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Spirits

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"No! No!" Bernard howled in agonised horror as his precious lifeblood spilled across the bookshop floor in vivid red rivulets.

The sound drew Manny from the kitchen, where he'd been conscientiously labelling and storing the leftovers from their takeaway before Bernard could use them as an ashtray. He gazed at the disturbing scene before him. "Er. Why is Bernard licking the carpet?" he asked.

"He spilled his wine," Fran said, unconcernedly tipping up the last dregs from her own glass. She lifted up her cardboard takeaway box to peer into the corners. "Do you think this is the full salad? Maybe some of it fell out on the way here. Not that I need any more," she added hastily. "Since I'm being a healthy and virtuous new me." She dragged frantically on her cigarette.

Manny struggled to drag Bernard up from the floor, battling his Herculean efforts to keep licking. "No, Bernard, no!" he said desperately. "You'll catch all kinds of terrible diseases."

"He's more likely to infect the carpet," Fran said.

"Pah!" Bernard said, as he popped up. "It's perfectly sanitary." He pulled a clump of fluff from his mouth and inspected it before flicking it off into a corner. "Full of nutrients." He lunged for the floor again. "And my precious wine!"

"It's gone, Bernard! It's gone!" Manny dragged him back by the collar like a snapping dog. He looked frantically over to Fran. "Quick, pour him some more before he goes rabid!"

"That was the last of it." She upended the bottle to prove as much. A single remaining drop glistened on the rim.

"Wine! Sweet nectar of the gods!" Bernard leapt across to snatch it from her, suckling at the bottle like a baby until it became clear that there was nothing in it. He curled up under the table with it in his arms, rocking and weeping. "Why have you forsaken me my beloved, oh, why? Why?" he wailed.

"We've got to do something!" Manny said, driven to despair by the pitiful vision. "Quick, Fran, the emergency backup wine."

"Drank it," she said.

Bernard moaned disconsolately from under the table.

"Haha!" Manny said brightly, scuttling over to a set of bookshelves. "But did you know I'd also bought emergency backup emergency backup wine?"

"Drank it," they both chorused, as he shoved aside a row of heavy hardback books to reveal an empty cubbyhole with a scrawled Post-it note that read 'I O ME more wine'.

Manny's shoulders sank, and then he adopted an expression of resolve. "All right," he said. "If this is not a trick - and this had better not be a trick, Bernard! - then there is one last, top secret, never before revealed, emergency emergency emergency stash of wine." As he spoke he swung out a section of bookshelves to reveal a hidden safe, criss-crossed by padlocks. He undid those, clicked in the combination, then pulled out a lockbox and unlocked that. "And it is-" he upended the box, tipping out nothing but half a dozen corks, "-empty?"

"We drank that last Tuesday," Fran said helpfully.

Manny staggered over to sit, dazed, at the foot of a bookshelf. "Then this is it," he said, meeting Fran's gaze with shellshocked eyes. "We've lost. It's over. He's going to end up-" he mouthed, "S-O-B-E-R."

"I'm not a dog, you know," Bernard said, and scratched behind his ear. He shook his head wildly, then dropped down onto all fours to sniff frantically at the wine stain on the floor. "It's all right!" he said. "I can still get drunk on the fumes!" He took a deep snort. "I'm getting forest fruits, I'm getting strawberry, a hint of sage, I'm getting... Aargh! Dead moths." He reeled away, removing one from his nose with a betrayed expression.

"It's no good, Bernard," Manny said despairingly. "The wine's all gone. And the shops won't be open till tomorrow morning."

Bernard clutched his heart, staggering back to the counter. "Weak... dizzy... dehydrated... can't breathe! Must have... refreshing cigarette..." He snatched the packet from the edge, tipped out four, and attempted to stick all of them in his mouth at once.

"He'll never make it!" Manny said. "We'll have to knock over an off-licence. Aargh - I'm not suited to a life of crime! My face is the wrong shape for stockings! I don't look good in black and white stripes!"

"Oh, calm down, Manny," said Fran. "There must be something in here we can drink."

Bernard raised a hand to the skies. "To the liquor cabinet!" he said boldly.

"We have a liquor cabinet?" Manny said, bewildered, as they trailed him to what turned out to be the cupboard under the bathroom sink. "I thought that was nailed shut after the Suspiciously Mobile Sponge Incident of 2006?" he asked.

"Haha! That's what I wanted you to think," Bernard said, and pawed ineffectually at the cupboard for a while until Fran took a shoe off and hammered it open with the heel. Inside, a row of ominously unlabelled bottles glistened darkly amid the dust and cobwebs.

"Bernard, what's in these?" Manny asked as he lifted them out. Several looked as if the glass had melted. Most of them didn't so much slosh as make a slurping, sucking noise like a boot being tugged from the mud. More than one looked like they belonged in a museum.

"Spirits!" Bernard said expansively. "Perfectly healthy spirits! Gin and... the other one, and... good old Irish whiskey, with a fiddle-de diddle-de... something."

"This one's got a skull and crossbones sticker," Manny said.

"That's how you know it's a good vintage!"

Fran uncapped one and reeled backwards. "Cor, that's quite a whiff." She blinked tears from her eyes. "Are you sure we should be drinking this, Bernard?"

"Of course, of course," he said airily. "We'll use Manny as a guinea pig. We'll keep him in a cage, feed him carrots and make him a bed out of shredded up newspaper."

"Oi!" Manny said. Then he reconsidered. "How much newspaper?"

*

"Open wide!" Fran held out a spoonful of dark, tar-like liquid poured from one of the bottles. The stainless steel was sizzling faintly.

Manny pressed his lips together firmly. "Mmf!" he said emphatically, shaking his head. "Mm mmm mmm-mm mmm mm mm mmf!"

"Speak clearly, you blithering oaf," Bernard said.

Manny glared at him. "I said- mmf!" He was cut off as Fran darted the spoon into his mouth.

"Yes, that's what I thought you said, and it didn't make any more sense the first time!"

Manny's eyes were red and watering, and his ears were faintly steaming. "Gah, that's... got quite a kick to it," he croaked, clutching his chest.

"Nonsense!" Bernard said. "It's barely playing footsie with you. This is a kick!" He booted Manny in the shin.

"Aagh!"

As Manny's mouth flew open in a yelp of pain, Fran pressed the contents of another bottle on him. "Drink, Manny, drink!" His sounds of protest became a gargle.

Bernard and Fran leaned in to observe the results. Manny wiped his mouth and blinked, tilting his head in reflective surprise, then held up a finger. "You know, actually, that one tastes quite..." He toppled over backwards like a felled tree.

Bernard peered down at him for a few moments. "Perhaps some kind of funnel arrangement?" he suggested to Fran.

*

Manny awoke to darkness. "Aagh! I've gone blind." He sat up, and donked his head on something wooden. "Aagh! They've put me in a coffin!" He hammered on the wood. "I'm not dead! Don't leave me in here, with the slime and the rank smell of decay and the worms and the beetles and the... big shelves full of books. Oh." Apparently they'd left him on the floor of the bookshop where he'd passed out.

"Oh, well, that's very kind." He extricated himself from under the counter. "Yes, I'm fine, thank you. I suppose I'll just tidy myself up, shall I? Sweep myself off the floor like all those cigarette butts I pick up day after day, wearing my fingers to the bone... My mother warned me about men like you, but I was seduced! Seduced by all your big city manners and your devil-may-care attitude and your rakish hair-tossing..."

His grumblings were cut off by an unearthly groaning from somewhere up above his head. "Uhhoouhaoo..."

"Who's there?" He cringed in fear. There was no answer, only another eldritch groan. It sounded like a spirit in torment. "Aagh!" Stumbling, Manny groped around until he found Bernard's matches and one of the scented candles Fran had pressed on them in her Nifty Gifty phase. He lit it, and then paused to take a deep, relaxing breath. "Mmm, jasmine."

He jumped and cringed as the groaning came again. Lifting the candle, he saw a pale and ghastly figure at the top of the stairs: a stooped old woman, clad in white, her face unnaturally pale, and only a gaping shadowy hole where her eyes should have been. With every shuffling step she took towards him down the stairs he heard a rattling clink like dragging chains.

Cowering in fear, Manny backed away, and tripped over something behind a bookcase. He screamed as he realised it was a body.

Then he realised it was Bernard's body, curled up and hugging one of the bottles of unidentified spirits to his chest like a teddy bear. Manny crouched down behind the bookcase and shook his shoulder urgently, peering through at the ghost with wide eyes. "Bernard! Bernard!" He tried a slightly louder shade of frantic whisper, and a harder shake. "Bernard!" No result.

Finally, Manny tried to tug the bottle of booze away. Bernard spluttered to life like an engine coughing and weakly rolled away from him. "What? No, don't make me go to school, Ma, they make me wear shorts and breathe fresh air, it's torture."

"Bernard," Manny hissed. "Bernard... there'suh, uh, uh, a ghost." The spectral figure moaned again, and he leapt behind Bernard in fright.

"Nonsense!" Bernard said, standing up and swaying with unsteady belligerence. "It's a figment of that deforested hillock that you laughingly call your mind. Everyone knows there's no such thing as- aagh!" He leapt behind Manny as the spectre suddenly broke out into cracked, cackling laughter.

"Fresh meat..." it wheezed in the dry voice of the grave as it neared the foot of the stairs. "Fresh, juicy, delicious meat..."

"It's going to eat us, Bernard!" Manny yelped. "Do something!"

"Yes, all right, all right!" Bernard looked around, and then shoved Manny out in front of him. "Eat him! Look at him, he's ninety percent pork." He poked Manny in the side.

"Ow! Bernard. That's very hurtful," he said, pouting.

"Quiet, fatso." Bernard turned back to the ghost. "You don't want to eat me," he insisted. "I'm tough and stringy and full of questionable additives."

The apparition ignored them, shuffling zombie-like through the rear curtain into the kitchen area.

"It's after the remains of the takeaway!" Manny said, appalled. "I spent half an hour decanting that into individual colour-coded Tupperware containers! I had a system!"

"Well, stop it, then!" Bernard commanded. "I paid for that food out of my own money."

"No, you didn't, you made me pay for it," Manny objected. "You said you'd given your last penny to a little orphan beggar boy."

"Yes, and the little bastard didn't even bring me back my cigarettes," he said with a scowl. "Anyway, you're my employee. Your money is my money."

"You haven't paid me for months!"

"Details," Bernard said dismissively. "Now, get in there and bust that ghost!"

"All right," he said, raising his chin. "But I'm taking the candle."

"Fine," Bernard said sniffily. "I'm not scared. I'll just wait here, smoking a cigarette in a nonchalant manner, ahahaha." He sat down in his chair, and then, as Manny moved away, just as quickly scrambled back up, tripping over the chair in his haste to follow.

They abandoned the stealth that they actually hadn't had in the first place. "Quick, grab it, grab it!" Bernard said as they both burst through into the kitchen. The curtain flapped around them wildly, tangling them both in its folds.

"I've got it, Bernard!" Manny shouted triumphantly.

"No, I've got it!"

"Oh, God, there's two of them!" he realised.

"It's struggling!" said Bernard desperately.

"So's mine!"

After several moments of mutual wrestling, they managed to coordinate enough to let go of each other, and Manny staggered through into the kitchen, panting wildly as he slumped against the cupboards. He slapped the light on, revealing a figure in a long white dressing gown with covered eyes, a rack of gnawed ribs held between its teeth and barbecue sauce drooling down like blood.

"Aargh!" Bernard recoiled in horror, covering his face with his arm. "It's hideous! No, don't look!" He grabbed Manny's face and forcibly turned it away. "You'll be struck blind."

Fran flipped the sleep mask up and took the ribs out of her mouth, scowling at him. "Look, I get hungry on this bloody diet, all right?" she said. "And anyway, it doesn't count, because all these spirits of yours dissolved the entire contents of my stomach before I had a chance to digest it." She lifted the clinking glass bottles out of the dressing gown's deep pockets.

Manny sagged with relief. "So there was no ghost after all," he said.

"Of course not," Bernard muttered around his cigarette. "There's no such thing, you fool." As the others moved back out into the front of the shop, he stayed behind, struggling to yank the stopper from one of the bottles Fran had dumped out on the table. It was strangely curved in shape, made of thick, dusty black glass, and when he finally pulled the stopper free, a cloud of blue smoke billowed forth.

"Haha!" An echoing voice rang out from the bottle's mouth. "At last I have been freed from my prison of centuries, and now, with the awesome might of my powers unleashed, I shall-"

The voice was abruptly cut off as Bernard lifted the bottle to his mouth and chugged. After several gulping swallows he lowered it and went through a sequence of lemon-biting expressions before belching up a small puff of blue smoke.

He held the bottle up briefly to study it by the light. "Ah, the 1729. Good year," he said. Clutching the bottle loosely in his grip, he shuffled out.

Behind him in the kitchen, a small, forlorn wisp of smoke gathered for a brief moment as if to form into a shape, before it puffed out and disappeared, unnoticed.