The Ghostly Groundskeeper: A Cozy Mystery (A Tess and Tilly Cozy Mystery Book 12)
If you love small towns, endearing relationships, food, animals, and a touch of murder, you will love this mystery series set in the small town of White Eagle Montana.
In book 12 in the series, Tony offers to pay for a televised ad promoting the annual haunted house, and Tess agrees to act as spokesperson. She shows up to film the piece and quickly discovers that the 'haunted' in haunted house was proving to be more real than imaginary. Join Tess and the gang as she decides to uncover the truth about former resident Doctor Franktown once and for all.
Release date: September 7, 2021
Publisher: Kathi Daley Books
Print pages: 192
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The Ghostly Groundskeeper: A Cozy Mystery (A Tess and Tilly Cozy Mystery Book 12)
Monday, October 11
“My name is Tess Marconi, and…”
I looked at the man with the camera. “Cut? All I’ve said so far is my name.”
“Yes, but you said your name in a flat tone. I need enthusiasm. I need anyone watching this promo to know that you’re excited about the message you’re about to share.”
I took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay, I’ll try again.”
“Hi, everyone, my name is Tess Marconi,” I said in the cheeriest voice I could muster.
“What now?” I asked the director, who was quickly getting on my nerves.
“That was a bit too cheery. I need happy and enthusiastic, but natural.”
I stifled a groan. “Okay. Let’s try it again.” I had a feeling this was going to get really old really fast. When Tony had offered to pay for a television commercial promoting the town’s annual Halloween Festival and the special televised event taking place as part of that festival, I’d thought it was a great idea. White Eagle had been struggling financially, and I knew that a good turnout this year was a must if the town council was going to avoid making cuts to local programs, but when I’d agreed to be the spokesperson for the event, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
“Action,” the man called again.
“My name is Tess Marconi,” I said in the most genuine voice I could muster. So far, no one had yelled cut, so I guess that was good. “I’m excited to encourage everyone to come out for White Eagle’s annual Halloween Festival.”
I groaned as I suppressed a few choice words pushing at my lips from deep in my chest. “What now?”
“Your whole approach is barely yawn-worthy. If you are going to spend time and money on this commercial, you might as well try to make the commercial one that folks might actually watch and remember.”
“Okay.” I blew out a breath of frustration. “If you were doing this promo, what would you do differently?”
The man set the tablet he’d been holding down. “For one thing, no one cares what your name is, so I’d cut that. For another thing, everyone knows you’re promoting the Halloween Festival since the giant sign you’re standing in front of has the words Halloween Festival stenciled on it as clear as day. I have the feeling you were working up to providing the dates for the event next, also on the sign. I guess my first question would be to ask, what does this event provide to the visitor who makes their way to your little town that isn’t on the sign?”
I shrugged. “There will be a kiddie carnival, haunted maze, and food court.” I turned to glance at the sign behind me. Bruno Crocker from Mulligan’s Pizza will be making pies right there in the park. He has a food truck all set up with a pizza oven and everything.”
“The pizza angle is somewhat unique but the harvest event in Kalispell has a kiddie carnival, haunted maze, and food court. What makes your event special? What makes your event different from all the rest?”
I paused to consider this question. “We have a haunted house component that is actually pretty awesome, although it won’t be available to everyone.”
“Getting better,” he encouraged. “Tell me more about this haunted house.”
“Have you ever heard of a man named Doctor Franktown?”
“No,” the director answered. “I can’t say as I have.”
“Doctor Franktown was a real doctor who moved to the area in the nineteen seventies. The thing that makes this man interesting, or I guess I should say terrifying, is that not only was he a doctor, but he was a serial killer as well.”
The man’s eyes grew wide. “Go on. Tell me more about this serial killer.”
“Basically, after Doctor Franktown moved to the area, he bought this huge tract of forested land just outside of the town limits. He built a wall around the estate so that the only way to get on or off of the estate was a gated drive, and then he never gave anyone access to that gate. The house was huge. Much too large for the man and his wife.”
“Too much detail about the house. Tell me about the man,” the director encouraged.
“Doctor Franktown built a laboratory on the estate that he used to conduct experiments. During the decade or so that the man was conducting his experiments, he killed nine men. Or at least that’s the story I’ve been told. It’s rumored that the bodies of the nine men are buried on the estate, although no one has ever found them.”
The man’s brows shot up toward the obviously cheap toupee he wore. “You don’t say. Tell me more about these murders.”
“I really don’t know a lot. I know that they occurred in the mid-seventies into the early-eighties and that Doctor Franktown supposedly kidnapped the men to use as test subjects. I know that before isolating himself onto the estate with his wife, Raven, cook, Ethel, maid, Helena, and groundskeeper, Duncan, Doctor Franktown had been a prominent surgeon working out of a major teaching hospital in Minnesota.”
“So what caused this doctor to give all that up?” the man asked, clearly interested at this point.
“I understand that Doctor Franktown and his wife only had one child. A son named Cassius. Cassius became ill during the time the couple lived in Minnesota, and Doctor Franktown was unable to save him. At some point after his son died, Doctor Franktown resigned his position as head of surgery, liquidated his assets, and bought the estate in Montana.”
The man’s smile widened. “Now that seems like a real hook. I know I’d drive two hours to tour a house where nine people died.”
“That’s the thing. The house won’t be open to the general public, and only a select group will actually be able to tour the place. We’re holding an online auction, and the twelve people with the highest bids will win the privilege of spending the night with the Ghost Therapists.”
“I guess I should back up a bit,” I took a breath and then continued. “After Doctor Franktown died, his wife inherited the property. She moved away and never returned, so the place has been vacant since the doctor’s death. When Mrs. Franktown died in the late nineties, she left the house and property to a nephew who really didn’t want it, so the house and the estate continued to sit empty for decades beyond that. This past summer, a developer named Drake Hadley purchased the property. He plans to tear the house down and build a subdivision in that location. It’s sad, actually. I feel like the house has historical value even though a series of gruesome murders were carried out on the property forty years ago. Plus, truth be told, I love the rural feel of our community, and I’d hate to see rows of houses with similar floor plans go in. That sort of thing might be fine for the larger cities in the state, but not for White Eagle.”
“Back to the Ghost Therapists and the auction winners who will get to stay in the house with them.”
“Oh, sure. Sorry,” I blushed. “I guess I was getting off track. Anyway, there are these two guys, Tim Rivers and Tom Masters. They have a cable television show called Ghost Therapy. Basically, they seek out haunted places, and then they try to make contact with the spirits who are haunting the place and provide therapy which they hope will help the spirits to move on.”
The man nodded slowly. “Yes. I think I’ve seen that show a time or two. So Tim and Tom are coming to White Eagle?”
“Yes. There have been rumors for years about strange lights on the property, and a lot of folks feel the place is haunted. When Tim and Tom heard that the house was going to be torn down, they asked if they could spend the night in the old place before it was destroyed in the hope of making contact with any ghosts who still reside there. Since the project is so unpopular with most of the local residents, the developer has been in a tough situation politically. In an effort to garner some goodwill with the town council, he made a deal with Tim and Tom that would allow them to do their show in the house, but only if they allowed twelve civilians to spend the night with them. Basically, there’s an online auction going on for those twelve spots. The winners will get to spend the night in a real haunted house with real ghost hunters, and the money earned from the auction will go to the town for their annual budget, which I understand is on life support at this point.”
“Okay.” The man smiled, looking at his watch. “I think we have our hook. Let’s try this again. This time, don’t tell me your name, the time, or the place for the annual event; tell me about the haunted house and the online auction.”
“We hoped this ad would appeal to the masses and not just a handful of individuals,” I said.
“It will. We’ll work the part about the food court and haunted maze in, but we need to get everyone’s attention first.”
“Okay,” I said, looking at the camera.
I took a breath and smiled. “Although local legend spins a tale of nine men who were sacrificed in the name of science, the spirits that haunt the grounds of the estate where these men died seem to tell a different story.”
“Perfect!” the man said. “You have your hook. Now reel them in, but keep it short. You’ve only paid for a fifteen-second spot.”
It took another hour to shoot the promo, but I had to admit that I was happy with the result by the time we were finished. If I wasn’t already planning to attend the Halloween Festival, you could be sure that I’d start making plans to do so once the commercial aired and I realized that not only were Tim and Tom going to be in town, but that twelve lucky individuals were going to be allowed to go ghost hunting in a real haunted mansion as well.
After I’d finished the commercial, I headed into town to pick up some supplies I knew Tony needed and I’d promised to fetch. Not only was I the spokesperson for this year’s Halloween Festival, but Tony and I had been made co-chairs of the event as well.
“Afternoon, Hap,” I greeted Hap Hollister, the owner of the only hardware store in my hometown of White Eagle, Montana.
“Tess. How are you doing on this fine autumn day?”
“Really well, actually.” I had just sauntered up to the counter and was reaching for a piece of hard candy when Hap stopped me.
“You’re welcome to the candy, but Hattie brought pumpkin truffles by for me to share.” He pulled out the tray provided by his wife, who owned Hattie’s Bakery.
“Oh, I love Hattie’s truffles.” I reached for one of those instead. Taking a bite, I let my eyes roll back in pleasure.
“So, what can I do for you today?” Hap asked after I’d taken the second bite of the chocolaty nugget.
“I’m here for paint.”
“Indoor or outdoor?”
“Outdoor. Tony and I are building the booths for the kiddie carnival that will be part of the annual Halloween Festival, and we decided to paint a few of the booths black, orange, and purple. I hope you have those colors on hand.”
“Actually, I can mix any color you want. Do you want light or dark purple?”
“Dark,” I decided. “I guess we’ll probably need at least two large cans of each color.”
Hap grabbed several cans of base and got started with the black. “I heard that you and Tony volunteered to chair the event this year.”
“Volunteered isn’t an accurate word, but yeah, I guess we are jumping into the deep end. Mrs. Kirkpatrick usually does it, but her husband was transferred to Toledo over the summer, so the position of chairperson was open. Tony and I have helped out with the event in the past, and everyone knows that our schedules are pretty flexible, so we were somehow nominated and voted in as co-chairs at a meeting we were unable to attend since it conflicted with our trip.”
Hap chuckled as he set the first can on the shaker. “That was tricky of the group, but I’m sure you and Tony will do a fine job.”
“I guess.” I popped the last little piece of chocolate into my mouth. “At least the Halloween Festival and the haunted house event aren’t going to take place at the same time since the festival will be held on Halloween weekend, and Tim and Tom will be here on the twenty-third.”
“How’s the auction going?” Hap asked.
“Really well, actually. I would never have imagined that there were so many people with money to blow who actually wanted to spend the night in a haunted house with the Ghost Therapists. The auction closes on the seventeenth, so there’s still time for the bids to increase, but even if we closed bidding today, the town has a real shot at balancing the budget.”
“That’s wonderful. Will you and Tony be joining the group?”
I nodded. “That was the other thing the planning group decided while Tony and I were away on our trip. They wanted representatives from the town to spend the night with the therapists, and I guess the group decided that Tony and I would be the best fit to play that role.”
“I agree with the group. The two of you will do a fine job playing babysitter to a group of ghost hunters. Speaking of your trip, how’d it go?” Hap asked.
Tony and I had just returned from three weeks in Italy, where we’d visited his family.
“Actually, it was really fun. It was relaxing and beautiful, and I felt like the atmosphere of the family dinners and events we attended on this visit was completely different than the atmosphere of those same types of events last year when everyone was still dealing with Nona’s death.”
“Italy is beautiful in the fall with all those grapevines.”
“It was gorgeous, but to be honest, I’m happy we got back in time to enjoy the aspens here at home. I was afraid we’d miss the color, but the leaves turned later than usual this year, so it all worked out.”
“It has been an exceptional year for fall color,” Hap said. “I suspect the trees out at your estate are lovely.”
“They really are. You should take a drive out and see them. The grove on the far end of the lake is especially brilliant this year.”
“I might come by before the leaves are gone. Bree stopped in with that adorable baby of hers a few weeks ago. She said that she and Mike were staying out at your estate while you were away and that the fall color was even better than in town.”
I nodded. “Like I said, it’s pretty spectacular. I’m glad Bree was enjoying the scenery. With our three dogs and two cats, it seemed easier for Mike and Bree to bring their one dog and one baby out to the estate rather than transferring our five to them. Normally, Shaggy would have stayed at the house, but he was out of town at the same time we were.”
Hap handed me the first can of paint and started on the next one. “It seemed to me that Bree was enjoying your home and your lake while you were away. She came in looking for wood to make the headstones for the haunted graveyard, which took a while to cut into appropriate sizes, so we had time to chat while I worked. She sure has been happy since Ella was born.”
“She has been,” I agreed. “Bree was born to be a mother. I get the feeling that she is cherishing every moment of it, although there are limitations as well.”
“Like what?” Hap asked.
“Like giving up her seat on the Halloween event committee. She decided that she and Mike couldn’t make the commitment with a new baby, so Shaggy and Shanti are filling in this year.”
“I’m sure that they’ll do a fine job.”
I shrugged. “I hope so. It’s a big commitment, and Shaggy tends to have a short attention span, although he does seem to be a lot more focused since he started working with Tony.”
“Tony’s been a good influence on him.” Hap put the third can of paint on the shaker.
“Yeah, I agree with that. I guess you heard that Tony and Shaggy have been developing a new video game that they plan to release just before Christmas.”
“Seems like I did hear something about that.”
“There’s an optional live action role-playing element to the game that one of the larger video game conventions in this part of the country plans to use this next spring. Tony and Shaggy are both really psyched about the possibilities.”
“I’m not really a gamer, but I am excited for them.” He put the final can of paint on the shaker. “Are you going to need anything else while you’re here?”
“Actually, Tony told me to get new brushes, and he wanted me to ask about the sort of timeline you’d need for a large order of wood.”
“Maybe a truckload. Tony wants to build new ticket booths for the haunted maze and food court.”
“I can usually fill an order in twenty-four hours as long as my supplier has the items I need in stock. Tell Tony to call me, and we can work out the details. The sooner we get the order in, the better.”
“Okay, I’ll ask him to call you when I get home. Right now, I think I’m going to pay for my paint and then head down to Hattie’s for a box of those truffles.”
Hap smiled. “They do tend to be addicting.”
After I helped Hap load the paint into my SUV, I headed down the street to Hattie’s Bakeshop. Hap and Hattie had a unique relationship. They were married for a lot of years, but then a few years ago, they broke up, and each moved into their own home, but they continued to spend time together and have date nights. Then about six months ago, without a word as to the why of the whole thing, Hap moved back in with Hattie, and they acted as if nothing had ever happened.
“Afternoon, Hattie,” I greeted after walking in from the sidewalk. Hattie was dressed in a festive burnt orange top that really flattered her soft tawny pants. It seemed as if she’d been taking more care with her appearance since she and Hap had decided to become a couple again.
“Tess. How are you, darlin’?” Hattie asked as her little dog, Bruiser, came trotting over to say hi.
“I’m good. I was at the hardware store buying paint, and Hap gave me one of your pumpkin truffles to sample. It was delicious. I was hoping to buy a dozen if you have them.”
“It just so happens that I do.” She took out a box and began to fill it. “How was your trip?”
“Magical. I’m really glad we went when we did, but I’m also happy to be home. I guess you heard that Tony and I were voted in as co-chairs for the Halloween Festival even though we weren’t at the meeting to stick up for ourselves when we were nominated.”
“I heard.” Hattie handed me the box. “I know it’s a big responsibility, but you and Tony have flexible schedules, and you’re about as organized as anyone I know. It’s going to take someone who has both time and a plan to pull together what’s left of the ragtag team from last year.”
“Perhaps, but it’s a big commitment. We should have at least been consulted if we were going to be voted in.”
Hattie, who was a member of the committee and had probably been the one to suggest Tony and me for the role, actually blushed. “Yes, I guess you should have been. Having said that, I’m really glad you’re on board. I think the two of you are going to make all the difference.”
“I appreciate your confidence. The guy who taped the promo wasn’t all that impressed with me. At least not at first, but I guess he came around after a while.”
Hattie slipped me a sample of today’s cookie, which was cranberry nut. “I heard you were going to do that. How’d it go?”
“It went well once we started talking about the evil Doctor Franktown.”
Hattie crossed her arms and settled them on the counter. “The story of Doctor Franktown is an interesting one.”
“I guess you must have been around back then.”
“Do you remember the specifics of what happened? I know bits and pieces I’ve picked up along the way, but there seem to be quite a few holes in my knowledge base.”
When Hattie poured two small cups of coffee and handed me one, I had a feeling I might be in for a long story.
“By the time Doctor Franktown and his wife, Raven, moved to the area, he was a shell of a man. I guess you know that the Franktowns’ son, Cassius, died from a rare disease that came on suddenly when he was twenty-one. The loss of their only child destroyed the couple, who shut down their lives in Minnesota and moved to rural Montana.”
I waited while Hattie gathered her thoughts. I was really interested in what came after they moved here, but I wasn’t in a hurry and didn’t want to seem rude by hurrying her along.
“After the Franktowns settled into that huge house, Doctor Franktown set up a laboratory on the property. Most of what is said about what went on out there is speculation, but most agree that his main purpose for the lab was to do medical experiments.”
“What sort of medical experiments?” I asked.
“Apparently, he was determined to find a cure for the rare disease that killed his son, and according to those who knew the couple, he spent every spare minute working on it.”
I guess I could understand that. It must be horrible to watch your child die and not be able to do anything about it. “Where do the dead men come in?”
“I’m getting to that.”
“Sorry. Go on.” I took a bite of the cookie.
“Anyway,” Hattie continued, “it’s said that while Doctor Franktown initially tested his theories using rats as test subjects, he eventually graduated to human test subjects. It’s unknown exactly when this shift occurred since no one knew what was going on at the time. What is suspected is that Doctor Franktown kidnapped nine men over the next decade. He used the men, who were all in their early twenties and in good shape physically, to test his theories on until they eventually died due to the chemicals Doctor Franktown was pumping into their bodies.”
I leaned an elbow on the counter. “I heard that none of the bodies were found.”
“If none of the bodies were found, how does anyone know the men were even murdered by Doctor Franktown?”
“No one knew until about a decade after the disappearance of the first man,” Hattie answered. “Doctor Franktown was afflicted with a serious illness that came on quickly. On his deathbed, he told his nurse what he’d done. He named the men, explained how they died, and admitted his part in their deaths. When the police compared the names of the men and the dates they went missing with Franktown’s confession, they came to the conclusion that he was telling the truth.”
I took a sip of my coffee. “Okay. So Doctor Franktown confessed to kidnapping and experimenting on these nine men. Why didn’t he tell the nurse where the bodies were buried?”
“He did. Sort of. He told the nurse that he’d instructed his groundskeeper to bury the bodies on the estate. He said he didn’t know specifically where the bodies were buried, but he did say that the groundskeeper had assured him the deed had been done.”
“So why didn’t they just ask the groundskeeper where the bodies were buried?” I wondered.
Hattie replied. “Apparently, when the police showed up at the estate to talk to the man, he ran. During the chase, he jumped from a rocky ledge into the river that runs through the property. He was never seen or heard from again. It was spring, and the water was moving fast, so most figured his body was washed far enough downstream so as not to be found.”
The whole thing sounded just a bit too fantastic to me to be factual, but I supposed that there is a bit of truth mixed in with the fantasy within every legend. “I assume that even without the groundskeeper’s statement, the police looked for the bodies.”
She nodded. “I remember that there was an extensive search. They even brought in the cadaver dogs, but the bodies were never found, although it is still the belief of most that the bodies are out there on that estate.”
“I remember this part,” I said. “This is where the legend comes in. Apparently, if you’re up in the little room at the top of the house late at night, you can see the light from the groundskeeper as he goes from gravesite to gravesite, checking on the men he buried.”
“That’s the story,” Hattie agreed.
“Of course, if the groundskeeper was a ghost and he was doing his rounds each night, someone would have figured out where the men were buried by this point. I mean, all a person would have to do was check the locations visited by this ghostly figure.”
“I suppose that’s true as well.”
“Were the victims locals? Did they live here in town?”
“Actually, not all the men were locals,” Hattie answered. “According to Doctor Franktown, some of the men he kidnapped were hikers who’d come to the area for some downtime and were hiking alone. I suppose Franktown must have had help kidnapping these men. They were young and fit, so it seems unlikely he could subdue and transport them himself. Most folks figure it was the groundskeeper who helped with the kidnapping, but no one knows this with any degree of certainty.”
“So, some of the victims were visitors to the area.”
She pursed her lips. “I think some were visitors, and some were locals. I can’t remember exactly how they were divided, but I do remember that the men Franktown confessed to kidnapping and eventually killing came from more than one area.”
“The story really is creepy.” I shivered. “I suppose that no one knew that Doctor Franktown and the missing men were connected until he confessed.”
“I seem to remember that being the case. I was a young woman back then, but it seems as if no one paid a lot of attention to the reclusive old guy until his confession.”
As far as I was concerned, the entire situation was a tragedy. Naturally, I didn’t support the concept of kidnapping young men as part of the process of finding a cure for the disease that had killed his son, but I could understand how broken the man must have been. The death of a loved one is never easy, especially the death of one so young, but to have been able to save others entrusted to your care, but not to have been able to save your own child, must have been the worst kind of hell a person could endure.
Hattie and I chatted for a few more minutes, and then I headed home to Tony and the animals I share my life with. It was good to be home with my dogs, Tilly and Kody, Tony’s dog, Titan, and my cats, Tang and Tinder, after our time away. I’d had a wonderful time in Italy, but I’d missed my babies, and given the enthusiastic greeting Tony and I received upon coming home, it seemed as if they’d missed us as well.
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