The Player in New Zealand
I’d been around enough bars in the wee hours of the morning to know who was going to be trouble. The group in the back corner, the guys who had been loud, rowdy, and chugging beers all night: they were where I put my money.
Granted, this was a touristy area of Wellington, New Zealand, and a nice bar, the nicest I’d ever worked at. I pulled glasses from the dishwasher and dried them off while the warm wooden wall behind me glowed. The long planks of decorative wood, varnished and gleaming, reflected the tea lights interspersed along the wall. The lights, though electric, were the kind that flickered and impersonated real flames. Paired with the Edison bulbs suspended from the high ceiling and the dark leather of the benches and chairs, the atmosphere here was cozy and inviting.
About half a dozen groups were left and, it being Tuesday evening—I checked my watch. Nope, Wednesday morning—the people here weren’t the ones with a lot of responsibilities. Most of the locals had gone home: married people with better things to do than stay out too late, parents with kids who had a babysitter to relieve, or anyone with a respectable job who had to be up in the morning.
Aside from the tourists, mostly obvious from their accents, there was a couple in the darkest back corner, two men. Maybe they were up to something under the table, but that wasn’t my place to judge. As long as I was spared an eyeful of private parts, they could go nuts.
There was a cluster of guys a bit younger than I was—in their early twenties—off to one side of the bar. Ties loosened, sleeves rolled up, they were cocky and confident. My eyes met those of one of the guys as I looked over at their tabletop. They were about due for another round.
He came to the same decision and sauntered over.
“Another round, please,” he said, leaning over the bar and giving me a grin. I confirmed the group’s beer of choice and pulled from the taps.
“So you’re American?” he said, watching me.
I smiled at the beer. “I am.”
“How are you liking Welly so far?”
“It’s good. I’ve only been here a couple weeks.” I straightened the third beer and placed it in front of him.
A shout came up that pulled my attention to the group that had worried me. One of the guys gestured, eyes wide, palms spread. “. . . and they couldn’t catch that hooker. It was complete domination.”
I had thought that was a sports conversation, not prostitutes and BDSM. But whatever it was, the guys leaned in and their tone dropped and I couldn’t hear their responses.
I dragged my gaze back in time to avoid spilling the next beer, and caught the tail end of what this guy was saying to me.
“. . . can show you around?”
I started the next beer. “Thanks, but I’ve got a pretty weird schedule. Work most nights, you know.” I smiled ruefully. He was cute, clean-cut, the kind of guy my sister would like. I didn’t think I really had a type of my own, but with my tattoos, I seemed to attract this type of guy.
Case in point, his gaze traveled down my face. “I like your nose piercing.” He tapped the right side of his nose, where I had a small stud on mine.
“Thanks,” I said as brusquely as I thought I could get away with without being rude. I gave him the price for the beers and he handed me his card. When I finished with it, he shoved it into his pocket and picked up all four beers, two in each hand between fingers stretched wide.
“Cheers.” He nodded and winked at me, and I sighed in my head. If I were just another patron, I might tell him to fuck off. But on the job, I had to bite my tongue.
That group in the back was still laughing and joking. They were a smattering of guys in polo shirts and shorts, most of them broad-shouldered and tall, crowded around a booth. The ages ranged from guys my age, still looking smooth and polished in their twenties, to a few older men with beer guts and thinning hair. Their skin came in a variety of shades, a few of them white with rosy cheeks and sunburns, a few of them with tanned skin, dark hair and eyes. Most of them had tribal tattoos peeking out on arms and thighs.
My boss was Māori, and I’d guess some of these guys were too.
And they were huge. All of them. If I were back in Boston, I’d say these guys were linebackers. But here in New Zealand, American football was scoffed at.
Helmets! Pads! Weak as!
Kiwis had a charming habit of dropping half of the comparison: This beer is cold as. That girl is hot as. Cold as what? Hot as what? The world would never know.
While I had picked up on that linguistic trick, I didn’t know what sport was popular around here—between jet lag and job interviews, I’d barely even hung out with other tourists at the hostel.
Then the chanting started. “Oi, oi, oi, oi, oi . . .” Fists pounded the table as they got louder and louder. I glanced over at the bouncer, Ron, seated on a stool at the door, too busy typing into his phone. He glanced up and caught my eye. I flicked my gaze to the rowdy group.
He rolled his eyes. Harmless, he mouthed.
I sighed and wiped the top of the bar with a rag. The glass doors overlooking the back deck opened, and a group of middle-aged women came in. Behind them I saw Nina, my manager and the owner of the bar, wiping down tables and putting the chairs back where they belonged under the lights strung up across the yard. That must be the last of the guests outside, so Nina would finish up out there and then relieve me at the bar so I could check out and go home.
“Have a good night,” I called out to the group as they passed the bar.
As the ladies strolled past, the crowd of burly men parted and I locked eyes with one of them. He had to be the biggest in the group and he was coming this way. He passed the young business guys and literally stood a head taller than them. As if his height weren’t enough, he was broad across the shoulders and all the way down to his thick thighs. The shirt he wore strained at the waist, and the shorts—as was popular in New Zealand—were a touch too short for my American sensibilities.
He also stumbled and blinked. When he paused for a moment just past the group, one of the guys back in the booth called out to him, “Hey, mate, get the shout!”
I expected him to beeline for the counter, but he swerved instead, walking alongside the bar. I glanced at Ron—preoccupied—and followed this beast of a man.
When I realized what he was going for, my stomach dropped.
He got the pass-through open two inches before I slapped my hand down on it. The resulting crack echoed around the room and conversation dipped.
“Sir, you can’t come back here,” I said. I could have said it more politely, but it was the end of my shift and I doubted this guy was going to back down easily. There was a time and a place for pasting on a smile and bullshitting people, and this was not it.
Though I did smile. Poorly.
Shock passed over his features first. His eyes were dark brown, almost impossible to differentiate from his pupils. His nose was bent and bumped, crooked from a fight or two in his past.
Then his eyes narrowed. I narrowed mine right back. Even at my height—five foot ten, add another two for my boots—I was tilting my chin way up to look at him. It just meant I had to glare harder.
His hand snaked under the bridge, but he maintained eye contact with me as if daring me to protest again. The wood wiggled as he pressed up. I slammed down again with both hands this time, pretty sure that if he decided to use his two giant paws, I’d be screwed. “Sir”—I gritted my teeth—“you can’t come back here.”
The whole group of men was behind him now. I didn’t know which one of the dumbasses in the back started laughing, but soon they all roared at us. This guy’s brown skin flushed with embarrassment, a scowl inverting his mouth.
“She’s a twig. You gonna let her tell you what for, mate?” someone goaded him.
“Don’t stand between him and his beer, sweetheart.”
The pass-through slammed open and I snatched my hands back just in time to keep them from getting smashed.
I stepped forward, shouting for Ron.
“You!” Mr. Big and Tattooed pointed a finger in my face.
“Bloody Americans,” someone muttered.
I took a step toward the man as he tried to crowd into my bar. “Sir—”
He stood toe-to-toe with me. “Don’t you know who I am? You want to lose your fucking job?”
“Why you importing them anyway, Tane? Hire a proper fucking Kiwi,” someone in the back whined. Beyond the group, I caught a glance of Ron trying to push through to me.
Before I could make a retort, the Hulk leaned down to my level. “I’m your fucking boss. Get the hell out of my bar.”
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