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Seven months later
"Muh, muh. . .muh," Benjamin babbled from his crib.
"Up already?" Mallory carried her coffee into the baby's room. Strong. Black. A reason to get out of bed at zero dark thirty and make it through another day.
Of course, Benji was the real reason she bothered to set the timer on Mr. Coffee. He pulled himself up to gnaw on the guardrail while bouncing on his tiny toes. He couldn't walk yet, but he sure gave those chubby baby legs a workout.
"Stop before you knock out a tooth."
Her words startled him into stopping. He reached for her and fell back on his diaper-padded bottom. "Mama!" he cried with his arms outstretched.
"Mama, mama," he continued to blubber. "Oh, Benji." Mallory set her happy face mug on the dresser and lifted her nephew out of his crib. He rewarded her with big tears and baby drool all over her new black suit jacket. "I wish your mama was here, too."
"Mama," he insisted, latching on to her nose. How much plainer could it get? Benji wasn't asking for his mother-Mallory was the only mother he'd ever known.
He didn't understand that the woman who'd carried him for thirty-six weeks was dead. Benji's only world was the one Mallory created for him. That's why she needed to push past her grief and do more than just go through the motions for both their sakes.
Hugging her nephew tight, Mallory repeated, "Mama, mama."
Until she almost believed it.
She kept a firm hold on her little wiggly worm while she changed his diaper and then carried him out of her old room. It wasn't much of a nursery. It wasn't much of a room, either. She'd pushed her twin bed against one wall and then hauled the old crib down from the attic.
The baby crib was a beautiful piece of heirloom furniture in a rich cherrywood. It was so well crafted that it still met safety standards decades later-she'd checked. Someday she'd bring down the rest of the ensemble and turn the room into a real nursery. Hopefully before Benji grew out of the nursery altogether.
At first, she'd slept in her old room with him.
Now more often than not she fell asleep in front of the TV on the leather sofa in what had once been her dad's study. She kept her clothes in one huge pile on her parents' bed, with the intention of eventually moving into their bedroom located across the hall with its en suite bathroom. Though she already showered in the en suite and dressed in the bedroom, she still couldn't bring herself to clear out the closets.
To her it was still her parents' room, her parents' house-the home where she and Cara had grown up. Just passing Cara's old room next door to hers made Mallory want to cry.
She'd opened the door once.
Everything remained as Cara had left it before going off to college-with the addition of her wedding dress, which had been hanging in a storage bag on the back of the closet door since Cara and Nash's wedding. It's where their dad had stashed Cara's personal effects brought back from San Diego. And where a short while later Mallory had found her mom crumpled in a heap on the bed- an empty pill bottle in her hands-among boxes of Cara's childhood, college and wedding mementos.
There were more memories in that room than Mallory could handle.
The whole house was haunted by a not-too-distant past. At some point, though, she'd have to find the strength to deal with it and make it her own or put her childhood home up for sale. She simply wasn't ready to do either.
Mallory carried Benji downstairs to the kitchen, where she settled him into his high chair for breakfast. While making him a bowl of rice cereal with applesauce, she grabbed a carton of yogurt for herself. Shoving aside the stacks of bills and legal papers, she made room at the table so she could sit down to feed him.
One of her father's colleagues was helping her sort out her family's financial and legal mess pro bono. Her parents had considerable assets and the foresight to have both wills and living wills. But even they were not prepared for the tragic turn of events that would require shifting power of attorney and property to their younger daughter so soon after their older daughter's death.
Cara hadn't owned anything of real value that didn't also belong to Nash, except for a small burial policy the insurance company refused to pay out because Nash was the sole beneficiary.
And even though Mallory was Benji's court-appointed guardian, she had a big battle ahead of her in order to gain full custody. Kenneth Nash was still the baby's father and Benjamin Nash was legally a ward of the state of California until a judge said otherwise.
She couldn't discount Nash's family.
His mother, his aunt and uncle, numerous cousins, including a married cousin in New York, had all expressed interest in adopting Benji. And that was just on his mother's side. But it seemed wrong somehow-disloyal to Cara's memory-to allow her murderer's family to raise her son.
Mallory might not yet have her act together at twenty-three, yet she was determined to pull it together fast-she had to, for her nephew's sake.
Life had been anything but easy these past few months, between the trial, and the responsibilities of a preemie nephew and aging parents-make that aging parent, since her mother had died after collapsing in Cara's room. And without her mother's help, she'd had no choice but to put her father in an assisted-living facility. And, to add to everything else, Dad wasn't adjusting very well to the loss of Mom or his new home.
The telephone rang as Mallory shoveled another spoonful of rice cereal into Benji's eager mouth. She glanced over her shoulder at the shrill disruption. The call appeared to be coming from a blocked number.
With an eye on the clock, she got up from her seat and picked up the wireless receiver. Mallory had only been back to work a couple of months and couldn't afford to be late again. Please do not let it be the assisted-living facility. "'lo?"
"Ms. Ward, it's Tess Galena." The NCIS special agent worked out of the San Diego field office and had been assigned as the special agent in charge of Cara's case. The woman was somewhat of a legend in her field. Mallory had once dreamed of that kind of professional recognition and respect, until circumstances beyond her control landed her behind a desk.
Galena's investigation into Cara's murder had led to Nash's conviction.
"Ms. Ward, are you there?" Galena asked.
"What?" Mallory wiped Benji's face with a clean cloth. Offering a reassuring smile as she exchanged his bowl of mush for a few Cheerios he could manage on his own. "Sorry. Yes, I'm here."
"I need you in San Diego today. My assistant has booked you a flight."
"I'd have to check with work-"
"Your superiors are aware of the situation. Plan to be here for a few days."
The woman must have some serious pull.
"What's this about?" The yogurt in Mallory's stomach soured as the possibilities, none of them good, ran through her mind. "I don't have anyone to watch Benji."
NCIS Special Agent Tess Galena never hesitated. "Actually, Ms. Ward, we need both of you. We'll brief you when you get here."
"Is it Nash?"
"I can't say anything more over the phone. Someone will meet you at the airport, Ms. Ward."
Naval Brig Miramar San Diego, California
As soon as they landed at San Diego International Airport, Mallory and Benji were taken to the brig at Miramar. Once a naval air station, made famous by the movie Top Gun, the base now belonged to the Marine Corps. The brig itself, run by the Department of the Navy, consolidated Level I and Level II military prisoners.
Nash, as a convicted murderer, was housed at Fort Leavenworth, a Level III disciplinary barracks in Leavenworth, Kansas, and the sole maximum-security penal facility for the U.S. military. Mallory couldn't have been more confused, but neither of her special agent escorts had deemed it necessary to fill her in on the details during the drive over.
Shifting Benji on her hip, she adjusted the diaper bag and purse on her opposite shoulder as they breezed through security with a show of agency badges. They were buzzed through several more gates and then led to an interrogation room by a uniformed guard.
The otherwise nondescript room consisted of military-issued furniture, a gunmetal-gray table and four chairs. Her escorts took up positions outside the steel security door, which locked with a quiet click behind her.
She recognized Commander Mike McCaffrey- Mac-Nash's former commanding officer, leaning against the wall next to a large mirror, which was likely a two-way. Nash had served under McCaffrey as executive officer of SEAL Team Eleven. The commander straightened to his full height as she entered the room.
Tess Galena sat at the table. The NCIS special agent wore a pin-striped suit, obviously tailor-made for her curvy figure-there was no mistaking that the woman in designer duds was the woman in charge. Mallory's own slobber-stained, off-the-rack ensemble made her feel dowdy in comparison.
"Ms. Ward," the woman said, uncrossing her long legs and rising to her feet. "Please have a seat." She indicated the chair across the table from hers. "I apologize for such short notice." Galena's sharp glance toward the commander had Mallory wondering who exactly had called this meeting.
Mallory sat and then adjusted Benji on her lap. Tugging at the sleeves of his little jacket, she dropped it into the diaper bag at her feet.
He was a quiet baby, prematurely taken from his mother's womb in a grizzly scene Mallory wouldn't soon-if ever-forget. She hoped they wouldn't be here long enough for Benji to get tired or hungry during this major disruption to his routine.
"Are you going to tell me what this is all about?" Mallory forced herself to make eye contact, first with Galena and then the commander. "Nash," she whispered, reading it on their faces with a sinking sensation in the pit of her gut. "He's escaped."
She didn't know why escape was the first thought that popped into her head. But as a Navy SEAL trained in escape and evasion, Nash certainly had the skills. If anyone could break out of a military prison, he could.
"Not yet." The commander sauntered over to the table. "But he will. With your help."
The absurdity of his statement took a moment to sink in.
"Like hell I will." Only a cold-blooded killer could do what Nash had done to his pregnant wife. "Not in this or any other lifetime will I be helping that man escape-"
Galena leaned across the table. "Mallory May I call you Mallory?" She continued without waiting for the consent, which Mallory would have given gladly. "Kenneth Nash can serve a higher purpose than any death sentence handed down to him."
Mallory wasn't so sure about that. She didn't necessarily believe in capital punishment. But if anyone deserved to pay the ultimate price, Nash did.
"To put it bluntly," the commander interrupted, "we're proposing a mission few men are even qualified to undertake. You're aware, of course, that Nash is half Syrian-on his mother's side. He has the looks and the know-how for a deep-cover op to infiltrate al-Ayman." She knew al-Ayman to be a terrorist organization with ties to al Qaeda.
"What are you suggesting?" She looked from one to the other.
Galena cleared her throat. "The president has reviewed the case and is prepared to offer Kenneth Nash a full pardon for the murder of his wife, your sister, in exchange for certain, shall we say- services. What you need to understand, Mallory, is that he'd be a free man. And we need you to be comfortable with that."
Mallory smoothed a hand over her nephew's dark head. "You've got to be kidding." A presidential pardon? So much for the president getting her vote of confidence. "There must be other men, loyal Americans of Middle Eastern descent-"
"None with Lieutenant Commander Nash's background and training who are already serving a prison sentence." The commander had a grim certainty about him Mallory found disconcerting. "We're proposing a move to Gitmo under an assumed name. He'd be so deep undercover not even the marines guarding him would know his true identity."
"His main objective would be to gather intel from the detainees held at the military detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba," Galena clarified. "Specifically the youngest son of Mullah Kahn. Mullah, also known as the Cobra, is the head of the al-Ayman terrorist network. His son, Bari Kahn, was captured last year, right here in California. Additionally, Nash would be tasked with finding security leaks within our own system."
Mallory shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "And if he's caught-"
"If he's caught by either side," the commander said with emphasis, "he'd be a marked man."
That shouldn't bother her as much as it did.
She shouldn't care.
She didn't care.
Galena directed a sharp glance at the commander. "Or he may come out of all this unscathed." The NCIS agent drummed a pen on a pad, a sign of restlessness Mallory wouldn't have associated with the woman. Perhaps she had her own reservations and was just as uncomfortable with the situation as Mallory. "Detainees in Cuba won't be held forever. There's plenty of public outcry as U.S. involvement in the war comes to a close, and when the last prisoners are released or transferred to other countries, as many have been already, Nash will be among them."
"You'd let him go? Just like that?"
"Gitmo is no cakewalk." The commander crossed his arms. "Even if he were to go free, you're not in any danger, Ms. Ward," he said with the unwavering confidence of his rank. "I strongly believe in Lieutenant Commander Nash's innocence."
He might believe it. She might even want to believe it. But she'd seen what she'd seen. And Mallory's testimony had convicted the man, for crying out loud-what was to stop him from coming after her?
There was no doubt in her mind Nash would come after his son.
She felt it with bone-chilling certainty.
Mallory stared out of focus at the two-way mirror. As if looking at it through a haze of raw emotions would allow her to see more clearly. That's when she felt it, the eerie sensation of being watched.
Of course, there was someone behind the glass, watching them. She took a deep, shuddering breath and held Benji tighter. "Are you saying this assignment somehow hinges on my approval?"
She fixed her gaze on the commander this time. He shifted his to Galena as if this condition was a point of contention between them. "No," he said, returning his attention to her.
"Then why am I here, sir?" Benji shoved a pudgy fist into his mouth. "Why are we here?"
Galena stepped in and answered for him. "We can't just waltz a high-profile prisoner like Lieutenant Commander Kenneth Nash out the front gate of a federal prison."
Mallory sensed the commander's growing impatience with this conversation.
He hunkered down eye level to her nephew and allowed Benji to grab his thumb as he cupped the baby's chubby cheek. Benji immediately became intent on bringing that masculine digit to his mouth like a new teething toy. She knew the commander was a new father himself and wondered what he really thought of this whole mess.
"We're taking Nash out of here in a body bag," he said. "Stone-cold dead. Kenneth Nash will no longer exist."