Inside no. 9 – Circle

Mmmbop, duba, du bop, du.

Hanson is on repeat, it’s the fourth time Elaine has heard the perky refrain. It clashes with the otherworldly aesthetic of Nine Below, all aurora and transparency. Roughly arranged blocks of ice form the furniture, draped with midnight blue blankets that reflect the star spangled ceiling. Exhalations curl mist around her face. Some might find wonder in the gimmick of an ice bar, but all she is, is cold.

In the aIcove stands an ice sculpture. It’s not the contorted wings of the angel that disturb her, nor the fact that she can’t remember entering the bar. It’s not even Hanson. It’s the woman sat on the couch behind her.

“You want another Darling?” The bartender had introduced himself as Lucian, which she might have found odd, were it not for the exclusive aura of the ice bar. Personalised service was expected by the sort of clientele that such places attracted.  

This must be her third, yet there is no buzz, nor blessed relief – the kind that alcohol usually grants. So she nods mutely, trying to focus on the bartender rather than snatching backward glances. As the gin sets down she has to restrain the urge to drain the glass in one go.

“How about you Colonel?”

As Lucian speaks, Elaine finally notices the man seated next to her. Obviously formerly military, if the immaculate dress coat and medals are anything to go by. Perhaps the unnatural chill explains his parlour; perhaps it’s whatever is causing his intense gaze. The bartender pauses, takes stock, and changes the channel. Instead of CCTV of the bar’s interior, explosions smatter the flat screen and Elaine can’t help but wonder if it’s bad taste to watch a war film with a veteran.

Bypassing the Colonel the bartender pours a whisky for the only other patron, a shifty, small man, situated at the opposite end of the bar. It’s hard to imagine a more sorry trio of daytime drinkers. Elaine sips her gin, trying to persuade herself that she’s better than them, that she has somewhere better be, that she can leave at any time.

“So what’s your story Darling?”

For a moment Lucian’s gaze seems to bypass her, to focus on the couch behind. It’s impossible, she knows that, even as furtively glances back to see whether she’s still there. Knots twist her intestines. She is.

“I don’t really have a story.”

“Everyone who comes here has a story, that’s why they’re here.”

It’s almost as though she has always known him, from the moment he poured her first drink. The familiarity loosens her tongue, needing some distraction from the foreboding dread that sinks half the gin before she speaks again.

“My sister died…” The gaze on the back of her skull is tangible, little hooks that tease goosebumps from her skin. “I mean she… she was killed.” The colonel doesn’t even stir. It’s a bold statement, one she has avoided voicing. A warm hand covers hers and she’s sure there’s sympathy in Lucian’s eyes as he tops up her glass.

“On the house. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Acceptance is a stage of grief, at least that was what her counsellor had said. Elaine doesn’t want to accept it, or at least not her part in it. No matter how many times she’s told herself that she couldn’t have foreseen it, couldn’t have known what he was going to do… it feels hollow. It’s imitation comfort, just trying to make herself feel better. There is no release from guilt, however she tries to rationalise it.

“Mabe was so young, so beautiful; she had so much left to do.” Words feel empty; they’ve long since lost meaning. They’re on rote, whether it’s from her lips or someone else’s. It’s what everyone is expected to say, so she does.

Lucian doesn’t seem appeased, silence lingers, inviting further disclosure.

Mmmbop, duba, du bop, du. Oh yeah.

Elaine doesn’t want to talk about it. Every moment, every word has been scrutinised. Police, family, friends and finally the counsellor assigned to her. From the second Mabe’s ex had hammered on her door, to the fear that had caused her to disclose her sister’s location. The stark black of Sergeant Browning’s uniform against the grey winter morning. The unreality of being told Mabe had been murdered. Dropping the jar of coffee when it all became too real. Weeks of evidence, of trying to dissociate her sister from court photographs and barristers statements. Seeking the person she remembered from the one reported by the media.

All Elaine wants to do is to forget.

Perhaps it’s paranoia when Lucian seems to look past her and sigh.

“Tommy lost people too.”

Whether it’s meant to comfort her or not Elaine doesn’t need to know about other people’s grief. Group counseling had left her distraught and angry, so she doesn’t look when the small man’s hands lift to encase his head. When he hunches forward as though he’s wounded. It’s not her business. Almost lazily the channel on the flat screen switches over to a rerun of London’s Burning, causing Tommy to distort like a spider doused in bleach.

The world should have a hazy veil by now, senses swimming with intoxication, but they do not. Instead her vision has inhuman clarity, catching every wisp of hair, every fibre of her coat. Mabe still sits behind her, judging her silently. It’s too soon, too fresh for her to turn to face her, to meet her head on. What she needs to do, is leave.

Legs are shaky, hindering her progress – a heady concoction of fear, cold and perhaps the gin. Almost mechanically she forges for the door. It remains firm against her hand, not giving way even when she shoves it. Confusion courses through her, her shoulder shunting against wood, once, twice before she glances back. The Colonel isn’t looking, Tommy is still balled up. Only Lucian watches her futile attempts to escape.

The more she struggles the more firmly the door is resolved to contain her. Perhaps the ice has frozen it shut? She steps back, trying to focus on the hinges which are not frosted or visibly seized.

A desperate plea reaches her eyes as she looks back towards the bar to see Lucian’s smile. It is as cold as their surroundings. A finger lifts, pointing up, inviting her to see. It takes her a moment; he has a vantage point from the bar. Above the door, wrought iron letters, framed in cream paper and encased in glass. The sort of sign you might find at a vintage fair.

“Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

It’s then she knows that she will never leave.

The ninth circle of hell, where the treacherous are trapped for all eternity gains a new sinner.

The first bars of Hanson start to play and Elaine’s throat opens with a silent scream.

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