Chapter 1 - 17/10/2017
Jane Pilton was luckier than most.
She reminded herself that every day that she woke up, sometime just after the first morning alarm would sound off. Her home was modest. Two bedrooms, a kitchen, living room, and a bathroom with one of those fancy standing bathtubs that you could really soak in after a long day‚s work. It was her first major purchase after she moved in. The only real ‚modern‚ part of her country home.
The sun had just begun to creep into her home through her bedroom blinds. It always took a little longer for daylight to make its way in. This close to the waterfront the surrounding hills and mountains kept the residents of Beryl Lake cloaked in cool shade while the sky roared in tones of bright orange and blue. It made everyone in town sleep in a little later. Everyone but Jane.
She was always an early riser. Part of it came from her old job. It was the reason she kept her brunette curls on the shorter side. Easier to pull up into a ponytail. Plus, she thought it looked better with a uniform.
Once the second alarm went off it was time for business. Tying on a thick robe she would go about preparing to start her day. Set the coffee maker on. Lay out her clothing. Check the shortwave radio. Crank up the electric stove and cook a couple of eggs. Maybe bacon, if she felt like she needed the boost.
It wasn‚t something she took for granted. She knew most towns weren‚t as lucky. Beryl Lake wasn‚t a very important blip on the map. Highway 47 was an hour north, and the closest Federation outpost was three hours away -- before abandoned cars and bandits made travel a dangerous endeavor. Surrounded by a mix of wooded hills and flat farmland, it was only thanks to its namesake that Beryl Lake thrived while the rest of the world buckled under the collapse of the Federation.
Only a few miles away was Beryl Dam. Fed water from man-made reservoirs the dam was just close enough to provide power to the small town. The residents of the dam did what they could to provide the surrounding area with electricity in exchange for food, supplies, and protection. Beryl Lake, Anvil, and Open Sky Reservation were the only populated regions in the state lucky enough to be able to keep the lights on at night.
Most of the world lived in the dark, but Jane‚s small home had power. More importantly, she had purpose.
"Hello? Sheriff?" There was a soft knocking at the front door, heralded by a woman‚s voice; loud but clearly timid. Someone afraid of intruding.
"One minute!" Jane said, checking to make sure she was presentable before turning off the stove.
She recognized the voice right away. It was hard not to. Everyone knew who everyone was in a small town like this. Still, she checked the peephole before unlocking and opening the door. You could never be too careful.
"Good morning Barbara. What brings you around this early?"
Barbara Kline was a small woman. Nervous and anxious in social spaces, Jane never saw her around town often. Even less so since the Federation dissolved. Her husband had a keen eye for hunting and several years of mechanical know-how. It made him a popular man, which left most of the housekeeping and caretaking to Barbara.
"Nothing. I mean, ah...." Barbara spoke softly, though her voice sound strained. "Can we talk?"
It was a cool day outside, but the way Barbara buried herself within her heavy coat it was easy to think that winter had settled in. Jane nodded and stepped aside to let her pass before closing and locking the door.
"I‚ve got a pot brewing if you‚re interested." said Jane, walking back to the kitchen.
"Uh. Yes, thanks."
There was a moment of strained tension while Jane poured drinks into a pair of mismatched sports mugs. Barbara stood in the den looking unsure what to do with herself. Jane did everything she could to be an accommodating host. She mentioned the weather (cool, but sunny). Showed off her favorite art piece in the house (a painting of a beachside house in watercolor, given to her from a friend). Made a bad joke about running out of her favorite breakfast cereal (Sugar Barks).
She also quietly took note of the things that didn‚t seem quite right.
Barbara kept her jacket wrapped tightly around her, but below the knee the silk of her pink and white pajama bottoms were showing. Her hair was pulled into a hasty bun, with strands left to sit wildly between her scalp and the hair elastic. Her eyes were red with exhaustion, like she had spent too long crying or rubbing them vigorously. Her voice seemed strained, despite its hushed tone. Perhaps she had been yelling, or had come from a lengthy conversation.
"So, I take it this isn‚t a social visit?" said Jane, smiling across from her coffee.
"I, ah. Listen, Sheriff-"
"Please, just Jane is fine. I‚m not a Sheriff anymore."
"Jane. I know things aren‚t...normal." Barbara set down her coffee, leaning in to talk. "But everyone knows you. You were supposed to be Sheriff, right? Hilkins says you solved the Silkie Murders a few years back. And you helped find that lost boy a few months ago."
"It wasn‚t a bad gig, but things are different now." Jane smiled, taking a sip. "We voted on who would take care of security around here. Andy and Sophia‚s kids can handle it. "
"But they wanted you to have the job first. Because you have experience."
"It‚s more than a one-woman job. Those kids will do fine. Good at hunting. Brian ain‚t bad to look at either." she chuckled.
"I...that‚s not what I mean." Barbara‚s voice seemed to fade away. "Lynn‚s gone missing."
Of the three of Barbara‚s daughters, Lynn was the oldest by a couple years. Maybe more, it was hard to keep track. She was tall, vibrant, with long hair that settled somewhere near her hip. Jane always wondered how long it took to keep it straight. It seemed like such a hassle, but it certainly made her easy to pick out of a crowd.
"How long has she been gone for?" Jane asked.
"A day now. She went to her boyfriend‚s place, but never came back." said Barbara, wringing her hands. "She normally calls if she‚s going to stay longer."
"Who‚s she dating?"
"He‚s...ah, he lives on the reserve. You know..."
Jane frowned. She knew where this was going. In small towns like Beryl Lake you were either involved in the local gossip, or you quickly became a source of negative attention. The Indigenous residents of Open Sky often found themselves on the latter. She had lost count over the number of complaints she received over the months prior that had escalated from petty accusations to outright lies.
Stolen animals, broken electronics, antagonizing citizens. Those were the easy ones to take care of. Most of the time she would follow up with a phone call to investigate and the charges were already dropped. It was easy to accuse anyone with anything, but to prove it required a lot of work. Drunken rambling in a small town was rarely given real credibility. Plus, if you‚re ever proven wrong about something, you end up looking like a troublemaker. No one wanted to risk that.
"So have you tried calling his house? Landlines still work." Jane took another sip from her coffee.
"What? No. She always calls me, always. Sheriff--" Barbara took a moment to regain her composure. "Jane. I know her. I know she would have called. Even if her phone didn‚t work, she would have found another. They must have done something to her."
"Did she have any enemies?"
"No one that would want to see her hurt? A jealous ex?"
"Lynn‚s a good girl. Smart. Keeps her nose out of trouble. Or she did until she met him."
"This a bad kid?"
"He‚s typical." snorted Barbara. The loudest sound Jane had heard her make all morning. "I told her not to get mixed up with his type. Those people. Always talking about travel and seeing the world, whatever that means. No plans. No job security. Just goddamn daydreams."
"Well, you know how kids can be."
"Lynn doesn‚t need that shit in her life. She‚s a good kid. Works hard. My girl. Now she‚s gone. I know she is, and I know they did something to her." Barbara‚s quiet facade began to crack under the weight of her stress. A tear rolled down her cheek.
Jane passed her a box of tissues, then took another sip from her mug. Barbara was trying hard to hold her composure. They sat in silence while she slowly regained control of her shivering hand. Clutching the tissue box close Barbara turned her eyes away from Jane, looking elsewhere in the apartment while she spoke. Jane wondered if it was easier for her to pretend she was talking to herself.
"John wants to gather up a group to go and search for her. Talks about getting his gun and fucking doing something about it. About them, Sheriff. But if he goes out there and gets shot in the back by some native...if I lose them both...I can‚t. I can‚t."
"You want me to go looking for her."
"You have a history with them, right?
"A history? Yeah, you could say that." Jane said into her mug before draining it at last.
"You have a better chance than anyone else. If the men go...you know how they are. God knows who will start shooting first. But we‚re outsiders. I heard from Tom Hurdan that you lived there for a while. They trust you, don‚t they?"
The question hung in the air for a moment before Jane placed her mug on the coffee table between them. She turned the drink carefully, rotating its logo in thought.
"I served this town for 5 years until things fell apart." Jane mused, leaning back into her couch. "Before that I worked in Las Vegas. Pre-Federation, do you know what the crime rate was? About one in a hundred. Even when they started bringing in officers with âabilities‚, it took some time to really hone in on the problem."
"I don‚t understand."
"People. People are like a natural disaster. Sometimes you can predict it. You see the signs and can act accordingly. But now and then you can see the signs, make all the right choices, and you‚re still not prepared for what‚s ahead."
"What...what did you do?"
"Education and intervention, Mrs. Kline." Jane slapped her hands down on her knees, using them to push herself up to her feet with a groan. "We taught people that there‚s always a better way. When they wouldn‚t listen, we stepped in to show them"
"I...will you help?" Barbara stood as well, still holding the box of tissues nervously.
"I can‚t promise I‚ll find her. Maybe she went to the reserve. Maybe she went elsewhere. But I‚ll see what they have to say."
Barbara Kline broke into tears. Jane did what she could to comfort her, offering a hug and soft words of heartfelt consolation. Standing by the front door she tried to glean as much information as possible about the day Lynn left. She was wearing a yellow summer dress. She rode a red bicycle. She always carried a worn-down looking jean backpack when making a trip.
Escorting the weary mother from her home Jane worried what the girl‚s disappearance meant for the community. They survived by working together. If Lynn Kline was taken by an outsider things would be difficult, but manageable. If someone, anyone, from their small cluster of towns was responsible, it wouldn‚t take long for their peace to fall apart.
Jane spent the rest of the morning moving with purpose. Digging through her closet she pushed past her old officer‚s uniform, opting instead for jeans and a comfortable shirt. Pulling her hair into a ponytail she took a peek outside the kitchen window to see if the rest of Beryl Lake had already begun to stir awake. Fastening her gun holster she watched them gather to socialize in the town‚s single main road before getting into the morning‚s chores.
Word spread quickly in a small town like this. They already looked tense. John Kline stood in the center of them, arms folded, caught in a heated discussion with the group.
Jane stepped out into the morning sun with a stretch, well aware that all eyes were on her. Each home of Beryl Lake was scattered across the waterfront, with little in the way of vegetation between. It was undoubtedly scenic. One of the reasons she moved here, in fact. But for once Jane wished she had a little bit of cover.
"Morning gentlemen." she nodded, fixing her baseball hat to help cover against the glare of the sun.
"Mornin‚ Jane." one man nodded with a smile. Several others echoed the sentiment, tipping hats or waving hello.
She quietly unlocked the door to her jeep and stepped inside. Turning the ignition and backing out of her driveway she saw the group of men had already begun to step onto the off-road dirt. Lowering her window she gently slid to a stop between them.
"You boys keep out of trouble today." Jane said, eyeing the lot.
"Last I checked, you ain‚t Sheriff no more." John Kline‚s deep voice boomed from the crowd.
"Nope. I ain‚t. But I still know a thing or two about not acting like an idiot." she smiled. "Just the beginner‚s course though."
John pushed his way to her jeep, placing a hand on the roof of the vehicle to lean in close. Jane sat quietly, looking up at the man.
"You really think you gonna find somethin? Ain‚t much detective work here, way I see it." he said.
"Maybe. Maybe not. If you‚re right, I should be back in a day."
"If they did anything to her. To my girl..."
Jane reached out and gently placed a hand on his shoulder. His expression was calm, but she could see the tears in his eyes, held in place by years of practice.
"I promise you John, I‚ll do everything I can to find the truth." Jane said as quietly as she could manage.
She let her hand linger for a moment, until the weight of her words seemed to take root. He nodded thankfully, and Jane pulled her hand away.
"Then you got one day Bear Lady." he spoke loudly, patting her car door with a faux affection. "You bring my girl home."
Jane smiled. She always liked that nickname. It was meant as an insult at first, of course, but the people of Beryl Lake grew to have immense respect for Sheriff Jane Pilton. As she pulled away from their small town and toward the back roads leading to the reserve, they knew only one of two things would happen.
Either Jane would catch the one responsible for Lynn Kline‚s disappearance; or her kidnapper would run, and die tired.