The sign read PRIVATE PROPERTY -- NO TRESPASSING in red letters atop a six-foot-tall pole. As Gino walked past, he slapped it loudly with one hand and then clutched his eye, moaning and staggering to the side as though he’d run face-first into it.
The half dozen 11-year-olds trailing behind him in their orange vests and khaki scout uniforms surged forward, making sounds of concern. “You okay, Uncle Gino?” asked his nephew, Mark.
Gino let his hand fall to his side with a sly grin. The kids laughed ruefully and walked on, following him into the open grassy field beyond.
Only Mark looked back and reread the sign, his brow furrowed. That kid might be too smart for his own good thought Gino.
“You sure this is okay?” asked Mark for the third time.
“Are you sure you’re allowed to have that BB gun?” fired back Gino.
Mark flushed and looked down at his feet as he kept walking. All the boys had air rifles slung on straps over their shoulders or behind their backs. New Jersey law said nobody under 18 was supposed to carry even BB guns without a firearm license. That didn’t stop older brothers, cousins, or friends from lending them out freely for target practice on soda cans and squirrels in alleyways and backyards. Gino carried two rifles himself, along with a plastic jar of 6,000 pellets he’d bought on Amazon for just $8.
“Lighten up, kiddo,” said Gino, not wanting to kill the mood. “I cleared this trip with the property owners. There aren’t many places in central Jersey with enough wildlife for you boys to earn your hunting badges. It was either this or take you to a strip mall and let you take potshots at New Yorkers.”
The boys trudged on, excited by the prospect of using the guns they carried. Mark still looked unsure.
Oh well, you can’t win them all, especially since the kid was right to be skeptical.
The sun coming up over the horizon lit the grassy field. Gino held up an arm to shield his eyes. Long green stalks tipped with purple flowers waved gently in the spring breeze. He could hear the twitter of bird song and remembered why he was dragging the kids out here in the first place.
Tony sat behind a metal desk in a non-descript office above a run-down barbershop in Trenton. He kept pecking away on a small laptop, ignoring Gino, who had been standing in front of him for at least five minutes. Gino cleared his throat again. Tony typed a few more words, clicked something with his mouse, and finally looked up.
“So Gino, what brings you in today?”
Gino’s palms were sweating. He restrained an urge to rub them against his pants. “Tony, I’m grateful for all the work you’ve thrown my way over the past couple of years. But I’m falling behind on some payments, and I was wondering if there was any way…” He let the words trail off. They both knew why he was here. Making him ask, making him sweat was just another way to show who held all the power.
“I might have something. It’s a little more delicate than your usual.”
“I can be delicate.”
“Also a bit of a rush job. What are you doing tomorrow? Early morning, like?”
“Saturday? I’m taking my nephew’s boy scout troop out for a hike.”
Tony’s eyes widened. His face broke into a smile. When he laughed out loud, Gino chuckled weakly along with him. “Well, Gino. I guess you get to kill two birds with one stone.”
Gino pulled out his phone and poked at the text message that Tony had sent him again. It contained only the address of this field and an image file. He opened it and stared down at the picture of a small gray bird resting on a scrubby bush. He took a deep breath through his nose and let it out explosively.
He stopped, turning to the boys and holding out his phone with the picture. “Okay, fellas, here’s your target. You bag one; you get your badge. Now spread out. We’ll meet back at that sign in an hour to head home.”
The boys took turns staring at the photo of the tiny bird. When nobody rushed off to hunt, Gino figured he better spur them on. “Hey, you wanna win this thing or not? Clock is ticking. And I’m hunting too. Every bird I get is one less target for you all.”
Finally, everyone took off in different directions, eyes peeled and guns loaded. Gino just stood there, still staring into the rising sun. In a few hours, when the blinding light wasn’t blocking his view, he knew he’d see the looming oil refineries and squat chemical holding tanks in the distance.
Just because he was desperate didn’t mean he was stupid. He’d Googled the address Tony gave him the moment he left the office. A bunch of news articles popped up about an oil pipeline being built through the property. The most recent one mentioned that someone had claimed to see an endangered bird with a stupid name nesting nearby. A pygmy titmouse or some shit. Not that it mattered. Gino knew his job was to make sure it wasn’t here anyway.
He glanced around. Most of the boys had wandered far enough to be dots on the horizon, staying low and creeping through the waist-high grass. The only one he could still see was Mark, who had made it maybe 50 yards and stopped, his gun still slung over his shoulder. Gino trudged over to him, not bothering to step softly.
Mark spoke first when Gino got closer. “There’s no such thing as a hunting badge.”
“What? Course there is. Who’s the troop leader here, me or you?”
“I looked it up, Uncle Gino.”
Too damn smart. “Yeah, well, maybe I just remembered it from when I was your age. I’m pretty sure I got a hunting badge.” Gino scuffed at the ground with the toe of his hiking boot. “If it turns out you’re right, I’ll buy the guys some ice cream and make it up to them with another trip.”
He heard twittering and finally stopped staring at Mark’s back and turned his gaze to match where Mark was looking. Sitting atop one of the low-slung shrubs was a tiny ball of feathers no taller than his thumb. He slowly eased one of his air rifles down from his shoulder. Closing one eye, he lifted the gun to sight on the bird.
It hopped back and forth a few times, and Gino realized that the bundle of dead branches beside it was a minuscule nest.
“You going to shoot it?” asked Mark in a whisper.
Gino flipped off the safety as he settled his breathing.
“What about the babies?” asked Mark, barely breathing out the words.
Gino moved his gunsight over a hair, using the magnification to look at the next. Just above the rim, he could see a couple of tiny beaks bobbing up and down. The mother hopped onto the edge of the nest and stuck her head down towards her babies.
Gino hesitated, then clicked the safety back on and lowered the gun. “Shit,” he said, not bothering to whisper.
Mark shuffled closer to him. “There’s a badge for bird watching, Uncle Gino. I looked it up.”
Huffing a small laugh, Gino put his hand on his nephew’s shoulder. “How about we don’t say anything about seeing this one, huh?”
“What about the rest of the troop? I haven’t heard any shots yet.”
“I guess today’s just not our day. Tell the boys if we head out now, I’ll take ‘em to Denny’s on the way back.” His wallet could spare that much.
He thought about what to tell Tony. The boys would back him up, right? It seemed like nobody spotted it except Mark and him.
“Yeah, I can do that,” said Mark, rushing off towards the rising sun.
Oblivious to the conversation, the bird continued to feed breakfast to its babies.