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The Mystery Writer

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It was the strangest friendship Manny had ever seen, if that's what it even was. He would come in maybe once a week, sometimes twice. He'd nod at Bernard, and maybe one of them would grunt a bit. Sometimes he brought wine and sometimes Bernard shouted, "Manny! Wine for Dan!" That was all the introduction Manny had ever had, actually. Fran seemed to know him, or at least parts of her seemed to want to know him, given the way the neckline of her top always crept downwards and her eyelashes fluttered. Tried to flutter. It was really more of a sort of rapid blinking that tended to make bystanders offer her eye drops. 

"I think they woke up on a pub floor together one morning," Fran said when Manny asked. "He's a surly bastard but he's got one of those voices." The way her eyes rolled back in her head and she shivered a bit made Manny decide he didn't want to hear any more about Dan from her.

For a few weeks, Manny thought they never spoke to each other at all and just sat there buried in their respective books, smoking and drinking in silence. But it turned out that was just Manny's timing, and that after about an hour and roughly a litre of wine each, they would begin to argue.

Bernard would slam down his book and slurringly declare, perhaps, "I loved her so much I wanted to kill her. That's the most beautiful statement of...beautiful deep...beautiful love I've ever heard."

And Dan would, for example, say around his cigarette that Kerouac was a twatty overrated gimmick. They'd go on for ages, increasingly louder and drunker and more heated, so vitriolic that even after Manny had witnessed a few of these, there were still moments where he felt they might start throwing punches. That or start snogging, but Manny didn't like think about that.

Dan would eventually either stagger off back wherever he'd come from or pass out on the sofa and disappear before Manny woke up. Strangely, these arguments had the opposite effect on Bernard that Manny might have expected. He'd fall asleep in his chair with a contented smile on his face, and the mornings after, once he'd shaken off his hangover a bit, turned out to be the best times to ask for things like days off and wages. Sometimes he sang to himself whilst eating toast in the bath, and didn't shout at Manny if he'd left the shampoo where it might easily be confused with the jam.

Fran said she thought it might be some sort of bookworm brain-sex. Manny didn't like that idea either, and burnt her cheese toasties on purpose.

Then, one day, Dan stopped coming round. Manny wasn't going to be the one to ask if Bernard had finally driven him off. Fran had no such compunction, but at least framed it in terms of whether or not she ought to be saving her new top. 

"He jumped out of a window," Bernard said without looking up from the page he hadn't turned in over an hour.

Whatever the real reason for Dan's absence, Bernard obviously missed having a beardy, squinty English version of himself to argue with. As the weeks wore on with no sign of Dan, Bernard got snippier and meaner. He sacked Manny a record fourteen times in a single day and threw more dishes than ever. Fortunately for Manny's head, Bernard was also approximately three times more pissed than usual, and therefore less accurate at chucking plates.

"He's like dogs get when one of their little dog friends get given away, or hit by the plumber's van," Fran whispered. "We've got to do something, Manny."

But there was nothing to be done. Neither of them even knew Dan's surname, much less where to find him. Fran only knew he was a writer and had a sister. Manny didn't know anything useful at all, only that Dan didn't really hate Thomas Hardy and genuinely did hate Dutch wine. 

Manny tried artful dinners and special ice creams. Fran brought in expensive whiskey and nicer cigarettes. Nothing worked. They'd just have to wait for Bernard to get over it, since Bernard wouldn't even admit to having anything to get over.

*

Manny knew there would be trouble the moment the bloke walked in. He might as well have been carrying a blinking neon sign that said 'I am one of those painfully hip Shoreditch types,' and, actually, given all the wires and gadgets wrapped around him, it wouldn't have been impossible for him to have one. Bernard hated hip Shoreditch types. They were only ever looking for amusing vintage pornography and couldn't get off their mobiles. 

"You can't have those...those things in here," Bernard said, pointing wildly at all the gadgets. "Get out."

The kid actually smiled. Possibly he was high. "It's all switched off, mate, don't worry."

"There's nothing here with seventies nipples in it, and therefore nothing for you. You can tell all your little friends that as well, with their tiny bicycles and their ear-shoes." 

"You ain't got that letterpress Vonnegut, then?"

Manny braced himself. There was one, locked away in Bernard's desk drawer for when its future owner could afford it. Except the future owner probably wasn't coming back.

"It's reserved," Bernard snapped.

"Yeah, I know. For Dan Ashcroft? I came to get it for him."

Manny half-expected a collar-grabbing who-are-you-and-what-have-you-done-to-Dan scuffle, but Bernard simply narrowed his eyes and fumbled the drawer open. "How is he, then?" he asked like it had been kicked out of him.

"Getting better. Least not off his face on painkillers all day."

It was, of course, Fran who said what she and Manny were both thinking. "Oh my god! He really did jump out a window? I thought that was just like Emma faking her death!"

"You'll not speak that name in my shop!" Bernard shouted, stopping Fran's cackling dead in its tracks.

"Yeah, he did," Friend-of-Dan said to Fran, slowly, as though she might be very stupid. He dropped a pile of notes onto the desk and took the book from Bernard. "Cheers," he said, and started making his way to the door.

"Jones!" Bernard called. Manny would have thought it was a random exclamation if Inspector Gadget hadn't stopped and turned back with an odd smile on his face. Bernard held out the money. "Keep this. It's a present."

Jones smiled and waved it away. "'S a present from me, mate. Find your own." He went over to the little chalkboard and erased Bernard's scrawled NONE OF THAT EITHER and wrote an address in the smear of white. "He ain't allowed any booze, though."

Bernard's face fell cartoonishly. "What? That's criminal! Torture! How can he possibly live like that?"

"Amazing what someone can do with a good reason, ain't it?" Jones said like some cryptic hipster guru. He flashed another smile, this time at Manny, and clattered out the door. 

Bernard stared at the address on the board for a long time, scowling and smoking and muttering something that might've been about Walt Whitman. Manny couldn't really make it out. But Manny's special ice cream at teatime that night earned a smile, and Bernard didn't throw anything.