Billy Joe was in his usual spot in the corner of the Dunkin’ Donuts on 125th Street, playing with the medium cappuccino on the counter in front of him. His head was in the tunnels, so he was only dimly aware of the man who sat down immediately to his left.
He was a white dude, which was not that unusual given the gradual gentrification of the neighborhood and the increasing number of businesses that had moved into the area in search of lower rents. He looked like an accountant. He placed a small regular coffee in front of him.
Slowly and casually, the guy reached into his inside jacket pocket and took out what looked like a small wallet. Discreetly, he placed it on the counter between them and opened it up. It was a government identification badge, and it looked authentic.
“Mr. Ramirez, my name is James Noble. I work for the United States National Security Agency. Can I talk to you for a few minutes?”
“I can’t imagine why, but sure.”
“It’s probably better if we talk outside on the street. I’ll wait outside while you finish your coffee.”
“It’ll probably save both of us a lot of time and aggravation if I start out by telling you that the NSA already knows a lot about you Mr. Ramirez.”
“Again, I can’t imagine why, but go ahead. I’m listening.”
“Let’s see.” James Noble was flipping through a small note pad that he had taken out of a different inside pocket of his jacket. “I want to make sure I get the sequence of events correct.”
They were walking slowly side by side, heading west along 125th street. James Noble was consulting his notepad intermittently while negotiating traffic and other pedestrians.
“When you were only fourteen years old, you almost beat your father to death. Then at age seventeen, you killed two men in a bar fight in Texas with just your bare hands and a glass. You had five tours of duty in Vietnam during which you were a member of an elite squad called the Tunnel Rats that apparently engaged in hand to hand combat with enemy forces in underground tunnels. Army records state that you were personally involved in what they describe as ‘numerous enemy casualties’.”
Billy Joe had actually stopped counting his kills some time after he had reached double digits.
“After returning stateside from Vietnam, you worked as an enforcer for a midlevel New York City drug dealer for about ten years. During this time, you got married, but in 1980 your wife suddenly disappeared and was never seen or heard from again. Sometime later that same year, you disappeared yourself, interestingly just after the machine gun murder of your so-called employer’s younger brother and two of his bodyguards. You then resurfaced in 1985 in Santa Fe, New Mexico when you severely beat an off-duty deputy police officer in a bar. After the officer died from complications, you were sent to prison for twenty years. But it appears you still managed to stay busy given that you killed three inmates while inside.”
James Noble had paused, and was looking at Billy Joe as if to say: “How am I doing so far?”
Who are these guys? The paraphrase quote from ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, one of Billy Joe’s favorite movies, had bubbled into his consciousness without invitation.
“I’m not going to say anything about anything that isn’t already a matter of public record. What’s done is done, and I did my time. And I still don’t get why the hell you’re talking to me unless you just like waltzing down memory lane with random seventy year old farts.”
“We also know about your, uh, situation.”
“We know that you have a history of prostate cancer and sarcoma, and that you recently refused treatment for recurrence of the sarcoma.”
“Isn’t that against privacy rules or HIPAA or some such shit?”
“Mr. Ramirez, given your background and intelligence, I’m surprised that you would say something so stupid and naïve.”
It was Billy Joe’s turn to pause.
“So what exactly do you want?”
“We want you to do something for us Mr. Ramirez. It’s something that we cannot be seen to be involved with ourselves.” James Noble paused to allow the information to marinate.
“Have you ever heard of General Nguyen Lanh?”
“He’s currently a senior officer in the Vietnamese army. According to our files, when he was younger, he spent about ten years fighting in the tunnels around Cu Chi. You probably bumped into each other without knowing it, maybe even more than once. At one point, he apparently stayed underground for almost six months solid. He allegedly personally killed at least five American soldiers during his stint in the tunnels, and he is considered a real hero by his people.
“Anyway, unlike most people who tend to mellow out as they get older, our friend General Lanh has become increasingly crotchety and militaristic in his golden years. Specifically, he wants to formally take over both Cambodia and Laos and form a regional economic and military superpower, with himself as head honcho. Thailand would be the next logical country he would set his sights on. This is not a situation that the United States government wants to see happen. Ever. Our agency has been given strict instructions to do whatever it takes, but, and here’s the catch, we’ve also been told that the United States cannot and must not be seen to be directly involved.”
“Okay, but again, why are you talking to me?”
“The General has been part of the Vietnamese delegation to the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York every year for the past fifteen years. For the past ten of those fifteen years, sometime during the period of the UN meeting, he has made a shopping pilgrimage to the Mall at Short Hills in New Jersey. It is somewhat ironic that, despite his ostensibly firmly held communist worldview, the general appears to have a real fondness for some of the finer things in life that capitalism has to offer. In any event, he has been known to spend up to several hundred thousand dollars at a time,
“The next scheduled meeting of the UN General Assembly is in the second half of September, one month away. We want you to take General Tranh out during his shopping expedition. We believe you have the skills and temperament to pull it off.”
James Noble paused again.
“And why exactly would I want to do this?”
“Well, I could give you some bullshit speech about doing something good for your country, and for freedom and democracy, but we both know that’s not the answer in your case. No, I believe the truth of the matter is much more elemental. You are inherently a violent man Mr. Rodriguez, and the fact is that you are rapidly running out of time to feed your natural tendencies. We are giving you that opportunity.
“I should also add that, from the government’s perspective, you are the perfect candidate for this mission because your particular background essentially gives us complete and plausible deniability regarding any involvement. Sooner or later, the details of your personal history will emerge, including the fact that you crossed paths with the General years ago in Vietnam. It will be simple and logical to portray you as just another vet haunted by posttraumatic stress who eventually snapped and took out his frustrations on one of his old enemies.”
“You have thought this through pretty well Mr. Noble, haven’t you? Let’s say I agree, and I do pull this off and get away. Then what?”
James Noble reached into his right front trouser pocket and took out a small business card and handed it to Billy Joe.
“Memorize the number on this card, and then destroy it. As soon as you can after completing the job, call that number using a disposable cell phone. You will be given a new identity and taken to a secure location where you can live out the rest of your life in peace and tranquility. Personally, I would recommend New Zealand. The scenery is spectacular, and they have top-notch medical care should you change your mind in that regard.”
Both Billy Joe Rodriguez and James Noble already knew for certain that none of what had just been stated would ever come to pass.
As far as Billy Joe’s was concerned, James Noble had essentially got most of it right. No matter what, he was going to die sooner rather than later, but he also had a deep, dark primal itch that required scratching one last time. Scratch itch, and have say in how you die. What was not to love?
“Okay, I’ll do it.”
Four weeks earlier, James Noble was sitting in a corner office at the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. The name on the door was that of Carl Sipowicz, James’ boss. Sipowicz was a short man, but built like a fullback. He had lapidary eyes, and an enormous bullet-shaped shaved head that looked like it belonged to someone twice his height. Before joining the NSA, he had completed two tours of duty in Afghanistan where he was assigned to Special Forces. He did not suffer fools gladly.
“So tell me again why this Rodriguez dude, who I have to say sounds like a total psycho, would want to commit an assassination on our behalf.”
“Partly precisely because he is a psycho, and partly because he knows he’s going to die soon. For people like him, it’s not a matter of why, it’s more a matter of why not. The trick is presenting the issue to him in a way that gets him to see that for himself. The worst thing that happens is he doesn’t get there on his own, in which case we both walk away, no harm no foul.”
“And what happens if he actually does it and gets away with it? What’s to then stop him from going to the New York Times with a story of how the National Security Agency lured him into murdering a top Vietnamese diplomat while he was in the United States attending the yearly meeting of the United Nations, and that, for good measure, the NSA suggested that the killing take place in an upscale New Jersey shopping mall packed with civilians. To put it mildly, that would be really bad shit.”
“I will have two of my best men shadowing him at all times. On the day, they will be dressed as mall security guards, and will have appropriate IDs and credentials. Their orders are to take Rodriguez out immediately after he kills the General. They will look like heroes responding appropriately and swiftly to an active shooter. “
Sipowicz considered this carefully.
“Okay, but don’t screw this up. That would make me very unhappy. And neither of us wants to see that.”
“You should know that the General always travels with three bodyguards, all ex Israeli Mossad. He typically travels from the city to the mall in a private diplomatic vehicle. One of the bodyguards is the driver, and he usually stays with the vehicle. That means that Lanh will probably have two of the three men with him in the mall.
“Depending on traffic, it’ll take him between thirty and ninety minutes to get to the mall from Manhattan. You probably don’t want to risk getting caught in a New York traffic jam yourself, so I would suggest you find yourself some sort of hotel in the vicinity of the mall, ideally as close as possible.”
James Noble reached into yet another pocket and handed Billy Joe a fat wad of tightly bound cash and an old-fashioned electronic pager.
“The cash should cover expenses for at least a week or so. The pager will go off once, and only once, when we are sure that the general is on his way. Like I said, that’ll mean you should have a minimum of thirty minutes to get yourself ready.
“Good luck Mr. Ramirez. This will be the first and last time we communicate directly with one another.”
Neither man held out his hand.
Billy Joe’s old army weapons procurer had long since moved out of the city. He was now running a small, but impressively stocked, gun store a few miles outside of Lords Valley in rural northeast Pennsylvania.
Billy Joe rented a car and went for a drive. He got a bit lost on the back roads off Interstate 84, so it took him almost three and a half hours.
“I need some weapons again.”
“What type of shooting are you planning on?”
“Multiple targets, short range, short time frame. And it’s best if you don’t ask more questions.”
The old vet nodded knowingly. “Come into the back.”
Ninety minutes later, after trying multiple weapons in the indoor shooting range attached to the back of the gun store, Billy Joe made his decision. A short-barreled Colt AR 15 assault rifle, illegally modified for full automatic fire and sporting a thirty round clip, a Glock 19 pistol, and enough preloaded clips for both weapons to start a small war. The short-barreled AR 15 was less accurate that its longer cousins, but lighter and easier to handle. And he wasn’t going to a sharpshooting competition. Similarly, the Glock had a larger cousin, the Glock 17, which also boasted a slightly larger magazine. But the smaller weapon felt better in his hand, and that sealed the deal.
“I also need a knife, and a serious bulletproof vest.”
The owner rummaged around in the back for a few minutes, and then came back with an Ontario 6141 MK 3 Navy knife with a six-inch blade, an army belt for both the knife and the Glock, and a top-of-the-line Level IV Kevlar bulletproof vest. He placed both items on the counter next to the guns and ammunition.
“For you, two thousand even.”
“Here’s three. Keep the change.”
“Sounds to me like you’re not likely to come back anytime soon.”
“Vaya con Dios, Billy Joe.”
“Thanks. But if there is a God, I don’t think the two of us are heading in the same direction.”
The gun store owner motioned for Billy Joe to wait. He disappeared into the back again, and came out a few moment later with a large duffel bag.
“You can put your stuff in here. I also gave you a few parting gifts.”
Billy Joe opened the bag. Inside were three M33 grenades.
On his way back to the city, Billy Joe took Interstate 80 east, then Interstate 287 south, and finally Route 24 east, which, shortly before it joined Interstate 78 east, brought him to the Mall at Short Hills. He parked the rental in one of the covered multilevel parking areas, and went in for a look around.
The Mall at Short Hills, with over one hundred and fifty stores, is a decent-sized but not overwhelming mall. However, compared to most other malls, the number of premier retail establishments is significantly overrepresented, notable examples including Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Gucci, Bulgari, and Prada.
It rapidly became clear to Billy Joe why this was General Lanh’s favorite shopping scene, as well as how easy and quick it would be to drop a few hundred thousand dollars of communist government funds in just one visit as long as you kept your focus.
He noted a valet car service and drop off area near the mall entrance adjacent to Neiman Marcus. Almost certainly, this was where the General would arrive and ultimately be picked up after completing his bourgeois mission.
As one entered the mall from that side, there was a cross shaped hallway with Neiman Marcus to the right, Nordstrom straight on, and the rest of the mall to the left. At the center of the cross was a large space that housed a decorative fountain and surrounding seating. A good place to sit and wait for the quarry to arrive.
On his way out of the parking area, he spotted a Hilton hotel literally across the street from the mall. No threats of a traffic jam impeding you from there.
According to Google, the source of all human knowledge, the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly would be held in New York City between Tuesday, September 17th and Monday, September 30th, 2019.
On Thursday, September 12th, after the various memorial services and events commemorating the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 had died down, Billy Joe took an Uber from his New York City apartment to the Hilton hotel adjacent to the mall at Short Hills. He had cleaned out his apartment, terminated his lease, and canceled all his utilities. His entire worldly possessions consisted of a suitcase containing enough clothes and personal effects to last him several weeks, and his large duffel bag. He had wrapped the guns, ammunition, and grenades in towels and blankets in order to prevent them from making ominous metallic noises while being carried.
He had prepaid the hotel room through the end of the month, so checking in was quick and efficient. He insisted on carrying his own bags to the room.
Over the next five days, he went to the mall by foot at least once a day. It was a bit awkward because he had to cross a major highway that separated the hotel from the mall, but he eventually figured out the safest and most direct route. Depending on traffic, it would consistently take him between five and seven minutes to reach the mall, and no more than another five to get into position. His repeated visits confirmed his initial impression of the specific mall entrance by which the General would most likely arrive and, more importantly, leave. His trips also allowed him to pinpoint the precise location of the ideal spot to sit and wait. There was a specific part of the seating area near the fountain that ensured that the viewer would easily see everyone exiting the mall from that location, no matter which direction they were approaching from.
He also made sure to walk around the mall on both its levels enough times that he could, if necessary, find his way around blindfolded.
During one of his sojourns, he bought a deliberately oversized shirt from Untuck It, sunglasses from Sunglass Hut that were dark enough to conceal his eyes, but not so dark that he couldn’t easily see indoors, and, from Macy’s, a large tennis sports bag with a Wilson logo on it.
Once fully satisfied with his preparations, Billy Joe went into waiting mode. It was September 17, 2019.