PART I: GATHERING INTEL

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The streets of Charlotte were practically empty. It was an overcast and foggy Christmas day. The few vehicles out on the streets contained people making trips to see relatives; otherwise, there was little traffic. So little that a dark blue Mercedes van parked for several hours on the side of an otherwise empty street attracted some odd looks from passers-by. Too many looks for the liking of its occupants, Federal agents Maynard and Brett.

Maynard sat in the driver's seat, looking like nothing so much as an impatient divorced mother, waiting for her children to finish their holiday visit so she could take them back home. She acted as if she were sipping a latte, though she did not actually do so—she wanted her blood free of caffeine in case things turned ugly.

Concealed in the back of the van, where three passenger seats normally would have been, Agent Brett hunched over surveillance equipment focused on the apartment building across the street. The thermal cameras gave him a picture of what the occupants on the side facing him were doing, and the three laptops spread around him showed the surveillance feeds of the U.A.V.s that circled high above, unnoticed in the misty sky.

Close at hand was his heavily modified Walther WA-2000, with its black synthetic stock and telescopic thermal scope. It may have been an older weapon, but Brett's opinion was that sometimes the older weapons were better—they had been tested out by more people, and there had been more time to work out all the glitches. It was ready to go at a moment's notice if he needed it; but he hoped they would be able to set up the shot in a more leisurely fashion.

The only sounds in the van were the very faint buzz of the electronics and the occasional crackling, static-filled strains of "Here We Come A-Wassailing" that they were picking up over their surveillance radios. The two agents did not speak unless it was necessary. Superfluous speech would only waste time and perhaps distract them. A few times a light rain—almost a thick mist—would settle on the city, and then Agent Maynard would run the windshield wipers, but this was the only activity that occurred for several hours.

Then, suddenly, Agent Brett snapped: "He's moving!" His eyes did not leave the monitor as he said this, but his hand moved towards the rifle beside him.

Agent Maynard started the engine.

"Left stairwell, headed for the eastern exit of the lot," Brett called out; and then, a minute later: "Gold Civic, license plate FUH 8893." He said all this without emotion of any kind; quickly, but without any particular urgency. Everything was completely under control.

"Roger," said Agent Maynard, pulling the van onto the road that ran parallel to the apartment complex. She reached the intersection, and looked to her left, where she saw the Honda pulling out of the lot. It turned left, heading out of the city. She waited, so as not to make it obvious to the other driver that she was following him. Then, quite casually, she pulled out and gave pursuit.

The Honda wound its way seemingly aimlessly through several streets and past several complexes. The residue of the fog was not as thick as the eerie grey cloud that had pervaded the city on Christmas Eve, but it still lessened visibility somewhat. At length, the gold car made its way to I-77, and it was not long in being followed by the dark blue van—though still at sufficient distance as to not draw attention. There was no need to follow too closely—the U.A.V.s were already triangulating above the target vehicle which Agent Brett had now set them to tracking. It was a high-tech—and high-stakes—form of falconry.

Maynard and Brett drove for quite some time, across that scenic view where the Bill Lee Freeway crosses Lake Norman, and eventually into the rural northern parts of the state, where they exited the interstate and wound through the countryside. At last, the drone feeds showed that the vehicle had come to a halt at a lonely, secluded cabin, surrounded by large evergreen trees.

Agent Maynard stopped the van at the edge of the thick grove, and Agent Brett hopped out, leaving her to run the communications and surveillance equipment, and keep him informed of the target's movements. He took with him only a specialized smart phone that gave him the U.A.V. feed, and the high-powered rifle. He walked calmly into the forested area, noting how perfectly everything had been set up for the operation he was executing.

Agent Maynard put a call in to the "clean-up" men—a S.W.A.T. team of sorts who would arrive once the job was done to investigate the area. She told them to move into a holding pattern and await her go-ahead. Then she turned her attention back to the feeds, and spoke into her mic, giving Agent Brett a play-by-play of the target's movements.

"Thermal feed shows he's still in the house, seated, dining room table-- you should have a shot lined up through the dining room window at the back of the house—your discretion."

"Roger that," said Brett, who had already made his way through the silent forest to the edge of the unused farmland that separated him from the little cabin. He went prone, and set up the rifle, carefully aligning the crosshairs with the indicated window. But then, just as he was lining up the shot, the target moved abruptly from the table and out of view. He still had him on thermal, and if he had his 50. Caliber anti-materiel rifle, he could have made the shot through the wall. But with a 7.62, such a shot was impossible, and so he waited, calmly, listening to his partner's clinical description of each of the mundane actions the target performed.

At last, she reported he was moving for the back door, and Brett trained his sights accordingly. A moment later, the man himself appeared, and for the first time, Brett had a good look at his quarry in person. He was a man of medium-build, with a thick beard and a large gut. He wore a camouflage fatigue jacket and a pair of blue jeans with cowboy boots. On his hip was a holstered stainless steel revolver.

It all squared with every briefing Brett had attended in preparation for this assignment. Months of intelligence gathered, of phone-lines tapped, of digital records hacked, of midnight stakeouts, and the collection and analysis by many trained security operatives of endless amounts of SIGINT, HUMINT, and FININT all built up to this one moment when he would cap the work of hundreds of operatives at every level of government. The Jury was in, the Foreman had read the decision, and the Judge raised his gavel.

Brett pulled the trigger. The gavel fell. There was a loud "bang", and the Court pronounced its sentence.

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