Harper Hawthorne leaned against the bar counter, glancing down at the latest patron to visit Patrick’s Pub. His expensive pinstripe suit and gold-plated wristwatch set him apart from the blue-collar workers who frequented the bar.
Even on Friday nights, Patrick’s didn’t see many fresh faces. Las Vegas brought in thousands of tourists each day, but most didn’t know about this kind of local back-alley haunt. They wanted the flashy lights of the strip; cheap drinks and fast service be damned.
Curious, she walked over to him. The machine he sat on flashed, and she looked down. He’d lost a hand of Double Bonus Poker but didn’t seem to care. She saw he had a couple hundred bucks of credit.
“First time here?” Harper asked. When he looked up, she smiled. “Can I get you anything to drink? I recommend—”
“Scotch, neat. And yes. I’m not from around here,” he said.
She turned and reached for a bottle, then paused and reconsidered. She went to a shelf higher and grabbed a bottle of Black Label. “Is this okay?”
She poured three fingers of liquor into a short, squat glass and slid it in front of him. “So what brings you to Vegas?”
“Passing through. I was in Phoenix for business, and now I’m headed home.”
“Well, Vegas is a good layover,” Harper told him. “Flying or driving?”
“Driving,” he told her. “I find it easier to do my work without the restriction of flight plans.”
Harper raised her eyebrows. “Yeah? What sort of business are you in? That type of flexibility must be nice.”
He looked up, his eyes meeting hers. “I procure rare goods.”
“Oh. Like art?” Harper asked. “That’s a lucrative trade, from what I’ve heard. I know that—”
He smiled. “No. Though perhaps you can help me with something. I’m looking for a person who comes to this area often. They—”
This time, Harper interrupted. “Sorry. Excuse me a moment.”
Down the bar, a short man was rocking on a bar stool, muttering beneath his breath.
“Eric?” Harper asked. “You all right?”
He looked up, smiled, and then turned his eyes back to the bar counter.
“Double shot,” Harper told him. “I’ll add grenadine.”
He didn’t respond, but Harper didn’t need him to. For the two years she’d been tending bar here, Eric’s order never changed. She mixed his drink in a tall glass, substituting sparkling water with extra for the vodka she’d promised.
It wasn’t the first time she’d swapped out his liquor, and he’d never noticed. Not on nights like tonight. She put it in front of him. He smiled, sincere. “Thank you, Harper.”
“You’re welcome. Let me know if you need anything else,” Harper said.
He nodded and turned his attention to his drink.
She stepped away and looked out at the rest of the bar. It was busier than usual, with almost a dozen people scattered among the tables. Ruby, the other bartender, was talking to a brunette woman near the door.
When she returned to the bar, Scotch, Neat was watching her with a keen expression.
“So, just passing through,” Harper said. She picked up the Black Label and topped off his glass. “Better than five-minute marriages and penny slots, I guess. Lots of those on the strip.”
He shook his head and confided, “I don’t gamble. Not now. My wife was angry when I lost more than I should have.”
Harper’s eyes went to his left hand. Like she thought, he wore no wedding ring. There was no tan line either. No reason to be suspicious; plenty of men didn’t wear a ring, and it wasn’t her business.
“Good reason to quit playing,” Harper said. “But video poker is still poker.”
He laughed, then brought out his wallet. When he took a ten from it, she saw it was flush with cash. He slid the bill to her. “For you. And Harper? Poker is a game of skill.”
“Thanks,” Harper said. She reached for the bill, and he touched her hand. She felt her skin crawl; his hand was hot, almost feverish. When she yanked hers away, he was smiling.
She shook off her nerves, pushing the ten into the tip jar behind the bar. “So, you were saying something about needing help.”
“I won’t be needing that,” he said.
A loud crash cut her off. They both looked toward the front of the bar. Ruby was staring at a mess of glass shards on the floor, exasperated. One of their regulars, pot-bellied Pete was with her.
Harper hurried over. “What happened? Are you both okay?”
Pete looked at her. His face was red and sweaty. His nose looked crooked and dried blood dotted his upper lip. “Maybe you can help, ’cause no, I’m not okay. I told the lady here, the nice lady, I said, I want a drink. I want it on my tab. What did she say? Do you know?”
“Pete, we don’t do tabs,” Harper said. “Come on, you know that. Every Friday, we tell you the same thing.”
“You do,” Pete said, voice rising. “You do! I’ve gotten a tab! Lots of times! You don’t want me here, that’s all. Just admit it, you want me gone.”
“Pete, we love you,” Ruby said, “but we can’t give you a tab, okay? And you’re way past the limit. We can’t serve you anymore.”
Pete wheeled on her, looking furious.
Harper cut in. “We’ll call you a cab, okay? And we’ll make sure the driver takes you home and helps you inside. You can shower and get some sleep. You don’t look good.”
He glanced at his wrinkled, dirty shirt, then back up at them. “I don’t want a damn cab. I want my drink!”
Harper reached for his arm, and Pete lurched backward away from her. He slammed into another table, and everything went flying. Harper tried to sidestep, and her foot caught on a piece of glass from the previous mess. She flailed, crashed into Ruby, and both landed on the floor with little dignity.
“Oh god!” Pete said, steadying himself. He stepped toward the women, shameful, but Scotch, Neat stepped up behind him, grabbed his arm, and pinned it behind his back. He wasn’t gentle.
“This is not how you treat people,” he said, cold and calm. “You need to learn respect.”
“No!” Ruby said, getting up. “Let him go. He doesn’t mean anything.”
“He—” Scotch, Neat began.
“Don’t hurt him,” Harper said, joining Ruby on her feet. “He’s harmless.”
Pete was sobbing something incoherent.
“You’re bleeding,” the businessman said, catching her eye again, with an expression difficult to read.
Harper looked down and saw he was right. She must have slashed her arm on the glass. It wasn’t painful — was she in shock?
“Please don’t hurt him,” Ruby said again. “Harper’s okay, right?”
“I’m fine,” Harper said. She tried not to look at her arm; the sight of blood always made her sick. “Come on, Pete. Just go home, okay? Ruby will call you a cab, you can wait outside. The fresh air will feel good.”
Scotch, Neat let him go. “Get out.”
Pete glanced at the women, then over at the bar. Eric was watching, wary. He opened his mouth, thought better of it, then turned and fled out the door. An older man named Bill, Patrick’s excuse for a security guard, followed him.
“Thanks,” Ruby said to Scotch, Neat. He didn’t seem to hear her; he was already on the way back to his seat and drink. She looked to Harper instead. “Are you okay? Really?”
Harper lifted her arm. It was still bleeding, and she felt her stomach recoil. She bit her tongue, hard, then told herself to stop overreacting. “I’ve got to clean up. Can you handle the floor?”
“Sure, go on,” Ruby said.
Harper smiled and went to the employee bathroom in the back. She turned the tap on and rolled up her sleeve. She ran her arm beneath the cool water and tried to see how deep the cut was. She wasn’t very objective, as the pain was rising steadily, but she didn’t think it would need stitches.
Her shirt was stained, though, and her pants splattered with blood and water.
“Great,” she muttered. “Just what I needed.”
She opened the first-aid kit kept under the sink and dabbed at the cut with some gauze. Then she tore off a fresh strip and wrapped it as best she could. After, she tried wiping down her shirt with a wet rag, but it did little good. She’d have to soak it when she got home.
Harper put the toilet seat down and sat, leaning forward while she thought. She’d have to write up an incident report. Paperwork was one of her least favorite things, and she could think of a hundred better ways to waste time after her shift.
She lingered awhile and then thought about Ruby out there alone. She groaned, knowing her mood wouldn’t get better from sitting there. She needed the tips from tonight, too; her rent was over two months late, and her landlord didn’t like how she paid with wrinkled tens and fives.
Eric was still at the bar when she came out, his first glass empty. It didn’t surprise her; he was consistent in his moods. Tonight, he’d have two more, play a few games of keno, then tip her a wrinkled Lincoln and head home.
She made him the second drink and slid it in front of him. He smiled at her. “Harper, are you all right? Pete shouldn’t have done that; he might have gotten you hurt. Or himself.”
When his smile flickered, Harper leaned forward. “He’ll be okay, Eric. So will I. It’s hardly a scratch. Thank you for asking, though. Hey, look, you hit five of them.”
His look of surprise was comical. “Oh. Good.”
She laughed and moved on. She filled a few orders for the newcomers to the bar and then went to Scotch, Neat. “Hey there. Ready for another? It’s on the house.”
“No. Water will be fine.”
“Sure,” Harper said. She filled a glass with crushed ice and then placed it and a bottle of water in front of him. “If you need anything else, just ask.”
“I will, Harper.”
She nodded, feeling uneasy as she moved away. Something didn’t seem quite right with him, and it wasn’t just the quick way he’d handled Pete. That just marked him as one of the good guys. He’d defended Ruby and her.
But he wasn’t wearing a ring.
She was being stupid. It didn’t matter. Maybe his wife was actually just a long-term girlfriend. Perhaps she was a husband instead. Or maybe Scotch, Neat just didn’t like jewelry. She didn’t consider herself a suspicious person, but she was sure acting like it tonight.
Trying to move on, Harper took a few drink orders from the tables near the front of the bar. Then she paused near a slim woman with long hair and huge brown eyes.
She smiled at Harper as though she’d been expecting her. “Hi!”
“Hello,” Harper said. As the girl ran her hands over her short sundress, she gave her most sobering look. “I need to see your ID.”
The brunette sighed, though she didn’t look bothered. She rifled through her tiny beaded purse until she found her bona fide State of Nevada Driver License.
Harper took it. According to the card, Chloe Sylvania was twenty-nine as of two months ago. She scrutinized the photo, though she saw right away the face matched.
Grinning, Chloe leaned close. “I have a young face, that’s all. Some people think it’s a gift, right? But I get carded everywhere. One time, it was for buying permanent markers. You’re Harper, right? Harper Hawthorne?”
“Yes,” Harper said. “But you’re not a regular here, are you?”
She laughed. “No. Can I get a rum and coke, please?”
“No problem.” Harper headed back to the bar. Before she’d gotten far, Chloe called her name. She looked back, waiting.
“My license,” Chloe said. “Could I get that back?”
Harper flushed as she realized she was still holding the ID. She backtracked and returned it. “Sorry.”
Harper stopped by Scotch, Neat on her way to mix Chloe’s drink. “Sure you don’t need a refresher? More water, maybe?”
“Your name,” he said.
She frowned, reaching for a glass. “You already know that. It’s Harper.”
“Yes, but Harper… what?”
He tilted his head, studying her. “I see. Harper Hawthorne. Named after a family member?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Harper said. She turned her back to him, reaching for the rum. “I was adopted at birth, but my biological mother was the one who named me.”
“I see. Adopted. So what do you know of your actual family?”
Harper added the coke and then turned, her voice sharper than she intended. “The people who raised me are my actual family. I need to get back to work.”
She could feel his eyes on her as she walked back to Chloe. His questions shouldn’t have bothered her; working at a bar, patrons asked her all sorts of things, and most were far more inappropriate.
“Here you are.” She held the drink toward Chloe.
“Thanks,” Chloe said. She took it, sipped, then smiled. “It’s perfect, Harper. You’ve a knack for this.”
Harper shrugged. “It’s not a difficult drink.”
Chloe just smiled again, fiddling with a strand of her hair. She set the drink aside. “You’re really pretty, Harper. I love your hair. It’s almost platinum; do you dye it to get it that white?”
“No,” Harper said. “It’s natural. I’m probably Russian or something.”
Chloe’s eyes gleamed. She patted the seat next to her. “I want to speak with you. Do you have a moment?”
“I’m working,” Harper said. Before she could say more, Chloe held up a hand.
“I know, and I know it’s a terribly busy night,” Chloe said. “But this is important, Harper. Please.”
Harper sat down.
“Thank you,” Chloe said. She lifted her rum and coke, took a small sip, and looked around. “I need to know if you’ve seen anyone suspicious in here lately. Someone who doesn’t quite belong.”
Harper stared at her. “It’s a bar. There’s plenty of people who don’t fit in. That’s why a lot of them are here.”
“No, but… I mean, in a weird way,” Chloe said.
Harper shook her head, but she couldn’t help but glance over at Scotch, Neat. His only sin was not wearing a wedding band, though. “Nobody.”
“Good,” Chloe said, still cheerful, though her eyes kept flitting around as she absently twisted her hair. “Look, you’ve got to get out of here, Harper.”
“I mean, it’s not like you’re making bank here,” Chloe said, and Harper shrugged. “Low pay and the tips can’t be the best. So, I own a nightclub. Part of a nightclub. Afterlife. Have you heard of it?”
Harper was going to shake her head but then paused. “It does sound familiar. Is it the one down near the Gems?”
Chloe waved a hand. “No, you’re thinking of some rundown scene club. That’s gross. Afterlife is Northtown, near the plaza. Live bands, dancing, the works. It’s a popular place, Harper. And you ought to come work there.”
“But — wait, what?” Harper ran a hand over her face, wondering if the night was getting to her. “You don’t even know me. Why would you offer me a job?”
“You make excellent rum and cokes,” Chloe teased. When she saw Harper’s expression, she laughed. “Oh, come on. It’s a good gig, Harper. The tips are always high, and the security isn’t an old man who sneaks shots left at tables.”
“I like my job,” Harper said, nonplussed.
“Do you?” Chloe gave her a curious look. “Well, maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Come by at least, see what the atmosphere is like. I’ll even waive the door fee. But you’ll have to change first. We have a dress code, and honestly, Alec is really uptight about it. A lot of girls wear dresses. Do you have a dress you could wear?”
“You don’t have to change,” Chloe said, raising her hands. “But when you come into work, you’ll have to dress nicer...”
“I’m working here,” Harper said, standing to leave. “I don’t need another job.”
“You don’t want to be working this bar forever,” Chloe said, almost so quietly that Harper couldn’t hear.
“I like it here,” Harper said, looking at Eric.
“Sure,” Chloe said. “But do you like it enough to die for it?”
Harper narrowed her eyes. “Excuse me? That’s not funny.”
“No, I suppose not,” Chloe said, fetching another sigh. She waved her hand. “Okay, but come in for drinks, Harper. Tonight, okay?”
“No,” Harper said.
She crossed her arms. “I’m not going anywhere tonight but home to rest.”
“I was worried you’d feel that way,” Chloe said.
“I’m going back to work,” Harper said. She started away, but Chloe reached out and grabbed her wrist. She felt a small jolt of electricity pulse through her. She yanked her hand away and stared at the girl.
“I’m trying to help,” Chloe said, sounding exasperated now.
“Help with what?”
“It isn’t safe here, not to talk, and not to be. Come to Afterlife, please?” Chloe asked.
“Are you drunk?” Harper asked, stepping closer to her with a sniff. She didn’t smell any liquor on her breath, but the girl wasn’t making sense.
Chloe shook her head. “We can’t talk here; I just said that. Alec will explain everything, okay? He’ll make you understand.”
“Alec?” Harper repeated.
“Yeah, he’ll have an easier time explaining. I mean, he should be here right now, not me, but after watching you all of last night, he just didn’t have the energy.”
“Wait,” Harper said. “Some guy has been watching me?”
Chloe blinked, as though just realizing what she’d said. “Oh. Not like that, Harper. Calm down. He’s not spying, just observing from a distance. He’s harmless. Well, I mean—”
“I want to know what the hell is going on,” Harper said, her hands curling into fists. It sent a shock of pain up her arm, and she resisted the urge to wince.
“You’ll just have to trust me on this,” Chloe said. “I can explain, but not here. Who’s that guy at the bar? He’s been staring at us this entire time.”
Harper whipped around, expecting to see Scotch, Neat, but only saw Eric watching them. The pinstripe-suit man was gone. She waved at Eric, who returned the gesture.
“He’s a regular of mine,” Harper snapped. “And you know what? I don’t trust you. I want to know why someone named Alex has been—”
“Alec,” Chloe corrected, quieter than before.
Chloe’s purse chimed, and she held up a hand. Harper rolled her eyes as the woman slipped a cell phone out. She flashed a smile at the screen, unlocking it, then checked her messages.
“Excuse me,” Harper said. “Manners mean much to you? We were talking.”
Chloe ignored her, fingers dancing across the screen as she replied. When she looked up, her face was set. “Okay, well, we got an alert. We’ve got to go, Harper. As in, now.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you,” Harper shot back, her voice rising. “Who was that? Your stalker-friend?”
“He’s not — no. Harper, let’s just go. I don’t want to do this the hard way,” Chloe pleaded.
“Is that a threat?”
“Well, in a manner of speaking. No, wait, don’t take it like that. I just want you to get out of here, that’s all.”
Harper shook her head. “You’re crazy. I’m calling security.”
She strode off, looking to see if Bill was back inside yet. She spotted him near the bar and wondered if he was stealing a leftover shot.
“What’s up, Harper?” he asked as she joined him.
“There’s a girl over there,” Harper said. She turned to gesture at Chloe, but she’d moved. “What? Where’d she go?”
“I was just talking to a woman over there,” Harper said, losing her patience. “Asian, long hair. She was short. She must have gone outside, but she was threatening me. Talking about some guy she’s had stalking me.”
Bill frowned. “All right. I’ll look around.”
Harper strode over to the table and glanced at the rum and coke, still almost full. “She was right here.”
Bill was peering around at the customers. “I don’t see her. If she shows up, you come and find me, though, okay?”
Harper snatched up the drink glass, furious. Then she saw there was a card beneath. In bold letters, it said Afterlife, and there was a phone number scribbled on the back. She frowned, sticking it in her pocket and stalking back to the bar.
She fixed Eric another drink, then went to the employee break room. She leaned against the wall, her arm throbbing.
The door swung open a moment later, and Harper looked around. She expected Ruby, but it was her boss. She straightened, trying not to look as if he’d just found her slacking while on the clock. “Hello, Mr. Crowley.”
He gave her his usual empty smile. On any other day, he would have checked out her chest or legs and moved on. But he wasn’t leaving her alone this time. “Good. We need to talk.”
“Is this about Pete? I—”
“Pete? Who’s that?”
“He’s a regular,” Harper said. “He drinks a lot, and we don’t serve him after a certain point, but he was pre-gaming somewhere else, so when he got here—”
“I don’t care about that,” Mr. Crowley said, waving his hand. “Harper, I just spoke to a woman outside. She was on the curb, sobbing. She claims you stole something from her.”
“I — what?”
He nodded. “I told her that my employees are of the highest standard and can be trusted. Yet, she was distraught enough to threaten to call the police. She said she showed you a family heirloom, and you took it.”
“That’s… that’s ridiculous,” Harper said. “She’s a liar! Mr. Crowley, that’s stupid. Was she short? Long brown hair? Looked too young to drink?”
“She was just in here,” Harper said. “She threatened me. She said… I can’t remember the exact words, but something about the hard way. She’s been stalking me or having someone else stalk me, I’m not sure, but—”
“Calm down,” he said. “I trust you, Harper.”
She didn’t believe that for one second. She’d worked there for over a year, and he couldn’t remember her name.
“You do understand that my business is on the line,” he continued. “My reputation, I should say. I’ve risked it on you.”
“I appreciate it,” Harper said. “I would never steal from a customer. Or anyone.”
“Of course not; I told her as much and convince her not to call the police.” He patted the side of her pants. “But I need you to turn out your pockets.”
Harper straightened even further. “I’m sorry, what?”
“It’s a formality, that’s all.”
Shaking her head, furious all over again, Harper reached into her pocket. When her hand touched cold metal, her heart sank. She wrapped her fingers around an oval-shaped-something and brought it out. “I don’t know what this is.”
He looked at her, unblinking. “Harper, I have to let you go.”
“I didn’t take it,” she said. She looked down at her palm, the brooch feeling hot and heavy. “I didn’t. She — she planted it somehow.”
Mr. Crowley gave her a skeptical look. “She somehow sneaked that piece of jewelry into your pocket without you realizing?”
Harper looked at the floor. “I can’t explain it. But she did it.”
“You’re fired,” Mr. Crowley reiterated, walking toward the door. “Go home, Harper, and be thankful that I’m not reporting this to her or the police.”
“I need this job,” she told him. She remembered what Chloe said then, about Afterlife. She felt a flash of anger toward the woman, Alec, and Afterlife as a whole. “I’ve got rent due and—”
“For that, maybe we can work something out,” he told her, then took a step closer, then another. Soon, he was only a few inches away, and she could smell his breath. He’d had onions for dinner.
“Dan,” he told her.
He silenced her with a kiss. For a moment, it surprised her enough that she didn’t react. Then she gasped, revolted, and shoved him away, hard. Before he could speak, she bolted past him.
Ruby was at the almost empty bar. She looked alarmed. “Harper? Are you all right?”
“He fired me,” Harper said. She felt sick. “I’m going home. Make sure — look, Eric needs his last drink. The usual.”
Ruby nodded, then opened her mouth to speak again. Harper knew she had questions, but she didn’t want to answer any of them. She couldn’t deal with this. She left the bar and let the door slam shut behind her.