They whispered amongst themselves. For an announcement of lesser magnitude, they said, it might have been a more suitable venue.

It was natural for them to complain. Nothing less was expected by those who organized the event; indeed, the interns who had arranged for the seating and distributed the press passes would have been stunned by anything approaching a compliment. When the frequent interruptions led to a substantial delay in the proceedings, few were surprised. Nevertheless, every effort was made to accommodate them. Additional chairs were brought in for the latecomers, and the proffered urns of coffee and pitchers of chilled water were refilled at a near constant rate. Ornate chandeliers hung high above their heads, providing the requisite amount of light. The cameramen complained anyway, but to no avail. That the room might have been graced by natural light was never a consideration. The six massive windows were wired shut for security purposes, and draped in flowing burgundy curtains that perfectly matched the color of the carpet. Above the sparkling crystal chandeliers, a forgotten pair of star-shaped balloons drifted absently across the gilded ceiling. Although the walls were missing the usual procession of paintings, they were replaced, and perhaps surpassed, by towering marble pillars in the Corinthian order.

For the most part, they agreed that the usual trappings of power were in evidence. What the room was clearly lacking, though, was space. They were wedged tightly against one another, and the shared discomfort was noticed by all. As the hearing progressed, however, the vocal complaints began to subside. Soon they were scribbling furiously and shooting pointed glares at those who continued to talk. Finally, the hushed whispers faded away completely, and they listened with rapt attention to the man who was currently holding court, standing before a backdrop of his seated peers.

�Today I believe we have reached a consensus among some of the most respected and influential people in Washington, including those whose input is vital to the president�s decision making process. I am fully confident that he will react favorably to many of the conclusions the committee has reached this afternoon. I�ll take one more question� I see you fidgeting over there, Susan. Let�s have it.�

A small peel of laughter rippled through the assembled crowd of print and television reporters as the CNN correspondent blushed slightly and posed her question to the man behind the podium. �Senator Levy, what do you hope to achieve by delivering this ultimatum to the interim Iranian government, and do you see this administration going down the same path that led to a controversial outcome in Iraq?�

The senator frowned at that last addition, a fact not lost on anyone present. �First of all, our goal here is to make clear to those in power in Tehran that the United States will not sit idly by while preparations are being put in place to cause direct harm to the people of this nation. We have not � and I�d like to be very clear on this point � yet considered the possibility of armed conflict, or even the staging of troops in the region, for that matter.�

Levy paused for a moment, ostensibly to give the impression that he was gathering his thoughts. In reality, it was just for effect. �At this point, we have concrete evidence that Iran has restarted the process of refining uranium for use in nuclear weapons, proof that was lacking when the decision was made to remove Saddam Hussein from power. As it stands, the president has refused to recognize the new leadership in Tehran, and I � we � support him fully in this decision. Additionally, we now have tentative commitments from President Chirac of France and Prime Minister Berlusconi of Italy. Both leaders have assured us that, if some agreement for partial compensation can be reached, all companies in their respective countries with oil interests in Iran are prepared to terminate their contracts and pull out of the region at the earliest available opportunity. Although these implementations are predicated on talks that are scheduled to take place in late November, this is a huge step towards reinforcing the sanctions that are already in place. Let me assure you that our efforts to form a united front against Iran�s nuclear ambitions will not be deterred.�

Levy paused again, the momentary lull inviting a wave of clamorous voices. Ignoring them, he focused his gaze on the attractive young correspondent in the third row. �In response to the second part of your question, Susan, I�d like to stress that we�re looking for strong U.N. participation in this matter. The proof of weapons production that I referred to is currently in the hands of the Security Council, and once the examination of that evidence is finished early next month, we expect that there will be a strong resolution and condemnation of the actions that have been undertaken by the new regime. No, I�m sorry, that�s all,� he said as another storm of voices erupted in his direction. �Thank you for being here today.�

Senator Daniel Levy stepped down from the dais amidst a flurry of questions that he had no intention of answering. A four and a half hour hearing was bad enough, but the raised voices of twenty-six fellow senators and the incessant blinding light of camera bulbs had left him with a throbbing head and a dull pain in his stomach. Levy was sure that his recently diagnosed ulcer was a direct result of the trouble brewing once more in the Middle East. The recent death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, had resulted in the appointment of an ultraconservative cleric on decidedly unfriendly terms with the United States. Despite his comments of a few moments ago, he was fully aware that the possibility of war in the region was once again looming on the horizon.

He left the Caucus Room and took a sharp right, moving at a brisk stride down two brief flights of marble stairs. As he walked, he was joined by his chief advisor, Kevin Aidan.

�So, we�re about to start this nonsense all over again,� Levy said. He ran a hand through his thick silver hair and spoke under his breath, ever distrustful of his small but highly efficient Secret Service detail. Members of Congress were not usually entitled to this level of protection, but as the Senate Majority Leader and the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, special attention was paid to his need for security, especially in the wake of recent events. �We spent billions in Iraq so our citizens could be treated to images of their sons and daughters dying on network television. What the hell did we get in return, Kevin?�

Aidan glanced at the senator out of the corner of his eye. He had to look down slightly, as Levy was at least a full head shorter than himself. He idly wondered if the senator harbored any lingering insecurities over his slight stature. On the other hand, one of the most powerful men in Washington need not concern himself with such trivialities. After all, Aidan reminded himself. That�s what I�m here for.

�Sir, the best bet right now is to stick to the party line. Maybe you can try to distance yourself from this later, but you�re currently seen as Brenneman�s biggest supporter. We�re already running polls � if public support starts to swing the other way, we�ll see about revising our stance.�

Levy raised an eyebrow, somewhat amused at this statement. Although he highly valued his advisor�s input, the senator always considered Aidan�s youth and inexperience when weighing his opinion. He had just appeared on national television throwing the full weight of his office behind the president; he could hardly reverse himself at any point in the near future without looking like a traitor to his party. Besides, he strongly believed that he was doing the right thing, and while he didn�t mind complaining in private, he knew that he would endure as much political fallout as was necessary to prevent Iran from taking its place on the nuclear stage.

These thoughts faded from his mind as they passed through the elaborate marble rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building. Levy never ceased to be amazed by the beauty of the architecture and the exquisite craftsmanship that was obviously put into the structure; it constantly reminded him of the importance of his job and how fortunate he was to be in his position. He was snapped from his reverie by the sound of a Secret Service agent speaking quietly into his sleeve. The man looked up at Levy.

�Sir, they�re ready to go. We�ll be moving in the second vehicle.� The senator nodded slightly in response and moved through the entrance to the building. The weather outside was customary for Washington D.C. in mid-October; blustery winds forced a light rain to fall at a sharp angle, threatening to tear away the umbrella that Aidan held over his employer�s head. The agents escorted the senator quickly to the second of two white Suburbans.

Levy knew that the first vehicle contained four men armed with automatic weapons, and that the head of the detail would ride in the passenger seat of the second. He vaguely recalled that there would also be a chase car following at a discrete distance. When he glanced down the street to his left, however, he could see no evidence of any such vehicle.

When the detail was first assigned to him, the senator had thought that the highly visible presence of his guardians was both unnecessary and embarrassing. He had said as much to the president himself, but when the reason behind the changes was made clear to him, the senator agreed that the threat appeared to justify the additional security.

That didn�t mean that he had to like it, though. Strict limits had been set on his Secret Service detail; the agents were not permitted to step foot inside his residence except in case of an emergency, and his daily commute was not to be affected in any way. The 25 minute drive from his office to his home across the river was one of the few quiet, uninterrupted parts of his day, and he would not have the placidity of the moment spoiled by sirens and the blared horns of angry, displaced motorists. Although the lead agent had strenuously objected to these conditions, Senator Levy was one of the most influential politicians in Washington, and they weren�t really conditions, anyway; they were demands. In the end, a five-minute telephone call had settled the dispute.

The watchful agents that comprised his detail were not paid to like the senator, which was a good thing, as they didn�t. They were responsible for his safety, though, so they were relieved as always that the seven second transfer from the Russell Building to the Suburban was uneventful; it was a maxim in their business that the principal was always most at risk when entering or leaving a vehicle. In their rush, the experienced agents failed to notice the young, well-dressed man who had followed them outside. He waited for the small convoy to pull away from the curb and for the chase car to follow fifteen seconds later before descending the marble steps of the Russell building and moving slowly down Constitution Avenue. Along the way, he lifted his own umbrella against the rain and extracted a slim cellular phone from his coat pocket

The man who answered the call chose to ignore the tinge of arrogance that accompanied the expected message. At the same time, he couldn�t help but feel a sliver of contempt for the Congressional staffer whose name he had been given two months earlier, and on whose information he was now completely reliant.

He waited patiently in the driver�s seat of a black, rented Chevy Tahoe on Independence Avenue, just opposite the James Forrestal Federal Building. The vehicle was legally parked, with 60 minutes remaining on the meter, and the tint in the windows was not of such a degree to cause suspicion among any unusually attentive traffic officers. The man had extensive experience in such matters, and although he recognized the inherent danger of his occupation, he was not one to leave the elements he could control to chance.

Adhering to this principle, he had carefully selected the place in which to position his vehicle. From the intersection with L�Enfant Promenade, Independence Avenue ran west for almost three miles. From his location, he had a clear view of two traffic lights. The closest was approximately 65 meters away. The second light was at least another 200 meters down the road, which placed it well beyond the range of his weapon and his ability.

The traffic signals held his interest for only a moment, as his preparations were more reliant on the rush hour traffic and the inclement weather than anything else. He couldn�t depend on the lights to work in his favor, as his proficiency with computers was not so extensive as to allow him to break into the Department of Transportation�s signal grid undetected. At the same time, the other two variables were natural occurrences that never failed to bring D.C. traffic to a near standstill.

His cell phone beeped and he looked down at the numbers. The target was less than two minutes out.

�So, what are you doing this weekend?�

Megan Lawrence lifted an eyebrow and turned in the seat to look at her partner, Frank Benecelli. They had been paired together for three months, and she had been getting the feeling that he was working up the courage to ask her out.

�Why? You have plans for us?� she asked with a grin. Benecelli blushed and muttered something under his breath. Megan thought it was amusing that an Italian-American could be so introverted and awkward in conversation, but she couldn�t deny that she found him reasonably attractive. It was a moot point anyway, as she did have plans for the weekend; Sarah was celebrating her sixth birthday on Saturday, and both mother and daughter were excitedly looking forward to spending the day together

Sweeping her long red hair back from her face and into a haphazard ponytail, Megan focused her sparkling green eyes on the vehicles ahead and her peripheral vision. Silently, she rebuked herself for letting her thoughts wander. There was no room for that in this job. Besides, she had the next two days off and would soon have plenty of time to relax

�God, look at this weather. It�s days like this that remind me Washington used to be a malarial swamp,� Aidan complained. Senator Levy was distracted, staring out at the wind rippled surface of the Capitol Building�s reflecting pool. His stomach pains had not receded since the hearing adjourned, and he wondered if he should move his doctor visit up to next week. Better yet, he thought, maybe I should just quit this job altogether. Although he was aware that his retirement would devastate his ambitious chief advisor, the senator knew that nothing would please his wife more. Lately Elizabeth had been dropping hints about moving to the estate they had recently purchased in the rolling hills of Virginia, the state that had elected him to his lofty position, and her wishes seemed to be taking the form of demands with each passing day.

Still, Levy could not begrudge her this desire, as she had faithfully stood by him through a turbulent political career spanning nearly three decades. The house just outside of Charlottesville was in need of extensive remodeling, and a warm glow spread throughout his body at the thought of making a home there with his wife, and how much she would enjoy the process.

�Senator?� He broke from his thoughts and turned to peer at Kevin Aidan. �We need to talk about your meeting with the governor next week. He�s going to ask you about school funding, so I think we ought to��

�Later, Kevin. Let an old man rest for a moment,� Levy joked as he leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. The light drum of the rain on the roof of the vehicle dulled his senses as he drifted back into fantasies of retirement. He took no notice when the vehicle splashed through a miniature lake of rainwater as it made the sharp right turn onto Independence Avenue.

From the moment he received the second call, the man in the black Tahoe worked quickly but efficiently. His hands were steady as he peeled away the threadbare blanket covering the object on the seat next to him. Lifting the awkward rectangular weapon onto his lap, he flipped a latch to move the optical sight into place, then swung the firing-pin mechanism down into position.

What he held in his hands was known as the M202A1 66mm launcher, also designated as the Flash launcher by the U.S. military, for whom it was specially manufactured. This particular weapon had been conveniently lost during a live fire training exercise at Fort Bragg the previous spring with a full complement of three M74 rockets. The semi-automatic launcher was actually capable of firing four rockets in four seconds, but it was only issued with three, and the army�s investigation would have been far more extensive if ammunition not assigned to the missing weapon had also disappeared.

As the launcher was already loaded, he had twenty seconds to spare. He used this time to move himself and the bulk of the weapon simultaneously into the passenger seat. After extending the trigger into the firing position, he scanned his mirrors and peripheral vision. Through the rain streaking down his rear windshield, he saw the first of the two Suburbans approach.

The man took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Looping the strap into the crook of his right arm, he cracked the passenger side door and waited to see if fate would spare the life of Senator Daniel Levy.

As luck would have it, the first light was green. He breathed a soft curse as the convoy began to roll through the intersection, and so it was with a slight pang of relief that he watched as an errant motorcycle swerved directly in front of the lead Suburban. The driver braked hard to avoid clipping the bike, and the man holding the launcher in his lap heard a brief squeal of tires when the following vehicle stopped. In a quiet show of impiety, he thanked God with a fervent whisper and pushed out onto the sidewalk.

�Weapon! Move, Move, Move!� Heads snapped up as the shouted words came over the radio. The agents in the first vehicle swung frantically in their seats to search for the threat. Senator Levy was jolted awake from a light sleep, and he turned to his advisor with a confused expression. Reading panic in Aidan�s face, he immediately turned to look out of the rear window. The world around him was blocked out by sheets of rain. It was only then that he felt the first wave of paralyzing fear.

Spurred on by a surge of adrenaline, the young driver of the second vehicle broke protocol and attempted to maneuver around the first, but the sudden stop had left the vehicles too close together. He clipped the rear bumper of the lead Suburban, forcing the heavy SUV to grind to a halt. It was all the time the man needed. The weight of the launcher kept it steady on his shoulder as his eyes found the primary target. He squeezed the trigger and the first rocket screamed towards the second vehicle, its deadly path marked by a thin contrail of white smoke.

The senator saw a brief flash through the driving rain and closed his eyes as the agents screamed into their radios.

The man immediately adjusted his aim after he saw the projectile slam into the back end of the second Suburban. The M74 rocket was filled with 0.61 kilograms of thickened pyrophoric agent, known as TPA, with chemical properties similar to those of white phosphorus. The results were devastating to behold. Another rocket tore into the lead Suburban just seconds after the vehicle carrying the senator was reduced to a heap of smouldering metal. The particles expelled from the warhead�s casing ripped into nearby vehicles and passerby. One agent managed to get the rear door open just before the impact and was thrown 20 meters from the vehicle, his scorched body writhing on the damp pavement until he expired a few moments later.

The chaos was unimaginable on Independence Avenue, as the street was filled with people returning to work from their lunch hour. The screams of terrified onlookers were lost on the man as he turned his attention to the chase vehicle that had initiated the first warnings over the radio. The fact that he had fired two rockets within five seconds had given the agents in the last car little time to react, and he could see there were only two of them, one behind the wheel. He lifted the launcher, but immediately pulled it back down when he realized that the agent exiting the passenger side already had an MP5 submachine gun up at his shoulder. Benecelli squeezed off a three round burst that missed the assassin by inches, the 9mm slugs tearing into the red brick wall of the Arts and Industries building. Then Benecelli�s line of sight was blocked as his target moved behind the bulk of the Tahoe.

Meanwhile, the man with the launcher was beginning to feel the chance for escape rapidly slipping away. The angle at which he had parked the rented truck had given him a direct route to the National Mall through the Smithsonian�s Haupt Garden. Still shielded by the Tahoe, he took two steps back towards the wrought iron entrance, then turned to sprint through the gate and down the tree lined path. He stopped and turned once more before reaching the sharp right curve that led out to the Mall. His breath was coming hard, but his hands were steady as he checked to make sure that the final round was properly seated in the weapon. Then he lifted the launcher to his shoulder for the third and final time.

The rain was driving harder now, heavy curtains of water sweeping over the buildings and the approaching sidewalk, obscuring much of their view and drowning out the cries of the wounded. On the other side of the Tahoe, Agent Megan Lawrence moved carefully to the left, her standard issue Sig Sauer P229 up in a modified Weaver stance as she covered her advancing partner. Benecelli held the only automatic weapon in the vehicle, and she couldn�t help but realize how completely outgunned she was. Megan commanded her mind to remain clear as she focused on the slowly widening gap between the front windshield of the truck and the narrow path next to the Arts and Industries building. She did not think about her six-year-old daughter or the close friends she had just lost, although both thoughts were screaming for her attention. At that moment, all her awareness and considerable skill were focused on Benecelli as he began to edge around the front of the vehicle.

Her partner hesitated just before moving into position for the shot, and it was only then that Megan heard the terrible whine of the solid-fuel rocket as it sped down the path and into the passenger side door of the Tahoe. Standing frozen in place, she watched in horror as the triethylaluminum filler burned its way through the vehicle�s frame like it was made of plastic. Jagged pieces of metal coated in smouldering particles of TPA embedded themselves deep into Benecelli�s face and chest, and the last thing she heard were his screams of agony before her world faded to black.