It began like most things begin today – with a google search. I was hunting for the perfect location to set my next mystery Third Time’s a Crime. The mystery is the third book in my reality TV series where I’d concocted an unsolved murder at a haunted castle. I needed an eerie location as a starting point for my story.
When I found the Preston Castle in Ione, California I knew I had it! From the Preston Castle website: “Experiences at the castle have included EVP, humming, whispers, touching, channeling, and seeing and recording orbs and apparitions. There have been no harmful events and no one has been hurt during these overnight events.”
You see this is no ordinary castle – it was the home of Preston School of Industry, one of the oldest and best-know reform schools in the United States. It is said to have been the sight of many mysterious tragic episodes, violent encounters and even unsolved murders. The accounts of visitors are that the castle is rife with ghost sightings. The fact that the castle sponsors overnight ghost tours seemed like just the ticket for my research.
I dialed my dear friend and paranormal mystery author, Kirsten Weiss.
“Want to go on a haunted castle flashlight tour with me?” I asked.
Kirsten laughed a response.
“Why are you laughing?” I asked, fearful that my request was too over the edge even for a paranormal mystery author.
“I can’t believe how lucky I am to be invited on a haunted castle tour,” Kirsten said. After I explained the details to her, Kirsten added. “Can we stop at a winery I like in Lodi?”
Now I couldn’t believe my luck. We were going to explore a historic site in California and include wine tasting?
We arrived at The Preston Castle as the sun was setting. It was wintertime and the light didn’t hover for very long. Before we knew it, our view of the Castle turned from breathtaking to downright eerie. The docent handed us flashlights and ushered into the vast foyer. The castle is 46,000 square feet, has 77 rooms and no fewer than 43 fireplaces and 257 windows!
We were cold beyond belief; every window in the place was broken, cracked or gone. We were only allowed to tour the first few floors and the basement. The third and fourth floor were closed due to the condition of the roof (I believe there’s a hole in it and those floors are beyond repair).
The first stop on the tour was the “prayer” room. It was set up like a small chapel, but instead of praying we watched an intro video that included the history of the construction of the castle and famous inmates (among them, my favorite country singer of all time Merle Haggard!)
Most of the public rooms on the main floor – like the dining room and hall – were enormous, while the private bedrooms on the second floor were tiny. Of note, on the second floor one side of the hallway had rooms with a sink, while the other side had rooms with a fireplace.
The dining room fascinated me. “Where the kitchen?” I asked the docent.
“Downstairs,” she told me. “It’s where they found the body of the head housekeeper, Anna Corban.”
A chill danced across my spine. Poor Anna.
“Can we see the kitchen?” I asked.
The docent took us down a narrow staircase and showed a small cupboard where Anna’s body had been hidden. The cupboard was so small it seemed impossible that anyone would fit in it.
It turned out the kitchen was small too. All the food was prepared there and then transported through a dumbwaiter up to the dining room.
The cupboard, along with the kitchen and especially the dumbwaiter sparked an idea for me, and shortly after Third Time’s a Crime was written! I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!
The raven swept down upon us in a terrifying plunge, talons outstretched, screeching at an ear-shattering pitch. Instinctively, I jumped out of the way and reached for my gun, only remembering too late that I hadn’t carried one in eighteen months, since I’d been let go from the San Francisco Police Department.
The bird’s massive wings flapped so close to me that the breeze lifted my hair and I fought the urge to strike out at it. Suddenly, the bird arched up and flew to the top point of the castle, perching itself overhead.
The woman next to me gasped. “A raven? That’s a bad omen.”
Cheryl Dennison, our executive producer, yelled, “Did you all catch that?”
“I got it,” one of the cameramen shouted excitedly. “I got a great shot.”
“Good,” Cheryl said, a self-satisfied smile playing on her face. “We’ll want to use that in the promos.”
“Cheryl probably shipped that bird in from Hollywood,” I said under my breath to the woman next to me. “Just to capture that shot.”
The woman, a former FBI profiler, made a face. As if she disapproved of Hollywood histrionics.
We were on location at the Golden Castle, said to be haunted and the scene of an unsolved murder. During its heyday, it’d doubled as a reform school. It stood nestled on the hill overlooking the charming old mining town of Golden, California. But the castle was far from charming. It was so large it blotted out the sun and the windows were dark and murky. The exterior bricks had been built in San Quentin Prison and they projected a feeling of doom and gloom. Overall, the castle had such an ominous presence that it screamed “horror film,” or in our case, “bad reality TV.”
My best friend and the assistant producer, Becca, had begged me for weeks to accept the casting offer. She knew I wasn’t too keen on the paranormal aspect of the show. I wasn’t exactly a “believer” but now, despite myself, looking at the castle sent a shiver up my spine. I squeezed Scott’s hand as we hiked up the gravel driveway toward it.
“All right!” Scott said, barely able to keep the excitement out of his voice. “It’s downright menacing.”
I giggled. I knew that, being a horror writer, this haunted castle was right up his alley.
“Remind me again why I’m doing this?” I asked.
“To solve the crime,” he said.
“The fact that this is my third stint on reality TV is the crime,” I said.
Scott flashed me his winning smile, reminding me again why I always felt so warm and happy in his presence.
We’d met and fallen in love on the first show, and won the cash prize to boot. However, the money hadn’t stretched as far as we’d hoped and we’d signed up for the whole rodeo again. But the second time, I hadn’t won the money, and after starring on reality TV, my chances of ever landing a job again as a police officer were between slim and none.
I figured I better take the opportunity to solve a case while I could. Who knew, maybe I’d be able to salvage a shred of my reputation.
Besides us, the famous forensic archaeologist from the Hunting Bones reality show chuckled. “You know you love it,” he said.
I turned to him. “Love what? Solving a crime?”
He glanced over at Scott and was seemingly deciding if he should say what was really on his mind. When he noticed that Scott was mesmerized by the castle looming over us, he said, “The limelight.”
“You don’t seem to mind it yourself,” I said, trying my best not to bristle.
He was tall with piercing blue eyes and a confidence that made him handsome. He had the type of square jaw and prominent nose that was extremely photogenic. I knew without a doubt his looks were the reason that Hunting Bones had been such a smashing success.
“All right, listen up, folks,” Cheryl said. “As you know, we need to get some final images for the intro montage, so please line up over here where the light is best and let’s get some usable footage before we get on to filming the first episode.”
A rumble of excitement worked its way through the cast and crew. We were quite a crowd. On location, there were ten of us contestants, the show’s host, Harris Carlson, several cameramen, lighting techs, sound techs, the hair and makeup folks, along with the production team.
The cast took turns lining up against the awful red bricks; preening, primping, and pirouetting on Cheryl’s request.
We were five teams of two players. Scott and I made up one team. Dr. Arch, the forensic archaeologist, and his sometimes cohost, the FBI profiler Karen Kenley, made up the second team. There was a historian from an Ivy League college paired with her brother, a priest. Then a professed ghost hunter partnered with a psychic. And finally two young women, the castle docent and the unsolved murder victim’s great niece.
Our mission was to solve the murder of Jane Reiner. According to the limited information we’d been given, the historical accounts about Jane’s murder all differed. Some said she’d been hung in the kitchen, other accounts claimed she’d been stabbed in the basement and still others said she’d been shot in the supply room.
All accounts seemed to believe that Jane haunted the castle and would continue to do so until her murder could be solved. Rumor had it that she appeared from time to time to visitors either hanging in the kitchen or bleeding in the basement or supply rooms.
None of the information squared, so in Cheryl’s infinite wisdom, she’d pitched to a Hollywood Studio the idea that a team of misfits might be able to solve the historic murder on national television.
Needless to say, it was such a bad idea that Hollywood loved it.
Once inside the castle, the creep factor only escalated. The inside of the building was a like a maze with steps and hallways spinning in every direction, vertically and horizontally. The stairs were worn and creaked as the cast and crew climbed them to what was known as the prayer room.
A strange smell filled the room, like sulfur mixed with stale kerosene that someone had attempted to mask with a flowery perfume.
“Whoa! Do you smell that?” the psychic asked. “It’s a presence! Most certainly a presence!”
The man claiming to be a psychic was the least likely person I would have expected. I figured Cheryl would have a cast a pretty blond young lady, but instead the man before us was as large as a lumberjack complete with a burly red beard. I’d liked him immediately, even though, of course, I couldn’t believe a word he uttered.
I wrinkled my nose. “I think the room’s probably been closed up a long time.”
“No, no,” the docent disagreed. She worked at the Golden Castle as one of the tour guides. “We air it out every day, but the smell always returns.”
Fingers tickled the back of my neck and I involuntarily jumped as Scott leaned in close to me, his lips touching my ear. “Oooh,” he whispered. “Creeeeeppppy.”
“I thought you were here to protect me, not freak me out,” I said.
He pressed his forehead to mine, looking into my eyes. “You certainly don’t need my protection, but you have it babe, always.”
As Scott leaned in to kiss me, Cheryl’s screechy voice interrupted our romantic moment. “People! Listen up. The team is going to need a few minutes here to set up the cameras, lights, and mikes. We’ll kick off the show here. Harris will give the introduction. The camera will pan on each of you as Harris introduces you. Then we’ll go ahead and start the castle tour for the viewers. You’ll all need to make sure your hair and makeup are set. Please don’t wander off and get lost.”
Scott rubbed at his shaved head. “I’d better see to getting my hair fixed.”
“It is kind of messy,” I joked. Suddenly, I had the strange sensation of being watched. Which one would think I’d be used to after two tours of reality TV, nevertheless I still found the feeling mildly disconcerting. I turned to find Dr. Arch staring at Scott and me.
“You two don’t seem to be taking this very seriously,” he said.
Scott hid his amusement. “You believe in all the hocus-pocus going on here, doctor? Spirits trapped in the in between.”
The priest, who’d been meditating in front of a candle, snapped to attention. “Oh, I do think there is evil here. With much prayer, we can send the spirits on.”
Cheryl strode between us. “Now, now, father. We had this discussion, didn’t we? Save it for the cameras.” The priest shook his head and seemed ready to argue, but Cheryl was already on to the next group, calling out, “Five minutes, people. Ready in five.”
“Anyway, what I meant was,” Dr. Arch continued, “is that you have to take this one seriously. It’s viewer determined, you know. If you don’t get the votes, you’ll be sent packing. Even though I’m betting against myself here for a moment, I think you two probably have the best chance of solving the mystery.”
Dr. Arch’s partner, Karen Kenley, sidled up to him. “That’s some vote of confidence, Arch.”
The doctor looked chagrinned. “I didn’t mean anything against you, honey.”
Karen Kenley, the FBI profiler, looked like the type of woman who never accepted any excuse, either from a man or much less from a woman. Her straight black hair hung like a curtain around her face. She had the type of sharp features that let you know right away if you messed with her, you’d get cut.
Cheryl clapped her hands again. “Okay, people,” she shouted. “Places please. Cast, line up here.” She indicated a row of blue painter’s tape the crew had laid down for us. “Harris, you’ll stand here—” A large thump against one of the windows startled Cheryl. She put a hand over her heart. “What was that?”
“A bird, I think,” Scott said. He rushed to the window, but the glass was so hazy it was impossible to see through.
The lumberjack psychic next to me moaned and pressed his fingers to his temple.
His partner, the ghost hunter, fiddled with a device strapped to his belt and asked, “Can we go outside and take a look? I have to investigate, my EMF is going crazy.”
“What’s that?” Scott asked.
“It measures fluctuations in the electromagnetic fields,” he said.
Cheryl collected herself. “Let’s not get distracted here, folks. We have to start filming.” She put on a headset and made a beeline to the back of the set and motioned for cameras to start rolling.
Harris took center stage and said directly into the camera, “Welcome, America, to Cold Case in the Castle!” Harris’s voice boomed in his made-for-TV persona. “We’re coming to you from Golden, California, where the town has had a dark and tragic unsolved mystery haunting them since 1960. You see, back in the early 1900s this castle was a reform school, a home for the state’s most delinquent wards. However good-intentioned the state may have been in wishing to rehabilitate the wards, horrors came to pass: abuses, escape attempts, violent encounters, inhumane punishments, and, yes, ladies and gentlemen, even murder.”
Harris gave a dramatic pause, then continued. “There were five murders that took place on these grounds. All were solved.” Harris held up his index finger and gave a flourish as he said, “Except for one.”
“The disturbing and brutal murder of Jane Reiner. Jane had been an innocent and lovely youth, working as a librarian in training, when she mysteriously disappeared. Her body was later discovered heinously murdered on the premises of the reform school.”
The cast made the appropriate gasps and tsking sounds.
Harris launched into a brief recap of the facts we’d been given, then said, “And that’s where you, dear viewer, come in.” Harris continued, “Join us, as we travel back in time and solve Jane’s murder. We’ve assembled a cast that we believe can help us do just that.”
One by one, he motioned toward us and introduced the cast. When he finally landed on the last contestant, the lumberjack psychic suddenly moaned as if in pain and fell to his knees. He screamed out, “Oh, no!”
“Oh, brother,” I mumbled to Scott, but before he could respond there was a deafening and repetitive pounding on the windows. We all jumped and turned toward them only to see a massive onslaught of small black birds flying directly into the glass.
Karen and Dr. Arch gasped, the ghost hunter rushed toward the glass with his EMF device in hand and the historian from Harvard fainted.
A loud splintering sound echoed through the room as the ancient glass shattered against the assault. Then Cheryl called in a cheerful voice, “Cut!”
After two hit reality TV shows brought ex-detective Georgia Thornton into America’s living rooms, audiences can’t get enough of her quest for love and justice. Now producers have come up with an all-new show set in a haunted castle in Golden, California. Georgia and nine other contestants will need to solve the mystery of a young woman who disappeared at the castle in 1960.
Except there’s one rather substantial problem waiting for everyone when they arrive: a groundskeeper is found drowned at the bottom of the castle’s empty pool. Now Georgia and the other contestants will need to work together, because there’s a different sort of game afoot—and it’s not one they can afford to lose…