Authors: Barbara Taylor Bradford
Table of Contents
To Bob, as always, with all my love
THE CRITICS LOVE
NEW YORK TIMES
BESTSELLING AUTHOR BARBARA TAYLOR BRADFORD
“Barbara Taylor Bradford can always be relied on
to tell a good story.”
The Chattanooga Times
“Bradford is a sensitive and intelligent writer.”
âLos Angeles Herald Examiner
“Bradford has a sharp eye for detail,
her characters own some complexity, and
there's a knowing quality to observations
on how people work.”
“[Bradford is] an icon
of the contemporary novel.”
(Chase City, Va.)
A MATTER OF INTEGRITY
Kosovo, August 1998
The three of us sat in a small copse situated at the far end of the village, taking shelter from the blistering heat. It was bosky and cool on this scorching summer's day.
The jeep was parked out on the road nearby, and I peered toward it, frowning slightly, wondering what had happened to Ajet, our adviser, guide, and driver. He had gone on foot to the village, having several days before arranged to meet an old school friend there, who in turn would take us to see the leaders of the K.L.A. According to Ajet, the Kosovo Liberation Army had their main training camp in the vicinity of the village, and Ajet had assured us in Pe
, and then again on the drive here, that the leaders would be in the camp, and that they would be more than willing to have their photographs taken for transmission to newspapers and magazines around the world. “Everyone should know the truth, should know about our cause, our just and rightful cause,” Ajet had said to us time and again.
When he had left the copse ages ago, he had been smiling cheerfully, happy at the idea of meeting his old friend, and I had watched him step out jauntily as he walked down the dusty road in a determined and purposeful manner. But that had been over three hours ago, and he had still not returned, and this disturbed me. I could not help wondering if something unforeseen, something bad, had happened to the friendly young Kosovar who had been so helpful to us.
I rose and walked through the trees, shading my eyes with my hand and looking down the dirt road. There was no sign of Ajet, and, in fact, there was very little activity at all. But I waited for a short while longer, hoping he would appear at any moment.
My name is Valentine Denning, and I'm a New Yorker born and bred, but now I base myself in Paris, where I work as a photojournalist for Gemstar, a well-known international news-photo agency. With the exception of my grandfather, no one in my family ever thought I would become a photojournalist. When I was a child, Grandfather had spotted my desire to record everything I saw and bought me my first camera. My parents never paid much attention to me, and what I would do when I grew up never seemed to cross their minds. My brother Donald, to whom I was much closer in those days and tended to bully since he was younger, was forever after me to become a model, a job that held no attraction for me whatsoever. Donald kept pointing out that I was tall and slim, with long legs and an athletic build, as if I didn't know my own body. I know I'm not pretty enough, but at least I don't look too bad in the pictures Jake and Tony have taken of me. But I'm not much into clothes; I like T-shirts, khaki pants, white cotton shirts, and bush jackets, workmanlike clothes that are perfect for the life I lead.
I'm thirty-one years old, constantly traveling, living out of a suitcase, and then there are the crazy hours, the lack of comfort, even of the most basic of amenities, when I'm on the front lines covering wars and other disasters, not to mention the danger I often find myself facing. But I prefer this life to walking down a catwalk, showing off Paris couture.
Turning away from the road at last, I went back through the trees to rejoin Jake Newberg and Tony Hampton, comrades-in-arms, as Tony calls us. I think of these two men as my family; we've worked together for several years now and we're inseparable. Jake is my best friend, and Tony has graduated from best friend to lover in the past year. The three of us go everywhere together, and we always make sure we are on the same assignments for our news-photo agencies.
I gazed at Tony surreptitiously for a moment, thinking how fit and healthy he looked as he sat on part of a felled tree trunk, loading two of his cameras with rolls of new film. Tony, who is British, is ten years older than me. Stocky and muscular, he inherited his mother's Black Irish good looks, and he is a handsome and charismatic man. But it's his masculinity, his potent sexuality, that women find most appealing, even overwhelming, and certainly irresistible, as I have discovered.
Considered to be one of the world's great war photographers, of the same ilk as the late Robert Capa, he is something of a risk taker when it comes to getting his pictures. This does not unduly worry me, although I know it gives Jake Newberg cause for concern; he has discussed it with me frequently of late.
I eyed Jake, sitting on the grass with his back to a tree, looking nonchalant as he made notes in the small blue leather notebook he always carries with him. Jake is also an American, “a Jew from Georgia” is the way he likes to describe himself. At thirty-eight, he is also one of the top war photographers, a prizewinner like Tony. I've won many awards myself but I've never attempted to put myself in their league, although Tony and Jake say I belong there, that I'm just as good as they are.
Jake is tall, lean, with a physical toughness about him that makes him seem indestructible; anyway, that is the way I view him. He's an attractive man with an expressive face, blondish curly hair, and the most vivid blue eyes I've ever seen. Yet despite his puckishness and the mischievous twinkle that often glints in those eyes, I long ago discovered that Jake is the most compassionate of men. And I've come to appreciate his understanding of the complexities of the human heart and the human frailties we are all afflicted with.
Tony glanced up as he became aware of me hovering over him. “What is it?” he asked, frowning slightly. “Is something wrong?”
“I hope Ajet's all right, Tony, he's been goneâ”
“I'm sure he is,” Tony cut in quickly with a certain firmness, and then he gave me a reassuring smile. “It's very quiet, peaceful out there, isn't it?”
I nodded. “There's hardly any sign of life.”
“Doesn't surprise me. I think the village is probably half deserted by now. It's more than likely that a lot of locals have already left, are moving south ahead of the Serbian army, crossing the border into Albania as fast as they can.”
“You're probably right.” I sat down on the grass and fell silent, ruminating.
Jake glanced at me and then pinned his eyes thoughtfully on Tony. He said in a brisk tone, “Let's abandon this shoot, get the hell out of here, Tony. I've suddenly got a bad feeling.”
“But we won't get this chance again,” I felt bound to point out, sitting up straighter, staring at Jake.
Before either man could address my comment, Ajet suddenly reappeared. He came wandering in from the road looking as if he had no cares in the world. Not only did he seem unperturbed, he actually looked pleased with himself, almost smug.
“Everything's set up,” he announced in his perfect English, learned during the eight years he had lived and worked in Brooklyn, where his uncle and cousin still lived. “I saw my guy,” he continued, “I talked to him at length. We drank coffee. He has just closed his shop, gone out to the farmhouse in the fields at the other side of the village. The farmhouse is the K.L.A.'s headquarters now. He is going to bring the top leaders hereâ” Ajet broke off, looked at his watch, a cheap copy of a Rolex he had bought on the streets of Manhattan. He nodded to himself and finished, “One more hour. Yes, in one hour approximately they will come to the village. We will meet them at the shop. Now we relax, we wait here.”
“Good man!” Tony exclaimed, beaming at the young Kosovar. “And since we've got an hour to kill, we should eat. Let's get the bottled water and the sandwiches from the jeep.” Jumping up, Tony started to walk toward the road.
Ajet exclaimed, “No, no, Tony, please sit down! Please. Do not trouble yourself. I will go for the box of sandwiches and the water.”
I murmured, “I'm not hungry, but I would love some water.”
“No food for me either,” Jake said. “Just water, like Val.”
The young man hurried off, and I looked at Tony and then at Jake. “I might go down the road to the village, mosey around a bit. What do you think?”
Jake nodded but made no comment.
Tony walked over to me, took hold of my hand, and pulled me up from the grass. “I don't like you being out of my sight on a shoot like this, Val, especially since we don't really know the lay of the land around here. But I think it's okay; certainly Ajet doesn't appear to be worried. So go for a walk if you want.”
Slipping his arm around my waist, he brought me closer to him, held me in a loving embrace. Against my hair he murmured, “I'd like to get back to Belgrade tonight, Vee. There's something about your room at the hotel that I find most appealing.”
“It's because I'm in it,” I answered, laughing, and I kissed his cheek. “At least, that better be the reason.”
“You know it is.” Holding me away from him, he smiled, his black eyes dancing, and then almost immediately his expression turned serious. “When you get down there, keep your eyes peeled and stay on the perimeters of the village. That way you can get back here quickly, should it be necessary.”
I leaned into him. “Don't worry so much, I'll be fine. By the way, I haven't told you today that I love you, have I? But I do.”
“I love you too, Val.”
Ajet came back to the copse carrying a cardboard box. After placing it on the rocks, he opened it with a bit of a flourish and began to hand out the bottles of water, offering us the wrapped sandwiches from the hotel in Pe
. He went on fussing around us and behaving as though he were serving us at a grand banquet, and Tony and Jake exchanged amused, knowing looks and laughed.
I had been loading my camera, and I looked from one to the other and asked, “Am I missing something? What's the joke?”
“No joke,” Tony said, and blew me a kiss.
I focused my Leica 35mm on the ragtag collection of children ahead of me, a short way down the road. There were five of them in all, sitting together against a ruined wall. As I peered through my lens, I took in their pallor, their haunted expressions, and the fear clouding their innocent young eyes.
A heartbreaking little band, I thought, so forlorn on this bright, sunny day. A day for playing. Not a day for war. I repressed a sigh and began taking pictures.
A flurry of unexpected activity had begun to erupt all around me . . . exploding bombs, mortar fire, the rumble of tanks in the distance. The sound of gunfire was breaking the quietness of the afternoon, and I instantly abandoned the shots of the children. Closer by, I heard screams, the sound of running feet, people scattering, seeking safety. And then more screams filled the air, along with the staccato rat-a-tat of machine guns, and guns not so far away at that.
All of my senses were alerted to danger, and my chest tightened, and I sucked in my breath sharply when I saw Tony rushing out of the copse just behind me. I had left him there only a few minutes before, sitting on the rocks with Jake, eating a sandwich.
Now he was sprinting toward the line of fire.
I raced after him in his wake. And dimly, in the distance, I heard Jake behind us, shouting, “Val! Val! Don't follow him, for God's sake. It's too dangerous.”
I paid no attention.
Tony was our leader, and as always he was hell-bent on getting the best pictures, whatever war we were covering and no matter what the cost. Taking risks meant nothing to him. He seemed to thrive on danger, as well I knew. Tony was consistently in harm's way, and so were we because of him, although, as he frequently reminded us, we did have a choice of whether or not to follow him into the fray.
Once again Jake's voice carried to me above the noise of exploding shells and deafening artillery. “Val! Stop! Don't follow Tony.”
I did not stop. Nor did I look back. I was hard on Tony's heels, my camera held tightly in my hands, my mind, my entire being, concentrated on one thing: Doing my job as professionally as possible and getting the best pictures I could.
I could hear Jake coming after me and Tony. I realized his warnings of a moment earlier had been pushed to one side, indeed probably forgotten altogether. What he always wanted was to reach me, grab hold of me, and pull me out of danger.
Kalashnikovs were spraying bullets from all sides and the shelling was rapidly growing heavier; the summer air was thick with smoke and dust, the smell of cordite mingling with that of blood. And the stench of death was suddenly all-pervasive, numbing, and I wished we had never come here.
We had arrived late that morning to take a few simple photographs of the Kosovo Liberation Army's leaders; now, unexpectedly, we found ourselves in the midst of this violent battle between the K.L.A. and Serbian troops. I couldn't help wondering if this was a deadly ambush, a trap we had walked into with our eyes wide open. And where was Ajet? I hoped the young Kosovar had been smart enough to stay in the copse, and that hopefully he had driven the jeep into the trees for safety.
I knew that Serbian troops had been moving south for days, keeping up the deadliest fighting along the way, brutally driving the Kosovars out of their villages and towns. Thousands of terrified civilians were already on the move, a steady stream of humanity being cruelly driven from their homes and homeland, seeking safety across the borders in Albania and Macedonia.
Unexpectedly, a small boy appeared as if from nowhere, and began to totter forward on his thin little legs, heading directly into the line of fire, oblivious of the fighting and the melee spinning around him. I saw him out of the corner of my eye and reacted instantly. Veering to my right, I sped over to the child and threw myself on top of him, all of my instincts compelling me to protect him no matter what.
Bombs continued to explode, and pieces of shrapnel were swirling like deadly snowflakes. I covered the child with my body, put my arms around him, and held him tightly. He was shaking, and this did not surprise me one bit. I detested the sound of the guns and bombs myself; they were discordant and frightening, and most especially to a small child.
After a moment, I lifted my head and glanced up.
The sky was a perfect cerulean blue, without cloud, and the sun was shining brilliantly. Summer, I thought; I ought to be on vacation with Tony, not spread-eagle on the ground with my face pressed into the dirt in some obscure village in the Balkans.
Small rubbery legs and arms began to wriggle, eellike, under me, and I finally rolled off the child, jumped up, and pulled him to his feet.
He gazed up at me soulfully with a faint, perplexed smile; I smiled back and gave him a little push toward a young woman who was rushing toward us, calling out something I did not understand. With a nod to me and the words “Thank you” spoken in carefully pronounced but accented English, the young woman grabbed the boy's arm and dragged him away. It was obvious that she was scolding him as the two of them moved away from the shelling and went behind one of the houses on the side of the road.
I was glad to see the child taken to safety; at least I hoped he was safe. Many of the nearby houses and shops had been bombed, had crumbled into heaps of stones and bricks, and there were fires flaring everywhere.
Wondering where Tony and Jake were, I glanced around, suddenly saw their backs disappearing down a narrow side street. Immediately I jogged after them, trying to catch up, not wanting to be left behind.
The shelling had now reached a crescendo, and I knew Tony and Jake were heading right into the maelstrom, their cameras poised. I followed them into the fray, but for once, much to my surprise and consternation, I realized I did so against my better judgment. I had to admit to myself that for the first time in my association with Tony and Jake I had certain misgivings about following Tony's lead. A curious sense of foreboding swept over me, and this feeling was so unfamiliar, so unprecedented, I was startled, and I stopped in my tracks, discovering that for a split second I was unable to move forward. I was rooted to the spot.
Then the moment I'd had nightmares about, had forever dreaded, was suddenly and frighteningly upon me. Tony was going down, his camera flying out of his hands as he was struck by a stream of bullets. He was thrown backward by the impact, lay sprawled on the cobbled street, still and unmoving.
“Tony! Tony!” I screamed, and began to run to him.
Jake, who was closer, also shouted his name, and went on. “I'm coming to you, Tony, hang in there!” But the words had hardly left Jake's mouth, when he toppled forward and fell to the ground, hit by a sniper's bullets.
Without thinking about safety, I pressed on through the curtain of gunfire and shrapnel, heading toward my friends, knowing I must do something to help them, although I was not certain what I could do under these horrific circumstances.
Out of breath and panting, I paused momentarily next to Jake, bent over him, and gasped, “How bad are you?”
“I've been hit in my leg and hip, but I'm okay, don't worry about me. It's Tony I'm concerned about.”
“Me too,” I muttered, and sprinted away. When I reached Tony, I dropped to my knees next to him. “Darling, it's me.” As I spoke, I moved a strand of black hair away from his damp forehead and stared down into his face.
Finally he opened his eyes. “Go, Val. Find cover. Dangerous here,” he told me in a low, strangled voice.
“I'm not going to leave you,” I answered, looking him over swiftly. I was appalled at his gunshot wounds, and I felt myself filling with dread. He had been hit in his chest, his shoulder, and his legs, and seemingly other parts of his body as well, as far as I could make out. I was frightened and alarmed by all the blood; he was covered in it, as if he had been riddled with bullets. Oh God, oh God, he might not make it. I swallowed the cry that rose in my throat. It took all my self-control not to break down; I leaned over him, brought my face close to his. “I'm not leaving you, Tony,” I repeated, endeavoring to keep my voice as steady as possible.
“Go,” he whispered. Summoning all of his strength, he managed to say, “Get out. For me.” His voice was very shaky.
Realizing that Tony was becoming unduly agitated by my continuing presence, and knowing that I must try to find help for both men, I finally acquiesced. “All right, I'll go,” I murmured against Tony's face. I stroked his cheek. “Just stay calm, lay still. I won't be long. I'll be back with help very soon.”
I kissed him lightly and began to crawl away on my hands and knees, keeping low and close to the ground in an effort to dodge the flying bullets. I was making for a small building nearby, one of the few that remained standing, and I had almost reached it, when I felt the impact of a bullet slamming into my thigh. I slumped down in a heap, wincing in pain and clutching my Leica to my chest. Then I glanced down at my leg; blood was already oozing through my khaki pants, and it occurred to me that I wasn't going to be much use to either Tony or Jake.
Turning my head, I glanced over at Jake. “How're you doing?”
“Okay. Are you hurt very badly, Val?”
“I don't think so,” I replied, and hoped this was really the case. Although deep down I was fairly certain it wasn't, I nevertheless had a need to reassure Jake.
He asked over the battery of noise, “What about Tony?”
“He's not good,” I said, and my voice wobbled. “He's terribly shot up and in need of medical attention, urgent need of it, and much more than we are. I saw a Red Cross ambulance up on the ridge over there, and let's hope the medics get here quickly. Tony's losing masses of blood . . .” I swallowed. “It's . . . it's touch and go with him . . . I think. . . .”
For a moment Jake could not speak. He was obviously distressed by my words. At last he said, “Tony's going to be all right, Val. He's tough, and don't forget he's always said he has the luck of the Irish.”
“He also says he's blessed by the saints,” I replied tensely. “I hope he's right.”
Jake called back, “Just keep cool, hang in there, honey.”
I could hardly hear him. His words were almost but not quite drowned out by the explosions and the thunder of mortar fire, which seemed to be closer than ever. In a few minutes troops were swarming everywhere, both the K.L.A. and the Serbians; they were filling the village, running through the streets, fighting. I wasn't sure who was who. I looked for distinguishing emblems on their uniforms but without success, then remembered that those who wore the black paratrooper berets were the Kosovars. They seemed to be outnumbered. I closed my eyes, hoping I would be taken for dead and overlooked. I knew there was no longer any possibility of dragging myself over to Tony. My spirit was more than willing, but I was just too weak physically, and the troops were converging now.
So I resigned myself to wait for the Red Cross ambulance I had seen not long before. Surely it would drive down into the village soon. Putting my hand under my T-shirt, I found the gold chain on which I'd hung Tony's ring. He had given it to me only a couple of weeks earlier, when we had been in Paris together. Suddenly tears were dangerously close to the surface as memories of those happy days rushed back to flood my mind.
My fingers closed around the ring. I began to pray: Oh God, please let Tony be all right. Please don't let him die. Please, please, let him live. I went on praying silently, and the fighting raged on around me unabated.