annahewitt

The Mysterious Case of Martha McConnell

by Anna Hewitt

Martha McConnell walked into an alleyway in the rain one night and never came out. Some believe she was murdered, others were convinced that she wasn't really missing at all...

Martha took the bus from Sycamore Crescent. She stayed on for three stops and stepped off again at Bridgewater Lane. From there, she walked up towards the high street, passing the off-licence and the bank with its grand stone walls. The rain was heavy, the sky grey. She wore dark clothing and carried a purple umbrella. No coat. She walked towards the old Victoria pub and took a sharp left into an alleyway. 

Nobody saw Martha McConnel again. 

She did not turn up for work at the Knotts Inn. Nor did she appear at Lisa Cuthbert’s house, to tutor piano. She did not come home. After three days of growing concern, her father called the police. 

“It’s just not like her,” he told them, in the first interview. “She’s a busy girl, but she always checks in. It’s the silence” – here, he paused, clearing his throat. “It’s the silence what concerns me.” 

Craig, her father was called, handed a photograph to the police, who in turn handed it to the press. She was not from a wealthy family, but she was young and fairly pretty, so most of the local newspapers picked up the story. The favoured theory around town was that she had run off with a boy – somebody like James Walsh or Stanley Jones. Somebody who meant trouble. But those who knew her personally, like the staff of the local library, had other theories. If she were with a boy like James or Stanley, they said, then it wasn’t by choice. 

After three weeks, rumour spread that the police were sending divers into the canal. They were searching for a body, apparently. Some people thought that was a waste of time. Some doubted that she was missing at all. 

“She’s probably right under our noses,” Steve Brooker claimed to his friends at the pub. “My wife reckons she got herself into trouble. You know, got herself pregnant or something.” Steve’s friends all nodded at this in agreement. 

After three weeks, rumour spread that the police were sending divers into the canal. They were searching for a body, apparently. Some people thought that was a waste of time. Some doubted that she was missing at all.

At the one-month mark, the police received their first real piece of evidence. Detective Harry Jameson entered the station and was met with the sight of four other officers, crowded around one desk. Brenda, the receptionist, was also there. Jameson had to clear his throat before anybody noticed him. “This was found by a dogwalker this morning, sir, in the woods,” explained Brenda, nodding to the item in question. Harry squinted and leaned forward. It was a silver charm bracelet, small and caked in mud. There were three charms attached to the chain – a heart, a tree of life, and what looked to be a dog’s paw print. There was also a connecting link, from which (it appeared) another charm had snapped off. 

“Right…” he said. There was a pause, then PC Heather Jones looked up and said: 

“The thing is, sir, we think it might…” 

“It’s hers,” said Brenda, cutting Heather off. She pointed to a photograph which was laid out on the desk. Martha’s photograph. In it, he saw the silver charm bracelet, draped around her wrist. 

“It doesn’t mean anything though… does it?” asked Heather. 

Did it? All eyes turned to Harry Jameson, who did not respond. 

News of the bracelet spread quickly through town. People began speaking of Martha in hushed tones. The rumours shifted into the blank spaces of conversation: a sudden pause mid-sentence, or a sullen look shared between friends. Parents taught their children to avoid the alleyway by the Old Victoria. A child catcher lived there, they said. He lurked in the shadows, waiting to snatch whoever crossed his path. 

But then, nearly a year after Martha vanished, Daisy Worthington returned from her first term at university and claimed that she knew that Martha McConnel was alive. 

“She’s in the city,” Daisy said to her friends over lunch. “There’s this millionaire… Robert something… owns a lot of hotels…” 

“Robert Miller?” Offered one of the friends. 

“That’s the one! Anyway, you sometimes see him out and about, when you live in the city, and one time he was with his girlfriend…” Daisy stopped and held up a finger. With her other hand, she began to rummage through her purse, until she pulled out a photograph. 

“I took this for evidence. Look at the woman he’s with… the man in the suit… it has to be Martha!” 

Daisy’s friends all leaned in. The photo was blurry. The woman in question was facing away from the camera, though her hair seemed too fair to be Martha’s, and her frame was too tall. 

There were no signs that she had purchased a bus ticket out of town. The fact that she hadn’t appeared after a year, hadn’t contacted her father at all. Well…

“I’m sure it was her,” Daisy whispered. Her friends looked again, and, slowly, they too became certain that they were looking at Martha McConnel. 

* 

Harry Jameson was sat at his desk when Brenda came to tell him the news. She was so excited, so eager to provide him with useful information, that he didn’t have the heart to tell her he already knew. His wife had told him when she had brought him his lunch. 

“So?” Brenda asked, when she had finished. Harry lifted his gaze. 

“So what?” 

“Do you think it was her?” 

Jameson considered this question. He hadn’t seen the photograph, but those who had seemed to hold no doubts that Martha was in it. He had spent a year searching for evidence, or an explanation. All of Martha’s belongings were still at her home: her clothes, her purse. There were no signs that she had purchased a bus ticket out of town. The fact that she hadn’t appeared after a year, hadn’t contacted her father at all. Well… 

“I don’t know,” he said eventually, “it could be her.” 

Brenda nodded slowly. She understood. 

“Well… good on her. A girl like her is wasted in this town.” Her gaze fell towards the floor. “A real waste.” With that, she turned, and walked out of the room. 

Harry Jameson sat at his desk, all alone, and stared into the newfound silence. He thought about the town, the people who inhabited it. He thought about his duty to protect them, and his duty to provide closure. Lastly, he thought of Martha McConnel. When he first became an officer, Harry had believed that his job was to find the truth. Now he knew that all people really wanted was an answer. Any answer – so long as the town could continue to live in the certainty that they were safe, that they could never walk into an alleyway in the rain, and never come out the other side. 

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Northern Life Mar/Apr 2022