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That's Why They Call It A Gift

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"I don't want to talk about it," Bernard Black said.

"You didn't kill anyone, did you?" Manny asked, looking alarmed.

"Christ no, what do you think I am?" Bernard retorted. "Don't. Don't answer that. I don't want to know what goes on in that...that peanut shaped head of yours."

Manny, momentarily distracted, felt his skull worriedly.

"Don't listen to him, Manny," Fran said, stubbing out her cigarette. "I think the way he got the shop is quite an interesting story, actually -- "

"No it's not! It's a very boring story! Even I'm bored with it!" Bernard cried, flailing. The two customers in the bookshop looked perturbed, but only barely; you saw stranger things every day on the street. Usually on the street outside Black Books, in fact.

"He stole it," Fran said to Manny, delight oozing from every syllable.

"I didn't steal it, you don't nick bookshops like candy bars!"

"He has a point," Manny said.

"Thank you, Sasquatch," Bernard muttered.

"He did steal it all the same."

"I did not! It was given to me," Bernard protested.

"But you didn't pay for it," Fran said.

"Of course I didn't pay for it, it was a gift! That's why they're called gifts! Because you don't pay for them! Can I help you!" Bernard shouted, addressing the last remark to a young woman standing in front of the desk.

"Do you sell newspapers?" she asked. Bernard blinked up at her.

"Sure, newspapers, right." He reached behind the desk and came up with a yellowing, several-months-old paper. He smacked it down into her palm. "That'll be fifty p."

"But this isn't today's!"

"What d'you want to go buying today's paper for?" Bernard demanded. "It's all war and parliament and football and things. Look on this, right, as a happier time," he said, tapping the newspaper. "Come on, come on, fifty p."

Startled, she dropped a handful of change on the desk and fled.

"You could have just said no," Manny suggested.

"Yes, but now I've got rid of that rubbish and I've got....eighty-two pence," Bernard said triumphantly.

"Ill gotten gains," Fran whispered to Manny.

"Were you here? No. Did you see what happened? No. Do you have any more wine?"


"Blast. Here." Bernard threw the change at Fran, who managed to catch most of it down her blouse. Two crumpled five-pound notes followed. "Stock us up then."

Fran giggled and shimmied as she stood up. The coins clinked. Fran gasped happily and ran from the shop.

"Are you going to tell me or not?" Manny asked, slumping down onto the couch and staring at the ceiling, which had several gobs of hard, dried peanut butter stuck to it. He might have been disgusted, except he knew that the peanut butter was sealing and concealing several cracks in the ceiling through which the mussels tended to wander if they weren't careful.

"All right. All right," Bernard said, heaving an enormous sigh. "When I came to London I was like a....thing. Fish. Sole. A missing fish."

Manny, who was beginning to pick up on things like this, suggested, "A lost soul?"

"The very article," Bernard agreed. "And I wandered. Aimlessly. Spent a lot of time wandering aimlessly."

"I'm sorry, was this when you first came to London or more sort of...this morning?" Manny asked.

"And wossisname, the bloke, the one who hates me."

Manny began counting silently on his fingers. Finally he looked up. "Which one?"

"Gerald! That's the one. He said we should nip down to this brilliant bookshop."


Bernard, who had not had his glass of breakfast yet (well, really, it was coming on time to drink lunch, to be fair) looked blearily up at Gerald.


"Why not?" Gerald countered. They'd known each other since childhood. Gerald spoke fluent Bernardese.

"Because I don't want to," Bernard snapped.

"Nonsense. Get you out of the house for a little while, take you out of yourself. You're just moping," Gerald insisted.

"I like moping."

"Come on, you'll like it. You like books!"

"I don't like bookshops. They give me the thingys. The horrible thingys. Books shouldn't be sold!" Bernard protested, even as he shrugged into his shapeless black coat and followed Gerald out the door. "It's like whoredom."

"It's what?" Gerald asked, amused. It was a crisp, clear day in London, and Bernard hated that. The sun was, he felt, entirely too bright. If they could get it down to about forty watts, he'd be a happy man.

Some people suffer from depression when the weather is dark. Bernard suffered from unwanted joy when it wasn't.

"It's like, you take a book, right, and you put your heart and soul into writing it, every little word, hundreds of thousands of words, dozens of pages...more than dozens of pages! And they wrap it up in a nice binding with glue and threads and things and it's all shiny and such and then -- and then..." Bernard made a moue of horror. "They smack it down on a shelf in a shop somewhere and it sits there until someone comes along and pays three quid for it and then they own your soul. And they can read your words and do whatever they like with them!" he added, gesticulating wildly.

"If you come with me to the bookshop I'll buy you dinner," Gerald said.

"Done," Bernard pronounced. They walked on in silence for a while, until a thought randomly sparked its way across Bernard's misfiring neurons.

"We've passed bookshops," he said.


"Well, couldn't you have bought your book," Bernard shuddered, "at one of those?"

"This bookshop's special," Gerald replied.

"Do they sell sweets?" Bernard asked.

"He has a lot of very rare and valuable books," Gerald said.

"And you buy his very rare and valuable books? Is that the situation?"

", not really, see the thing is, I like to go and look at them, and then we talk about me perhaps buying one for a while, and then I go away again," Gerald said. "Here we are!" he added, pushing his way into the little shop before Bernard could properly react to the utter nonsense spewing from his mouth.

"Ah! Gerald!" said a thirtyish, tweed-clad man from behind the till. "Lovely morning, isn't it? How are you today? You've brought a friend along, I see?"

Another thought crossed Bernard's mind. "Pimp!" he accused. "Salesman! Pharisee!"

The man looked perplexed.

"Would you like some tea?" he inquired.

"Ah, Mr. Fell, this is Bernard Black, he's an acquaintance of mine," Gerald said hurriedly. "He's not well," he added, in an undertone.

"My pleasure, Mr. Black," Mr. Fell said crisply. "Bethany, would you fetch the tea, please?"

"Coming with it now, sir," called a voice from the back, and a young woman appeared, carrying a tea tray.

"Splendid, splendid. Do you drink tea, Mr. Black, or is it against your religion?"

"Don't mind him," Gerald said.

"Excuse me! Mind me very much!" Bernard interrupted.

"He has this silly theory -- you'll laugh -- that books shouldn't actually be sold," Gerald chuckled. Bethany and Mr. Fell both looked at Bernard with renewed interest.

"Is that so?" Mr. Fell asked, sipping his tea delicately.


"And a month later he calls me up and asks if I'd look after the shop while he takes a bit of a holiday," Bernard finished.


"And that was five years ago," Bernard added blankly.

"And he just never came back? Do you suppose he's a fugitive from justice?" Manny asked, as Fran reappeared with a large paper sack. She began producing wine bottles out of it like clowns out of a very tiny car.

"It's all very mysterious," she said.

"It is not. It's as plain as the face behind your nose," Bernard asserted. "He knew I would not-sell his books."

"What happened to his assistant?"

"Happened? His? What? Assistant?"

"Bethany," Manny said patiently.

"Christ, has something happened to Bethany?" Bernard asked wildly.

"She took off ages ago, Bernard, you remember," Fran said, lighting a cigarette. "She met some chap who came here to not-buy books. Richard or Reginald or something. Tweed-wearing professor type. Promised her lots of chocolate and high adventure. Haven't heard from her since."

"Aren't you worried he's going to come back?" Manny inquired.

"Who?" Bernard asked.

"Mr. Fell."

"Why, what do you know?" Bernard asked, eyes rolling in wild paranoia.

"I'm just saying. What if he comes back?"

"Oh, I don't think he'll do that," Fran said. "And if he does, don't you think Bernard's done a rather good job not selling any books?"

"He might, and this is just a theory, object to peanut butter on the ceiling," Manny ventured.

"It's not really on so much as in...."


Aziraphael was also staring at the ceiling; it was a much nicer ceiling. It had a mural painted on it. The Italians would paint murals on anything that held still enough and some things that didn't.

"Mmf," Crowley said, from somewhere under the blankets. "Angel, I can hear you thinking. Stop thinking so loud."

"It's just that I feel as if I've forgotten something," Aziraphael answered. Crowley's hand crept across his belly, and he sighed peacefully. "Have we been on holiday long?"

"No, I wouldn't say long," Crowley replied.

"Are you sure?"

"Well, another few days won't hurt, if we have," Crowley insisted, nuzzling his way up Aziraphael's chest.

"No -- oh -- you're right," Aziraphael replied happily.