Walking towards his table, he scooped up the papers he had scattered across it and put them back into his box, preparing himself for the grand moment his cell door would finally open forever. He had spent this blissful morning looking through the letters he held dearest to his heart - the most precious ones of them all.
The first of them, now very yellow and brittle with age, still radiated love. It had been wordless, but instead consisted of a crayon drawing - one sole initial carefully scribed in one corner.
To this day, Mitch wasn't sure what it was supposed to be. A car? A smiley face? Some sort of animal? All the same, he cherished it, and it had hung on his cell wall for several months after its arrival, as though it was a masterpiece by one of the great artists.
It had been accompanied by photos of its creator, and a note from someone else he dearly loved.
My dearest Mitch,
Your son drew this for you. He waved it at me in the nursery today saying "Daddy, Daddy." It was his first word, and it's still the one he says the most.
I've told him a lot about you, and I think he loves you with all of his heart already, even though he's never seen you. Don't worry, he knows nothing of the Magpie League or that you're in prison. That can wait until he's older. For now, you're just on a trip away somewhere, and you'll come back one day when he's bigger. He seems to understand that concept. After all, what with Jenny being away on missions all the time, it's something he's used to.
Mitch had smiled reading that, even if he felt a bit sorry for Marius. Being the brother of a convicted felon, especially one of Mitch's reputation and scale, hadn't gone down too well with his superiors in the Intelligence Service. However, he could continue to work for them if he gave up field duties and accepted a demotion. Marius had taken the deal, on the proviso that Jenny would be allowed to take his place - to get the opportunity she deserved. He would work as her secretary, instead. They'd accepted.
A year later, the couple had married.
As for his beloved son, he was in good health, and very imaginative and playful. He seemed to have a natural flair for language, and babbled away to his mother at all hours of the day. He would listen enraptured to bedtime stories, and on occasion, even try to tell his own.
Mitch had worried that his little boy would grow up lonely - what with him having no siblings to keep him company. It turned out that he needn't have any fears on that score. With both his twin brother and his youngest sister now married, Mitch's child soon had several playmates.
The boy's first-born cousins had been Minerva's twins, Ariel and Loki. However, it wasn't long before Marius and Jenny were starting a family of their own, and they soon welcomed a son themselves - Leo. (A daughter, Tabitha, would follow five years later.)
There were also allegedly various other cousins scattered all over the place from Mitch's many half-siblings, but news of them mainly came through Christmas cards and letters to the Miskin house.
In time, the Miskin heir had started school, and had learnt to read and write. The day Mitch had received the first letter written by his son had been one of great joy for him.
I hop you are havin fun on your trip. I am doing good in skool I have lots of frens and rite lots of storees. I want to rite for the news wen I grow up so I am leaning to rite on the compter. Yesserday I playd fotbal with Leo in the yard and I hit him with the bal. It was an accden but he cryed a lot. Unkle Marius sed it was OK becos it was just an accden. Then we went to the parc and I saw my freends Polly and Loocy. Areel and Lokey came for tea.
In addition to letters, the boy sent Mitch various stories he had written. Usually, these were fantasy tales about dragons and robots, illustrated with colourful drawings, but sometimes, they were recaps of real-life events, such as school trips or family gatherings. As time went on, his spelling, grammar and prose improved vastly from prolonged practice, and he soon came top in his Simlish classes, sending his father copies of his exemplary essays. It was apparent to Mitch that his son's aspirations of becoming a journalist were growing rather than disminishing, and he was proud. After all, anything was better than the boy following in his footsteps.
And, of course, once every year, Mitch received the same thing in the prison post. An invitation to his son's birthday party. It had become a tradition. It had begun with his first, and carried on to this day. The thirteenth had been accompanied with a little note:
Mum told me the truth. I know you're in prison. But she said you gave yourself up to save a lot of people and keep them free, and your crimes, although wrong, benefited the world around us. Finally, I know why you never came home from your "trip".
It's OK. I don't hate you. You're my dad, and I love you no matter what. That's why I send you these invitations. I know you will never be able to come to my parties now, but I want you to know that you have never been forgotten.
Mitch always responded in the same way. He sent back an RSVP, saying he thanked his son for the invitation, but him being so busy with business meant he couldn't attend. He still did that even when the boy knew the truth - somehow, it was easier to say.
This year, however, he'd made an exception.
Soon enough, the glorious moment arrived. Mitch's cell door creaked open, and escorted by a guard, he was led along the corridor towards the exit. Towards freedom. With his box of correspondence tucked under his arm, he left the prison in much the same way as he'd entered it - with his fellow inmates calling from all sides.
"So long, Mitch!"
"Don't you be coming back here!"
"Bye, Mitch - good luck, son!"
In his hand, Mitch held the invitation to his son's fifteenth birthday celebration.
It was today.
As Mitch stepped out of the prison and into the bright sunlight and fresh air of the outside world, he grinned as he re-read, over and over again, that most precious name on the document he held. That name he had seen scribbled at the bottom of so many letters over the years...
"Marlon! Hey! Wake up!"
Grumbling, Marlon Miskin tossed and turned in his bed, wrapping the sheets ever tighter around him. He had just been having the most mysterious dream... one he'd had often ever since his childhood. In it, he always saw the same figure: a young, athletic man with dark clothing and dark hair, sat within an old-fashioned mansion - smiling at him kindly, as though he knew who he was.
Last night, he had wished him a happy birthday.
"Come on, Marlon!" the little voice repeated. "You've gotta get up!"
With a loud yawn, Marlon sat up, and staggered his way out of bed with a great lurch - rubbing his eyes sleepily. Typical. Even on his birthday, he couldn't get a lie in around here. Blinking as his vision adjusted to daylight, he could just about make out the figure of his young cousin, Tabitha, stood in the corner of his bedroom.
"I don't recall asking for a wake-up call, Tab," he muttered as he made his bed.
"I know," Tabitha replied innocently in syrupy-sweet tones. "Auntie Nimue made me come up. She says it's time to start your party."
"What? At 11am?"
"She says there's a reason. Something special. Leo, Mum and Dad are all waiting for you, too."
Sighing, Marlon stretched himself out, bracing himself for the busy day ahead.
"All right, all right," he said, reaching into his drawers for a towel and some fresh clothes. "Tell her I'll be down in 10 minutes."
Tabitha nodded, and scurried away.
Walking to the bathroom like a zombie approaching a victim, it took the cool waters of the shower for Marlon to finally wake up. After drying himself off, he dressed himself in his favourite attire, and combed his shoulder-length hair - capping off the look with a smart brown hat. Looking at himself in the mirror, he smiled. Another year older, and well on his way to becoming one fine-looking man.
Stepping out onto the landing, he heard his mother rushing up the stairs to meet him.
"Oh, honey, you're up!" she cried. "Thank goodness. Come on - let's go into the kitchen. It's time for you to have your cake!"
"It's a bit early, isn't it, Mum?"
"Oh, I just couldn't wait a moment longer! There's a surprise for you."
"Yeah! Come on!"
Grabbing his hand, she led Marlon downstairs as fast as her legs could carry her - all but pushing him into the kitchen. As Marlon entered, he saw Marius, Jenny and Leo were already sat at the table, with Tabitha about to re-join them. They cheered and clapped when they spotted the birthday boy.
A chocolate cake, with fifteen lit candles, was waiting on the table too. As Marlon approached it, he smiled. He'd always liked chocolate.
"Nice cake, Mum," he said. "Did you make it? Or was it Big Mo?"
"Neither," Nimue replied. "It's very special. Come on - let's sing!"
Marlon blushed and awkwardly shifted his weight from foot to foot as his gathered relatives sung "Happy Birthday". With his mother's excited cry of "Make a wish!", he closed his eyes, leaned forward, and prepared to blow out the candles. In his head, Marlon made the same wish he'd made on every birthday he could remember.
"Please bring my father home soon."
Unseen and unheard, the kitchen door opened behind him.
With one breath, all fifteen candles were extinguished. As Marlon stepped back, his eyes widened as he spotted a strange male figure standing in the kitchen doorway. He was smiling, but his gaze was tearful.
"Nimue," the figure said, "is that... is that really him?"
Nimue nodded, wiping away joyful tears of her own.
"My God..." the visitor gasped, drinking in Marlon's features. "He's so tall. In my head, he - he was still a little boy... not this young man."
Slowly, he approached the birthday boy.
"Marlon?" the figure asked. "It really is you, isn't it? I'm really here? I'm not dreaming?"
"I... I hope you like the cake," the man added. "I was terrified I'd wake you when I was whipping it up in here this morning, but it... it was something I just had to do."
Then, the stranger reached out his hand, and passed Marlon a colourful piece of paper. A party invitation.
"Sorry I didn't RSVP this year," he chuckled. "I... I thought it would be better to come in person."
He outstretched his arms widely.
"Happy birthday, son."
Marlon gasped in delighted shock. He began to tremble like a leaf in the wind. Taking the invitation, he looked up in amazement at the man before him.
"Dad?" he asked.
In less than a second, the pair rushed towards one another, embracing tightly as they both broke down sobbing. It wasn't long before Marius and the other Miskin family members were bustling for a chance to join the hug themselves.
For the rest of the day, Marlon never left his father's side. Not even as the family ate their dinner and watched Marlon open his gifts. The pair chatted non-stop, asking nineteen questions to the dozen about each other's lives and interests. They had always been in touch through letters, but actually been able to see and talk to one another like this was something completely new. Exciting. An experience both of them had longed for.
When it got to 10pm, and a tired Marlon let out a yawn, Mitch began to laugh.
"Perhaps we should call it a night, son," he said kindly. "I'll still be here tomorrow. We can always talk more then."
After Marlon went upstairs and got into bed, Mitch entered his son's room, and sat on top of the sheets.
"I'm guessing you're a bit old for a tuck in and a bedtime story," he said.
"All the same, I'm glad that you're here with me," Marlon told him. "I don't want to go to sleep. I'm scared that this is all just a happy dream - that in the morning, you'll be gone."
"You don't have to worry, Marlon. I'm home now, and I'm here to stay. No-one is going to take me away from you again."
"Goodnight, Dad. I love you."
"I love you too, son."
As Marlon settled down to sleep, Mitch kissed his brow, then left the room, carefully closing the door behind him. When he spotted Nimue waiting for him on the landing, he smirked, and then charged - pulling her into his arms and kissing her passionately.
An hour later, the couple lay in their bed in one another's arms, relaxed and filled with pleasure - a proud grin still on Mitch's face.
"That," he whispered, "was well worth waiting fifteen years for."
As Nimue giggled, her partner propped himself up on one elbow.
"It's a shame that Mo and Clyde couldn't come today," he remarked.
"I invited Mo," Nimue told him, "but he was really busy up at the café. He said he'd come around with Theo and the girls this weekend. As for Clyde, well - I've not seen or heard from him in years, since he moved away..."
"After you slept with him," came the blunt response.
Shocked, Nimue looked at Mitch. His eyes had narrowed, and his smile had vanished. His face was stern and expressionless, like a stone wall.
"You did sleep with Clyde, didn't you?" he asked coldly. "About six or seven months into my sentence?"
Nimue didn't respond.
"He wrote me a letter," Mitch continued. "Said he'd moved away because he "did a bad thing". Now, given that Clyde Thacker used to commit robberies with no moral scruples whatsoever, and is apparently a dog-eat-dog kind of businessman, one is inclined to believe the act was something a little more... intimate. And let's face it - he always held a torch for you. It wasn't hard to figure it out."
Nimue turned away, desperate to hide the guilt in her eyes. She only looked back when she felt her husband grasping her hand gently. He himself was trembling.
"Just say you didn't, Nimue," he pleaded. "Deny it, and I'll believe you. I love you. I'd believe you over him, any day. Just... just tell me you didn't..."
He was sobbing now. Swallowing, Nimue forced herself to look into his eyes.
"I... I can't lie to you, Mitch..."
Howling like a wounded animal, Mitch leapt out of bed.
"Jesus Christ, Nimue!" he wailed. "I know I said in that stupid letter that I didn't expect you be faithful, but I... I thought you'd have realised that I didn't really mean it!"
He rushed for the wardrobe, taking out his golden sequin suit. As she watched her husband dress himself hastily, Nimue sat bolt upright in bed, frightened.
"What are you doing?" she asked, alarmed.
"You are my wife, and I love you," Mitch replied. "And I know you love me too. It's obvious to me that that bastard Thacker took advantage of you - used you, while you were weak!"
"Clyde didn't use me!" Nimue wept. "I... I wanted it too! I just felt so alone, so lost! I regret what I did, but it was my fault! I led him on!"
"He still should have said "no"!" Mitch roared, donning his sunglasses to complete his outfit. "I go to prison to protect his sorry ass, and this is how he repays me?"
Racing up to a side table, he opened a drawer, and took out his old gun.
"Well, perhaps I should get a little payback of my own!"
Ignoring his wife's desperate pleas, he stormed out - as Nimue cocooned her fragile, sobbing frame within the bedsheets.
As Mitch marched down towards the front door, swinging it open, he heard a voice calling down from the upstairs landing.
"Dad? What's going on?"
Mitch froze. Acting out of sheer instinct, he hid his pistol inside his jacket.
"Nothing, son!" he called back. "I.. I just can't sleep, that's all! I'm just going for a little drive - to try and clear my head."
"Do you want me to come with you?"
"No!" Mitch cried, not wanting Marlon to see him like this. "Go back to bed! I won't be long!"
"Oh. All right!"
Once he'd heard Marlon's footsteps, followed by a closing door, Mitch sighed in relief, and headed out into the night.
He would not come back until justice had been done.
TO BE CONTINUED
Yes, another cliffhanger! I am awful, I know - but since it may be a while before I get the extra pictures, I decided to split the update into two rather than have my lovely readers waiting a really long time to meet our newest heir! So, here you are - Marlon Miskin!
The pencil drawing is by yours truly. And no, I'm not sure what it's meant to be, either.