Dorothy Cannell

She Shoots to Conquer

Book 14 in the Ellie Haskell series, 2009

For Andrew and Cosette Cannell, wishing you a world filled

with the magic of books. With love always from Granna.


Sometimes I am compelled to give Mother Nature a stern piece of my mind. That mid-September evening, I pointed out to her with all the authority I could muster (given my bulging eyes and closing throat) that dense fog was all well and good in the appropriate setting. I wouldn’t have said a word had I been snugly at home with Tobias the cat on my lap, a book and cup of cocoa to hand while Ben and the three children-nine-year-old twins Tam and Abbey and seven-year-old Rose-were cheerfully occupied nearby.

What I didn’t go for was sitting in a state of unbridled terror next to my equally terrified husband as he drove at an uncertain creep down an unfamiliar country road with visibility reduced to a couple of inches at best. We had exited the motorway about forty-five minutes earlier, planning to stop for an early dinner at a restaurant recommended to Ben by a fellow chef who had described the food as superb and well worth a detour.

Not only had we not found the Duck Pond Inn, we had gone twenty miles past the village of Little Woppstone before seeing a signpost with its name on it; by which time it seemed wisest to press on into the wooly gray yonder. What road we were now on was a mystery. I prayed for a ditch into which we might slither and wait lopsidedly until things cleared. It had been ten minutes since we had experienced the small comfort of seeing red pinpricks of taillights ahead of us.

“You’re doing wonderfully,” I told Ben in a voice that wobbled, “so calm and steady.” An image I couldn’t hope to present with my long brown hair untidily escaping its coil and hands gripping my jacket collar.

His reply was a grunt which I deemed heroic and befitting his dark good looks. The poor darling was claustrophobic. He had to be desperately fighting down feelings of suffocation along with fear of an accident, but he still maintained that arresting tilt to his chin. Mrs. Malloy spoke from the backseat, causing me to jump. In my state of nerves, I’d forgotten all about her.

“Bugger of a night,” she said with unnecessary relish.

I was unable to pry my lips open to respond, but Ben nobly managed another grunt.

“Puts me in mind,” Mrs. Malloy went on, “of that ill-fated day when Semolina Gibbons got caught in the mist after saddling the master’s wild-eyed stallion and riding out onto the moor to seek life-saving information from the curate’s bedridden great-grandmother.”

In general, I am very fond of Roxie Malloy. She has been my household helper at Merlin’s Court since shortly after my marriage. The children count on her as one of the beloved certainties of life, and she and I have from time to time worked as a duo in amateur sleuthing. When Ben and I went to Yorkshire to stay with our relatives Tom and Betty Hopkins, we had been happy to take Mrs. Malloy to visit her sister and brother-in-law in the same village. We had deposited her with them a week ago and picked her back up that morning for our return home, where the children were being looked after by Ben’s parents, with help from my cousin Freddy who lives in a cottage on our grounds.

I knew immediately whom Mrs. Malloy meant when speaking of Semolina Gibbons. In addition to other common interests, she and I share an enthusiasm for novels written during what we grandly refer to as the Gothic Revival period of the 1970s. Doing so makes us both feel studious and intelligent. Indeed, we consider ourselves serious collectors of yellow-paged, dingy-covered paperbacks invariably displaying a spooky mansion as the background to a young woman with wind-lashed black hair standing on a rock. Whether it is always the same rock remains open to question-a topic we consider worthy of a doctoral thesis should either of us ever find the time to go up to Oxford and wander the halls of learning, brushing shoulders with tutors and dons and the fearfully clever young. Semolina was the beleaguered but valiant heroine of a recent acquisition titled The Landcroft Legacy, by Doris McCrackle. Okay, maybe such isn’t Literature in its purest form. But to the scoffers I make no apologies for what they may view as escapism. Not all of us can be swept away upon burying our noses in The Subverted Subconscious or Principles of Parallel Pragmatism.

Allowances have to be made for the way the twig is bent, and my parents could never have been accused of overdoing reality. Had I (an only child) not arrived in the conventional manner, they would cheerfully have gone through life believing that storks brought babies to couples leaning out windows hoping to catch a glimpse of a pink or blue ribbon. Once they got over the shock, they were (so they told me) relieved that no assembly seemed to be required and got down to the business of remembering where they had put me and how long ago. Occasionally there were meetings at the dining-room table where they sat looking dubiously adult while seeking my advice on how to bring me up. Otherwise, I got to eat my dinner in the bath or wear my party dress to bed if I felt like it. If I developed a practical streak which caused me to decide against becoming a starving artist in favor of a career as an interior designer, it was because someone had to occasionally remember that the gas bill needed to be paid or the windows closed against sheeting rain.

Had Mother and Father been in the car with us now, they would have been delighted to hear Mrs. Malloy’s recounting of Semolina Gibbons’s visit to the curate’s great-grandmother. As it was, she had to focus on Ben as a captive audience.

“Gone ninety was old Mrs. Weathervane and her the only person left alive, Mr. H, likely to know whether it was the archdeacon’s first or second wife that disappeared after doing a series of brass rubbings in the village church sixty-three years previous. Your heart would have gone out to Semolina! Getting lost in the fog was terrifying in itself, but the worst was when she heard the muffled footsteps behind her and felt a hand close round her lily white throat, it’s no wonder she went to pieces. Have to give it to her that between one scream and the next she tucked away the memory of her assailant whistling an evil little tune; same as she heard the butler doing a week later when she dined at the Deanery on Christmas night.”

Momentarily distracted from our own tremulous situation, I gently corrected Mrs. Malloy. “It was New Year.”

“Oh, well,” she said dismissively, “the fact that the butler had been lost in the fog himself, and blindly grabbed hold of her to save himself from falling, don’t alter the case that Semolina would have done better not to have accepted the man’s offer to give her a tour of the pantries. She couldn’t be sure, for all his apologies, that it weren’t him as moments later had took a shot at her with an arrow. But of course, to be fair to the girl, she wasn’t herself at the Deanery, what with thinking of how Lord Hawtry’s good eye had darkened when she refused his hand in marriage.”

“Perhaps if he hadn’t produced it in a bloody paper bag she might have been more receptive,” said Ben with an admirably steady chortle.

Mrs. Malloy did not appreciate the witticism. “Nothing of the sort; the reason she had to turn him down was because rumor had it he already had a wife floating around.”

“In the goldfish pond or the trout stream perhaps?” This second quip and accompanying relaxation of Ben’s clenched jaw confirmed my hope that the fog was thinning sufficiently for us now to be able to see a couple of feet

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