A/N – Well, here it is, the 4th and final story I wrote in my "Young Charles Muntz" series. I had more ideas, but this was as far as I ever went. Never say never, though; maybe I'll get back to this some day. Pixar owns Charlie; Dorothy's all mine.
FRESH – Part One
You are cordially invited to a private reception in honor of Miss Dorothy Radebaugh and her successful redesign of the Muntz A113 Aero-engine Propeller Hub. Noted Explorer C. F. Muntz will also recount adventures from his recent expedition to the Yucatan Peninsula. 7:00 pm, The Lair. Refreshments provided.
It had been an ordinary Monday at Muntz Industries until she had found this note in her lunch kit. Gus had seen her reading it, and asked, off-handedly, "Whatcha got, Dorothy?"
"The Kid's back from Mexico," she answered him without hesitation. "He wants me to come down after work so he can 'recount his adventures.' Apparently, he also knows how the propeller hub is coming along, so I'm sure to hear 'I told you so,'" she noted, with a fond chuckle.
"Dorothy," Gus ventured, shifting on his feet, "I know you and Charles have gotten pretty chummy since you've been here."
She looked up at her supervisor in surprise. Dorothy had made no secret of her occasional chats with Charles Muntz. The Kid was a fixture around his grandfather's company, and was always ready to talk to anyone who would listen to him. "Is that all right? I mean – I've been down to his workshop a few times. We talk about projects we're working on, the airship he's designing… If that's something I shouldn't be doing-"
"No, no," he assured her hastily. "You're welcome to talk to anyone you want here. I just wanted to give you a friendly piece of advice." Again, the man seemed uncertain as to how to proceed. "You might want to watch out for yourself around Charles. The Kid thinks he's Valentino. If he ever gets too fresh with you, don't be afraid to slap him down."
Dorothy couldn't contain a laugh at this absurd notion. "Don't worry, Gus. The Kid's never fresh with me. I'm just the Lady Engineer."
At 7:00 pm on the dot, Dorothy went down the basement stairs to Charles Muntz's Lair. The door was halfway open, but she knocked on it as a formality. Charlie was at the kitchen cabinet, standing over the hot plate in his rolled-up shirt sleeves. "What's the password?" he called out, without turning around.
"I didn't know there was one," she answered.
"Right the first time," he grinned at her over his shoulder. "Come on in."
"How was Mexico?" she asked.
"Great. I'll tell you all about it over supper. Oh, and shut the door," he waved a spatula at her. "I don't want the rabble wandering in."
Dorothy did as he commanded, and came to see what he was up to. "What are you cooking?"
"Fried plantain," he declared, with enthusiasm. "It's delicious, you'll love it. Help yourself to some mango and papaya," he nodded at a plate of sliced fruit at his elbow.
"Where's Gelly?" she asked, looking around the room for the dog as she sampled the mango. "Mm, this is good."
"Magellan," Charles informed her, with an assumed air of severity, "is in the dog house. Figuratively, that is," he flashed her the smile again. "I had to leave him at home; he wouldn't stay out of the fruit." When Dorothy took a second glance at the mango still in her hand, he laughed at her. "Don't worry, what's left is fine."
"Poor Magellan," she finished it off, and reached for a wedge of papaya. "I even brought him some dog biscuits." She set a small paper bag on the counter, and confided, "I've been keeping a box in my drawer, for emergencies."
"I noticed that," he regarded her with a twinkle in his eyes. "When I dropped off your invitation. And don't feel too sorry for him. I'm sure Mrs. Nesbit is feeding him steak off my mother's best china, even as we speak."
Dorothy was wandering toward the refrigerator as he said this. "Mind if I grab a Dr. Pepper?"
"Help yourself," he said, although she wasn't waiting for his permission. "But you should know, we'll be drinking something much better than Dr. Pepper with supper." Curious, Dorothy looked at him, and got a secretive smirk in return. He tapped a toe against the cupboard door and invited, "Take a look."
Setting her drink on the countertop, she opened the door and knelt to look inside. An old metal pail stood, full of ice, and in the ice sat a bottle. Dorothy took hold of the neck and turned it so she could read the label. Eyes wide in shock, she looked up at Charles, who was eagerly anticipating her reaction. Her voice came out as a horrified whisper. "Champagne?" Surely not. He had to be pulling her leg. But he was looking more than usually satisfied with himself as she shut the door and asked, still in a lowered voice, "Where on earth did you get champagne?"
Dorothy sighed and shook her head skeptically at this answer. Gus had warned her to take the Kid's stories with a grain of salt.
"It's the truth," he insisted, looking put out by her disbelief. "Uncle Bart and I made the Grand Tour of Europe when I was seventeen. We brought back Supplies," he confided, with a wink.
"Charlie Muntz, you do like to live dangerously."
Suddenly serious, he faced her with a worried frown. "You're not going to rat on me, are you?"
"Don't worry," she assured him. "I won't call the cops on you."
"Oh, I can handle the cops," he brushed this off. "Just don't tell my mother." The frown vanished as he guffawed at his own wit. Dorothy was already accustomed to Charles' tendency to laugh at his own jokes. It was a vain and ridiculous quirk of his, but somehow she always found it irresistable, and ended up chuckling along with him.
She helped herself to another slice of mango and asked, "So, who else is invited to this party?"
"Oh, it's just us. I don't have enough plantain to go around," he cracked, then explained: "I wanted to tell you about Mexico, and hear about how the propeller hub turned out. The invitation was a bit overdone," he admitted, "but I thought it sounded better than, I'm back, come down." Turning the plantain one more time, he said, "Take down a couple of plates for this. And there's chicken salad in the refrigerator. Mrs. Nesbit's Secret Recipe, with cashews and pineapple." He gave her a thumbs up in endorsement of this treat.
Between the two of them, they plated up their suppers of chicken salad and fried plantain. Charles had the leaves up on the little side-table, and in short order they had it covered with their dishes, the fruit plate, a pair of champagne glasses, and Dorothy's soda bottle. Heading back toward the kitchenette, Charles gave a nod at the old Morris chair and said, "Have a seat." She hardly needed the invitation, as the chair had already become her "spot," and she settled into it out of habit. Odd, thought Dorothy, that she was already falling into habits here, although this was only her fourth – or was it fifth? – trip down to the Lair.
"I understand the propeller hub was a big success," he said.
"So far, so good," she acknowledged. "We're still working on the engine, so there's no prototype yet, but your grandfather gave the idea his seal of approval."
"So I heard." He brought the ice bucket out of the cupboard. "You should be proud. Grandpa's a tough critic."
"Well, he did have a couple of good suggestions to improve it," she clarified. "Gus and I have been working on them."
"Only a couple?" Charles marveled. "Half the time, he ends up tearing the whole project to pieces and rebuilding it, himself. This definitely calls for champagne." He hefted the bottle.
Dorothy could feel herself blushing at her own audacity, but she couldn't resist adding: "You'll never guess what he said. I heard this second hand from Gus, of course," she admitted. "But reportedly, he likes my initiative."
The Kid crowed with delight. "I told you so!" He pointed at her with the corkscrew. "What did I tell you? I told you so!" Turning back to the sink, he uncorked the champagne with a pop and let it foam a bit. "Initiative, Dorothy, initiative!" he lapsed into his George Muntz impression. "Ever tasted this before?" he asked, carrying the opened bottle to the table, along with the bucket of ice, which he set on the floor.
"Champagne?" She shook her head. "I've never tasted anything alcoholic at all. Not that I'm a Temperance Crusader or anything, it's just that there's this little thing called Prohibition…" There was no reason for her to feel awkward, or to make excuses for her lack of experience, but watching Charlie deftly wield the bottle suddenly made him seem much less of a Kid, and made her feel much more of one.
"You'd better go easy on this, then," he advised, half-filling both glasses. "And you probably won't like it at first. Dr. Pepper is unusual. Champagne is… challenging." Handing her one of the glasses, he raised his own in salute. "To you, Miss Radebaugh, and the first triumph of your career with Muntz Industries. May there be many more."
"Thank you, Mr. Muntz," she touched her glass to his. She could tell that he was waiting to see her take the first sip.
"You're welcome to say that the bubbles tickle your nose," he invited, sitting down opposite her, on the side of the bed. "Everyone does, the first time."
"Well, they do, but I wasn't going to say it," she replied. "I don't want you to think I'm a complete hayseed." She ventured a taste, and winced a little. To her relief, he didn't burst out laughing at her.
"It's all right," he reassured her. "Just go slow, and give it a chance. Try the plantain."
She set down her glass and gave this new adventure a shot. "Mmmm, oh, my…" was her immediate response.
Charles beamed with satisfaction. "What did I tell you?"
"This is great," she took a bigger bite the second time. "I didn't know you could cook."
"A man has to survive in the wild. It's even better grilled with fish," he indicated the plantain. "But I haven't worked out how to grill over the hot plate, and I didn't think Grandpa would appreciate it if I set fire to the building."
"I suspect not. Tell Mrs. Nesbit her chicken salad is good, too." Dorothy took another stab at the champagne. She was better prepared for it this time, but still couldn't handle more than a sip. "So, tell me all about the Yucatan."
"Fantastic!" he said. "Uncle Bart has an old friend who's an archaeologist. He's been working on an excavation there for a few years, and he invited us down for a month. I brought back a few artifacts, and a stack of photographs. You've never been to the Yucatan." Charles didn't phrase this as a question, but he observed her as if waiting for an answer while he took a drink of his champagne.
"No," she obliged him, spearing another piece of mango from the fruit plate.
"They have these pools of water, called cenotes. They're sinkholes, formed in the limestone. I found one not too far from camp. I'll show you the photos after we finish this, but they don't do it justice; you'd have to see it for yourself to understand."
Dorothy washed down the mango with a mouthful of champagne. She wouldn't have said it was growing on her, but it was less of a shock with each taste.
Charles went on. "It extended back into a small cave at one end, and the other end had a few ledges to negotiate to get down to the water level. Bit treacherous," he acknowledged, with an off-hand wave of his fork, "but nothing I couldn't handle. I got in the habit of hiking out there every morning for a swim. You can't imagine how beautiful it is. The water is so clear, you can see everything, the fish, your toes…" He laughed with pure delight at this, eyes shining. Dorothy wondered why she had never noticed before now that his eyes were really more green than blue. "There are dragonflies, and butterflies this big," he spread his fingers, "and birds in the trees, just splashes of red and gold between the leaves. You'd swear you were the only human being on earth. It's wonderful."
"It sounds wonderful," she acknowledged, downing the last of her plantain.
"The jungle can be a dangerous place, though," he warned, with a teasing half-smile. "You'll never guess what I ran into out there one day."
"What?" she took the bait.
"I'd gone for my usual morning swim, and I was just climbing out of the water. The sunlight was creeping down the rocks by then, and I was shaking myself off," he gave a toss of his head by way of example, "when suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I saw… Oh, here," he broke off the story, using his knife and fork to move the last chunk of fried plantain from his plate to hers, "why don't you finish this?"
Plantain was the last thing she'd been thinking of, and she looked down at it in bafflement.
"Go on," he insisted. "I've had my fill. So, I was standing there, dripping wet, not a care in the world, when I spotted it, up on the ledge," he raised a finger to indicate an imaginary point above her head. "A jaguar, as long as you are tall, not including the tail. I don't know how long he'd had his eye on me, but he had me in his sights now, and he was ready to spring. I'd brought my rifle along, of course – never go into the wild unarmed – but it was leaning against a tree, a couple of yards out of reach. I had no more than a moment to react. Dashed for the tree, grabbed the gun and turned to face him. The beast was already lunging for me; it was all I could do to get off one shot. BANG!" Dorothy jumped as he smacked the table. "Dropped the gun and dove into the water; otherwise, he would have fallen on me." Charles sat back, picking up his champagne glass. Exhaling deeply, he took a drink, while Dorothy waited on the edge of her seat. "Brought him down with that one shot," he concluded. "If I'd hesitated for an instant, I'd be dead."
"Oh, my," she breathed. She could feel her cheeks tingling. Suddenly, champagne seemed like a good idea, and she took a longer drink than she'd intended.
"My sentiments exactly," Charlie grinned at her, digging back into his chicken salad. "So, any excitement going on around here?" he asked, nonchalantly.
Dorothy was speechless. It wasn't just Charles' narrow escape from the jaguar that had her blood racing, it was the sudden, involuntary image of him emerging from the water, fresh from his morning swim, and… how on earth had that gotten into her head, and why was she having such a hard time shaking it out? The glass in her hand was empty, and Charles reached for the bottle.
"No!" she protested abruptly, suspecting the champagne was at least partly to blame, then she declined more politely, "No more for me. I think I'd better stick with Dr. Pepper. Thank you," she added, still feeling a bit ungracious.
Far from being offended, he said, "You're wise to know your limit," then refilled his own glass before relenquishing the bottle. "The fellows still treating you all right?"
"We're getting used to each other. Harrigan still gets his digs in," she noted, with a chuckle, "but I think he's mostly just annoyed because he has to watch his language now that I'm around."
"Dear old Slow-Burn Harrigan," said Charles, with an indulgent smile. "If you want to get his goat, I can give you some pointers. I've been pestering him since I was six."
"Oh, I don't mind him," Dorothy brushed this off. "It's nothing personal; he's a grump to everyone."
"Well, if anyone gives you any trouble here, you know where to come," he reminded her, puffing himself up a bit. "I'll settle his hash."
"Thank you, Charles," Dorothy declined this offer, "but I'm not aware of anyone's hash that needs settling right now."
"Just keep it in mind." Polishing off a piece of papaya, he waved his fork in her general direction and said, "There's a stack of photos on the desk. Bring them over, and you can have a look while I finish this," he indicated the remains of his supper.
Dorothy picked up her plate and champagne glass and carried them to the kitchenette before circling back to the desk to collect his photos. She was heading for the chair when Charles hastily gulped down a mouthful of chicken salad to say, "Sit here." His left hand patted a spot beside him. "That way, I can narrate." He flashed a grin at this remark, but there was nothing suggestive about it, and Dorothy felt only one foolish moment of awkwardness as she sat down on the edge of the bed. Charles looked to see what was on top of the stack in her hands, and said, "Oh, there we are." The photo showed him standing with two men, both about twenty years his senior. "That's Uncle Bart, in the Panama hat, and the other one's Rosey."
"Rosey?" Dorothy questioned.
"Our host. Harold Montrose, but we all call him Rosey. Because of his looks." Harold Montrose, despite his age and otherwise rugged appearance, had a cherubic smile and curling hair. "He's been working on this site off and on for about five years now." He motioned for her to proceed to the next photo. "And here we are again, with the whole crew." Another half dozen men had joined the three of them, and Charles pointed them out. "Keene, Franklin, Lamb, Thatcher, and Edwards, and that's Rios, our native. Pleasant enough fellow, but his English isn't very good, and his Spanish… heh, well, it's not what they speak in Spain. The others are used to him, though, and Uncle Bart can converse with anyone – he's something of a linguist, you know. I'm fluent in the basics, of course," Charles informed her. "French, German, Latin… what's next?"
Dorothy and Charles looked through several more photos, as he described the stone structures that Montrose and company had so far reclaimed from the dense growth. "Here's the main pyramid. Climbed to the top of that one; remarkable view over the jungle." Having finished his supper, he pushed his plate away and moved closer to her. She was vaguely aware of him planting his hand on the bed, somewhere behind her back, as he leaned in to see what she was holding. His enthusiasm over the view was justified by his subsequent shots, and they lingered over these as he pointed out landmarks within the dig site and beyond.
Finally, Dorothy uncovered a photo that made him exclaim, "A-ha! There's the one I've been waiting for!"
It was Charles, rifle in hand, posed in triumph over the vanquished jaguar. He had put on his trousers, but that was all, and Dorothy found herself confronted with the reality of her only-too-recent imaginings. Whatever she or anyone else called him, Charles Muntz was not a Kid. He was a confident young man with an athletic physique that made her wonder why he'd even needed the gun, since he looked as if he could have wrestled the jaguar into submission just as easily.
"I have to admit, that was the highlight of the trip," he said, reaching over to hold one edge of the photo, the better to admire it. "Brought back the head; I'm having it mounted. You can see the size of him; what did I tell you? You can't imagine the thrill of suddenly finding yourself face to face with something like that. Lightning reflexes, Dorothy, lucky I have them, or I wouldn't be here. This was taken back at the camp, of course; I've got the cenote photos here somewhere."
He finally relinquished his hold and let her move the jaguar photo to the bottom of the stack. Beneath it was the other photo he'd been looking for. "Here it is. My swimming hole," he grinned. "I took this from a ledge above the cave end." Even in black and white, he had managed to capture some hint of the cenote's beauty. The gleaming surface of the water, the rock ledges, the lush plants, everything combined to create the sense of a secret paradise teeming with life.
"Are those butterflies?" she asked, noting the light-colored flecks scattered like overgrown snowflakes through the scene.
"Some of them are. These," he directed her attention to the flora, "are orchids. They grow wild; you've never seen so many. At the top of the cliff, that's the spot where my jaguar was lurking," he pointed it out. "And that's exactly where I was standing when I shot him. He came down in one leap to that rock, then sprang at me," he traced the path with a finger.
Dorothy thought for a moment that he was going to insist on showing her that photo of himself as the Mighty Hunter again, but instead he proceeded to more photos of the cenote, including some closer views of the native wildlife. Dorothy was amazed by the exotic birds, the sheer numbers of the butterflies, and the delicate shapes of the orchids.
"I have to admit, Charlie, I've never seen anything like this. I can understand why you love it so." Studying one of his shots, her eye was caught by a small, furry animal with a long, bushy tail, hidden among the trees, and she gave a little laugh. "Is that a squirrel?"
That was when it happened.
To be continued…