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. The chapters are also online at BellinghamHerald.com/novel.
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 1: 'A Surprising Discovery'
Ben Avery woke to dog drool and a big tongue licking his face.
"Maverick! Gross! Get down!" Ben pushed the black Lab off the bed and looked at his phone: 8:30 a.m., Tuesday, July 5th.
"Oh, damn!" He'd missed class again. Not a great way to advance his prospects for veterinary school. He remembered the awesome party the night before. Too much beer at Boundary Bay. A searing pain shot through his head as he pulled on his jeans and sweatshirt from the pile of clothes on the floor. Maverick was jumping and woofing.
"Oww, Maverick! Shush! " Ben headed for the kitchen and downed two aspirin with gulps of OJ.
Twenty minutes later, Ben had a tall double latte in one hand and Maverick's leash in the other as he headed south on the trestle from Woods Coffee toward Fairhaven.
He was normally busy with schoolwork at Western and his evening job at Sehome Veterinary Clinic. There were lucrative dog-sitting jobs from vet clients, and Ben loved the excuse to take long walks, especially with Maverick. He had to give Maverick back to his owner at 5 that night when he started work. He would miss the dog.
Usually, Ben looked for birds and other wildlife along the beach. Today he noticed substantial erosion along the streambeds emptying into the bay. Record rains the past few weeks had exceeded any in Bellingham's history, so the seawater below the dock was brown with sediment washed down from the nearby hills.
Back on the roadside south of the dock, Maverick suddenly veered onto a washed-out deer path leading toward the beach. Ben followed, slipping down the steep side of the bluff, grabbing branches for support as he went. Maverick was headed for the shore, just beyond the railroad tracks.
A "Keep Out" sign warned they shouldn't be down there, but Ben let Maverick off leash for a romp in the water while he looked for an easier way back up to the road. He noticed a dozen or more bathtub-size concrete footings, obviously very old, barely visible in the vegetation between the tracks and the bluff. He climbed onto one of the footings to look around.
The trees there were younger than others nearby, suggesting a clearing in the past. He saw remnants of brick walls embedded in the lower edge of the bluff. On the face of the bluff, partially hidden by Indian plum and salmonberry, was a large, circular area of soil much darker than the surrounding soil - black, in fact.
Ben walked over to look, calling to Maverick to keep up, and saw shiny black reflective surfaces in the texture of the soil. On the ground, by his feet, were chunks of what looked like ... coal!
A coal mine! he thought excitedly. He remembered learning about the extensive network of mines dug under Bellingham during the late 1800s and well into the next century. Bellingham was settled, in part, because of coal and plentiful timber that was shipped to San Francisco.
Ben pushed deeper into the thick brush and saw fresh black soil and loose gravel spilling from the cliff face, with an opening above. He scrambled up and cautiously peered inside. It was dark and cavernous, with a damp, sharp smell he didn't recognize.
The gravel beneath him shifted, and he lost his balance, falling backward. As he struggled to his feet, he felt Maverick bound past him, into the opening. " Maverick!" But the dog was gone.
On his knees this time, Ben used the flashlight app on his iPhone to look inside again, but it only gave him a few more feet of visibility. "Maverick!" No response.
Ben crouched down and squeezed through the narrow opening on all fours, grateful for his slender runner's body. He slid over gravel to the floor inside, looking around anxiously. The walls and ceiling sparkled with reflections of his light. He saw massive wooden beams along both sides and across the top of the passageway.
He called to Maverick again as he crept forward, his hand touching the damp wall for balance. The floor was uneven. His feet slipped on gravel and wet rocks. His heart pounded.
About 10 yards in, a tunnel branched off to his left and steeply downward. He could smell before he could see the rank surface of fetid water in a pool. He turned his light back to the main tunnel, sloping steadily downward. Carefully, he crept deeper into the earth, swinging his light back and forth over the shiny, rough surfaces.
Ben heard a small sound ahead. He froze, listening. The stones from his last steps rolled noisily, then stopped. Silence. "Maverick!"
From the corridor beyond, he could hear a whimper and barely heard stones sliding. "Maverick!"
Rushing forward, Ben stumbled and fell. Pain shattered his consciousness, and the last thing he saw was a dull yellow gleam and blackness beyond.
Next week: Will Ben find Maverick?