Welcome to "Mystery Lode," a six-part serial adventure written by Whatcom County residents.
The adventure runs July 11 through Aug. 15, with a new chapter in each Monday's edition of The Herald.
In our story so far, college student Ben Avery, a man in a hot-dog suit, a black Lab, a Herald photographer, a kidnapped chicken, and a homeless man who doesn't believe in ancient curses find themselves trapped by a cave-in at an old coal mine near Fairhaven. Could the Chinese curse be true?
Next January we will invite readers to write chapters for our 2012 serial story. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy "Mystery Lode." Send any comments to Dean.Kahn@bellinghamherald.com.
Chapter 3: 'The Curse'
It was a short distance into Fairhaven and Ben walked gingerly, sore from his fall. Maverick whined, pulling forward on his leash. The tibia in Ben's hand was smooth and light, and he caught himself twirling it like a baton.
"Off to the races," he whistled.
Soon they arrived at Fairhaven Village Green, where Ben saw three things: the first was his favorite food merchant, Mr. Hot Dog, who wore a full-body, hot-dog costume even in unfathomable heat; the second was a crowd of citizens gathered on the grass; and the third was chickens, lots of chickens. The people in the crowd wore shirts that read "Chickens are people, too" and "Don't eat chickens, love them."
"Hey Mr. Hot Dog, what's with the chickens?" Ben asked.
Mr. Hot Dog had a gray beard that hung outside of the head-hole of his hot-dog suit. His eyes were lidded and he smiled sleepily.
"The chickens? Oh ... " Mr. Hot Dog gazed at the crowd. "It's the first annual chicken parade," he said. "I should have guessed they'd be vegetarians. I always pick the wrong places to sell my hot dogs."
"I'll take a Polish," Ben said.
"Atta boy," said Mr. Hot Dog. "That'll be four bucks."
On the grass, a tall woman who wore a vaguely ethnic shawl was trying to herd the chickens toward the starting line of the parade. Unfortunately for her, the chickens weren't cooperating. Her frustration mounted. At the edge of the crowd, a young woman of Asian descent was crouched on one knee, snapping photographs.
"Balls!" Ben cursed. "I lost my wallet in the mine!"
Mr. Hot Dog had already brought up a Polish Dog with all the fixings. Ben reached for it; Mr. Hot Dog pulled back. "I know you buy a lot of dogs from me," he said, "but these things cost money."
"Well, what am I supposed to do?" Ben whined. "I really want a hot dog."
Ben thought hard. Then he pulled one of the gold coins from his pocket.
"What do you think a little beauty like this is worth? A Polish Dog, maybe?"
"Hmmm ... " Mr. Hot Dog examined the coin. His sleepy eyes shot open. "Where did you get this, boy?"
Ben didn't answer.
Meanwhile, a man in overalls was sowing dried corn on the pavement. On the grass, the chickens were at last moving toward the starting line, following the trail of kernels.
"The Chicken Parade is about to begin!" cried the woman in the shawl. The small but enthusiastic crowd soon lined both sides of the street. The photographer's camera clicked. Ben and Mr. Hot Dog were being pushed back by the chicken-lovers as their pet chickens clucked by.
"I found it in an abandoned coal mine," Ben admitted. "With others. And this."
Ben held up the human bone.
"Put that away boy!" cried Mr. Hot Dog, shielding the tibia from view.
Ben relayed the whole story: the dog, the mine, the skeleton, the coins. Mr. Hot Dog listened intently with a furrowed brow.
From the crowd came new commotion. "Stop him!" All eyes turned to a homeless man dressed in flannels and filthy jeans who was gathering corn kernels in the street, ahead of the parading chickens.
"Hey, buddy, move on! That corn is for the chickens!" A couple of gentlemen rushed the bum, who quickly ran off.
"Did you see him there? I didn't see him there," said a voice in the crowd, indignant, as the chickens marched on.
Mr. Hot Dog shook Ben's shoulders. "I think you found the mine that I've been looking for!"
"There was a horrible thing that happened here, in one of the mines, over a hundred years ago. People don't talk about it much, but all my life I've wanted to uncover what really happened down there. Take me back there."
"Well, I guess I have to go back to find my wallet."
"OK," said Mr. Hot Dog. "Let's go."
They began walking away. Mr. Hot Dog walked bowlegged due to the bulbous costume between his legs.
"Hey, wait up!" cried a voice behind them. They turned. It was the young photographer. "I know what you guys were talking about - the Chinese Curse, right?"
"You've heard of it?" said Mr. Hot Dog.
"Take me with you. I'm a photographer for The Bellingham Herald. I'm tired of taking pictures of chicken parades. I want a story for once. Something juicy."
"What do you think, Ben?" said Mr. Hot Dog.
At that moment the man who had disrupted the parade staggered out of the bushes beside them. He cradled something inside his flannel shirt, and it was kicking. A dirty yellow talon poked out of his neckline. The man stood transfixed.
"I stole a chicken," he said. "Don't tell."
Next week: What's the Chinese Curse?
Steve Lohse of Bellingham is one of six Whatcom CoSteve Lohse of Bellingham is one of six Whatcom County residents who wrote a serial adventure story for The Bellingham Herald. He has had fiction published in literary reviews and has freelanced stories for several publications.