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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 Pec, 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 gone--"
"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.