“Could have been anyone yanking on doors, looking for a place to hide,” added one of the county investigators.
“Yes,” agreed North. “Video will tell us if it was him.”
Or terrified bystanders searching for cover.
The men moved in silence, and Zander noticed that the group was exclusively male. How did that happen? He worked with a large number of female agents every day. This group almost felt like the good ol’ boys’ club. Was it simply coincidence? He noticed the forensics teams were pretty evenly split.
They paused at a children’s play area in the center of the walkway. Zander nearly stumbled as he stepped onto the brightly colored flooring around the jungle gym and slide. It was spongy under his feet. He watched one of the county investigators step on it and bounce to test the cushion of the flooring. It made sense. The mall couldn’t have kids toppling off the bars and cracking their skulls on the concrete. No doubt the mall didn’t want shooters, either, but they couldn’t protect against that.
No one said a word at the play area. Zander avoided looking at the turquoise-and-red equipment, choosing to study the men’s expressions and take in the anger and relief that they couldn’t hide. How many of them are fathers? No children had been hurt—this time. The mass shooting in Eugene in June had injured two children and left four adults dead.
At a large intersection in the mall, North stopped. “This is where Misty Helm was standing when she was shot in the leg. She was the first injured.” He pointed at dried brown blood sprays on the walkway’s concrete. Arterial spray. The evidence techs had already finished with the area, but it was still cordoned off. A dark smeared path from the initial blood patterns led across the walkway to a nearby kiosk.
“The woman was talking to an FBI agent at the time she was shot. The agent got a tourniquet on her leg and dragged her to safety, where they waited until the shooter was dead.”
Zander’s stomach turned. The victim was lucky Ava knew what to do. He’d known Ava had helped someone, but hadn’t realized they’d been so exposed and smack in the center of the shooting.
North looked at his clipboard. “The FBI agent said the shooter stopped in front of this kitchen store and took aim at a group of women but didn’t fire. Then he turned and went down that aisle for a few moments.”
The group moved forward. “Here is where the special agent and the teen hid,” said North, and stopped at the pool of dried blood near the sunglasses kiosk.
Two of the men coughed. It wasn’t a hiding place; it could barely be called cover. The scent of hot, baking iron hit Zander’s nose and mingled with the odor of blood in the air. Their entire walk had been a hot one. The air had cooled down a few degrees, but the ground was releasing the sun’s energy that it’d soaked up all day. He watched Mason out of the corner of his eye. He’d frozen as he saw the dried blood pool, and Zander wondered if he imagined it as Ava’s. She could have been shot as easily as the teen.
“They were fucking lucky,” muttered the Cedar Edge police chief. “They were sitting ducks.”
Mason looked away, his face blank.
“The suspect shot Anthony Sweet instead of the women.” North pointed at the blood on the wall and ground fifty feet down a wing of the mall. “Sweet was an employee at the card shop. The special agent believes he left the store to try to help her and the teenager.”
The men shifted their feet and mumbled. Was Sweet a hero or a fool? Zander understood the drive to help someone in need. Would he have done the same as Sweet? Or followed standard operating procedure and stayed hidden?
He didn’t know.
“Then the shooter entered the restroom toward the end of this wing.”
They’d passed plastic evidence markers all throughout their walk. But in this section of the mall were the most markers, increasing in number as they neared the restroom. The activity in and just outside the bathrooms had been high during the investigation, and Zander knew the shooter still lay as the police had found him. There’d been nothing a medical team could do; they couldn’t fix dead. The shooter had blown off part of the back of his head and had been left in place to preserve evidence. Zander noticed two guys from the morgue standing to the side, cooling their heels as they waited for their opportunity to remove the body.
“Three guys and one child made it out of the restroom before he shot himself,” North continued. “They were damn lucky. He could have shot them all. We’ll probably never know how he selected his victims.”
He glanced at the group. “Everyone have good stomach control?”
“All right then. Let’s take a look.”
Mason had felt Zander’s gaze on him the whole walk. If the agent hadn’t been such a nice guy it would have annoyed the hell out of him, but he knew Zander was watching out of concern. He didn’t know the agent’s history, but he’d heard he’d lost his wife somehow. Whether that somehow was divorce or death, Mason hadn’t heard the facts, but he respected the man. Zander Wells was a sharp investigator, gave a damn about victims, and didn’t create pissing contests.
Mason wished Ava were beside him. She deserved a look at the guy who’d shot her friend and kept her pinned down in a danger zone. He wanted to hear her perspective on the scene. She’d watched the crimes play out and didn’t need to refer to a clipboard to keep the timeline straight.
He was glad he’d been assigned to the case. He hadn’t been involved with the mass shooting case in Eugene in June, but he’d followed it closely, disturbed that it’d happened again in Oregon. Nearly two decades ago, not far from the site of the June shooting, an expelled teen had decided to take a weapon into his high school after killing his parents. Children had died, and the memory had never faded from the community. Mass shootings seemed to happen in batches, breeding like rabbits. How many would it take to finish this batch?