It was ten thirty by the time Stephen got home. He parked his car in his usual spot at the front of the building and let himself in with his passkey. As he opened the door to his flat he heard a voice from behind.
'You keep stranger hours than me, Stephen.'
Stephen turned, a big smile across his face.
'I've been to a special meeting of my writers club, for some reason they want me on the committee.'
'It's nice to be wanted,' said Charlie. 'You're very much wanted here too, my laptop has lost the plot, could you have a look at it please? I wouldn't bother you at this time of night usually, but there's a report on it that I need tomorrow, I'll be for the high jump if I don't hand it in on time.'
'No worries, I'll take a look at it now.'
Stephen followed Charlie into her flat and through to the kitchen. The laptop was sat on the dining table, on the screen was an error message informing him that the operating system could not start.
'It happened a couple of hours ago,' said Charlie. 'I had just saved my report when the bloody thing restarted and came up with this message.'
'The easiest and quickest thing would be to start up in safe mode and see if we can restore it,' said Stephen. 'It could be a registry problem but they can take hours to sort.'
'It's all Greek to me,' said Charlie. 'I just type on it. If you want to start it up safely in restore mode, or whatever it's called, then go ahead. I'll just sit here and look grateful.'
Stephen restarted the computer, pressed a key and chose an option from the start up list.
'We can get into safe mode, so that's encouraging. Do you have a memory stick? I'll see if I can copy your report to it, that way, even if I can't get the machine going tonight, we'll have recovered your document at least. What's the name of the file?'
Fifteen minutes later Stephen had restored the computer settings and the operating system was running normally.
'Save your files as you create them for a week or so, just in case it happens again,' he advised. 'I've done a quick fix and it may be all it needs, but if the same problem occurs, then you might have to bring it in to the shop.'
'Charlie placed a glass of wine in front of him and kissed him on the cheek.'
'My knight in shining armour rides to the rescue once again. Seriously though, thanks for this, I'd have been in real trouble if I turned up at the meeting without it.'
'Glad to help, Charlie.'
'Speaking of knights and armour, how's the book coming along?'
'Not too bad, I've more or less got the plot worked out now, have you thought any more about joining me at the writers club?'
'I'm not sure It's my thing really, Stephen, and I've got you across the landing if I need a second opinion on anything.'
'Never trust friends and relatives when it comes to writing,' Stephen said. 'They will just tell you how wonderful it is. It's far better to get an unbiased opinion.'
'I'll think about it,' said Charlie. 'From what you told me, I wouldn't get much of an objective opinion from this club of yours either.'
'That's what the meeting was about tonight, plans are afoot to change things.'
'Well, let me know when they've changed and I'll reconsider, until then it's your responsibility to tell me how wonderful my work is.'
Stephen finished his wine and got to his feet.
'Better get back, I need to go over the monthly figures, I've a meeting with the accountant tomorrow.'
'I'm up at the crack of dawn myself,' said Charlie, 'and I'm not too good at getting up early, I like my bed too much.'
She walked Stephen to the door and watched him walk across the landing.
'Thanks again, Sir Galahad. I owe you, big time.'
'You don't owe me anything, Charlie. You never know, I might need your nursing skills one of these days.'
'Let's hope not,' said Charlie, seriously. 'Good night, Stephen.'
The meeting with the accountant was over by eleven thirty and Stephen arrived back at the shop just before twelve.
'Morning, Boss,' called Carole. 'I take it we're still solvent then.'
'We're doing well,' said Stephen. 'There might even be a staff bonus payment this year.'
Carole rubbed her hands together. 'Lovely, I'll start looking at cruises.'
'Make it a very short one,' laughed Stephen. 'I doubt the bonus would stretch to a full Caribbean adventure.'
'France and back on the ferry? Ah well, it's better than nothing.'
Carole followed Stephen through to his office and placed a pile of cheques on his desk.
'These need to be in the post today, if you could sign them before lunch I'll catch the afternoon post.'
'I think it's high time we allowed you to sign company cheques, Carole. I'll sort it with the bank next time I go in.'
'It would make it a little easier for me, especially if you are going to be out of the office as much as you are.'
'I didn't mean...'
'I know,' laughed, Stephen. 'We have Mark to cover for me in the workshop nowadays, so I don't feel quite as bad about not being here as I did when we relied on Ben.'
'Speaking of Ben, He came into the office this morning, less than two minutes after you drove off. If I were the suspicious type, I'd say he was sat outside, waiting for you to leave. He's following a new career path by all accounts.'
'Yes I've heard all about it,' said Stephen. 'He's selling second hand computer parts at car boot sales.'
'He's handed in his formal notice. He says can you pay anything you owe him by cash, he's having problems with his bank.'
'Does he have wages outstanding?'
'Two days...a day and a half really.'
'Send him a cheque,' said Stephen. 'We don't owe him any favours.'
When Carole had gone, Stephen made a few phone calls, then signed the cheques on his desk. He was about to walk through to the workshop when he remembered the note that Harriet had passed to him at the meeting. He pulled it from his wallet and dialled the number she had jotted down. A soft, female voice answered.
'Hello, this is Stephen King from Cat Computers. I was asked to get in touch regarding a laptop computer.'
'That's right, thanks for getting back so quickly.'
'No problem, what is it you're looking for exactly?'
'I'm not really sure, we could do with your advice to be honest. Could I make an appointment to see you?'
'Certainly, when would you like to call in?'
'Would this afternoon be all right? We'd like to get moving on it.'
'This afternoon would be fine, how does two o'clock sound?'
'Perfect. I'll see you then.'
At two o'clock precisely, the door bell rang and an olive skinned, dark haired woman, wearing a lemon dress and a khaki jacket, came into the shop.
'Phew, whispered Carole, it's your lucky day, Boss.'
The woman walked to the counter and smiled a perfect smile at Carole.
'I've come to see Mr King, my name's, Janice.'
'He's expecting you, follow me please.'
Carole led Janice to the rear of the premises, Stephen was waiting by his office door.
'Janice..err?' said Carole.
'Mancini,' said Janice. 'It's an odd mixture isn't it?'
'I've heard of odder,' said Stephen.
Janice smiled, showing off her perfect teeth.
'My father is from Italy, my mother was from Birmingham.'
'It's a perfect mix,' said Stephen.
Janice smiled again and Carole left to go back to the desk.
'Perfect mix,' she chuckled. 'You've fallen under her spell already, Boss.'
Stephen pulled out a chair for Janice, then hurried round the desk to his own seat. Janice crossed her legs slowly, Stephens pulse began to race. He sat down with a bump.
'Sorry, Janet, err Janice,' he stuttered. 'You were interested in a acquiring a laptop for Deirdre. I believe?'
'That's right, we'll need a few other bits and pieces too.'
'She leant forward and lowered her voice as if sharing a secret.
'I sent a few of Deirdre's exercise books off to a publisher, they were very interested, but they said they can only accept them in typewritten, or digital form. So I want a laptop, a mouse, and anything else you can think of that will help me get Deirdre's work onto a computer.'
'I seem to remember someone telling me she'd had a similar offer a few years ago, but she didn't want to get involved with computers.'
'I talked her round,' said Janice. She brushed the hair away from her forehead and turned her soft, green eyes to Stephen. 'It wasn't easy, she really didn't like the idea.'
Stephen gazed dreamily into Janice's face, then realised she had finished speaking.
'Right, you'll need some eyes... I mean a scanner, or an all in one printer, they usually come with some OCR software that will translate the page into word processor format. They aren't all that clever with handwritten pages though.'
'She wrote it in block print, if you know what I mean, it's handwritten but not joined up writing. I borrowed a friend's scanner one evening and tried a few pages. I only found a couple of errors in the scan.'
'In that case a decent quality, all in one printer would probably do the job, you could scan it directly to into a word processing document on the laptop with that. It does seem a big job though.'
Janice nodded and crossed her legs again. Stephen found himself craning his neck to see over the desk.
'I'm only going to do one book to start with. It would cover two or three exercise books at most. I'll send that off and see what they have to say before I do any more.'
'It might be a good idea to buy an external hard disk to back up the work, you wouldn't want to transfer it all to the laptop only to have the hard disk fail on you.'
'Are they that unreliable? I had one for a few years and didn't have too many problems with it.'
'It's not that they are unreliable,' said Stephen. 'But anything electronic can fail, I always advise customers that if their data is important, then it's worth having a second copy, just in case. Laptops can be dropped or stolen, I've seen them covered in coffee, wine, even bleach. The drives can fail though, nothing is perfect.'
'I'll take your advice, Stephen,' said Janice. 'Have you read any of Deirdre's stories? they are wonderful, she really makes you feel that you are part of it all. She is quite brilliant.'
'I've heard her read from them a couple of times at the manuscript nights,' Stephen replied. 'She seemed to hold the listeners under a spell when she was on her feet. They all look forward to the next chapter.'
Janice beamed with pride.
'I remember when I picked up the first volume, I was entranced, I couldn't put it down. I told her that the work deserved to be published and she agreed with me. I also told her that she should be writing on a computer. That bit was more difficult to get her to agree to.'
'So she's going to use the computer for writing, not just to transfer the books?'
'She is,' said Janice, proudly. 'I'm going to teach her.'
'That's very good of you. I was going to sort out a few courses for her, a lot of schools put them on free for pensioners.'
'I'll look after that side of things, I have plenty of time,' said Janice.
Stephen jotted down some figures and passed the sheet to Janice. Their fingertips brushed together as she took the paper from him, Stephen's hand tingled as though a pulse of electricity had passed through it.
'Here's what I recommend. The laptop has a lot of memory, a good size had disk and four processors to do all the number crunching. The external drive will take any amount of data you can throw at it and the printer will scan, photocopy, print photographs...and documents. I'll throw in a mouse and a memory stick, so you can transfer a few documents to another computer whenever you want to.'
'This looks ideal,' said Janice. 'A little cheaper than I imagined too.'
'I've given you a bit of discount, as Deirdre is a writers club member.'
'That's very kind of you, but there's no need...'
'I did the same for another club member a few days ago, all members get the same discount, not just the pretty ones.'
Janice smiled her wonderful smile and Stephen thought about throwing in a few more freebies.
'When can I pick it up?'
'I have everything in stock, so I'll get them tested this afternoon...They could be ready for you tomorrow.'
Janice smiled and got to her feet.
'Wonderful, what time do you want me?'
'Stephen closed his eyes and tried to block out the thoughts that were flying through his mind. Janice offered her hand, Stephen took it and thought about raising it to his lips, instead he shook it softly and looked into her eyes.
'No need to pick it up, leave your address and I'll deliver it myself. Do you have an hour or two free tomorrow afternoon?'
'I'm in all day. Deirdre will be out in the afternoon though, she's a prison visitor. If you can come early, I may have time to get a few pages done before she gets home; that will be exciting for her.'
'How does one o'clock sound?' asked Stephen.
'Perfect, I'll make you some lunch if you like?'
Stephen reluctantly opened the office door and led Janice through to the showroom. Carole waved goodbye as she walked past. Stephen thought about offering to walk her to her car, but wasn't sure if she'd driven over, or caught the bus. In the end he watched her cross the road from the shop doorway, thinking of a thousand things he wished he had asked her.