'Twas the day before Easter
I'm not a huge fan of Minnesota. I don't dislike it, I just don't see any reason to go there. But my girlfriend Carley is from Minneapolis and her family was having a big reunion. When she begged me to go along, I couldn't say no, could I? So, on this Saturday morning in late March, I drove Carley and two of her female cousins through a thin, freezing rain to the Mall of America. Big fun for them, boring as crap for me.
While Carley and her cousins plundered Nordstrom's, I sat my ass in a padded chair near the north entrance to the indoor Nickelodeon theme park, trying my best to tune out the racket. I was scrolling around on Facebook with my tablet computer when a man sat down to my right. I noticed, with some amusement, that he wasn't wearing socks under his sneakers. It was 34 degrees and raining outside and this guy wasn't wearing socks? I checked him out more closely. He was an average-looking young white guy, wearing a brown rain-proof jacket and jeans. There was an ordinary backpack on the floor next to him. He looked right and left, then nodded. Who was he nodding to? Himself?
About 30 feet away, another young man stood against a tropical planter, alone. He was wearing a gray ski jacket, jeans and sneakers. There was a backpack on the floor next to him.
And he wasn't wearing socks.
Before starting on this little Midwest adventure, I'd done some homework. The Mall of America employs "Behavior Detection Officers" who, according to their website, are trained to spot criminals and terrorists. They've trained in Israel with people who live with terrorism on a daily basis. I haven't trained in Israel, but I've read three or four books on how Israeli anti-terror forces operate. One of the things they discussed was the way Islamic terrorists prefer to die barefoot. It has something to do with their interpretation of Islam. It doesn't take much time to slip out of your shoes, but getting a pair of socks off in public without someone spotting you, figuring out what you're up to and shooting you in the head is much more difficult. Terrorists used to arrive at their target area sockless and kick off their shoes just before blowing themselves up or blasting away with a machinegun. They quit doing that when Israelis started shooting them. This is well known in Israel, but certainly not in Minnesota. Were these two men terrorists?
Backpacks: Both were the same size. They were big enough to hold folding-stock rifles and lots of magazines. No way I could tell how heavy they were, but they didn't have that soft, lightweight, innocent-student look. Gray-jacket checked his watch. Hadn't he just done that a minute ago? Was he impatient, waiting for his girlfriend? Or was he on a timetable?
I pocketed my tablet and casually walked to a support column where I could watch both men. I dug out my phone and sent a text to Carley. Something funny going on out here. Stay in there. Back of store best.
She texted back: WTF?
Just do it, I answered. Trust me.
Gun control laws in Minnesota make as much sense as they do in most states, which is to say, damn little. My Florida concealed carry permit wasn't recognized in Minnesota, but packing without a permit is a misdemeanor there. They'll throw you in jail in New York or New Jersey or Maryland or Illinois or D.C. and I won't go to those places at all. In Minnesota, I was willing to take my chances. Under my windbreaker, I had a 9mm Springfield Armory XDm pistol holding 20 rounds of high-velocity hollow-point ammunition. I'd installed a set of high-visibility sights and some aftermarket internal parts to smooth out the trigger pull. The gun was very accurate, very reliable, very easy to hit with and held a shitload of ammo.
To my left, Gray-jacket checked his watch again. I wanted to scan for other possible terrorists, but I didn't dare take my eyes off these two. Gray-jacket was staring at his watch. Was he waiting for the second hand to reach 12? Brown-jacket was watching him intently. Oh, crap, this wasn't looking good at all and I had no time to call for help. Things were about to get really noisy. I slipped a pair of ear plugs out of my pocket and inserted them.
Gray-jacket nodded sharply, unzipped his backpack and kicked off his right shoe. To my right, Brown-jacket was doing the same. Gray-jacket kicked off his left shoe and reached into his backpack. He yanked out a folding-stock AK-47 and was inserting a magazine when I fired my first shot. The range was less than 20 feet and my aiming point was his right eye. A jet of pink mist exploded out of his face and I swung my sights to where Brown-jacket was sitting. There was a rifle in his hands and his head was turned toward me, his mouth wide with shock. A hole appeared in his upper lip and a spray of red painted the potted plant behind him. That's two.
Screams and the chatter of automatic weapons fire erupted from around the corner in the direction of the rotunda. I holstered my pistol - no use contributing to the panic by running around with a gun in my hand - and fought my way east through the frantic crowd, past the entrance to Sears. The crowd had thinned out by the time I got to the corner and turned right toward the rotunda, but I couldn't see shit. What the hell are you doing?, I thought. Running toward the sound of gunfire? You're not a cop! Go find Carley! I ignored the voice and moved to my left.
A barefoot gunman was firing short bursts into the Barnes & Noble. He kept moving around, making him a difficult target, but I managed to get off a shot when he paused for a second. I saw the fabric of his jacket jump from the impact of the bullet; the shot was low and to the right, through the kidneys if I was lucky. He shrieked, dropped his rifle and clutched his at lower back with both hands. I scrambled forward and shot him through the temple. That's three.
Peeking around a big decorative planter, I saw another barefoot terrorist shooting at people cowering on the escalator. He spotted me at the same instant and triggered off a hasty burst that hit the floor between us. Suddenly, I was on the floor, on my right side. Then he was aiming at me and I was firing, struggling to keep the sights on him as the pistol jerked in my hands. He fell and I had a brief moment of relative calm before a howling tsunami of terrified shoppers poured out of Bloomingdale's and Old Navy and washed over me. I caught a glimpse of a cowboy boot and then stars and darkness.
The darkness was nice. It was quiet and peaceful. I was comfortable down there in the dark. But a hint of soft light intruded through my eyelids. I wanted the damned light to go away. I wanted to drop back into the darkness where it was safe.
There was a muffled voice I didn't recognize. A faint laugh. Something thumped in the distance. Leave me alone!
My right eye opened. I was lying on my back in a dimly-lighted room which seemed to be spinning slowly. There was a door to my right and an IV in the back of my right wrist. A pulse-ox monitor was clipped to my index finger. So, I was in a hospital bed. Alive. I didn't have a tube down my throat, which meant I probably wasn't going to die anytime soon. Cautiously, I wiggled my fingers and toes and stretched my arms and legs. Everything moved, but I felt sore here and there and my right thigh was one dull, massive ache. My head hurt.
I opened my left eye. Carley was snoozing in a chair next to my bed. It was night outside the window behind her. I was very happy to see her.
I tried to speak and only managed a gassy croak. Carley opened her eyes and smiled. "Welcome back," she said.
I cleared my throat. "Goddamn, it's good to see you. Did you get hurt at all?"
"No. It was scary as hell, but we hid in a storage room until the cops found us. They had you evacuated by then. I used the GPS tracking app on my phone to find you." She held my hand. "You were in surgery when I got here. They dug a bullet out of your leg and drilled a hole in your head. You had a bad concussion from being trampled. You're going to be okay."
"Good to know. I was shot?"
"Yeah. Your doctor said it was a ricochet; hit you going sideways and tore a nasty hole in your thigh. Shouldn't be any permanent damage." She held a cup of water with a straw sticking out the top to my lips and I took a sip.
I looked around, causing the room to spin faster. "What time is it? How long have I been here?"
Carley looked at her watch. "It's almost 8:00. They brought you in about noon and you were in the O.R. for quite a while. Actually, you were in for the concussion and then again for the bullet wound." Carley started to cry. "Goddamnit! You almost got killed! I never would have forgiven you, you dumb son-of-a-bitch!"
I squeezed her hand. "Sorry. It seemed like a good idea at the time."
"It was a good idea," said a voice from the doorway. "You saved a hell of a lot of lives today." The voice came from a tall, good looking woman in a dark business suit with a miniature gold badge pinned to the lapel. She walked to my bedside and stood with her hands on the bed rail. "I'm Captain Jan VanderVoort with the Minnesota State Police." She smiled down at me. "And you're the biggest damn hero in the history of the state."
The overhead lights came on and a short man with a stethoscope around his neck pushed past the cop. "I'm Doctor Lindell. How're you feeling?"
"Like there's an elephant sitting on my leg," I said. "I'm pretty dizzy and my head feels two sizes too big." I explored with my left hand. I was wearing what felt like a turban. "Carley says you drilled a hole up there somewhere?"
"Yep! You got run over by the mob. You have a magnificent collection of bruises and at least three people kicked you in the head. We had to relieve pressure on your brain and the best way is to drill right in there and let it out. You seem to be tracking okay and your speech and word choice are normal. You'll have some disorientation for a day or three, but I'd say you're gonna be just fine. Once your hair grows back, there won't be any sign that you were hurt." Dr. Lindell used his stethoscope to check my heart and lungs, maneuvering around the 12-lead ECG wires attached to my torso. He shined a light in my eyes and had me stick out my tongue. "Your thigh was kinda messed up by the bullet. Lots of bleeding, but no arteries hit. It's gonna be stiff for a while and your future as a marathoner, assuming you had one to start with, is in doubt, but some physical therapy and exercise and you should be back to normal by June. Oh, while I'm thinking about it …" He reached into his pocket and handed me a small clear plastic bag. "Here's a souvenir. That's the bullet. Thought you might want it."
"Thanks, I think." I took the bag and peered at the misshapen hunk of copper and lead. I've fired a few thousand of the things through my SKS carbine at the range. The SKS uses the same cartridge as the AK-47. The bullet didn't look all that impressive.
Dr. Lindell pointed at Carley. "You can stay as long as you like. If he wants to sleep, let him." He pointed at the cop. "You have ten minutes. No more." He walked out, flipping off the lights as he went.
Captain VanderVort put her hand on my shoulder. "Just so you know," she said, "there isn't a chance in hell that anyone will ever charge you with any crime in the state of Minnesota." She pronounced it, "Minasoooda". "We know you were carrying a concealed weapon without a valid permit and we don't care. You didn't shoot anyone who didn't deserve it. We're pretty positive the two bastards you shot outside Nickelodeon planned to go in there and murder every child and mother they could. Each of them had 15 loaded 30-round magazines. It would have been a slaughterhouse." She gripped my upper arm. "My daughter and her five year old twins were in there. They're all safe. Thanks to you."
"You're welcome. How many victims? How many shooters? I haven't exactly been following the news."
"We have eighteen dead and several in critical condition. Total of thirty-nine wounded. There were six shooters; four you know about and two more just inside the main entrance. Our working theory is that the four inside were going to kill as many as they could and create chaos, a wall of targets for the two in front." She smiled a hard smile. "What they didn't plan on were the two off-duty Minneapolis S.W.A.T. team members who were waiting for their wives near the front doors. Those guys never go anywhere unarmed. They shot down the two bad guys before they could do very much damage. The mall has terrific closed-circuit coverage. We have excellent video of all the terrorists and the way you and the MPD boys took them out." She squeezed my arm again. "As I said before, you're the biggest hero in Minnesota history. I have to ask; why did you have earplugs with you?"
Carley laughed. "Movie trailers. We were going to a movie after supper and Jack hates the loud previews and ads they play before the show. He always bitches about it. It's kind of a ritual with him. He keeps earplugs in his pocket and makes a big production out of putting them in. Sort of a running joke."
Captain VanderVort chuckled. "I never would have guessed. I know what you mean, though. They can be pretty loud. Anyhow, the video tells the story, except for one thing; what tipped you off? Those men looked perfectly normal. What made you suspicious?"
"No socks." I explained why the lack of socks got my attention. "If it hadn't been for their bare ankles and my reading about terrorism in Israel, I wouldn't have noticed them at all. Terrorists in Israel stopped doing that in the '90s when word got around and Israelis started looking for it. Big red flag over there. Totally unknown over here."
"Not for long," she said. "I'll make sure of that." She touched my cheek. "You get some rest, buddy. I've got two of my people right outside. No reporters are gonna get in. Nobody's gonna take a cell phone video of you. You take it easy and heal up."
When Carley and I were alone, she bent to kiss me. "Yuck. Your breath smells like something that fell out the back end of a pig." She kissed me again. "I'll see what I can do about a toothbrush and toothpaste. Do you need anything else?"
"Maybe some more water." I took a long drink. "Think I'll close my eyes for a while. Kinda sleepy for some reason." With Carley holding my hand, I drifted away, down into the peaceful darkness.