by C. Jean Downer
Sloane West is an ex-New York City cop turned private investigator needing a distraction. She’s grieving her secretive mother’s death, and her ex-best friend and ex-lover have just sent her an invitation to their upcoming nuptials.
When a stranger arrives seeking her help, she receives a deadly diversion to the quiet Canadian village of Denwick. There, Sloane learns she’s not the only target in a murderous plan—so is her long-lost cousin, the High Priestess of her family’s coven.
To find the killer, Sloane must solve a murder while accepting a crash course in witchcraft. The choice is hers. Will she embrace her power as a protector—or flee from the birthright she’s only beginning to understand?
A Sloane West Mystery Book 1.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"I grew up reading murder mysteries and fantasy books and am still an avid reader of both genres. A few years ago, I imagined a mash-up after I had finished a book in Sue Grafton’s alphabet series and Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches, book one in the All Souls Trilogy. The main character I envisioned was like Harry Dresden, the protagonist in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files if Harry was a witch instead of a wizard, and Grafton’s detective, Kinsey Malone, if Kinsey wasn’t straight but rather a kick-ass lesbian. I ran my detective-fantasy series idea past my family and friends; they loved it, and Sloane West was born. Her name is an homage to Agatha Christie (Raymond West). The setting, Denwick, is an imaginary village on beautiful Vancouver Island, a place my wife, Theresa, and I hold dear."
—C. Jean Downer
Women Using Words
Lies Are Forever is very well done. Downer provides readers with an engaging, cohesive storyline that’s overflowing with rich, fluid language. The characters are well drawn and work together to weave a compelling and surprising plot. This is fresh, unique storytelling, and it deserves top marks. If you like well-written, suspenseful supernatural fiction, then you won’t want to miss this one.
Shimere A. - …The author skillfully constructs a secretive realm where even the magical beings are in the dark about each other's identities, adding layers of intrigue to an already compelling narrative.
Tiffany R. - If you love mystery, fast pace, interesting characters, and some magical elements, or if you want something new this book is for you!
Henrietta B. - Great urban fantasy debut.
Bonnie K. - A great read and an amazing plot.
Natalie A. - I absolutely loved this book! I can’t wait for the next one! The characters were so much fun, and I loved how they interacted with each other. The paranormal aspect just added the right amount to the story! I definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes this genre.
Kay M. - Downer did such an amazing job of fleshing out and creating this world. The world building and magic system was so good and well thought out. The characters they populated the story with were extremely entertaining, both good and the bad. …Cannot wait to see more from this author and highly recommend this for someone who loves mysteries or magic worlds, or both.
Sloane West walked to a cramped kitchen and dug out an old Dupont lighter from a utility drawer. It was engraved with the date she stopped smoking, a gag gift from her ex that wasn’t funny anymore.
One flick of the spark wheel and a flame shot up, releasing white spirit and memories of past camping trips. She held it under an ivory envelope with handwritten calligraphy until the fire caught hold and spread, licking at her fingers. Then she dropped the burning paper into the sink and gripped the counter. How did she fail to realize Jess was falling out of love with her and in love with him? A dark, long-haired cat appeared beside her and meowed.
“Jesus, Bear. You scared me.”
She rubbed her head against Sloane’s legs and jumped onto the kitchen counter.
A tinge of guilt spread hotly across Sloane’s face, and she stroked Bear’s back. “Don’t worry about the fire. I’ll put it out.” The stream of water sizzled as it hit the flames, releasing a puff of smoke.
Bear leaped down and led Sloane to the bay window. Across the street, the sun had lowered behind a row of dilapidated brownstones. Her neighbors would flow out soon into the dusk, milling around buzzing streetlights. Trading. Selling. Getting whatever they needed.
Her upstairs neighbor leaned against a gargoyle-headed newel post that flanked their stoop. She locked eyes with him and lifted her chin. He reciprocated, dragged the last of his cigarette before flicking it to the gutter, and lit another.
Sloane bent down and nuzzled her face into Bear’s long fur. “They’ve got some nerve sending me an invitation, right?”
“Exactly. Screw them. I knew you’d understand.”
A knock at the front door brought her back to the present. Sloane unlocked the bolt, slid off the chain, and yanked the door open. “What do you want?”
An elderly man stood before her. He removed his gray trilby and stared at her, open-mouthed. “I’m so sorry.” His deep voice caught. “I’m Harold Huxham, a solicitor. I have a four-thirty appointment with Ms. Sloane West.”
She glanced at her watch and rubbed her forehead. “You’re at the right place, Mr. Huxham. But it’s only ten after.”
“Call me Harold, please. I’m terribly sorry. I thought your office would have a lobby. I can wait outside if you’d like.”
“I can’t let you do that.” She backed up and gestured for him to come in. “And you can call me Sloane.” She bolted the door. “Assuming was your first mistake, Harold. I work from home. If you don’t arrive on time, you might find me in the shower or not here.” She pointed at two overstuffed armchairs facing an antique secretary. “Have a seat.”
Harold sniffed the air. “Have you had a fire?”
Sloane chuckled and opened one of the bay windows. “No. I had a cleansing.”
“I see.” Harold placed his briefcase on the floor, set his hat on it, removed his dark-blue wool coat, folded it, and draped it across the back of the armchair.
Sloane gave him a once-over. He was tall and robust with a body that seemed to have survived well into old age, neither frail nor cumbersome. The type of body she wanted if she ever got that old.
She sat on the corner of her desk. “So, how’d you get past our security door? I thought you were my neighbor.”
“A gentleman on the steps insisted he buzz me in. I believe he was annoyed with my presence.”
“Was he short, bald, and rude?”
“You know him then?”
“Gary Prence. He lives upstairs. One of these times, he’ll let the wrong person in and be sorry.” She pushed off the desk. “Can I get you coffee, tea, whiskey?”
“If it isn’t too much trouble, a cup of tea with milk would be splendid.”
“No trouble at all.”
Ignoring the charred mess in the sink, she started a teakettle and filled a tray with cups, a carton of milk, and a bottle of whiskey. The cups had belonged to Jane, her mother, and the whiskey something special she had brought home from a distillery tour in Ireland.
She returned to Harold surveying her apartment. His gaze had settled on three paintings hanging in a row across her living room wall, and the corners of his mouth had turned up.
“You like the Impressionists?” he asked as she set down the tray.
“Yeah, but these are hand-painted reproductions.” She pointed at each. “A Morisot, Renoir, and Cassatt.” Sloane placed a cup in front of Harold and one in front of her chair. “I didn’t buy them. I inherited them.”
His smile disappeared as he studied each painting.
Bear lifted her head and meowed.
Harold turned to her, and his eyes widened. “My heavens. It couldn’t be…”
Sloane opened a box of Earl Grey, dropped a teabag into each cup, and sat. “Couldn’t be what?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. I was just admiring your cat. I knew one that looked exactly like it. Same distinct eye color.”
“Yeah, not surprising. Bear is a plain old, American long-haired cat. There are probably ten more like her on my street alone.”
Bear bristled and flicked her tail.
Sloane laughed. “See, now I made her mad. There’s no telling what she’ll do.”
The kettle whistled, a trill turning into a screech. “Jesus. Just one second. I don’t know why I keep that thing.” She hurried to the kitchen and made their tea. “Would you like a splash of whiskey in your tea?” she asked, holding out the bottle.
He settled into his chair. “No, thank you, it’s a bit early for me.”
“Are you sure? It’s five o’clock somewhere.” She checked her watch. “Hell, it’s a cocktail hour here.”
He covered his cup with his hand and shook his head.
“Suit yourself.” She poured herself a healthy shot. “So tell me, Harold. Why does a distinguished lawyer make an appointment with a PI in the Bronx without telling her that he’s from Vancouver Island?”
He straightened. “How did you know? Are you an expert in accents?”
“I’ve read a few books. Yours is easy, though. Hints of British etiquette with Western Canadian patterns. Also, New Yorkers don’t apologize. Unless we need to. Then we still don’t. But you Canadians are famous for it.” She took a long drink. “That. And I read Victoria, BC, on the boarding pass in your coat pocket.”
“Hah. You’re devilishly clever.” He glanced at Bear, who was looking back at him, and the joy in his voice trailed off. “How old is your Bear?”
Sloane thought for a minute. “She’s been with us from the time I was in high school. Sixteen, seventeen years old.” She glanced at Bear. “Jane gave her to me about seven years ago when I moved in here. She thought I needed company.” She watched Bear curl her tail around her body and turned back to Harold. “Listen, you’ve piqued my curiosity, and lucky for you, I need a distraction. So I’m all yours. How can my services be of help?”
“Well the truth is…” Bending over the chair’s arm, he retrieved his briefcase, placed it on the desk, and flipped the locks open. “I’m not here for your private investigative services.” He inched open the leather top. “I’m sorry to say, my business with you is personal.”
Sloane leaned forward and slipped her hand under the desk, watching every movement he made. “Tell me you’re kidding. Because I swear to God, Harold, I’ll throw you out if you’re here to sell me something.”
“No, no. I’m not peddling.” He turned his briefcase around. It was full of files. “I’m sorry for my secrecy. But I feared you might refuse to meet with me if you knew the true nature of my visit.”
“So you’re here under false pretenses.” She let go of the Beretta on the underside of her desk and pulled her hand back.
“I apologize for being vague. Please allow me to explain. What I have to say will be difficult for you. And I wanted you to hear it in person.”
“Vague? Is that what Canadians call lying?” She sat back, hard. “It’s your money, boss. So go ahead and tell me. But you’re still paying my consulting fee.”
“Of course, I understand your time is valuable.” With a trembling hand, Harold removed a manila folder. “I am the executor for the late Nathaniel and Mary West. Do you know who they are?” He searched her face.
“Never heard of them.”
“That’s what I feared.” He opened the file and handed her a piece of paper. “Nathaniel and Mary West were from Denwick, a small town on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. They left their personal estate in a trust to their only child. That is Jane West’s birth certificate, their daughter.”
“Yes, your mother.”
Sloane read the document and tossed it back. “Same name. But we both know that doesn’t mean anything. I can’t imagine you traveled all this way on that assumption. What else do you have?”
There was an urgency in her voice she could not hide. Jane had died a month earlier, and she discovered her mother had lied about many things. Jane’s life had become a mystery to her. Full of secrets. And Sloane’s sleuthing had hit a dead end. Harold removed a stack of envelopes from his briefcase and slid them across the desk. “I have these.”
Sloane stared at the stack. Her heart pounded, and she grabbed a letter off the top. The address was written in Jane’s hand, her distinctive cursive loops. She opened the letter and read.
“I am deeply heartbroken about your mother’s death,” Harold said. “I’m here to share my condolences. But I’m also obligated to tell you the West estate, therefore, goes to you.”
Sloane looked up, silent. “Where did you find these?” she asked, pushing the letters back to him.
“In your grandparents’ effects. What I don’t understand…” He coughed. “…is why your mother never once mentioned you to Natty and Mary. Or at least, I believe so, as they never told me about you.”
Sloane downed the rest of her tea. “Yeah? Jane never told me about her parents, either. Who knows why? She lied about a lot of things.”
Harold picked up his cup and leaned forward. “On second thought, I will take a shot of your whiskey.”
She poured him a generous amount, and he tossed it back. “Seems you’re more upset to tell me about my long-lost family than I am to hear about them.”
His shoulders rounded. “Natty and Mary were my closest friends. I was at the hospital when your mother was born. Held her in my arms right after your grandfather did. She was the daughter I never had.”
“Oh, no, no. Never married.”
Sloane’s brow arched. “I see. So Jane grew up in Canada?”
“Yes. On the Island. Left us when she was eighteen. If your grandparents knew why she did so, they never told me.” He tapped one of Jane’s letters. “This PO box is the only thing about your mother I could find.” He sat back and sighed. “I can’t imagine why she hid both of you from us.”
Sloane poured a shot into her empty cup and drank it in one swallow.
The sun was setting, and its amber light squeezed through the row houses, throwing striped shadows over the hardwood floor. Her mind raced. All the lies. All the questions she had. It was time for some damn answers. “What makes you think Jane hid us? Her parents had a PO box address. Why the hell didn’t they find us?”
Harold wiped his watery eyes with a handkerchief and stuffed it back in his pocket. “You have every right to be angry. But your grandparents told me they did attempt to find your mother. They hired private investigators. But always without success. I don’t know why.” He spread his aged hands over his knees. “Then we lost Natty and Mary this past January. I was packing up their office not long after and found Jane’s letters with the PO box. So I wrote to your mother right away. I waited for a few weeks but didn’t hear back. That’s when I searched for her online. And after all those years of trying, I found her obituary on my first search. Your name was given as her only relative.”
“Just like that, huh?”
Harold nodded, pulled out his handkerchief, and rubbed his nose. “Yes. Just like magic.”
Sloane arched an eyebrow slightly. “How did Jane’s parents die?”
“They were killed in a terrible car accident on Highway One. Single-vehicle crash. Their taxi driver lost control, leaving the road.” He paused. “All three died at the scene.”
“Jesus. And a month later Jane dies in a car accident.” She shook her head.
“My God. What happened?”
“She drove her MG once or twice a month. Just to get away from the city for a few days. I don’t know where she was headed, but she didn’t get far. A sanitation truck T-boned her before she got past 78th Street. He lived. She died.”
“I’m so sorry. This must be terribly difficult for you.” He removed a framed photo from his briefcase and handed it to her. “This is your family. Your mother and your grandparents. I suspect you’ve never seen a picture of your mother so young. Your hair is just like hers. You could have been twins.”
The photo was taken at some sort of party in a backyard. Jane had her father’s eyes, round and dark, and her mother’s long black hair. Sloane recognized herself in all three. Except no one had her ice-gray eyes. She picked up a photo from the window seat.
Bear meowed and stood on all fours, arching her back in a stretch.
Sloane handed the picture to Harold. “This is how Jane wore her hair, during my entire life, dyed blond in a chin-length blunt cut. I always thought my dark hair came from my father. Assuming was my first mistake, huh?”
Harold studied the photo. It was wintertime. Jane and Sloane stood in front of a lit-up Christmas tree. “Sometimes assumptions are all we’re allowed.” His trembling hand placed the photo next to the other.
“Only if we give up on the truth.” She looked at the older photo again. “When was this taken?”
He closed his eyes, his index finger tapping through memories. Then his eyes opened. “It was Jane’s going-away party. She was two years behind my nephew Charlie, so it was the summer of 1988. They were very close.” Harold spooned the teabag into his cup, and Sloane handed him the kettle. “She was coming here for a holiday before university.”
“In 1988? Are you sure?”
“I have no doubt. Your mother was supposed to attend McGill in Montreal that fall. She was a brilliant girl. She could understand people with a kind of wisdom beyond her age. We were all so proud of her.” Harold looked away, his gaze landing on Bear.
Sloane scooted back in her chair. “While I can appreciate your need to find me, I’m afraid you’ve wasted your time. I didn’t know the Wests. And I’m not interested in their estate.”
“You are under no pressure to decide today. The West estate is your birthright. At least allow yourself some time to think about it. There’s no hurry.”
Sloane rinsed out her mug and poured another whiskey neat. “Look around, Harold. This stuff isn’t mine. Jane left me everything. The paintings, the furniture, all of it.”
“Then her trust passes to you, too.”
“My apartment is tiny. I don’t want their things as well. I owned a sofa and a bed before she died. I keep it all for Bear. I think she likes having Jane’s things around.”
Harold stared at Bear, his brows drawing together. “Your cat is lucky to have such a lovely home.”
Sloane leaned against the half wall. “Listen, you seem like an upstanding guy. And I can tell your heart is in the right place. So, I want to help you finish your work. Who’s the contingent beneficiary?”
He hesitated. “Your grandparents did not provide one, except for the property they hold in common with others in Denwick. It is complicated. But in simplest terms, after you, the land and building in which they have their business passes next to your grandparents’ three closest friends.”
“Then I’d be honored to sign over the entire estate to them.”
“Of course, you can, but I know they would rather you accept your legacy.”
“Seems I only have one of those friend’s word for that, Harold.”
He tapped his nose with a crooked finger. “Cleverness is a family trait. You’re right. I am one of the three, but I assure you that the others agree with me. Knowing you are here, alive, has helped our grieving. Knowing the West family lives on in you.” The affection in his voice lingered, and he picked up the photo of Jane and her parents. “But if your final decision is no, I’ll draw up the paperwork. I must ask, though, would you consider doing an old man one favor?”
“Am I about to hear your superior rhetorical skills? Because they’ve been pretty good so far.”
He chuckled. “No, no. I have only an honest plea. Come to Denwick, sign the papers and stay for a weekend. I will show you all the places your family loved. The cottage where your mother grew up. Old Main Street, where your grandparents ran a gallery and I have my law office.” His voice was full of nostalgia. “And there is one estate item I insist you accept.” He pointed to the three paintings on Sloane’s wall. “Your mother got her love of Impressionist art from her parents. To nurture her enthusiasm, Natty and Mary bought her an original Degas for her sixteenth birthday. Natty said it was an investment for her future. And, oh my, sweet Jane could enthrall you with her interpretation of that painting.” He smiled at the fleeting memory. “It hung above their mantle. But now it’s in my office safe.”
“Jesus. An original?”
“Yes. It was her prized possession.”
“Makes me wonder why she left it in Denwick then.” Sloane looked at the reproductions Jane had hung in their home. What else had she left behind? She tapped the heel of her shoe against the wall. “All right, Harold. How’s the weather on the Island right now? I’m due a few days off. But only if you promise to be my chaperone.”
Harold patted his knees. “Wonderful. I would be honored to escort you around our humble village. When would you—”
Someone tapped on the door.
“Hold that thought.”
The knocking grew louder.
Bear hissed and leaped on top of the bookcases, the pupils in her fluorescent yellow-green eyes shrinking into slits.
Sloane set her mug down and pushed off the half-wall. “Give me a damn second, Prence. You’re scaring Bear.” She unlocked the bolt and was about to slide the chain when a voice in her head shouted.
Before she could step away, someone kicked the door, breaking it off its hinges. The force slammed her against the wall, and the door struck her face. Her nose cracked. Everything went black for a split second. Then an intense heat surged through her body as she filled with rage.
A man rushed inside, gun first, and a shot pierced the air.
Sloane lunged at him as a dark shadow flashed over her.
The man turned the gun on her. She grabbed his shoulder and wrist, driving his arm into her thrusting knee. The bones in his elbow cracked and snapped upward. The gun hit the floor, and Sloane kicked it into the living room.
The assailant clutched her throat with his good hand, shoving her against the wall and lifting her off the floor. He snarled, low and menacing.
Hot breath hit Sloane’s face as his mouth drew closer. She pushed against the wall with her feet, scratched at his eyes with one hand, and jabbed her fist into his throat with the other. He dropped her and stumbled back. Sloane quickly landed a kick to his abdomen, sending him crashing into the bookcase across the room, where he crumpled to the floor.
She bent over, coughing and catching her breath as the man leaped to his feet and ran for his gun. Surprise slowed her reaction, but she raced him to the firearm. Before he could pick it up, she jumped, striking the side of his knee with a front kick.
The shooter gave a guttural cry.
Sloane landed a roundhouse kick to his head. He fell at her feet, silent, motionless, his arm and leg bending unnaturally.
Bear appeared at her side and sniffed the stranger.
“Harold!” she shouted and ran to the old man.