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 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 closed his eyes for a moment, then 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.
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 my own avcice 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.
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?”