THE RESTAURANT IN THE shopping mall was not open yet, but you could see that he was already there, standing behind the counter, talking on the phone. He was dressed entirely in browns, a thin, very thin man who walked with a limp and who looked in profile like he did in the newspaper pictures. One glance and you knew he was the one. He was the one who shot the bound man in the head.

It was Vietnam of course, and Nguyen Noc Loan was then a general in the Vietnamese army and chief of police, and the shooting took place during the Tet offesive. Now he runs a restaurant cum pizza parlar in a Burke, Va., shopping mall, starting his day behind a phony gold gate. At precisely 11 o'clock in the morning, the former general put his key into the lock, turned it and the gate went up into the ceiling. The general was open for business.

The night before the story about him had been on the air and in the paper. The papers said that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service had initiated proceedings that could lead to General Loan's deportation. Just where you would deport him, however, is a question no one can answer.His old country, you can be sure, would do to him what Loan himself once did to the frightened Vietnamese man in the checked shirt. Like Thomas Wolfe, but for different reasons, General Loan cannot go home again.

Along with the story in the newspaper was the picture of Loan holding that snub-nosed revolver to the temple of a man captured during the raging Tet offensive - the man with the plaid shirt, with his eyes looking like he was squinting. His hands were bound behind him. And then later, ther was a film of it on television.In the film, suddenly, it was different. In the film, the general is talking to someone and he simply walks over to the bound man and shoots him and then walks away. Just like that. Not so much as a by your leave. He just walks aways and the man lies there dead and bleeding in the road. The film is like a kick to the gut.

So that night and the next day there is the usual debate about the whole thing. The U.S. government says this might be moral turpitude on the general's part which is something that the kids were saying of the U.S. government during the Vietnam war. The government is saying maybe the general broke the law of his own country - shooting a man in the head while his hands are bound. Others are saying the general did what he had to do. It was war and, as a different general observed about a different war, it is hell. But what exactly that has to do with shooting a man whose hands are tied is beyond me.

So I am in the car and heading to Burke, and Loan's restaurant. On television they say it is a restaurant, something continental you think, Les Trois Continents, by name. But it is something you walk into from a rather empty mall. It says "Pizza" on the front although it sells more than that.

When the general turns the key and brings the gate up, a young man, his hair cropped very close, comes in. He is wearing a cowboy hat and cowboy boots and some sort of denim vest. He wants a beer and takes the front booth. Then comes a man from the mall and then a younger man carrying what looks like a camera case. He shakes hands with Loan. He talks with him and shakes hands with him and it looks like someone who thinks he has met a celebrity. Then Loan goes to plug in the juke box.

Steadily, the customers come. They come from the hairdresser's next door and the florist and the telephone boutique where earlier everyone had been watching a video-taped lesson on how to sell telephones.

Maybe the story is no longer Loan. He is what he is and he is, after all, our creation. He cites as a character witness General Ky, the man who said he admired Hitler. And he, in turn, could probably cite some American statesmen. If you believe in domino theories, here's some that topple backwards - form Saigon to Burke, Va. There is no way out for us.

But you have to wonder about the customers. Sitting there, in the customerless mall, you wonder if they have seen the films and know about the man behind the counter. You wait for someonw to come out so you can ask. A woman crosses into the restaurant from a dress shop. You ask her. Did she know? Yes. Does she care? No.

"He's a terrific guy and he serves good food," she says. "The mall stands behind him."

General Loan - still keeping the customers happy.