Saturday, August 9th, 1947
Note: This story should be read as a frame narrative. The plain text is the flashback. The italicised text is in the "present", and is meant to reflect the narrator telling the story to somebody else. It can also be thought of as a voiceover.
I guess it would have begun on this day. I know it will seem odd to those innocent passersby who were simply enjoying a peaceful afternoon on this particular day, to think that events of such consequence could have been occurring less than a few yards away from them. But it's true. And this is how the whole ordeal started. It was a sunny Saturday, I remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday...
I suppose I had better start with some basic information. My name is Raymond Allison, but everyone calls me Ray. I'm 26 years old, and I own a private detective agency. At least I did...
My upbringing was of minimal consequence. Although I grew up without a father, my mother more than made up for the both of them. She showered me with love and attention. It was a happy, middle-class childhood. I was cared for, taught everything one needs to live a happy and fulfilling life, was given sufficient independence, had never been in trouble, not more than was reasonable for a boy of that age anyhow.
Once I had graduated from high school, I went to law school for a few years, and that was where I discovered my passion for helping the forgotten, overlooked voices crying for justice. Now personally I had never cared for the slow crawl of justice, the constant waiting around, sitting on evidence, and dealing with the regulations and potential for corruption that came with working for a police department. No, my calling was of a different nature. I was young and idealistic. All I wanted to do was make the world a better, safer place. And so I worked hard until finally, a couple years ago, I obtained my private investigator's license.
For a while, things went well. As you know, there's no shortage of crime in New York. And many people don't much care for dealing with the police either, so they come to folks like me. Someone who will take action right away. I took care of a variety of cases: theft, assault, kidnapping, and yes, even murder. It seems I had gained a reputation of sorts, for going the extra mile for my clients. Call it my youthful ardor, or that old idealism still residing in my heart. Whatever it is, maybe that explains how this whole thing got started.
It was the ninth of August, nineteen forty seven, it was a Saturday afternoon. Most people don't like to work Saturdays, not even PI's. I was the exception. I wasn't married, I had no family of my own. This job was my life. And in any event, business had been slow that day...
Saturday, August 9th, 1947
Office of Ray Allison, private investigator
Manhattan, New York
I sighed as I leaned back in my chair. This was an unusual feeling for me, to be alone in my office, no clients to assist, no projects to work on. Maybe it was for the best that business was slow today. I had been working nonstop on a slew of cases for my clients over the past few weeks. Now for the first time in months, my slate was absolutely clean. It wasn't great for business, but it could still turn out to be a positive. After all, I knew where I lived. There would soon be more cases to work on. Maybe it was a sign from the fates, maybe it wouldn't be so bad to just leave the office for a little while and take a walk through the bustling streets, pick up lunch, swing by Central Park, take it easy for once.
I swiveled about and took a look through the window. It was a rare sunny day in Manhattan, which bathed the skyline in a golden glow. The summer was in its final swoon, and it wouldn't be long before we were plunged back into the customary frigid winter. Yes, I thought to myself, it must be a sign. Today was my day to relax. To leave work behind for just a few hours. And now that I thought of it, Sundays weren't usually much better for business. I could take the whole weekend off...when's the last time that happened?
I smiled as I pictured the plan coming together in my head. I could instruct my secretary to just tell anyone who came in to come back on Monday. I was only human anyways. I couldn't solve every crime in this city, as much as I wanted to. I had just about talked myself into this idea when the familiar ring of the telephone interrupted my thoughts. I picked up the phone receiver and placed it to my ear.
That was the voice of my secretary, Miss Mosely. I heaved an internal sigh. And maybe deep within me I knew although I didn't want to confess it. It seemed that the fates had, as they so often did, changed their minds on a whim. There would be no rest today.
"Yes, Ms. Mosely?"
"You have a visitor."
"All right, send them in please."
"Very well." And the phone call ended. I straightened out some papers and other items on my desk to neaten it up. I took a sip of my afternoon coffee, sat up in my chair and focused my vision on the door, wondering who would be walking in this time. Would it be like the man who claimed he had been framed by an infamous gang for a series of armed robberies? Or the wife who was concerned that her husband might be more involved in a murder case than he was letting on? I'd seen both of those and so many more. Because of my age, many people tended to assume I was new to these things. That couldn't be further from the truth. I'd seen some terrible things in this line of work. I thought I was ready for anything.
What I wasn't ready for was for the young woman who came walking through the door a few moments later. At once, several thoughts occurred to me simultaneously, and all of them seemed jumbled and contradictory: the first, as she quietly closed the door behind her and walked towards me, was that she could have been any one of my previous female clients, plainly clothed as she was, with a simple dress and hat. The second, that in spite of this, she held a certain beauty that even this humble appearance could not contain. Her dark red curls highlighted her emerald green eyes, which at the moment were reflections of unfathomable loss and grief. Their sorrowful gaze captivated me, and I instantly found myself wanting to know who this oddly enchanting woman was. To know her story, why she had come to me. But it was then that the third thought hit me, I did know this woman. Even before we'd spoken a word to each other, I recognized her at once, although her initial appearance had caught me off-guard. She was normally seen in far more elegant attire than this, but then again, considering the occasion of her visit, I could not blame her. The only trapping of her wealth was a Rolex watch, and even this she seemed reluctant to show. Yes, I did know her. It was difficult not to when she was a member of arguably the most famous family in New York aside from the Rockefellers. It was the only daughter of one Stephen Sanford, Gwen Sanford.
I'm sure you, as everyone else, know who Stephen Sanford was. The founder and President of Sanford Munition Co., one of the most powerful manufacturers and suppliers of arms to the military during the second world war. Sanford's wife had passed away some years ago, but this did not quash his ambitions by any scope. If anything, it only made him more of a workaholic. During the war, if you saw a tank, a gun, an aircraft, even a battleship, there was a good chance Sanford Munition Co. had either built it or played some role in commissioning it. They were the toast of the town in a time when patriotism reigned supreme. The Sanfords were heroes. Along with his young daughter Gwen and their contingent of servants and maids, they lived out a comfortable existence in the Sanford Estate in the wealthiest stretch Long Island. After the war ended, Sanford Munition Co. made the mistake of continuing to go on as if it were business as usual. But of course, that wasn't the case. The war was over, the hot one anyways. And the cold one had begun. The military didn't have as many demands as before. Sanford Munition Co. was experiencing some financial trouble, but that was the least of their worries, as we were all soon to find out...
"Miss Sanford? To what do I owe your presence this fine afternoon?"
Given her appearance and demeanor, I wasn't surprised to find that Miss Sanford looked deeply distressed. In fact, it looked as though she'd been crying. I knew why. Like everyone else, I had heard and read about the incident. The tragic car accident that killed her father, one of the most renowned millionaires in New York, maybe in the whole country, Stephen Sanford. This was a man who was held up by many as a true patriot and American hero. It was no surprise that the media had given his untimely passing a massive amount of coverage. They wanted answers, and soon they got them. The police had quickly concluded their investigation with the finding of suicide. Mr. Sanford was depressed because his company was losing business, so he got in the car and took his own life. There were others in the car, a business partner, a chauffeur, they'd been lucky enough to survive. At the time I hadn't thought much of it. But now, with the heiress to the Sanford fortune standing before me trembling like a leaf, now I took notice. It was so shocking to see a woman in such a position of power, a woman barely imto adulthood being asked to step up and deal with this awful tragedy, a wealthy socialite with no need for a plain guy like me, to see her like this, so vulnerable and afraid, it haunted me. Right then I just wanted to get up and put my arms around her and make everything all right, but of course I couldn't. So I stayed put and tried to keep my demeanor calm. After all, when the client is distressed, it's my job to be strong for them.
"You've heard about what happened to my father, haven't you Mr. Allison?"
"Yes I have, and I'm terribly sorry for your loss, Miss Sanford."
"That's the reason I wanted to speak with you today, I was hoping you could help me."
My eyes couldn't help but take her in. Her elegant dress was illuminated brilliantly in the afternoon sun. That same illumination was present in her eyes, but this time It was of a natural cause. It was mesmerizing.
"I will do what I can."
"The truth is, I don't believe the police have done enough to find out what really happened."
I looked up. This was interesting. Was Miss Sanford implying that there was something more to this story than suicide? As if to answer my question, she continued speaking.
"I don't believe he committed suicide at all. I think the police are just dead wrong. My father isn't the kind of man to do that."
I stroked my chin thoughtfully. "Well if he didn't commit suicide, then what do you suppose happened? An accident?"
"No sir, I think he was murdered."
"Murdered?" I asked. This was a serious allegation. "Have you got any evidence to support this?"
Miss Sanford gave me a defeated look. "No sir, it's only an intuition, a hunch, I suppose."
I gestured for Miss Sanford to sit down, and she did so. It seemed we were going to have a serious conversation about this. Now I have been called upon many times to investigate incidents that family members had deemed suspicious. They would often come to me as Miss Sanford had done and tell me about how wonderful their relative is, how they would never take their own life. It is difficult to accept, true. It is easier in a way to suppose that it is murder because that takes control out of the victim's hands. It means they did not willingly abandon their family. But in the vast majority of these cases, I had the unfortunate, yet necessary, responsibility of informing these clients of the terrible reality. Ssometimes suicide was the best and only explanation. I hated it as much as anyone, but it was my job to tell these hard truths. For I had already learned by now that ninety nine percent of the time, things were exactly as they seemed.
It was that rare one percent that kept me on my toes, that made me feel a pang of sympathy for Miss Sanford. Maybe she was right. Maybe old man Sanford finally crossed the wrong fellow. He didn't exactly have the cleanest reputation in this town. He was your typical business tycoon, a man with a big bank account and an ego to match. He had no shortage of potential enemies. The communists for one, would have been happy to see this major weapons manufacturer out of the picture for the US. His domestic enemies might have been even more worrisome. Mr. Sanford was known to deal underhanded and do anything to either merge with competitors or drive them out of business. So was it at least plausible that Miss Sanford's claims held water? Certainly. But it was just as, if not more, likely that this would be another case where the simplest explanation was the actual one.
"Tell me, Miss Sanford, when did you begin to have these suspicions that your father's death may not have been as it was portrayed?"
"It was just about right away. The police already had their theory, but I felt something telling me it was wrong. That was when I had the idea to get a second opinion of sorts, from you."
I tried not to make too much eye contact with her as we spoke. It's strange, because usually it's the other way round. You want to make as much eye contact with your clients as possible, to show them that you care. And I do care, so for me, it's natural. But in this case, I knew that her startling emerald green eyes would have just distracted me. So I concentrated on her Rolex, which was rested, with the rest of her arm, upon the table. I watched those clock hands slowly move, tick tock tick tock, and tried to push down the feelings I was having. It wasn't right to feel that way about a client. At the same time, I had to be attentive to her story, so I took out a notepad and started jotting down notes.
"Okay, you've got my attention. Why don't you start from the beginning, Miss Sanford?"
"Please sir, just call me Gwen," she insisted.
"Well all right, but only if you stop calling me sir, so far as I can tell, I haven't been knighted. "Ray" will do just fine."
Miss Sanford, Gwen, gave a small smile at my bad joke. It was only for a moment, and I tried to play it off, but there was something about that smile. Something that made my heart go wild. I tried to ignore it and go on with the interview.
"All right, Gwen, can you tell me everything that happened leading up to where we are now?"
So she told me. It was the 20th of July, just a few weeks earlier. She'd been asleep especially late that morning for whatever reason, but when she awoke she found that her father, the chauffeur, a Mr. Graham Godwin, and the car were gone. A note had been left on the kitchen table: "Gone for drive with Burton, will be back by two." But of course, he never came back. And later that day, the police showed up with the awful news, there'd been an accident. Stephen Sanford was dead. The accident happened in a secluded area, no one had witnessed it. It seemed Mr. Sanford had fought Mr. Godwin for control of the car, and ended up crashing it into a tree. Miraculously, Mr. Godwin and Sanford's business partner, Alistair Burton, survived. Possibly by throwing themselves out at the last possible moment. It all seemed to line up with the police version of events, but Gwen still had the terrible feeling that something was amiss...
"And you believe that this was no accident or suicide, but intentional murder?"
"Yes, sir- Ray, that is what I believe," Gwen repeated to me. "In fact I know. Don't ask me how, I just do. Could you please look into it further? I'll pay you extra, if you'd like-"
"That won't be necessary, Miss," I cut her off. "I don't do this for the money. And anyhow you've suffered enough with the loss of your father. I'll gladly look into your case."
"You will?" Gwen asked with renewed hope in her eyes. In that moment I knew I never wanted to see that hope burn out. I never wanted to be the one responsible for putting it out. I could say no, I could tell her that the greater likelihood pointed towards suicide or accidental death before murder, that I appreciated her coming to see me, but I had to recommend that she simply try to accept the police verdict and move on with her life. I could have said any of those things. But I didn't. Cases like these are the reason I took the job. For people who's stories weren't believed. Who were ignored by the police.
"Yes, Miss Sanford. I'll take your case."
Gwen practically leapt out of her chair as soon as I said this. "Oh thank you, this means so much more than you'll ever know!"
To be completely candid, I live for a reaction like that. It's the reason I started this venture, to make people's lives better. Again, I felt that urge to hug her, to promise her that I would do anything to solve this case, but I simply couldn't in good conscience make that promise. Not yet. I didn't even know for a fact yet that there had even been a crime...
"I'll need to examine your estate as well as photos of the scene of the incident to make a determination on how we should go forward. I can obtain the latter from the police department. Would you be willing to let me search your home?"
"Yes, of course. Would you like to drop by tomorrow?"
"It would be my pleasure, Miss Sanford."
She smiled at me again, I felt my heart race again. "I knew I made the right choice in contacting you, Mr. Allison. I do hope you'll grow accustomed to calling me by my name, though."
I returned her smile. "It's only been a few minutes, Miss Sanford. Give me some time."
"How about tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow will do."
"I'll be waiting for you."
I stood up. "I'm going to get to the bottom of this one way or the other, Gwen. We'll find out what really happened to your father."
And with that we shook hands and I bid her a polite farewell. Officially, I was still technically eligible to take on more cases. For a PI, as the old adage goes, the more cases you take, the more money you make. But the truth was, I had already started to become fixated on the Sanford case. It would become my sole pursuit for however long it took. If it was true, and there was a murderer out there, then they had to be caught. I couldn't wait to pay the estate a visit tomorrow. Whether that was out of my interest in catching this cold blooded killer, or in Gwen, or some combination of the two, had yet to he determined...