Anita Zaid folded her arms as she glared across the cavernous lobby of the Babylon Hotel. Not for the first time, she found herself hoping that the target of her righteous anger would suddenly come down with some sort of exotic fever, something specific to overly glamorous, thunder-stealing network reporters. Better yet, maybe her menacing stare could somehow infect the woman with subconscious doubt, leading to an irrepressible stutter whenever she stepped in front of the cameras. Anita momentarily brightened with this notion but knew it was asking a lot; unfortunately, Penelope Marshall had a reputation for handling the crushing pressure of televised journalism with the skill of a seasoned pro, despite her relative youth.
It should have been perfect. Anita was fortunate enough to have the best source possible, a cousin assigned to the Ministry of Defense. The man's access was incredible and well worth a generous stipend, which her employer would have gladly paid. In this respect, however, she was lucky again. All her cousin's assistance cost her was the occasional visit to his modest home on the outskirts of Baghdad, where he was given to bad cooking and good-natured but endless complaints about the Americans, much to the dismay of his long-suffering wife. His latest tip had arrived just forty minutes earlier, and for once, Anita was in the perfect position to act on it, bored senseless and lounging over cold coffee in a Green Zone café with Tim Hoffman, her American cameraman. Twenty minutes and a couple of irritating stops at various checkpoints had seen her out of the zone and into the leafy streets of the Jadriya residential district, the unlikely site of the Babylon Hotel.
As she looked for a hole in the building crowd, Anita brushed her hair back from her face and sighed in mounting frustration. She had worked for London-based Independent Television for five years now and was beginning to wonder how much longer she could put up with the long hours and low pay. Her position as ITV's Middle East correspondent was a natural fit, as she'd been born and raised in Mosul before immigrating to England at the age of seventeen, where she'd earned a BA with honors in English at Cambridge. Intellectually speaking, she knew she was too young to be burned out --- she had just turned thirty-six, after all --- but at the same time, she couldn't help but feel that she might be missing out on better-paying, less- demanding opportunities. The desire to move on to something better had grown stronger in recent months, and days like today definitely didn't help.
The trouble had started soon after they'd arrived at the hotel. Spotting the bulky black cases in Hoffman's hands, the manager had stopped them as soon as they'd walked in, insisting that Zaid pay for "a room" if she intended to set up camp in his lobby. What the man really wanted was glaringly obvious and not at all surprising. Anita was very familiar with the way things had worked before the American invasion, when bribes had been the rule rather than the exception. In the months leading up to the war, Saddam's Information Ministry had strictly controlled the movements and access of every Western journalist, and she had quickly learned to adapt, though not before enduring several heated arguments with the tightfisted accountants at ITV.
Unfortunately, the Babylon's manager had demanded immediate payment in cash, which Anita didn't have on hand, and the delay had given somebody time to send word up to Marshall's room. Penny Marshall was CNN's latest and brightest star, a twenty-something blonde from New Zealand. After hearing the news, the young woman had somehow managed to hustle downstairs in the space of three minutes, looking like she'd just stepped out of make-up. As it turned out, her presence at the hotel was pure coincidence. Her camera men --- she had two of them, Anita noticed, with a twinge of jealousy --- had followed her down a few minutes later, shabbily dressed men with identical beer bellies. On arrival, they'd staked their claim in loud and spectacular fashion, which was exactly what Anita had hoped to avoid. The presence of both camera crews had opened the floodgates, and now every journalist in the city seemed to be aware of the man's imminent arrival. Zaid had clearly suffered the most; what had started as a respectable shot was now obscured by a rectangular lens hood and the heavily teased hair of the regional correspondent for CBS News.
"Anita, we've got to find something better," Hoffman finally said, poking his bearded face out from behind his camera. "From this position, I'll have him on-screen for less than five seconds, and that's a best-case scenario. The interview's out, you know. He won't hear one word over this bloody lot."
She turned away, rolling her eyes in exasperation. Despite having been born and raised in New Hampshire, Hoffman had been adopting British speech patterns for as long as she'd known him. At first, she had shrugged it off, thinking it was a joke, but then, less than two weeks into their partnership, she'd been disheartened to learn just how seriously he took his British "heritage." Anita had coached him against the annoying habit on several occasions, but this time she let it slide and began weighing her options, trying to visualize the shot from various locations. The second-floor balcony was no good; from where she was standing, she could see that the angle was all wrong, and besides, there seemed to be a number of security men blocking the stairs. At the same time, pulling back wouldn't help in the least; in fact, it would put her on the outskirts, where her separation from the crowd, ironically, would be too great. Viewers wanted a sense of excitement, a sense of being in the thick of things, but they also wanted exclusive material. A good compromise was nearly impossible to find, and Hoffman wasn't helping at all.
"You know, I'd be surprised if the man even shows up," he remarked in a languid drawl. "Once he finds out the press is here, he'll probably stay in the zone. Besides, if he was coming, he would have been here an hour ago."
"He'll come," Anita said, trying to push down her own rising doubts. Although the Sunni-dominated insurgency had been surprisingly quiet of late, the number of attacks had been increasing steadily since 2003, rising at a rate of approximately 14 percent per year. In accordance with the growing threat, Baghdad's major hotels --- especially those that catered primarily to Westerners --- had substantially enhanced their collective security measures, but the danger was still very real. "This place is like a fortress, Tim. Didn't you see the gates outside? Besides, the man has bodyguards, police escorts ...He'll come. You'll see."
As Zaid maneuvered for position in the lobby, radio calls were steadily streaming out to the static posts that had already been set up on both ends of Abu Nuwas Street, 300 yards in either direction. Inside the building, the reporters had been watched from the start by a rotating group of plainclothes officers with the Iraqi Police Service. The men who comprised the advance team had been carefully selected for their religious and political affiliations; all were Shiite Muslims, and most belonged to the Dawa Party, not unlike the man they were assigned to protect. From their position on the second floor, the security officers were able to maintain a constant watch on the crowd below. As they scanned for suspicious activity, the frequent reports they muttered into their radios were routed straight through to the lead vehicle of the approaching convoy.
Five minutes after the advance team vetted the group of reporters, a black Ford Explorer squealed to a halt in front of the building. The doors swung open, revealing four additional security officers. Each man carried an M4A1 assault rifle and an M9 Beretta pistol, weapons supplied by the U.S. Department of Defense. They climbed out of the vehicle and scattered, two moving across the road as the other two formed an identical pattern in front of the Babylon Hotel. The goal was to set up a hasty perimeter for the car that would follow, a close-quarter protection technique perfected by the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service many years earlier. Having learned the maneuver from their American training officers, the guards put it to use with rapid precision, calling in on a dedicated radio link once the area was secure. A white Mercedes sedan appeared a moment later, hunkering low on its wheels, gliding to a gentle halt beside the curb. A security officer reached for the door handle; the man stepped into the street, carefully avoiding a minefield of muddy puddles. The officers converged, and the man was swept from view.
Inside the building, Anita Zaid was navigating the outskirts of the crowd when the reporters pressed forward without warning, their voices erupting in a torrent of unintelligible questions.
"Oh, shit," Hoffman said. "Come on, we've got to --- "
"No! We do it right here." Anita swore under her breath, furious at being caught out of position, but determined to make the best of it. She turned her back to the crowd and fixed her hair, checked her mic, and smoothed her shirt in one fast motion. "Give me the count, Tim. Let's go. We'll make it work."
As Hoffman settled the camera onto his shoulder, Anita felt herself slipping into the mode she knew so well: restrained enthusiasm, shoulders back, chin up . . . She was completely calm, a poised professional. This was the best part of her job, and as she looked into the lens and silently composed her introduction, she was reminded of why she loved her work so much.
"Okay, you're on in five, four --- "
Hoffman's voice was suddenly drowned out by a thunderous boom overhead. Confined by the building's walls, the sound was strangely muffled, and Anita didn't immediately recognize it for what it was. Apparently, neither did anyone else; they were all looking up in confusion, except for the visitor's bodyguards, who were already dragging their charge back to the doors. The noise was almost like thunder, but sharper, not as prolonged. . . .
And then came the second explosion.
Turning to the right, she saw it unfold with terrible clarity. A massive fireball emerged from the eastern stairwell, engulfing Penny Marshall, her crew, and a dozen bystanders in a blossoming cloud of orange fire. Anita had no time to react as something hard and hot heaved her into the air, twisting her limbs in directions they were simply not designed for.
When she finally hit the ground, she did so awkwardly, something sharp lancing up her right arm. She blacked out for a split second, and when she came back, the pain was the first thing she noticed, but it was more than pain; it was pure agony.
She hurt all over, but her injuries, as bad as they were, were eclipsed by the surrounding images. She couldn't hear for some reason, and the silent scenes played out in a nightmarish collage: bloodied arms and splayed fingers tearing the air, mouths stretching open in silent screams, the dancing, blazing figures of those who'd been closest to the opposite stairwell.
It was just too much. Too much, too fast. Anita tried to let out her own scream of horror and pain, but it lodged in her throat. She squeezed her eyes shut in an attempt to block out what she was seeing, but it was too late; the images were already seared into her mind. If that wasn't enough, an elusive piece of information was pressing against her subconscious, trying to inform her of a more serious problem.
And then she realized she didn't hurt anymore. The knowledge swept over her in a terrible wave. No pain meant no chance . . . She didn't know where that thought had come from, but it played over and over in her mind like a terrible mantra, and she knew it was right. No pain, no chance. No pain, no chance. No pain...
She desperately wanted to feel something, anything, but her surroundings were already slipping away. As the darkness moved in, she wasn't sure if the debris falling around her was real or part of a panic- induced hallucination. Pieces of plaster and marble were dropping down from the ceiling, smaller chunks at first, and then giant slabs of heavy material, crashing down to the blood-streaked floor.
Only a few seconds had passed, but no one was dancing anymore; the bodies lay still, black figures wreathed in orange flames. Anita tried to move her arms, her eyes fixed on the shattered main entrance and the open air beyond, but nothing was working.
Excerpted from THE ASSASSIN © Copyright 2008 by Andrew Britton. Reprinted with permission by Kensington. All rights reserved.