The glossy panel door of flat cedar with dark knots to add depth was identical to the other, the one hiding the son, and behind it, in darkness, was a doberman.
"Go ahead," Elyse encouraged Quinn.
With every deep, slow breath Margie took, she groaned through gritted teeth. Her eyes were on Elyse's hands, the rifle, planning how to get it back, but until then she needed Quinn and the others to be smart. On her side. "Don't listen to her."
"It's just a door. It's just a dog."
Their own, Beagsley, was on the couch between Rosie and James. Rosie had hidden under the covers in her current state and James had coaxed Beagsley into rolling over. The big man genuinely smiled when he found that paddle point by a mole on the Beags' belly.
Quinn touched the handle.
There was silence beyond the dark of the door.
"We just want you to root around until you feel safe with us," Elyse said. "Maybe we can get to the bottom of what's got you all so spooked."
Quinn started to twist.
But Margie yelled, "If there's a dog in there, why haven't we heard a sound from him?"
"To be what?" Damion asked.
"A guard dog."
Margie stumbled to her feet. "Shouldn't it be out here then?"
"You folks aren't the danger."
"Did you forget he tackled me?" Damion pointed at James who now cradled Beagsley. His tongue flopped out--the dog's then the man's.
"He's not well-trained."
James gasped playfully and the two shot glances at each other, the glances of a loving couple, and Quinn saw that all, but that instinct she'd had since she was a kid told her not yet. Don't believe them yet. Elyse had that eternal patience of a pediatrician or a kid's favorite teacher, the kind of patience saints aspired to, and even holding the rifle, Quinn felt dissonance.
Elyse said, "I don't know why you all barged in. Why you have a gun. Why there's only one bullet left. But I'd like to know all that you're willing to tell me and maybe help if we can. This gun is useless without that bullet."
Maybe the night had her unfairly on edge and not because of these people. With a deep breath that quelled her nerves, Quinn said, "If I open this, will he attack?" She took that joking tone but it was a real concern.
"She," the doctor said. "Bailey."
"YES!" Margie screamed leaning on the counter. Her forehead banged a cabinet and her raspy breaths filled the room.
Elyse shook her head.
Putting her hand back on the doorknob, Quinn told herself, it was just a dog, Bailey. She knew the danger animals could pose and she knew how to handle them and with Damion and Margie and Rosie and even these strangers, one dog wouldn't kill her. If she could just bring herself to open the door.
Elyse walked over, setting the gun down on the table by the briefcase. "Here." She grabbed the doorknob.
But a childlike whisper stopped her.
"Beagsley, don't you want a friend?" Rosie asked from under the covers. Just a bloodshot eye peeked out.
"Hey, yeah," Damion said getting up as his suspicions did. "Dogs are beasts without restraint."
"Come on now," James said taking that insult for himself.
"Why isn't he sniffing the door? That's what dogs do, right? He's not well-trained."
"See?" Margie shouted, laughing so hard it might've been crying. "See? You don't know what she wants to sic on you. Rose and I know. We've seen it."
Quinn tried to get between the woman and her door, but she had already twisted the knob and flung it open.
Braced for a lunge of fur and fangs, Quinn whirled toward the dark room.
A block of light coming from the main area illuminated the bedroom. In the rectangle, a muscular dog stood. Unlike most doberman, this one was a pale color like a latte. It had a pink nose. White markings. Even its eyes were a pale, icy blue. It stared out. The tail stump did not wag.
"She's a good girl," Elyse said.
At all times, Quinn wanted an eye on the dog. She stepped forward, offering a hand to sniff, but that light pink nose didn't twitch. Its eyes stayed fixed on something out the room. If she wanted to see what had its attention, Quinn would have to look away and she wasn't going to do that.
Elyse reached in to fumble for the lights. They popped on, and most dogs, being used to the gradual reveal of sunrise, might still look at the instant illumination like magic, but this dog had no reaction.
"See?" the doctor said. She stayed by the door but made no concessions to the dog. The usual stuff of scratching behind its ears or squatting down to its level for slobbery kisses some found controversial. No baby talk. "Nothing but the dog. Check the drawers. Under the mattress."
James got up, carefully setting Beagsley on a pillow and giving his ears a good toss. The boy waited for more. But the man was heading for the door as Quinn walked in.
Margie shrieked at him in warning.
The doberman did nothing.
The alarm sent Quinn spinning to see James had stopped, holding his hands up in surrender, trying to explain, "I just don't want the dog getting out. You know how it is. Close the door just a crack."
"Nuh-uh," Quinn said. "You can stand there and catch her if she runs for it, but I'm not getting locked in here."
He sat back down, his eyes and anxieties on the dog.
Margie's alarm had almost drawn enough attention to her for someone to notice she had slid along the wall, ever closer to the kitchen table. Where the briefcase was. Where the rifle was.
As Quinn looked around, giving the dog a wide berth and at least one eye at all times, she noticed the two large beds were untouched. The bedspread was as smooth as an employee might make it when hurrying to do his least favorite part of the job. The four pillows were at the top of the bed. The other bed was the same. And if the son slept in the other room, maybe his parents did, too, but why waste this room on a well-trained dog? Why didn't the dog use the bed if they were available? James's behavior with Beagsley indicated that he was fine with animals on the furniture.
She pulled open the drawers to find nothing in each. The bedside tables had nothing and as far as she could tell, nothing was hidden in any crevasse or secret compartment. She even looked under the mattress as Elyse suggested. No rifle cartridges.
Which was reasonable.
But nothing? Nothing but the pale doberman?
Quinn came out and shrugged. "I think we're safe."
Margie wanted to insist on the other room, but she was closer still to the kitchen table, and another word from her, even another heavy breath, might tip off Elyse.
"Can you close the door?" James asked.
"Light on or off?"
"Doesn't matter," he said hurriedly, just trying to get it closed. "Off is fine."
"Does she like the dark?"
"For sleeping, yeah. But if you think on is better, whatever. Just, please? The door?"
A kitchen chair clattered against the hardwood. Everyone's attention spun on the sound except for James's, never leaving the dog, and they saw Margie's silence had paid off. She had the rifle once more. Damion backed away and Quinn went to block her path, but Elyse shrugged.
She said, "I told you. That thing's useless without the bullet."
"It'd make a pretty good club," Margie said. But her arm was still too weak to lift it, let alone aim, let alone swing, and just as that injury had led to a clumsy grab tipping off the entire house, setting it down, still in her clutches, she knocked over the briefcase. It fell on its side and the flap came undone. A clear plastic container, like the kind you pee in the first week on the job, rolled out and inside was a cicada.
It was so still it might've been dead. It stayed glue to the floor of the container as it spun until the jar stopped.
Quinn slapped her hand on the rifle and Margie was too weak to really do anything about it. She tried. She struggled and the gun shifted around on the table, but Quinn had it pinned until Margie gave up. Margie slumped back over in her corner. Elyse collected the container and stuffed it back in the briefcase, checking the latches to be sure they locked.
"Will someone close the dog in?" James yelled after the commotion settled.
Damion was nearest. He reached in for the handle when a solid rapping at the front door turned his attention. It caught everyone's.
Elyse looked to James; his eyes still waited on Quinn. Neither knew who it could be.
"Police," an authoritative voice shouted through. "We just have some questions maybe y'all can answer for us."
Everyone waited for someone to get the door, or to give that look that said they weren't getting the door, but no one gave the look and no one moved despite the police seeing the lights on through the window and probably hearing the voices talking right until the knock. The sudden silence was suspicious, but maybe not any more suspicious than what they were used to. Police gave most people that reaction, guilty or not.
The police opened the door on their own.
Elyse made an effort with long confident strides to appear like she'd been just about to head to the door when it opened, and she had that cordial smile as she asked, "What can we do for you?"
"Looks like a bit of a party in here," the uninvited man said. He had a ski mask covering his lower face and a hat. His eyes immediately found Margie. "Maybe a bit of a wild one."
"One of us had an accident. Fell down the mountain. It's been a whole night."
After the man came in and pulled down his mask, revealing a beard, his partner came in and Quinn, Damion, and Beagsley especially reacted--his favorite lady with all the treats. Sunny.
"What are all of you doing here?" Sunny asked as stunned as they were and more so when she saw Marge all beaten to hell, slumped over and wild-eyed. "And what the hell happened?"
Her reaction seemed to them alien because they'd been simmering in this all night and she'd only ever gotten the Rose Reports back when everyone thought it was craziness, so unless she'd seen, an explanation would be more craziness.
"Where's Glenn? Malia?" Quinn asked.
"Probably at the car by now. We ran into Jimmy on the way up and split up so they could call for more cops and emergency services."
"Jimmy?" Quinn couldn't believe that. He was in the initial planning but no one wanted him there. Maybe Hunter or Damion had let it slip. And yeah, he recommended the place, but when he couldn't come there was a collective unclenching in the group. Mostly from the women. Most of all, from Sunny.
"How's it going, Q?" Jimmy asked with that stupid grin.
But if he was a cop, he had a gun and that was some protection. "Fine. So questions?"
"Our contact with the ranger's station got cut off."
James interrupted. "Maybe the storm."
"Could be. Could be," Jimmy said.
James was no longer comfortable with Beagsley on the couch, living out dog dad fantasies, but he was up and near the officer at all times. He offered a seat at the kitchen table to the man but in doing so, he had to move the briefcase to the counter, just to give more space to the cop.
"Been firing this?" Jimmy asked, talking about the rifle. "You know it's not hunting season. Or a hunting-designated area. Not even sure there's much up here to hunt."
Quinn came in with the answer. "It was target practice. That was when she got hurt."
"Still illegal. Do any of you have a license for this?"
"Back at our lodge," Sunny said. "Hunter probably has it."
That drew silence in the room as the party focused on that secret tragedy, but Jimmy heard something else in that statement. "This isn't your place?"
"All of us crammed into one another mile up. This must be their place." Sunny motioned to Elyse and James.
"You're not with them?"
"We just met," Elyse answered. "To tend to Maggie's wounds."
"Margie," Damion corrected her.
Jimmy paused. He'd been listening intently. He had to with everything going on, and he made notes in his head as he connected the stories for a good picture of the situation as he saw it. He had that key piece though that really made everything clear. "Mind if I have a look around?" he asked.
"Go ahead," James said. "Nothing to hide." With the group, Elyse had been helpful. Now it was James. "First we should lock the dog up."
Jimmy looked to Beagsley. "Seems harmless."
"The other--" James looked at the open door with the lights still on. It was empty. Pale little Bailey had stepped into the main room.
"Oh! A big girl," Jimmy said and Sunny cooed, too, asking if she was friendly.
There were no more lines about being well-trained. Just James and Elyse watching it step toward the other door and stare.
"She seems curious about what's behind door number two."
"Our son," Elyse said slowly. "He's sleeping."
"Just turned seven."
"Is everything okay between the boy and the dog?" Jimmy caught onto the anxiety, but not the severity of it. "Any reason to put the old girl away?"
Elyse tried to stay composed. "You know dogs. Don't know their own strength. Still thinks she's a lap dog."
"Sure, sure. What do you want me to do?"