​​​Northern Tanzania
September 6, 1989

    The attack was sudden, fierce, and effective. Striking the rebel camp just after dawn, the assault

team went by the book and captured the objective inside of fifteen minutes. The problem was,

the other side wasn’t playing by the same book, and when some of them went off the page,

the assault team didn’t know what to do.

     Warrant Officer Rick Barnes heard Jo Ann Geary’s radio come alive. “Eagle One to Vixen, I see

two bad guys getting through the perimeter, call it a hundred meters to your nine o’clock.

They’re heading for those two SUVs, over.”

     She keyed the transmit button. “Roger that. Any pursuit from our friends?”

     “Negative on that, Vixen.”

     “Roger. We will pursue and engage. Vixen out.” She holstered the radio and checked her

M4 carbine. “Looks like it’s up to us, people.”

     “ROE, Colonel?” Barnes asked. He was her subordinate on this operation, but one thing he liked

about the colonel was how she always encouraged her people to speak their minds. Within reason.

The two other Special Forces soldiers, both non-coms, waited patiently, but the men were ready to

move, as soon as they got an order from their enigmatic commanding officer. Since arriving in

country they hadn’t seen much action. Barnes had a feeling that was about to change.

     As usual, Geary didn’t waste any time. “Rules of engagement say we are to close with the enemy only if they threaten to overrun our position. I’d say if they get to a vehicle they could come back here after us.” She had her game face on, a look Barnes had seen so often he began to wonder if that was her all-the-time face. Barnes had never before worked under a female superior in the field, but it hadn’t taken long for him to see that this woman was as tough as any man he’d served with. Rather humorless, though. Not for the first time, he wondered what Geary did to relax. With this mission winding down, maybe he’d finally find out.

     Well, Barnes certainly was glad to hear that they were weapons-free at last. That hadn’t happened very often on this tour. He grinned. “I like your way of thinking, ma’am,” he said, then nodded to the two sergeants. “Okay, gentlemen, let’s get moving.”

     They cut through the bush along the trail they’d scouted earlier, down from the small knoll overlooking the terrorist camp. Technically they were here as advisers only, but Lt. Col. Jo Ann Geary, U.S. Air Force Special Operations, had quickly found that the local Tanzanian Army folks weren’t entirely receptive to advice. For one thing, Colonel Njenga had decided against having a helicopter gunship provide cover for the assault. There were only three in his entire army and he said they couldn’t be spared. Jo had been able to convince him to allow a single American UH-1 Iroquois, a Vietnam-era “Huey” on loan from the CIA, to monitor the mission. With one of her team members aboard, Jo had received a virtual play-by-play of the assault from the moment the helo emerged from behind the hills.

     For another, she reflected as she hustled down the path at the head of her column, the Tanzanians certainly didn’t want a woman telling them what to do, or even making suggestions. Well, she’d dealt with that in the U.S. military, and by now most American men were at least grudgingly receptive to having a female in command. Her team on this deployment had adapted very quickly, but it was a different story with the indigenous troops.

     The locals needed help, though, whether it was offered by men or women. For nearly a year now, a shadowy terror group had been operating in the rural areas of northern Tanzania, destroying farms and burning an occasional village. The government was used to dealing with frontier bandits, but this outfit had stepped into the big time with its recent incursions into neighboring Kenya.

     First was a raid against a border village, and then a bolder strike against the city of Kehancha. Close to a hundred heavily-armed men had attacked in two groups, one robbing three separate banks, the other storming a radio station and a nearby shopping plaza. Taking over the airwaves, the terrorist leader had identified the group as the Chui Brigade. “Chui” was the Swahili word for “leopard.” The spokesman, who didn’t identify himself but spoke Swahili with a distinct northern European accent, announced the formation of the People’s Republic of Sekenke, and demanded recognition by the governments of Kenya and Tanzania. A manifesto left behind at the radio station declared that the breakaway nation’s borders included large swaths of land along the southern and eastern shores of Lake Victoria, extending from the Tanzanian city of Mwanza all the way to Winam Gulf in Kenya, and inland to the middle of the Serengeti.

     Ten Kenyan policemen and two civilians had died in Kehancha, and the government in Nairobi reacted quickly, closing the border with Tanzania and declaring that no remnants of the Leopard Brigade remained within their territory. But there were plenty of them in Tanzania, and the Kenyans demanded that their neighbors do something about them, or Nairobi would send its own men and tanks across the border to deal with the threat. The Tanzanian government in Dar es Salaam, having fought a war against its northern neighbor Uganda just ten years earlier, wanted no part of another regional conflict, but quickly discovered that its small army was not quite up to the task. Someone had called Washington and asked for help, and the Pentagon delegated the mission to Special Operations Command.

     Jo and five fellow operators were deployed by SOCOM to assist the Tanzanians, and within a month they’d been able to help the government isolate and kill, capture or scatter most of the Leopard Brigade. Finally they had located the last holdouts, including their mysterious leader, said to be a European. The rebel camp was surrounded and the Tanzanian soldiers moved in, with the Americans observing from their nearby hilltop and the helicopter. Colonel Njenga had assured them that his soldiers would now finish off the last of the Leopards.

     Well, not quite.

     What passed for the terrorists’ motor pool was supposed to have been guarded by a squad of Njenga’s men, but no Tanzanian soldiers were in sight when Barnes and the sergeants followed Geary from the bush into the small clearing. Two dusty Land Rovers sat facing the crude road that had been hacked out of the bush. The closer of the two was empty, but the next one’s engine turned over and revved high. The vehicle surged forward six feet and stalled.

     “Barnes!” the colonel shouted. “Take Carson and cover their rear. Saunders, you’re with me.” The Americans split into two pairs, weapons drawn, covering the twenty meters from the forest to surround the Land Rover.

     The driver’s door swung open and an African stepped out, holding a small object in his right hand. He reared back, preparing to throw.

     “Grenade!” Saunders shouted. Barnes saw Geary sight on the man with her M4 and fire a three-round burst, tattooing the African’s chest. The grenade dropped to the ground and rolled under the engine block of the empty Land Rover.

     Barnes hit the ground onto his stomach, swinging his legs around so the heels of his boots faced the vehicle. Tucking his elbows to his sides, he covered his ears with his hands and opened his mouth. The grenade exploded with a loud thump, and he felt the shock wave rolling across his body. Bits of shrapnel hissed past his head, and he felt an impact on his right heel, but the metal didn’t penetrate the boot to his foot. He jumped to his feet and brought his weapon around.

     The empty Land Rover was smoking, sitting off-kilter with its front wheels splayed outward. The African, bleeding from the chest and legs, slumped against the side of the stalled SUV. Geary and the sergeant approached cautiously, their weapons trained on the passenger seat. Barnes and Carson had taken cover behind the hulk of the Land Rover, and from around the rig’s right rear corner he could see movement inside the stalled vehicle.

     “You okay, Carson?” he asked, without taking his eyes off the vehicle.

     “Good to go, sir.” Carson had taken a position behind Barnes, looking over the roof of the Land Rover, aiming his weapon. “Looks like one tango still in the front seat.”

     “Roger that. I’m sure the colonel wants to take him alive.”

     Geary caught Barnes’s eye and signaled by hand. She was going around to the passenger side of the SUV. “Colonel’s on the move,” Barnes said. “We’re covering her.”

     “Roger that,” Carson said.

     As Geary cleared the front of the Land Rover, the front passenger door opened on rusty hinges. “You are surrounded!” she shouted in English. “Hands in the air!”

     Nothing moved for three seconds. Geary took two cautious steps toward the door, her weapon raised, when a man burst from the interior of the vehicle. Barnes caught a glimpse of dirty blonde hair and a camouflage-patterned jacket and pants as the man ran past Geary, heading for the edge of the clearing twenty meters away. Barnes tracked him with his M-4.

     “Hold your fire!” Geary yelled. Part of the colonel’s form was hidden from Barnes by the Land Rover, but he could see enough. She didn’t shoot at the fleeing man. Instead, she threw something, backhanded. Barnes saw a glint of sunlight on metal, just a blink before the terrorist yelled in pain. He stumbled, clawing at his left buttock.

     From above, Barnes heard Carson whisper, “What the…”

     Geary closed the distance in three seconds, just as the man pulled his hand away with a yelp of pain, along with an oath. “Scheiss!”

     Barnes had taken German in college and knew they’d bagged somebody special. “Handehoch!” Geary ordered, but instead of holding up his hands, the terrorist charged at her. He was too close for Barnes to take a shot, and Geary, to his astonishment, lowered her own weapon. She easily ducked the German’s wild punch, side-stepped and drove a kick into his thigh. As he staggered, she flowed counter-clockwise and brought him down with a right roundhouse kick to the head. The German collapsed to the ground, out cold.

     “Nice job, Colonel,” Barnes said as he walked up to her, keeping his weapon trained on the unconscious terrorist. Geary was pulling something out of the man’s ass. He recognized it as a six-pointed star, something the martial arts wonks called a shuriken. “Looks like we have a European here,” he said. “Or maybe South African?”

     “He spoke German, so my guess is he’s Red Army Faction.”

     “Why would a German terrorist be raising hell in the middle of Africa?”

     “Your guess is as good as mine at this point, Ken. When we get him back to our base camp, maybe we can persuade our Tanzanian friends to let us spend a little time with him to get better acquainted.” She retrieved her shuriken, wiped it on the German’s pants, and returned it to the sheath in her pocket. “Tie this guy up, then take one of the sergeants and inform Njenga that we have a prisoner. I don’t hear any more gunfire from over there, so he’s probably getting his own prisoners set for transport.”

     Barnes gave her a knowing look. “Assuming they took any,” he said.

     The Tanzanians had actually taken four men alive in the raid on the Leopards’ camp, all Africans. At the army’s staging area, some fifteen kilometers from the target, Jo watched the prisoners being herded from a truck toward a hastily-constructed holding pen. Wrists bound with plastic zip ties, the captured men looked beaten to Jo, watching with her team from ten meters away. All of them, except the European; he was alert, and even though his jaw was starting to swell from Jo’s kick, his eyes were clear and piercing as they took in his surroundings. For a long moment they fixed on the Americans.

     “Something tells me you won’t be getting a Christmas card from him, Colonel,” Barnes said.

     “He’ll be lucky to be alive by Christmas,” she said. “The Tanzanians are probably going to make an example of him.”

     “Do they still hang people down here?” Sgt. Saunders asked. Only twenty-five, Saunders had been in Special Forces for three years, and this was his first deployment to Africa.

     “Hanging is probably the least of his worries right now,” Barnes said.

     Three heavily-armed Tanzanians took charge of the European, leading him away from his fellow prisoners toward another tent. “I’d better talk to Colonel Njenga about getting in a word with his new friend before he’s taken away,” Jo said. The distinct whup-whup of a helicopter heralded the arrival of the Huey, coming in from the west after searching for any terrorists who might’ve escaped the raid. Jo turned to the lieutenant and the two sergeants. “Why don’t you guys see if the mess wagon has anything going? When Major Reinecke checks in from the bird, I’ll get on the sat phone back to the embassy in Dar es Salaam. I’d imagine we’ll be heading home soon.”

     “We’ll save some filet mignon for you,” Barnes said with a grin.

     The Huey came in for a deft landing in the clearing next to the base camp, and three seconds after the skids hit the ground, a lanky figure in woodland-patterned utilities jumped from the cabin and, head down, loped over to where Jo waited. When the figure straightened up, Jo caught the wide, toothy smile of Major Denise Reinecke, USMC, her longtime friend and comrade-in-arms. They’d met during the top-secret Diana Brigade training in ’75 and had worked together several times since then. Two years ago they’d both joined Pallas Group, a small unit of special operators created by presidential order out of SOCOM.

     “Nice job up there, Denise,” Jo said.

     “I saw the takedown, Jo. Any idea who he is?”

     “We’re about to find out. Let’s go visit Colonel Njenga.”

     The Tanzanian officer was in his command tent, finishing up a radio call with his headquarters in Upanga, near Dar es Salaam. He waved the two Americans into the tent as he signed off the call in Swahili. Replacing the radio handset in its cradle, the tall officer broke out into a satisfied smile. “Colonel Geary, Major Reinecke,” he said in English with a touch of British accent. “A pleasure, ladies, especially as we can now celebrate a successful mission.”

      “Your men performed well, Colonel,” Jo said, and she meant it. The Tanzania People’s Defence Force didn’t have the best reputation in Africa, which meant it was several orders of magnitude below NATO-level efficiency in the quality of its soldiers and equipment, but they were willing to accept suggestions–at least from men–and displayed good spirit in the field. In a month of operations against the rebels, Njenga’s force had lost only half a dozen men in action. “My team will be returning to our embassy, if you have no further need of us,” Jo said.

     Njenga swept his hand toward the tents where the prisoners had been taken. “You have helped us a great deal. I am sure my president will be in communication with yours to express the thanks of our nation. As for now, I will be taking the prisoners back to Dar es Salaam for interrogation.”

     “May we speak to the European first?”

     Njenga shook his head. “I am afraid that is impossible. My orders are clear: the prisoners are to speak to no one until they are safely incarcerated at the stockade in Upanga. I am sorry.”

     Jo hid her disappointment. “Perhaps some people from our embassy would be able to question the European. After your officers have done their own work, of course.”

     That drew a smile. “I will see what I can do.” From out in the compound came the sound of truck engines starting up. “Ah, our transportation is here. Ladies, I must excuse myself. I am to accompany the prisoners personally. My second in command will strike the camp.”

     Njenga led the way out of the tent. He stopped, fists on hips, and drew in a deep breath. “I have always enjoyed being in the field with the men,” he said. “Especially when we are defending our country.”

     “I know the feeling,” Jo said. Denise just smiled.

     “Tell me, Colonel,” the Tanzanian said, looking down at her. “Will you be returning to America straight away? Perhaps you could stay a few days. Our country really has much to offer for our guests.”

     “We do have some leave coming,” Denise said.

     Jo gave her a surprised look. “I thought you wanted to go to Jamaica with Lionel.”

     The Marine major shrugged. “Change of plans. Got a ‘Dear Denise’ letter from him just before we moved out.”

     “What kind of letter is that?” Njenga asked.

     Denise laughed. “The kind no lady wants to get from a man, Colonel. Let’s just say if he goes to Jamaica, it won’t be with me.”

     “Oh. I am truly sorry.”

     “Don’t be. He was a lousy–”

     Knowing what was coming next, Jo interrupted. “Tell me, Colonel, if two ladies wanted to do something adventurous in your country that doesn’t involve chasing rebels through the bush, what would you recommend?”

     Njenga looked off into the distance to the east. “You cannot see it from here, but if you would like a challenge, I would suggest climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.”

     “How high is it?” Jo asked.

     “Almost six thousand meters,” Njenga said, “but the climb can be done without special mountaineering training. I myself have done so twice.”

     Jo did the calculations: nineteen thousand feet. She’d never climbed a mountain before, and she knew immediately she’d have to do it. After all, what was waiting for her back home? Just her empty apartment in Tampa, near the base, and more work. It never ended. Now that the mission was over, she found herself looking forward to doing something, anything, that wasn’t related to the next mission. That was a first for her.

     What had changed? Well, plenty had, in the past ten months. She’d lost her father, and then had lost friends to a ruthless enemy, thanks to information supplied by an American traitor. She’d played a central part in bringing that traitor to justice, but the way she’d done it hadn’t brought her much satisfaction. Yes, maybe she needed a challenge like Kilimanjaro right now. If anything, being at the top of Africa might give her a fresh perspective.

     Jo gave Denise a look and was rewarded with another dazzling smile. “Sounds like a trip,” the Marine said.

     Njenga’s grin revealed teeth so white they were almost blinding. “Well, ladies, I am sure you will enjoy yourselves.” He took a notepad from his pocket, scribbled a few lines, then tore off the sheet and handed it to Jo. “Here is the name of an outfitter in Tarakea, at the head of the mountain’s most challenging trail. He is an old comrade of mine, and you can trust him. I would be happy to call him on your behalf.”

     “That’s very kind, Colonel,” Jo said. She looked at Denise, who gave her a why-are-you-even-hesitating look. “All right,” she said to the Tanzanian. “Tell your friend we’ll be there in three days. That should give us enough time to debrief with our embassy and get things squared away.”

     “Excellent! I shall call him as soon as I get back to Upanga.” He shook hands with the American women, and with one final nod he walked over to where the prisoners were being loaded into an old Bedford, the British version of the American deuce-and-a-half. This one looked old enough to have carried some of Montgomery’s Tommies in Egypt more than forty years before.

     “So, no more Lionel,” Jo said. “And you were so excited about him.”

     Denise shrugged her shoulders. “Let’s just say he flunked his audition. Thought he was hot shit and I was just a Marine mattress.” She gave Jo a sly look. “You’ve heard the phrase, ‘Once you have black, you’ll never go back’? Well, they never met Lionel.”

     “But, you said he sent a letter to you.”

     “Must’ve been upset that I laughed at him.” She gestured at the departing Tanzanian colonel. “He’s as tall as Njenga but Lionel uses his height to intimidate people, especially women.”

     Jo nodded. “That’s happened to me,” she said.

     Denise barked a harsh laugh. “Jo, my zoomie friend, there ain’t a man tall enough to intimidate you.”

     As they walked toward the mess truck to rejoin the men, Jo thought that was more true than she had first thought. And, maybe that was part of the problem.

     The Africans were sloppy, but what else could one expect from them? Sitting in the back of the truck as it jolted along the road, Walter Speth waited patiently for his chance. The two Tanzanian soldiers riding back here with him were getting sleepy.

     The side of his head where the American woman had kicked him would be swollen and bruised for the next few days, but nothing had been seriously harmed, with the exception of his pride. To have lost his command was bad enough, but to be taken down by a fraulein was worse. Adding insult to injury was the apparent fact that she was Asian. Most likely of Japanese descent, considering her skills. Speth remembered his father talking of the Japanese officers he had met during the war. They were very cultured, the old SS Obergruppenführer had said, but in battle they could be savage.

     Well, Speth thought, he was going to find out just how savage this particular Japanese woman could be.


The Bronze Leopard - Chapter One