No More 2 Lose - The Tunnel Rat

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Chapter 9

At 10:12 am on Friday, September 20, 2019, the pager began beeping.

Billy Joe was in his underwear watching TV from the bed. He put on some loose- fitting khaki pants with extra flap pockets down each leg. There were two extra clips for the AR on the right, two clips for the Glock on the left. He slipped on some comfortable running shoes. Then he carefully strapped on the Kevlar vest, making sure that it was nice and snug. He clipped on the army belt with its attached knife and holstered Glock, and placed it as high as he could on his waist given the constraints of the vest above. Next, he put on the oversized shirt, and checked himself carefully in the full-length mirror on the back of the closet door in his hotel room. He made sure that the untucked shirt fully concealed both the vest and the two weapons on his waist.

He looked like a somewhat portly old geezer who had started to forget how to dress properly.

Perfect.

His tennis bag already contained the fully loaded AR 15, the remaining preloaded clips for both guns, and the three grenades. As before, he had wrapped the rifle in a towel to minimize carrying noise. He added two large bottles of water and that morning’s New York Times to the bag. He might need to wait in place for a while, and he wanted something to make it look right. Lastly, he put on his sunglasses, and walked out of his hotel room for the last time.

Six minutes later, he was in the mall. The pager had gone off about four minutes earlier, so he figured he had at least twenty minutes to do what needed to be done before getting into position for the General.

*****

Within a day of their meeting, Billy Joe had concluded that there was no way that James Noble would just let him get away after shooting the General. Noble had already proven that he could trace Billy Joe without difficulty, even without the use of a locator beacon, which almost certainly was the adjunctive purpose of the pager. This meant that James Noble would have had someone following him closely at all times, including today. The difference today was that Noble’s guy would be ordered to dispose of him, presumably as soon as possible after the shooting. Which meant that Billy Joe had to try to spot them in the mall before the General arrived.

He started walking briskly down one of the main corridors on the lower level. Just before the hallway in front veered sharply to his left, he quickened his pace. Immediately after moving out of sight of whoever might be behind him, he darted into the first store on his left, which happened to be Abercrombie and Fitch. He positioned himself in such a way that he could easily see all passersby, but it was impossible to see him without physically entering the store. He was looking for an accountant clone of James Noble. More specifically, he was looking for an accountant clone who would first pass him by, and then come back within a few minutes.

There was no accountant clone. There was a mall security guard though who initially walked by in a hurry, and then came back more deliberately, in a zigzag fashion, peering into the various stores on both sides as he went.

Good move Noble. The security guard thing was a nice touch.

Billy Joe picked up a baseball cap from a bin near the front of the store, paid for it, and walked out while adjusting it on his head, making sure he kept his face and eyes pointed away from the direction of the security guard. Casually, he began making his way toward the fountain and seating area near Neiman Marcus.

Now he knew who and what to look for.

*****

NSA agent Paul Merton spotted Billy Joe Ramirez as he exited Abercrombie and Fitch. He appeared to be adjusting a recently purchased baseball cap on his head.

Agent Merton spoke into the microphone sewn inconspicuously into his left shirt lapel.

“I lost Target One for a few minutes, but I have a visual again. He seems to be heading towards Neiman Marcus on the lower level. It looks like he wanted to add a black baseball cap to his outfit. He acted a little squirrely before I lost contact but that may just be nerves on his part. In any event, he’s a short, old, Hispanic dude wearing a black cap, sunglasses, a dark blue shirt that almost reaches his knees, and white khaki trousers. Also, he’s carrying a white tennis bag with a Wilson logo. You can’t miss him.”

“Roger that. On my way.”

Walt Shriver was the second NSA agent that James Noble had assigned for this mission.

Each man had over ten years of history with the NSA, preceded by distinguished careers as Navy SEALs. Each man had been well trained, and was ready, willing, and able to carry out James Noble’s explicit instructions regarding Billy Joe Ramirez. In particular, each man carried a 9 mm Sig Sauer P226 with a laser sight, the SEALs’ preferred handgun.

*****

The fountain near Neiman Marcus was situated in the middle of a square-shaped pool surrounded by a three foot wide concrete retaining wall, the top of which was deliberately designed to serve as a seating area. The pool was angled such that one of its vertices pointed towards the valet entrance to the mall about fifty yards away, and the remaining three vertices pointed towards the other mall hallways radiating out from the fountain. Two of these were relatively short, one paralleling the long axis of Neiman Marcus and the other leading to Nordstrom’s. The majority of the mall was accessed via the remaining fourth hallway.

Billy Joe seated himself on the low wall such that the valet entrance was over his left shoulder, and the main mall hallway was straight ahead. With minimal movement of his eyes, he should be able to easily spot the General as he both entered and subsequently left the mall. He had reasoned that it was better to make his move when the General was leaving as, hopefully, at least one of his bodyguards would then be busy carrying the loot of the day.

Nonchalantly, he placed the Wilson tennis bag and its deadly cargo on the wall immediately to his right. He reached in, took out the newspaper and one of the bottles of water which he set on his left. He turned his head slightly towards the valet entrance, opened the paper, and started to look like he was reading.

It was 10:37 am.

*****

At 11:26 am, Billy Joe saw General Lanh enter the Mall with his two bodyguards.

*****

General Lanh was now seventy-four years old. He suffered from diabetes, gout, and high blood pressure, and both his hearing and vision were slowly fading. There was nothing wrong with his brain however, which made him one of the most respected, and feared, senior members of the Vietnamese government.

His technical title was Minister of National Defense. As such, he also controlled the Department of Military Intelligence. Over the years, he had methodically subverted some of their efforts to help him amass an elaborately detailed set of confidential files on a large portion of the four hundred and ninety eight members of the National Assembly.

The National Assembly of Vietnam is the country’s ultimate governing body. Every five years, the Assembly elects a president to a single five-year term. The next election was scheduled for 2021, and General Tranh was justifiably confident that he would become his country’s next chief of state.

Over the past couple of decades, he had concluded that his beloved country of Vietnam had begun to succumb to the lure and complacency of western capitalism. He had fought too long and too hard, and had seen too many comrades die, to allow that to happen. He also believed unequivocally that Vietnam deserved to rival, if not surpass, China as a regional communist superpower.

Without doubt, General Lanh knew that he had the will, the vision, and, very soon, the power to guide his country into fulfilling its true destiny.

Taking over Laos and Cambodia would be easy as they were effectively puppet states already. Thailand would be more challenging, but eminently doable as would Malaysia. Once those were controlled, it would be impossible to argue that Vietnam was now a regional superpower. Burma, aka Myan Mar, would be tougher, and would likely be for the next generation to subdue, but he was confident in the ultimate outcome.

Despite his heartfelt communist and nationalist ideology and rhetoric, on a personal level, General Lanh had found some aspects of capitalism to be quite tolerable. For example, as a longstanding admirer of precision handcrafted engineering, he had amassed a world class collection of expensive Swiss antique watches, and was constantly on the lookout for more specimens. On good authority, he had heard that the Omega outlet at the mall currently had a particularly desirable model on display in a special case at the front of the store.

He also had a large family, including a wife, four children, twelve grandchildren, and two young and lusty mistresses, one of whom had particularly opulent tastes for name brand baubles, especially those of Bulgari.

The net effect was that he greatly looked forward to his yearly trips to the Mall at Short Hills, and this was no exception.

His bodyguards were a necessary evil.

The General typically felt nothing but contempt for most hulking barbarian Caucasians. However, he grudgingly recognized, and even admired, the demonstrable martial prowess and capabilities of the Israelis that he had hired to guard him. The fact that their significantly larger bodies would, in and of themselves, present both a larger target and serve as a potentially effective shield to his smaller, yet more valuable body, was an added bonus.

*****

Ari Pankov and Lev Goldberg were General Lanh’s bodyguards. They were both first-generation Israelis whose parents had emigrated from the Soviet Union to escape religious persecution, albeit at different times and from different locations.

Both men had first met during the 2006 Lebanese war when Ari was a thirty year old tank commander and Lev was a twenty one year old rookie assigned to his unit. In addition to sharing similar backgrounds and mother tongues, both men were ultimately recognized by their superior officers for their performance during combat. Both were subsequently invited to join the Mossad, the Israeli equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Over the next decade, the two men participated in various missions together, including the explosion of the Al Safir chemical weapons depot in Syria 2007, the 2010 killing of Yuri Ivanov, the deputy head of the GRU, Russia’s foreign military intelligence service, and the killing of several top Iranian nuclear scientists, also in 2010.

After ten years of service, the two men, who were now best friends and godfather to each other’s multiple children, decided that their mutual interests would best be served if they pointed their particular skills towards the far more lucrative, and generally less dangerous, profession of body guarding prominent and affluent individuals around the globe.

For the past three years, they had been employed by General Lanh. They were each paid $15,000 per month in cash, which was wired directly into a tax-free account in the Cayman Islands. They also received an unlimited stipend to cover expenses such as lodging, food, clothing, transportation, and of course weapons. Professionally, they treated the General with all the respect that a munificent employer deserves. Personally, they often joked in Russian about how good it would feel to wring his scrawny neck until his eyes popped out of their sockets.

*****

Unlike the General, the two Israelis loathed coming to the mall. It was a security nightmare.

As the junior member of the team, Lev despised it even more. He would be the one designated to take care of the General’s purchases.

*****

It was just before 2 PM when Billy Joe noticed the General and his binary retinue ambling gently towards him from the direction of Macy’s. Over the past couple of hours, he had finished reading most of the paper, and consumed about two pints of water. Other than getting up every fifteen or twenty minutes to stretch, he had remained in his seat on the wall near the fountain.

During this time, he had seen the security guard that he had previously identified make several apparently random circuits, all of which kept him within visual distance.

Billy Joe had also discerned a second security guard who kept returning to the same general area with monotonous regularity. They almost looked like brothers. Of interest, the two guards never approached each other, even once, although they did occasionally seem to be mumbling to themselves. Also of note, the two seemed to take great care to ensure that they never placed themselves in a straight line that included him.

Good boys. You don’t want to accidentally shoot each other, do you?

Billy Joe’s order of business would be dictated by where each of the two guards was actually standing when he made his move.

The general and his team were about seventy-five yards away. So it would be soon.

The first security guard was currently about thirty-five yards ahead of him, in front of the General and slightly to the right. The second was about the same distance away, also to his right, but behind him in the hall that ran alongside Neiman Marcus’ long axis.

Without taking his eyes off the General and the first security guard, Billy Joe placed the newspaper and the half-empty bottle of water into the tennis bag, and moved the bag crosswise onto his knees. Slowly and deliberately, he put his right hand in and began feeling around for the AR 15. He tried to make it look like he was feeling around for a sandwich. He made sure the gun was free and clear and that he had a firm grip.

The General’s lead bodyguard was now almost level with the first security guard. The bodyguard had his right hand inside his jacket, and he seemed to be looking in Billy Joe’s direction.

It was time.

*****

“I’ve spotted the General and his Israelis. They are approaching Target One from the direction of Macy’s. They’re about sixty yards away.”

Agent Merton saw Billy Joe move the tennis bag.

“Target One just put his tennis bag on his knees and seems to be rooting around for something. Get ready.”

“Roger. I can see the back of him clearly.”

Both NSA agents already had their hands on the frames of their Sig Sauer guns. They could each draw, aim, and fire accurately within less than a second.

*****

As usual when in the mall with his protégé, Ari Pankov was not happy. He was walking about two paces in front of the General, eyes constantly flicking back and forth searching for any and all potential threats. His right hand was draped across his abdomen and under his jacket, making him look a little like a tall Napoleon Bonaparte. His palm cradled an Uzi Mini machine pistol holstered under his right armpit.

Lev Goldberg was four paces back, two paces behind the General. As expected, he had been assigned the responsibility of carting the generals’ acquisitions. He was steering a large shopping cart stacked high with packages. The cart had been graciously provided by the folks at Cartier, but it had a wonky left front wheel, and required two hands to steer it safely.

Which was another reason why Ari was not happy.

They were approaching the fountain where they would make their final right turn before exiting the mall. The car was already waiting outside in the valet area.

Ari saw the old man sitting in front of the fountain about fifty yards away. It took him a couple of seconds to register that there was something wrong. It wasn’t just that the guy looked a little old for tennis, or that he wasn’t exactly dressed for it. Who brings a tennis bag to a mall? And why?

And the old guy had his hand in there. Instinctively, Ari cried out the word “gun” in Russian to Lev, and began tugging the Uzi out of its holster.

*****

With one swift, fluid movement, Billy Joe yanked the AR 15 out of the tennis bag with his right hand and rolled forward, spinning onto his right shoulder as he hit the ground. His momentum carried him through the spin. He was not as limber as he used to be, and it hurt like a bastard when he rolled over the large scar on his left forearm, but it was good enough.

He was facing forward again, but now prone, and a much smaller, harder target.

Ari’s Uzi had not cleared the front of his jacket before the first bullet hit him in the right femur. The second struck him in the right shoulder, and the third just above the right eye. He was dead before he hit the ground.

The first bullet that hit Ari continued its upward trajectory and crashed into General Lanh’s sternum, puncturing a small but lethal hole in his heart.

Behind the general, Lev Goldberg had shoved the shopping cart out of the way, and was frantically grasping for his own Uzi.

With both Ari and the general down, Billy Joe had a clean shot at Lev. He took it, and Lev went down clutching at a bullet hole in his throat .

Three for three. And still at least half a clip of ammo left.

Billy Joe swung the gun barrel towards the right, towards his last sighting of the first security guard.

Agent Merton’s gun was already drawn and pointed in his direction.

But by now, pandemonium reigned. Screaming shoppers were running wildly in all directions, including in the area between agent Merton and Billy Joe.

There was one critical difference between the two men – Billy Joe had no compunction about collateral damage.

He fired between five and ten rounds into the wildly milling crowd between them. Several bodies went down like rag dolls.

The sudden and unforeseen carnage in front of him caused Agent Merton to hesitate. Just for a fraction of a second. Which was a fraction of a second too long.

Billy Joe emptied the rest of the clip into Agent Merton.

*****

As Billy Joe had surmised, when he rolled forward onto the ground, it resulted in placing the fountain and its surrounding wall between him and the second security guard behind him.

From agent Walt Shriver’s perspective, Billy Joe Ramirez suddenly just disappeared behind the fountain.

The agent heard the shots begin almost immediately thereafter. He saw the general’s lead body guard and the general himself fall almost simultaneously with the first volley. The second volley took out the rear bodyguard.

He drew his gun, and started advancing carefully along the side of the hallway in front of him, trying to get around to the front of the fountain where he felt he should be able to get off a clean shot.

He could see his partner clearly the whole time. Paul had his gun pointed towards a spot in front of the fountain, presumably where Billy Joe Ramirez was now located. Crowds of shrieking civilians were now spewing forth in all directions.

And then the unthinkable happened. He heard another volley of shots from what was clearly Billy Joe Ramirez’ automatic weapon. Some of the civilians in the space immediately in front of his partner were swatted away like flies. There was a tiny pause, and then another furious volley.

Agent Shriver watched in horror as his friend and long-standing partner was blown back and through a plate glass window behind him.

He collected himself.

You’re mine now, you sonofabitch.

*****

Billy Joe figured that the second security guard would most likely travel along the side of the hallway to his right rather than risk coming out in the open. He also figured that he would be coming fairly quickly to try to avenge his dead buddy.

If he was right, it meant that he should be able to crawl around the fountain going left, and come up behind the guy.

He reached into one of the flap pockets on the right side of his khakis, pulled out a fresh clip, and reloaded the AR. Keeping low to the ground and close to the wall of the fountain, he started crawling briskly to his left. When he got to an angle that he knew would allow him to see where the second security guard now was, he paused. Gingerly, he poked one eye around the corner.

The guy was about forty feet ahead of him, just about level with where he himself had been a few seconds earlier.

Agent Shriver never heard the shots that killed him.

*****

There was a Mall security office on the second level. Billy Joe reckoned that, from the onset of the gunfire, it would take them about three to five minutes to arrive. That was at least a minute away.

By now the chaos had abated. Everyone who could flee had. All that was left was silence and the bodies of the fallen.

If he walked out now, there was at least a fifty-fifty chance he could get away.

But Billy Joe had decided long ago that he wasn’t going anywhere.

He loaded a fresh clip in the AR, gathered his bag, and began moving towards the corner of Neiman Marcus whose plate glass window had been destroyed in the mayhem. The location afforded him a reasonably unobstructed view of three of the four hallways converging on the fountain. The fourth hallway ran along the outside solid wall of the store, and was the shortest and least likely candidate for an approach.

*****

Dani Goshal, the third, last, and youngest of General Lanh’s bodyguards was sitting in a pristine, black, late model Cadillac Escalade with diplomatic plates. He was parked about 50 yards away from the valet mall entrance.

A few moments earlier he had heard what almost certainly were shots from an automatic weapon fired from somewhere inside the mall. This was followed almost immediately by immense crowds of panicked shoppers trampling over one another as they vomited out of the mall entrance in front of him.

Dani was only twenty-nine years old, but had been considered one of the Mossad’s best agents. He had only two weaknesses – expensive women and expensive cars. Which was why he had left the Mossad for the employ of General Lanh.

He waited a few seconds for the desperate throng to dissipate. Then he took his Uzi out from its holster, exited the vehicle, and cautiously stepped into the mall.

It was eerily quiet.

He could see the fountain about seventy-five yards away. There were multiple bodies on the ground scattered in a semicircle on the far side of the fountain. Even at that distance, he was pretty sure that the three bodies furthest to his left were that of General Lanh and his two Mossad colleagues.

Dani started moving closer, hugging the side wall, keeping low and quiet.

Other than him, the only thing that was moving was a short, old guy in a black cap wearing an ill-fitting, oversized blue shirt. The guy was a little to the right of the fountain and facing away which allowed Dani to get closer without notice. The old man started to move off slowly to his right. He was carrying a tennis bag in his left arm and, significantly, some sort of rifle in his right.

Dani was now about forty yards away. He raised the Uzi, took aim, and squeezed the trigger.

*****

Just before he crossed the threshold of the store, Billy Joe heard a staccato of gunfire from somewhere behind him, and was immediately catapulted forward as if he had been hit by from behind by a train. A searing pain tore through his left upper arm.

That was really stupid. You were told by Noble that there was a third bodyguard, and that he would be in the car outside. And you know that these Mossad guys aren’t going to run away from a fight.

*****

Billy Joe was lying on his face. bleeding briskly from a moderate sized bullet wound in his upper outer left arm.

At least it didn’t hit bone.

In addition to impelling his body forward, the momentum of the bullets hitting his vest from behind had forcibly expelled all the air out of his lungs. He felt like a hippo had just sat on his back. The impact had also caused him to release the tennis bag and, more importantly, the AR 15.

He was utterly helpless, and he figured it would likely take him at least a minute to recover enough to even be able to start to move. Plenty of time for Mossad number three to walk up and finish the job.

*****

Dani had watched the old man go down face first, but he needed to make sure he was dead. He would need to get closer, both to get a better view, and a better angle of fire.

He started moving forward. He kept his eyes carefully fixated on the prone figure ahead, watching for any movement. There was none.

*****

“Put your gun down slowly, and show us your hands! Do it now!”

The voice came from a different part of the mall.

*****

The mall security office began receiving calls within one minute of the first shots being fired. With the relentless increase in the number and frequency of mass shootings in the 21st century, many mall security companies were either actively hiring armed security guards or, as in New Jersey, generally encouraging their employees to be armed by offering to subsidize any and all necessary gun permits and training.

On the afternoon of Friday, September 20th, three of the five security guards on duty in the office were armed, including Patrick Williams, the senior member assigned to that shift.

Patrick had been a Newark, New Jersey cop for twenty years, and had retired eight years earlier on a pension equal to one half his salary, or just over under $50,000. He lived in Little Falls which was only thirty minutes away by car. He had two kids in college, and the mall security gig offered him the perfect combination of convenience, something to get up for in the morning, easy work, and extra cash.

As soon as it became clear that there was an active shooter somewhere near Neiman Marcus, officer Williams ordered the two junior armed guards to accompany him to investigate.

The two younger men were both rookies. Sean Henry, the older of the two was working part time to help pay his way through college. As a child, he had hunted with his Dad near their home in north central Pennsylvania, and he was completely comfortable around guns. He looked up to and trusted Patrick Williams, and would have followed him anywhere.

The younger rookie, Peter Franciosa, was a body builder who was there because he thought it was cool to get a job where you could walk around with a gun.

The security office was located near the center of the mall on the second level. In silence, the three men approached the fountain from the mall hallway between Macy’s and Neiman Marcus. They were in a V formation, hand guns drawn, officer Williams at the apex, Sean Henry to his right, and Peter Franciosa to his left.

Well before they got within a hundred yards, they could see multiple bodies lying on the floor. As they got closer, they saw a man with a weapon approaching the fountain from the hallway to their right. The man appeared to be concentrating on a specific location on the far side of the fountain, and he appeared to be ready to shoot.

******

When he initially headed out of the security office behind his two colleagues, Peter Franciosa’s head and heart were full of anticipation, valor, and blood lust. As he got closer to the fountain and was able to more clearly distinguish the gore and body parts that littered the floor, his confident resolve evaporated, and was entirely replaced by abject terror. He could hear his teeth begin to chatter behind his clenched jaws, and his gun hand was starting to tremble.

*****

“Put your gun down slowly, and show us your hands! Do it now!”

When Dani Goshal heard Patrick Williams’ words emanating from somewhere behind his left shoulder, he began to turn slowly in that direction. Not being sure of the source and legitimacy of the voice, he kept his gun barrel up.

There were two seconds of silent mutual observation and evaluation.

“Like I said, son, put your gun down slowly, and keep your hands where we can see them.”

Dani kept still.

*****

He’s not listening. Holy shit, he’s not listening! He’s going to shoot us!

Almost involuntarily, Peter Franciosa pulled the trigger of his Smith and Wesson Model 10 revolver. He missed by almost ten feet.

*****

Dani’s training kicked in immediately. He returned fire, and saw the one who had shot at him hurtle backward.

Sean Henry had already drawn a bead on the shooter. He fired off two rounds from his Beretta 92. The first hit Dani in the left shoulder, and the second just below his left clavicle, lethally tearing its way through the left subclavian artery and upper left lung.

The force of the bullets caused Dani to start to spin to his left. His dying right hand maintained its grip on the Uzi’s trigger as he started to fall. The arcing spray of bullets followed his spin, cutting through Peter Williams first, then Sean Henry.

*****

After a full minute of ominous silence, Billy Joe slowly pushed himself upright. He had heard everything, but seen nothing.

He surveyed the scene.

It looks like the gunfight at the OK Corral, except that here everyone killed each other.

Well, as they say, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart.

His left arm was still bleeding, but less so, signifying he hadn’t damaged a major vessel. He tore his left shirtsleeve off with his right hand and, using his teeth, managed to wrap the strip of material around the wound tight enough to further staunch the flow.

He removed his bulletproof vest and cast it on the ground. It had served its purpose.

He retrieved his tennis bag and rifle, checked the clip, and moved himself into his planned position.

The next set arriving should be the local and state police. Any minute now…

*****

The closest police station to the Mall at Short Hills is located on Essex Street in Millburn New Jersey, about ten minutes away. The reports of an active shooting situation at the mall began flooding in just after 2 PM.

Captain Bill Holden, the Millburn Chief of Police, was in his squad car with the sirens on within five minutes. He had already put in a call to the New Jersey state police to close all roadways surrounding the mall, and an emergency call had been sent out to all available police units. The reports had indicated that shots had been fired in the area near Neiman Marcus, so Captain Holden instructed that two units position themselves at each of the other mall entrances, and that the rest meet him at the Neiman Marcus entrance. His orders were that all shoppers and mall personnel were to be kept at the scene and treated with caution as the shooter, or shooters, may attempt to pass themselves off as such. There had been reports of multiple volleys of gunfire from different types of weapons, at least one of which appeared to be an automatic. This clearly increased the possibility of multiple shooters. Of note, there were no reports of shooting activity or individuals brandishing weapons outside the mall, so it was quite possible the perpetrators were still inside.

Captain Holden was a seasoned police officer who had been a New York City homicide detective for ten years before taking his current position. He was a large, beefy man who exuded calm, confidence, and competence, and inspired either respect or fear depending on which side of the law his audience was standing.

He set up a command center in the parking lot a safe distance away from the mall entrance.

It took almost thirty minutes to ensure that all mall entrances and exits were secure, and that appropriate staff had been amassed to begin the laborious but necessary process of interrogating all the shoppers and mall employees who had been detained.

With the police arriving from neighboring towns, the state police, and the rapidly increasing number of on-site federal agents, Captain Holden now had over one hundred law enforcement individuals at his disposal.

He arranged for two eight-man squads to enter from opposite ends of the mall and begin searching for suspects. This would involve carefully checking each and every store.

*****

From his concealed vantage point behind a rack of coats, Billy Joe could easily perceive the eight heavily armed men as they painstakingly made their way towards him, methodically checking each store before moving on. They had split into two groups of four, one for each side of the mall. They all wore body armor and helmets, and they made sure they were never standing too close to one another.

Time to kick this thing into gear.

The four-man group on the far side was less than fifty yards away now, and offered a better line of fire. He decided to aim low, below the waist, where the body armor was less bulky. He was likely not going to kill anybody this way, but it sure was going to hurt.

He took aim at the lead man and opened fire. The man screamed in pain as his legs buckled, and Billy quickly moved his sights to the next man in line.

Just like bowling pins.

*****

As the gunfire erupted, the men on the near side flattened themselves on the ground, hugging the side wall as best they could. The shots appeared to be originating from the far corner of Neiman Marcus. The two men in the lead began returning fire, but by this time Billy Joe had already changed positions. He had retreated further into the store, and was now covering its two main entrances.

*****

“What the hell is going on in there?”

Captain Holden’s voice was booming through the earpiece on the inside of John Medina’s helmet. He was the point man on the near wall, and had been the first to return fire.

“Four men down. They appear to have been shot by at least one suspect located in the area of Neiman Marcus. We returned fire but it’s unclear if we hit him.”

“Okay. I’m sending in some guys to retrieve the wounded. You and your guys provide as much covering fire as you need. Then get the hell out of there yourselves.”

Billy Joe let them get on with it. He started preparing for the next round. He checked his weapons, and placed fresh clips for each in his pockets.

*****

There were two main entrances into the store, situated at right angles to each other. He figured that it was likely that there was also some sort of delivery access along the back wall of the store, the side that faced the road system that ran outside the building.

He set himself up so that he could easily cover both main entrances simultaneously. He identified a section of the store that appeared to be devoted to women’s cosmetics and perfumes. The wares were displayed on multiple symmetrically arranged cabinet countertops. These could provide cover and concealment if needed. The delivery access wall was some distance behind him, but close enough that he could hear any activity there.

He reached into his bag, took out the water bottle, and took a large swig. He replaced the bottle and went into waiting mode.

It was now almost 4:30 pm.

*****

Captain Holden was not happy.

He had four wounded officers, three dead mall security guards, and an unknown number of dead civilians. And at least one active shooter still at large.

He was perusing floor plans.

“What time is sunset?”

“6:59 pm”.

“Okay, that gives us plenty of time to get ready. And get me all the security video you can of the area where we believe the gunfire came from. Go back at least one or two hours before everything started.”

*****

Ninety minutes later, Captain Holden had finished his initial review of the security video footage, and he had way more questions than answers.

It appeared that everything had started when an elderly, oddly dressed, short Hispanic man, who had been sitting quietly in the same location near the fountain outside Neiman Marcus for at least two hours, suddenly pulled an automatic rifle from some sort of gym bag, dove forward onto the ground, rolled over, and started firing at a group of approaching shoppers.

In addition to being an unusual age demographic, why would a mass shooter decide to wait calmly for at least two hours before opening fire on a crowd that had been obliviously surrounding him the whole time? The man’s demeanor argued against nervousness or anxiety as an explanation. And why bother to roll over onto the ground before opening fire?

The guy appeared to be deliberate and purposeful. Which meant that he was either waiting for a specific time or a specific target. The timestamp on the video indicated that the shooting had started at 1:58 PM. Not a particularly noteworthy time. Which left a specific target as the most likely explanation.

The shooter’s first three victims had been approaching him approximately in a straight line before he opened fire. There was a burly guy in front, another one in the back, and a short Southeast Asian looking older man in the middle. The guy in the back was pushing a shopping cart which appeared to contain recently purchased items. The guy in the front had his hand under his coat in a way that made him look a little bit like one of those portraits of Napoleon. Given how the front man moved just before he was shot, he probably had a gun in there. So more likely than not, the two big guys were bodyguards, and the short old Asian guy in the middle was their boss. And the likely target.

So far so good.

But then it got weird.

Immediately after shooting the first three people, the shooter had turned his gun towards what appeared to be a security guard standing about thirty yards away. That in itself was not that odd, although it meant that the shooter must have known that the guard was standing there before he opened fire. A little more odd was that the security guard already had his weapon drawn, almost as if he had somehow anticipated what would happen. Much odder though was the fact that Captain Holden had been unequivocally informed that only three armed mall security guards had gone to investigate the shooting, and that they had all been killed in a subsequent round of fire. So, who was this guy and why was he impersonating a security guard?

Captain Holden had also seen the panicked civilians rushing around between the shooter and the pseudo security guard, and had seen the latter hesitate while the former did not.

Whoever this old shooter was, he was a very serious man.

And then there was a second fake security guard! This guy had been standing to the rear of the shooter, and had tried to go around the fountain after the first one got shot. Unfortunately for him, the serious old guy seemed to know about him too, because he managed to get behind him and take him out.

Then we had the three real security guards arrive.

Around the same time, some other guy shows up from a different direction behind the serious old dude, approaches stealthily, and shoots the old guy in the back.

A more careful inspection revealed that this new arrival looked a little like the two bodyguards of the elderly Southeast Asian man. This made his presence somewhat more comprehensible.

Then there appeared to be some sort of confrontation between this new man and the three legitimate security guards, which escalated quickly from bad to worse, and ended up with everyone dead.

And last but not least, the serious old dude, who must have been wearing a very effective bullet proof vest, got up and moved off towards Neiman Marcus. It was difficult to tell for sure from the video, but it looked like he had been wounded.

So, there was one main shooter, now possibly wounded, who had deliberately waited for and killed an elderly Southeast Asian male target and his two bodyguards, and then taken out multiple unarmed civilians and two unidentified mall security guard impersonators who he somehow knew were there and who themselves appeared to know him, And for good measure, the shooter had indirectly caused the mutual annihilation of three bona fide security guards plus another man, probably another of the original target’s bodyguards.

Captain Holden needed some aspirin. And a large glass of single malt scotch whisky.

*****

At 7: 15 pm, all the lights went out, and the mall was plunged into sudden darkness.

Less than five seconds later, Billy Joe heard the sound of riot guns being fired from multiple directions, followed closely by the clunk of metal projectiles hitting the ground and the hiss of teargas being released into the atmosphere.

*****

Billy Joe dropped to his knees, and began furiously and sightlessly fumbling for an unlocked counter cabinet. It took only a few seconds, but his eyes and lungs were already burning fiercely.

He screwed his eyes tightly shut while he eviscerated the contents of the cabinet into the aisle. He ripped off the rest of his shirt, and foraged around in the tennis bag for the second full bottle of water. He poured a generous amount over the shirt, and then wrapped the drenched fabric tightly around his face. Keeping his mouth and eyes pressed low to the floor, he wormed as much of his body as possible deep into the cabinet, the tennis bag and rifle clutched tightly against his chest.

Once situated as safely as he could, he forced his breathing to become shallow and slow. His eyes and airways still burned, but it was tolerable.

He put an ear to the ground. He was listening for footsteps.

It didn’t take long.

*****

“So this is the plan. At 7:15 sharp, we turn off all mall lights. There are three dedicated men already in position in the north corridor and another three in the east. As soon as the lights go out, these six men will fire a barrage of tear gas cannisters into the store.

Once the tear gas is deployed, three separate teams of ten men, all outfitted with gas masks and night vision, will enter the store. One team will enter from the main entrance to the north, the second from the east, and the third though the rear service entrance. Orders are to locate and neutralize the suspect using all necessary force.”

*****

Judging from the quality of the sound transmitted through the floor, there were multiple people approaching simultaneously from multiple directions.

Time to get serious.

Billy Joe grabbed two grenades from the bag and stuffed one in his right pocket. He pulled the pin out of the second grenade with his left hand, maintaining a firm grip on its lever with his right to prevent premature detonation. Keeping his eyes closed and holding his breath, he wriggled out of his lair butt first, and got onto his knees.

He lobbed the grenade in what he knew was the general direction of one of the two main entrances, and immediately flattened himself on the ground.

In the relatively confined space, the roar was deafening. Some anguished shrieking informed him that he had been at least partly on target.

As expected, the exploding grenade caused everyone to pause in their tracks. Except Billy Joe. Rising to his knees again, he pulled the second grenade out of his pocket, yanked out the pin, and tossed it toward the second entrance. Again, he prostrated himself just before the explosion.

As soon as the sound and impact of the blast died away, he scurried back into his cabinet face down. Once safely ensconced, he took a welcome gulp of air from just above floor level. It smelled of smoke, charred metal, tear gas, and blood, some of it his.

It was exhilarating.

*****

“Jesus Christ!” That was Captain Holden after the first grenade.

“Holy shit! He’s got multiple grenades!” That was after the second.

“Everyone pull back! Everyone pull back now!”

*****

Joe Bonetti was the lead member of the squad assigned to the rear entrance of the store. By the time the first grenade exploded, he was already thirty feet inside the store. Like the other men, he had halted and taken cover. But then he had moved on, and by the time of the second explosion he had progressed another ten feet.

Through his night vision goggles, he could see a green ghostly figure wearing the same gear as he begin to rise slowly from the floor about thirty feet to his right. Both men distinctly heard Captain Holden’s orders boom through their earpieces.

Like Agent Noble’s boss Carl Sipowicz, Joe was an Afghan vet with two tours of duty with US Special Forces under his belt. He was also a vigorous afficionado of Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, and the Jersey shore. And he was damn sure not going to let some geriatric piss ant home grown terrorist bully him on his own turf.

The second man started to turn back toward the rear of the store. Joe caught his gaze, and emphatically gestured that they should both continue moving forward. The second man hesitated for a few seconds, then nodded in assent.

The two men reassumed their parallel paths toward the front of the store.

*****

Billy Joe extricated himself from the cabinet as soon as he felt confident that the ventilation system had likely dispersed most of the tear gas. The two grenade blasts had likely also helped in that regard. He kept the wet shirt around his mouth and nose while he took stock of his shadowy surroundings.

He was a Tunnel Rat again. A soothing, luxurious feeling of recognition washed over him and enveloped him in its velvet folds. He was home.

*****

He could sense he was being hunted. Given that he had just hurled two grenades toward the main entrances in front of him, it was most likely that the threat was coming from the rear of the store.

He turned to face rearward, and dropped to a comfortable semi prone position from which he could cover most angles of approach with his AR 15.

He went immobile, every sense on alert. This was his world. He would be able to feel them coming before they could see him.

*****

“What do you mean that two of your men didn’t get out of the store and are not responding? What kind of bullshit outfit are you running there? Your men disobeyed a direct order from me, and then again from you. If and when they get out, I want them fired immediately. And if they don’t make it out alive, I want your resignation on my desk in the morning.”

Captain Holden was, uncharacteristically but understandably, screaming at Lieutenant Harry Chan, the officer in charge of the contingent at the rear entrance of the store.

The Captain had a bad feeling about how this was going to turn out.

*****

It would have been imperceptible to anyone else, but Billy Joe heard it. More accurately, he perceived it - vibrations coming through the floor. Someone was coming, slowly, but unerringly.

He concentrated on the direction of movement over time.

They were going to pass directly past him on the far side of the cabinet he had hidden in.

Billy Joe waited until he was absolutely certain that the man was directly level with him, no more than six feet away, hidden behind merely a wall of thin plywood.

He emptied the entire clip of the AR, strafing back and forth across the cabinet wall, keeping his fire less than two feet from ground level.

The cabinet disintegrated, and, as the smoke and sound died away, he could perceive a figure lying on the floor in the gloom.

From the position of the limbs, it was clear that this dude wasn’t getting up anytime soon.

He needed to hustle if he was going to get into his next position in time.

He lay the AR 15 down, and began crawling rapidly forward, unholstering the Glock with his right hand as he moved off.

*****

Joe Bonetti heard the violent and prolonged burst of gunfire to his right. He recognized the sound as different to that of his own Colt M4 carbine. The ghostly silence that followed was not reassuring.

He had to get over to the right. He could see an aisle running at right angles about fifty feet ahead. He started moving forward.

*****

Billy Joe figured that there would be at least two men coming for him. There was a lot more back wall to his left than to his right, and the first guy had come up on the right. So it was more likely than not that anyone else would be coming up from the left.

The closest aisle than ran from left to right was ahead of him. About fifty feet.

*****

Captain Holden had also heard the barrage.

“Lieutenant, there is fresh gunfire in there. Do you have any update on the status of your men?”

“Negative.”

Captain Holden’s bad feeling got worse.

*****

Billy Joe got to the aisle first, but not by much. He lay on his belly, and poked his head and gun arm cautiously around the corner. His eyes had become accustomed to the murky gloom, and he could see pretty well by now.

He lined up the Glock’s sights tightly along the near side of the aisle, about one foot off floor level, and waited.

*****

Joe Bonetti arrived to the aisle less than ten seconds later.

He paused, realizing that if the shooter was in aisle, he would be exposing himself as he turned the corner. He considered going back and around, but that was now too far and would take too long. Furthermore, it was unlikely that this jerkoff would have night vision capability. So he should be able to see the other guy better and, most importantly, first.

He lay prone and carefully, gradually, began easing his head around the corner.

*****

Even in the obscurity, Billy Joe could see a faint reflection off the visor and night vision equipment as they rotated toward him about thirty feet away.

He waited until the head was almost fully turned, aimed for the center of where the face should be, and quickly fired off three rounds.

The helmet snapped backward, made savage contact with the floor behind, and lay still.

*****

Captain Holden had heard the fresh burst of fire. Sounded like a different gun, most likely a handgun.

“Lieutenant Chan. Any news?”

“Negative.”

Captain Holden’s feeling turned to resigned dread.

*****

Just as he knew when he was being actively hunted, Billy Joe knew when he no longer was.

He allowed himself to relax a little.

He moved back to where he had left the bag and rifle. He reloaded both his guns, drained the last of his water, and sat down on the floor, his back against the remains of the shattered cabinet.

*****

Captain Holden was cogitating furiously.

It just did not make any sense. Who was this old guy? Clearly, he was a well-trained stone cold killer. But why did he target a very specific, similarly aged Southeast Asian man and assassinate him in broad daylight in a shopping mall full of witnesses? And who were the two mall security guard impersonators? If they had been sent to kill the old guy, why did they not just do it instead of waiting for him to first kill the Asian guy? Were they somehow involved with the Asian guy, and if so, how and why? And how did the old guy know that the two mall security guard impersonators where there to get him?

These were the main questions.

The fate of the three real security guards, the third bodyguard, and the multiple killed and wounded police officers was unfortunate, but, in a grim way, logically explainable and almost predictable given what had transpired beforehand.

And the only person left alive who could provide any answers was the old guy himself.

*****

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