Just like every other place in Vegas, Afterlife took just under forty-five minutes to get to. The traffic was fine, but there was road work. There was always road work.
She thought about Scotch, Neat. She wasn't sure what Chloe knew about him, but she'd find out. How had he found her apartment? And why was he there at all? How did he relate to the fire at Patrick's?
She couldn't find parking at the club, so she left her car two blocks away and walked to the line outside the doors. She took out Chloe's card, the one with the number on the back, and wondered if she should try calling or texting. Get ahead of the crowd.
In the end, Harper waited with the others in line. A skinny man with glasses and expensive shoes was checking IDs. She watched as he turned away two men in ripped jeans and scuffed sneakers. They argued until a larger bouncer appeared.
When it was her turn, she offered her license, which he gave a brief look. He gave her outfit a nod of approval, then extended a hand. "Twenty dollars. We have a card reader."
Harper's smile was forced. "The owner invited me; she waived the fee."
His voice was skeptical. "Uh-huh. Which one?"
"Uh, Chloe. Here…" She offered out the card. "She gave me this. Short, long brown hair, very young-looking."
"Cool," he told her.
Harper held out a hand, and he marked her wrist with ink that she couldn't see unless she held it up to the blacklight. It was a neon red cross.
"I appreciate it," she told him.
Harper moved past him, surprised that worked. She'd half-expected him to send her away, told that Chloe was a figment of her imagination or that knowing the owner's name didn't get her out of paying.
Inside, neon lights flashed across the dance floor, illuminating those on the dance floor in choppy flashes of color.
The music was loud, the crowd louder. She saw laughter, flirting, nervous looks, and scantily clad men and women grinding against each other with their drinks in hand.
Chloe had mentioned live bands, but there was none playing tonight. She only saw a short DJ with dreadlocks and a beanie. Though he wore clothing that would have gotten anyone else turned away at the door, she could tell he'd spent quite a bit of money on the tattered tennis shoes and baggy jeans. There was a gaggle of women trying to speak to him, and he winked at them and laughed.
Harper headed toward the bar. A good-looking man stepped right in her path, flashing her a smile. His hair was curly and black, his eyes a rich chocolate.
"Hello there." His voice was a pleasant tenor. "I haven't seen you here before."
Harper rolled her eyes, stepping to the side of him. "Maybe try something a bit less cheesy."
"Yeah, that was pretty bad, wasn't it?"
"Not getting any better," Harper said. "Why are you in my way?"
"I was hoping for your name."
He smiled again. But something was off about it. It might have been the way he caught her eye and moved with her, step for step, stopping her path to the bar. "Come on; I know everyone here. You're not a regular."
"You know everyone," she repeated. "All… two hundred people."
"Three hundred," he said. "Yeah, I'm here a lot."
"Good for you."
He reached out and touched her wrist. It was light, only for a second, but it felt warm, wonderful. She relaxed.
"I'm Conner," he said.
She studied him, that warm feeling spreading down her arm, into her chest. He wasn't bulked out, but he had a lean, muscular build. Those dark curls. Straight, white teeth. He was almost too handsome.
At the thought, a chill swept over her.
"You okay?" he asked. "You were going to tell me your name."
"Harper," she offered. She blinked at him, fighting the now warming feeling. "I need a drink, Conner, that's all. A screwdriver. Yeah."
He nodded and turned to slip into the crowd. "Coming right up. Stay here, all right?"
The moment he was out of sight, Harper looked around for the ladies' room. She needed to lose herself, and fast. She didn't trust Conner any more than Scotch, Neat, but his natural confidence was easy to get lost in.
The bathroom was crowded too, but most of the women weren't in line for a stall. They just wanted to chat under the fluorescent lights while fixing their lipstick. Harper went to a stall, sat down, and breathed in. The stupid man was cheesy, but there was no reason to assume something was wrong with him. She was being paranoid again.
But she had reasons, didn't she? Patrick's burning down. The unmarried collector of goods coming to look for her. Chloe and her threats. Harper slipped her phone out and checked her messages. Brittney hadn't messaged back, and she felt a stab of loneliness.
After a few minutes, Harper got up and left the bathroom. She walked toward the bar again, this time not stopping to chat with anyone who moved in her way. The bartender was tall, tattooed, and muscled. She went straight to him.
"Hi, can I get a screwdriver?"
"You look like you could use a double."
"It's been a long day," she told him.
He laughed and grabbed a glass, adding some ice to it. She watched him prepare the vodka and orange juice and nodded her approval. When he slid it in front of her, she took a sip. "Damn, you hit the level perfect."
"It's an easy drink," he told her, laughing.
"For some, sure, but the bartender I used to work with, she never added the right amount of ice to offset the orange," Harper said.
He leaned against the counter, comfortable and amused. "Yeah? I used to have that problem until we switched to these fancy crushed cubes, so they hit the juice faster."
"Plus, they make it easier to gauge ice levels," Harper pointed out. "You're not losing space."
"So, a long day, huh?"
Harper nodded, glad she'd played the conversation right. "Yeah, and not great. I was trying to lookup an old friend and couldn't find her. Sucks, I don't know many people in Las Vegas, and I hoped to have at least one familiar face."
"You're new here, huh? I would have taken you for a local," he said.
Harper wasn't the best liar.
"Well, that's just because I have a native-Vegas look," Harper said, lowering her voice. "But that's because I was born here, didn't move away until I was nine. This is my first time back since."
"Well, welcome home," he told her. "I'm born and bred Vegas myself. Maybe I can help you find your friend? What's her name?"
Harper opened her mouth, then snapped it closed when she saw a familiar face over the bartender's shoulder. She ducked down a bit, her heart racing. She'd seen Chloe.
"Fine," Harper said. She shifted, peering around him to glance at Chloe. She couldn't hear what she was saying, but the woman was animated in her conversation, throwing her hands up every few seconds and rolling her eyes.
Then Harper realized who she was talking to. Conner. The handsome man who'd asked her name, now equipped with a half-drank screwdriver in hand. He looked amused at whatever Chloe was going on about, tilting his head back to laugh. Chloe punched him in the chest and laughed too.
The bartender was still talking to her, but she ignored him, stepping away from the bar. She left her drink behind. It was only a prop anyway, something she'd ordered to get information.
She took a deep breath, determined to get answers. She strode toward them, but someone knocked into her, and she almost lost her footing as a cold cup of red liquor splashed across her. She cried out in surprise, but the sound was lost in the club noise.
"Oh my god! I'm so sorry. I'm such a klutz, your poor shirt! That's going to stain, oh no. You should put it in cold water — what am I saying? You should let me pay to dry clean it. Can I give you my number? Text me, and I'll pay you."
Harper shook her head as the mixed drank soaked into her shirt. She didn't want to look down at the damage but did anyway. She was as messy as she felt.
"I'm sorry," the girl said again.
"No, it's fine," Harper told her. "I should have been watching better. Look, don't worry about it. I need to go clean this up."
Harper stepped around her, toward the bathroom. But she wavered, looking back toward Chloe and Conner again. She didn't want to lose them. And what did it matter if there was a stain on her shirt? She wasn't trying to impress them.
As she walked toward them once more, another man approached the pair. She didn't know him either, but there was a vague familiarity about him. He was of average height, average build, with long blond hair tied back in a ponytail. She saw him turn his head, and his eyes were a brilliant shade of green.
Her mouth was open. Harper snapped it shut, but she couldn't deny the immediate attraction she'd felt. He looked confident and casual in a faded t-shirt and jeans. As she stared at him, he said something to Conner, who then clapped him on the back, laughing again.
Chloe chimed in, twirling around to look over the club floor. Harper stepped behind someone taller than she, hoping she hadn't been spotted. When she dared look back at the trio, they were walking toward the backlit VIP area.
"Not a chance in hell," Harper said, deciding right then that she wasn't giving them the chance to lose her. She set off to follow, avoiding anyone who might offer her a drink or spill their own on her.
She passed by a group of tables, pausing only to snatch a shot glass off an empty one. It was half-full of a red liquor she recognized as cinnamon whiskey. She gulped it down, winced at the burn, then continued, fueled by the drink. If only Bill could see her now.
Near the back, the VIP area was sectioned off by a velvet rope and monitored by a tall, black security guard. She flashed him the stamp on her wrist, and he nodded, stepping aside to let her in. The area was dimly lit, with comfortable seating, more intimate tables, and servers who weaved in and out of the few patrons, balancing drinks that were most likely higher-shelf quality than Harper would have poured for anyone at Patrick's.
Harper didn't see Chloe, Conner, or the blond man. She frowned, meandering so she could look at each table. After a few minutes, she stopped and considered. They couldn't have disappeared into thin air.
Someone tapped her shoulder, and Harper whipped around to see a scantily clad woman smiling at her. "You could use a drink."
"I could," Harper agreed. "But right now, I need something else. I'm looking for someone — three someones, actually. They're—"
"They're right through there," the woman said, smiling. She handed Harper a water bottle and pointed at a tall door that seemed to blend into the wall until pointed out.
"Oh, thanks," Harper said. She stared at the water, then realized how thirsty she was. She uncapped the bottle, drank half of it at once, then capped it, set it on someone else's table, and went to the door. She reached out, touched the knob tentatively, then shrugged and took hold of it. She thought it would be locked, but it turned in her hand.
It was too late to go back now, she realized. So with a deep breath of commitment, she yanked the door open, narrowed her eyes, and stepped inside.