop stars, and engineers of the decade. In 1977, super-criminal activity escalated 53% nationwide. The West coast had been particularly devastated with the caffeine-powered Coffee Cartel usurping a controlling interest in organized criminal activity from Seattle to San Francisco and Los Angeles. A rival faction, the Decaf-Automatons, waged war with the Cartel both in the streets and atop the cities’ skylines. Neither federal, state, nor local law enforcement could stop either the Cartel or the Automatons. Increasingly, innocent civilians were casualties of this private war. Thus, it was the CIA-monitored Catalysts of Liberty who, under orders of the President, began the process of infiltrating and ultimately destroying these rogue organizations through means denied most law enforcement agencies.
There were countless others--crazed or deranged individuals who believed that all life’s problems could fade away by simply donning a flashy “costume” and giving oneself a catchy name. The Catalysts faced such madness almost daily including: Dr. Risenshine, who sought to produce an army of insomniacs to rule the world; Quasimodem, a half-man/half-monster who nearly succeeded in destroying the entire telecommunications network of North America; and Nostrildamus, a self-proclaimed seer whose predictions nearly convinced his 50,000+ followers to perform mass suicide by ingesting poison through the nasal cavity.
Others, such as 45RPM (aka, the Living Turntable), the Carbonator, and the Fog Hat (who purportedly took his name from a pop group of the era) had smaller designs based on wealth, not power.
There were others, but none proved too great the adversary for the combined might o the Catalysts. But the day of the Catalysts was long ago--before 9-11, before the L.A. Riots and OJ, before John Lennon’s assassination, and before they’d grown old. They’d all grown old and slow but neither Blythe, Peppersmith, nor Wellington could deny that Shelley, lovely Shelley, continued to look as young as she did on the day they’d last seen each other, decades earlier.
The Absinthe lit a fire in the back of Blythe’s throat, it was a sensation he’d not experienced in a long time, not since he’d last ingested the upper-class elixir in 1979. The scenario was only somewhat similar. They were together following an amazing victory over the Colonials--a team of super-powered anarchists attempting to revert the world to its pre-1776 equivalent. Amazing was the fact that each member of the Catalysts had survived the onslaught, which included a cataclysmic battle in a prehistoric parallel world. Following their victory they’d stopped at their favorite saloon, Day to Night, and toasted their success with Absinthe. Blythe recalled the toast and the events that followed two days thereafter when, as a joke, he’d agreed to foretell the future of the Catalysts through a Tarot reading. The cards, however, did not produce favorable results and foretold of wreckage and deceit, two prophecies that surprised the entire team, particularly Blythe, who was by no means skilled in the Tarot. Although they’d laughed at Blythe’s predictions, in less than six months’ time the Catalysts of Liberty would be no more.
Of the four, Wellington was clearly the eldest, a fact that, during the heyday of the Catalysts, he’d been quick to exploit to his advantage. A fact that, at age 63, he was quick to lament. As far as super “powers” are concerned, his were clearly the most unusual and difficult to catalogue. He did not possess super strength, super breath, super speed, super vision, super hearing, or super invulnerability. In fact, there was nothing “super” about him. What made Wellington an asset to the Catalysts was a solid right hook and the power of persuasion. His ability to persuade was remarkable (hence his code-name the Persuader). The Jedi mind tricks demonstrated by Obi-Wan in Star Wars were equivalent to a dog begging for a treat in comparison to what Wellington could do. During one of the Catalysts numerous confrontations with the self-proclaimed Son-in-Law of Satan, Wellington actually convinced the dark junior overlord to hand over $250.35 before knocking the little emissary of evil into slumberland with a brass-knuckled right hook to the man-goat wannabe’s chin. Wellington had used the ill-gotten money toward the purchase of a betamax, an acquisition he would, several years later regret as VHS-formatted tapes became the norm of the industry. But he’d done what the other Catalysts could not do--whereas their might had been insignificant, Wellington’s persuasiveness had caught the Son-in-Law of Satan unawares and had ensured victory.
His persuasive powers were mostly gone. He could, however, still convince the children in his classroom to pay attention when he spoke--no small feat for second graders. But his days of crime-fighting had ended when the Catalysts disbanded. Wellington found it easier and easier to be persuaded, rather than to persuade. And it was Shelley who’d persuaded him, quite easily, to leave behind his wife and kids and journey 1,500 miles east on Christmas evening.
Wellington, like Blythe and Peppersmith, had quickly packed a bag or two and had made arrangements to be at Shelley’s by the evening of the 24th. As they stood by the fire and toasted, the wind outside howled angrily. Peppersmith heard the cry of the wind and, for a moment, thought it had spoken to him.
It seemed to say remember.
He shrugged the notion from his thoughts and gazed about the room. In the corner opposite the Douglas Fir stood a federal style Howard Miller grandfather clock. The clock was housed in a dark mahogany wood frame that had been finely polished. He stared at the etched numbers on the clock face and in his mind he realized a faint familiarity about the object. He pondered what it might be and he thought about the Catalysts’ many battles fought and won above city skylines, on rooftops, on street sidewalks, and below the earth itself. There were too many to recall. And as he placed the pretty drinking glass onto a coaster he thought again of grandfather clocks and tried recall that which he could no longer remember.
Shelley stood along side her former colleagues and smiled lightly. Of course she’d heard the sound. She’d heard it like she had heard it every day, every solitary day, for the past two decades. And as Bowie’s Fashion faded out, plunging the room into a split-second of silence, the sound Blythe had remarked upon earlier became once again audible.
“Did you hear that?” he asked.
“I heard it. What was it?” Peppersmith asked.
“I don’t know.”
They looked into Shelley’s young eyes.
“Do you know why the Catalysts disbanded?” she asked.
The men looked at each other and at Shelley, perplexed by the simplicity of the question.
“I recall,” Peppersmith said, quite matter-of-factly, “our cessation occurred shortly after our altercation with the Twin Engines of Destruction and, uh, your comments to the press that we, that is--Mr. Wellington, Mr. Blythe, and myself--that we were ‘hindering’ your abilities in the Catalysts.”
The others nodded.
“That’s your recollection, is it?”
“It’s not a recollection,” Blythe stated pointedly, “it’s what happened. Period.”
“You’re wrong,” Shelley countered. “Tell me all that you remember about that day--the confrontation with the Twin Engines--the events before and the events immediately afterward. Tell me what you think transpired, then I’ll tell you what really happened.”
NEXT: REUNION continues.
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