THE BACKROOM THAT Arthur Cecil had led them towards was a dark room. Despite it being in the mid-afternoon, no stray rays of sunlight were allowed into the four walls. The windows, if present, were all shielded by thick curtains that prevented prying eyes from peering in. In fact, the only source of light came from that of a lamp, a small wispy flame that danced in the glass on Arthur’s table.
Behind the desk was a cabinet filled with expensive alcoholic beverages. The glass bottles were covered in shadow, only certain angles catching and reflecting the dim light of the flame. In the darkness, Arthur lit up a few more lamps that were placed around the room, finally allowing a sliver of a glow to help them see better.
“Sit,” Arthur said, gesturing to the couches that faced the table, meant for guests. He, on the other hand, sat on the armchair behind the desk, crossing one leg over the other. All this while, he did not slouch once. His shoulders were pushed back, head held high, and his smile proud.
Violet walked over to the side of the couch, choosing to sit by the armrest of the large three-seater. Gracefully, she tucked her skirt before her and smoothed down the fabric before sitting down on the cushioned seats. Maddox followed soon after, sitting on the other end of the couch and leaving a space between the two of them. They sat quietly, both waiting for Arthur to speak first as the host.
“So,” he started, hands intertwined with each other over the table’s surface. “What brings you here to this part of town?” Arthur posed the question to Maddox, grinning a little as he spoke the next line, “And with a lady, no less.”
Maddox looked pointedly at the newspaper strewn over Arthur’s desk. It was flipped open, read halfway through before the reader was rudely interrupted by a visitor.
“You know why we are here,” he answered. Unlike Arthur and Violet, Maddox’s sitting posture was much more relaxed. He leaned back against the cushion, an arm lazily resting on the backrest.
“Have you read it yet?” Arthur asked, nodding at the same newspaper Maddox was just eyeing. Casually, he picked it up, handing it over to Maddox who took the paper over without hesitation. “You are now the big star of the country once more, dear friend.”
“Tell me something new,” Maddox murmured under his breath, flipping through the pages. All the while, his expression remained stoic and unreadable. That only made Violet, who was itching to know what tall tales might have been written about their grand escape, squirm in curiosity.
“Curious, little bird?” Arthur laughed, noticing Violet’s reaction.
The lady spun her attention onto the nobleman, squinting her eyes at his bemused smile. Violet did not like it one bit. Arthur Cecil was a man with secrets, a man that also knew the secrets others bore. That made him someone Violet could not put an ounce of trust in. Now, she was in the lion’s den, at the mercy of his claws. The only comfort she had was that Maddox trusted him. However, was that really enough?
At the sound of the nickname, Maddox’s head sprang up from the newspaper. Whatever was written down in black and white had not alarmed Maddox one bit. However, that nickname seemed like it did. He stared blankly at Arthur, not saying a word. The two friends exchanged a look, unspoken words relayed through their expressions alone. In the end, Arthur was the one that caved.
“She’s not her, Maddox,” he muttered.
“Of course I know. But does she not…”
“Yes.” Arthur pursed his lips. “She does. But I will never confuse them for each other.”
As the only odd one out in the trio, Violet was left clueless about the words that were exchanged between the two men. She stared blankly at them, looking back and forth to see if she could sift any clues from their body language. However, they were trained, skilled in masking even their shallowest thoughts from getting exposed. There was no way Violet could reach in and withdraw what she wanted to know unless she asked.
And so she did.
“Who?” As her voice rang in the room, the two men grew silent, their jaws clenched tightly as they refused to look her way. “Who are you talking about?”
For a split second, something flashed across Arthur’s eyes. It was surprising, to say the least, that he had been the one to crack first out of the two of them. If it was anyone, Violet had thought that it would be Maddox that would first show signs of what was written in his heart. Nevertheless, Arthur Cecil noticed his mistake as quickly as it was committed. The look was long gone before Violet could make out anything from it and was replaced by a practiced, insincere smile.
“No one of your concern, Miss Harper. Just a figure of the past clothed in nothing but memory,” was his reply.
Those words only made Violet even more curious than she was before but it was clear to her that none of the two men were ready to talk to her about it. They were both unwilling to speak more, reluctant to pry deeper into whatever was in the catacombs of their minds. That topic was thus forced to come to an end, reduced to nothing but tension in the air and a boiling pit in Violet’s stomach.
“Then what is in the paper?” She queried instead, nodding towards the paper that Maddox held in his fists, only to realize the material was already crumpled from how hard he was holding it.
“A plea,” Arthur responded.
“My arrest.” This time, it was Maddox that spoke. His voice was grim but he did not seem too worried about how he was painted by the journalists. “Nothing too new. Nothing I have not experienced before.”
“Ah, but there is something rather interesting in the news article, though.” A grin quirked onto Arthur’s face as he leaned on the back of his hand, elbow on the table. “The Harper family seems to be looking for their missing child.”
“Me?” Astounded, Violet snatched the paper from Maddox’s hands, frantically looking for the section Arthur had referred to. While looking, she murmured under her breath, “That’s not possible. They’ve not cared about me ever since—”
She was abruptly cut off when her eyes finally landed on an image of the Harper family — her mother, to be exact — sobbing into the arms of her cold-faced father. Below the photograph captioned the words spoken by their family, claiming that they were worried sick due to Violet’s disappearance from Steinfield Asylum.
’The Harper family claimed that the disappearance of Violet Harper, 17, had brought about chaos in the noble family. The victim was kidnapped by the notorious murderer, Maddox Haster, 21, days ago and the two had been missing since. Law enforcers are looking for any information that might locate Harper and/or Haster.’
After reading what was said about her supposed kidnapping, Violet couldn’t help herself but let out a cold bark of laughter. She sneered, the skin on the bridge of her nose wrinkling as she scoffed in disbelief.
“That family hadn’t cared about me since I was eleven years old. It has been six years. The only reason why they would care about me now is because their pride, their name, their reputation as a noble family is now on the line because of me again.” Tears welled in Violet’s eyes as she spoke, all the anger and unjust she had suppressed for years brewing and bubbling to the surface. She turned to Maddox, eyes filled with determination, burning with resolve. “We will clear your name, Maddox. I will make sure of that.”