After taking a bite into my piece of shortbread, I rinsed it down with another sip of tea and promptly began.
Interested in the pictures themselves, I said, "You have an interesting array of pictures there, Mrs. Corning." Suddenly I froze and almost bit my tongue when I addressed her by that name. She must have noticed my awkward discomfort and tried to put me at ease. Helen looked away from the pictures on the mantelpiece to me.
"Don't fret yourself about it," she began kindly, "you can call me Mrs. Corning. I would rather like it if you did since I haven't been called by Mrs. Archer in years, H.R." At those words, I found myself grinning almost sheepishly.
"I apologize for making it an issue--I just didn't know if it would have made a difference to you--"
"Not at all...not at all, " Helen interrupted me promptly along with a hand gesture.
Having said enough, she returned her attention to the aforementioned pictures. I could sense that her eyes glittered with remembrance of her past. This was a good sign for me since that was what I was there to talk about. She would now be in the right mood to talk about her past. Before I could insert a question into the delayed conversation, I was stopped simply by Helen's eyes not riveting from one particular photograph.
Intrigued, I too looked at it. There was nothing striking in its appearance other than the fact that the photograph was in a slightly tarnished silver frame. I couldn't quite make out what it was a photograph of but that would soon be remedied by the looks of the smile that had crept on Helen's face.
" Perhaps the most interesting photograph, Mr. Jafael," Helen Corning began as she peremptorily got up and picked up the silver frame," would have to be this little one."
With that short little introduction, I took the photograph from her weary hands. What I saw made me smile. In the photograph were two smiling young man--joyful, carefull, vibrant, and filled to the brim with joie de vivre. The young women were dusty cowboy hats, plaid shirts, and outdoor jeans. The one woman on the left had her arm around the other, signifying their close friendship to each other.
There was something of a sweet-tempered nature that connected these mysterious women together. Both seemed to imbue the sense of everlasting friendship, loyalty, and commitment to stand by each other's side no matter the circumstances. And the way that they were smiling--even though the photograph was sepia-colored, I could see the brightness that their smiles brought to everything around them.
And yet I felt a bit of sadness. Why? I wondered. Why did this photograph make me feel warm inside and yet sad at the same time? Somewhere in my mind, I thought that I already knew the answer to that question. Because it had been such a long time ago that this picture had been taken. This strong bond between friends was no longer there--all that was left was a picture to remind people of what had once been...How sad, I cringed. How very sad...
I moved on from the young women to the other more profound details of the photograph. From what I could tell, the picture was years' old. Even the sepia tone of it had began to fade away to a golden yellow. Along with that was the travesty that even this photograph did not survive without damage by insects. The lower right-hand corner had been slightly eaten at. But the central part (and to my mind, the most important) was still intact. There was another detail that had caught my eye. Behind the young women was a wooden windmill and beyond that structure were the faint outlines of mountains. I began to question the photograph: was this taken on a farm? Not wanting to look at the front any longer, I turned the photograph over to look at the back. There was nothing there except the photographer's inscription:
KROLMEISTER INDUSTRIES, INC.
And below that advertisement was something else. There, scrawled in white, were several faded words:
September 12, 1934. H.C. with M.B. at Shadow Ranch.
By this point, I really wanted to know who "M.B." and "H.C."--by the implication of the writing, it was obvious that they were the two women in the photograph. But there was something else that had caused my heart to race and my mind to flash forward bursts of connections and links.
Shadow Ranch. That is where the photograph had been taken: Shadow Ranch. The very name seemed to have a mystical power to it, something quite Indian, but just short of being foreign. However, once again my mind attempted to comprehend the situation before me--here again has something been presented to me that I thought had never existed.
I had thought that Helen Corning had been just a figment of a juvenile mystery writer's imagination--but Edward Stratemayer Adams had proven me wrong there. She was real like me--and now there was old photograph with the background being one of a ranch.
The Secret of Shadow Ranch.
I remembered the book. I remembered the computer game. I had read and played both several times over and each time was just as magical and exhilirating as the first. There was something in Shadow Ranch that always seemed to grasp my attention. A lone western ranch in the middle of the Arizona desert...a long forgotten buried treasure...the love affair between the sheriff's daughter and the territory's most wanted outlaw...and...and...
And Nancy Drew. How could one forget the titian-colored heroine arriving to the ranch only to discover a white paralyzing phantom horse is on the rampage? There was one particular scene that always seemed to give me the chills--it was when Nancy was chasing the phantom horse until the ghost town...Lonely...and forgotten...How could one forget how she discovered the lost watch of Frances Humber, being the first clue to the outlaw Dirk Valentine's golden treasure? Oh, it had been a secret alright--it had been the secret of Shadow Ranch.
And now, in my shaking hands, was a shadow of proof--proof that such a place had existed.
Excited, I quickly sat back on the sofa as Helen Corning returned to her usual seat.
"Is this picture real?" I had to ask the question because its impossibility seemed to be overwhelming. Helen's face became a little queer as she unconsciously gently laughed, if not a tad bit disdainfully.
"Is it real? Ha! But, H.R., why wouldn't it be real?" she responded back.
"Well," I turned the photograph over so that she could read the scrawled inscription, "it says it was taken at Shadow Ranch. But thats impossible, isn't it? Shadow Ranch was a fictitious place. It never existed except in the books-"
"But that is where you are wrong." I was stunned by the coldness in her voice when she said those words. "Shadow Ranch existed--it still does exist."
Still exists? Did she just say that it still exists? It was at that moment that I decided what my course of action would be: to go to Shadow Ranch. Perhaps...just perhaps...I would find more answers to questions that Helen Corning could not answer. I seemed to breath a sigh of relief as Helen placed the picture of Shadow Ranch back into position on the mantelpiece. It was then that the note on the back of the photograph reminded me of something.
"Who is M.B.?" I asked, somewhat cautiously. Helen only said "hmm?" as she reviewed her collection of memories. She was in another world of her own, remembering the past, relishing its spirited tidbits.
"It was on the back of the Shadow Ranch picture--'H.C. with M.B.' I'm guessing that the H.C. stands for Helen Corning, who who's the young woman with the initials 'M.B.'?"
"Oh--her!" exclaimed Helen Corning as she plopped herself back down into the armchair. 'Why, that's was one of my dear friends, Mildred Benson."
The name sounded really familiar. I knew that I had heard the name "Mildred Benson" recently. And then it hit me like a supersonic lightning bolt. The Mildred Benson!
"Not--not the original Carolyn Keene?" There was a bit of hesistation in my voice as I ventured a guess. Helen grinned from ear to ear before shaking her head.
"Yes! Yes! The one and the same! Oh, and what a character she was, Mr. Jafael! What a character!"
She leaned back a little in the armchair and closed her eyes. There was a moment's silence as I watched her reflect on Mildred Benson. Every other second, Helen would giggle as if she knew a secret that I was not a priviledged party in knowing.
"She was something else," Helen finally said as her eyes popped back, wide-open and amusingly rested. I was eager in knowing all that I could. Here again, in a Victorian-style home on Emerson Avenue, another piece of the puzzle had been presented to me. The writer of the original Nancy Drew books had known Helen Corning--it would make sense now, come to think of it. If the two were best friends, well, why couldn't Mildred Benson insert the character of Helen Corning into several of the books?
Why not, I say? Why not?