“I don’t get it,” Clyde complained as he came out of the school gates along with Rani. “Your dad bans all the cool stuff like Halloween and Guy Fawkes and he allows a stupid thing like Valentine’s Day to go ahead.”
“Mum likes Valentine’s day,” Rani commented. “She sells loads of flowers.”
“Lucky for your mum,” Clyde replied with just a little too much sarcasm. Rani glared at him with that expression he was coming to recognise as the one women gave men when they failed to recognise those subtle signals that they gave out. It was difficult enough at sixteen to realise that he was a ‘man’ and Rani was a ‘woman’ without coping with the whole pheromone thing. He wondered if he might actually get it by the time he was older, like, sixty or something.
“Valentine’s Day is ok,” he conceded. “If people really mean it... grown up people who have somebody special to give a card or flowers to. But this is a comprehensive school full of dorks who count the number of cards they get like they count their facebook friends. I mean... if there ever was a time when quality is better than quantity....”
Rani’s expression changed from glaring to a soft smile. Clyde dug his hand in his pocket to see how much money he had on him. Probably not enough to get something that qualified as ‘quantity’ before tomorrow morning.
The lime green Figaro pulling up was a welcome diversion.
“Were we meant to be going to Sarah Jane’s house tonight?” Clyde asked. “I’ve got... stuff... to do.”
“That’s ok, you can do your stuff,” Rani told him. “This is journalism stuff. There’s this factory that Sarah Jane wants to check out. We’re going in as Metropolitan Magazine writers.”
“You mean you arranged something together... without me?” Clyde looked disappointed and faintly annoyed. He was part of Sarah Jane’s gang long before Rani came along. When Luke went off to university he expected to be the ‘surrogate son’ doing all the cool stuff with her. But Rani seemed to be usurping him.
“Well... it doesn’t really fit the cover story if you’re there, too. Sarah Jane has proper journalist credentials and she can get me in as her apprentice or assistant, but what could you be?”
“Photographer?” he suggested. Then he remembered he DID have stuff to do. “Well, at least I can grab a lift to the high street.” He climbed into the back of the car before anyone could say no. Rani took her usual place in the passenger seat. To their credit they didn’t talk about the factory in front of him, and Clyde managed to get the loan of ten pounds from Sarah Jane without having to say what it was for, so he left them in a good mood.
“I wonder why he needed to borrow money?” Sarah Jane mused as she pulled away into the evening traffic.
“Because he just found out that I LIKE Valentine’s Day,” Rani answered. She and Sarah Jane shared a knowing look and that ended the subject. “So... what about this factory?”
“There’s a company called Magic Confections set up there, now,” Sarah Jane replied. “They might be on the level. After all, there have been chocolates called Black Magic around since I was your age. There might be nothing in it. But the name made me wonder. Especially since the factory question used to be the headquarters of Bubbleshock. You know how much trouble that was.”
“I remember the adverts and all the hype about it. Then suddenly the factory shut down and nobody talked about it at all. It wasn’t until I saw Mr Smith’s data file that I found out what it was all about. Very weird. Very creepy. Do you think something like that might be going on again?”
“I hope not,” Sarah Jane admitted. “It would be nice to write a story about an ordinary British business opening up despite the current economic climate. Yes, I know, boring, but it pays the bills. I DO write ordinary articles like that, as well as chasing aliens. And if you want to be a real journalist you might as well get used to it, too. Finding five hundred sparkling words on the dullest subject on Earth is a REAL journalist’s skill.”
“Plus you can get paid for those stories, instead of them being buried in U.N.I.T red tape.”
“That, too,” Sarah Jane added.
And it very much looked as if it was going to be one of those sort of stories. The factory where an alien takeover of the planet had been plotted now apparently did nothing except make very fine confectionary. Sarah Jane found nothing untoward when she and Rani were taken on a tour of the factory, seeing all aspects of production from mixing the chocolate in huge vats, preparing the different flavoured centres, making up the chocolates and packing them up into boxes. When the tour was over they were given complimentary heart-shaped boxes of the finest ‘Magic Selection’ by the manager, Mr Dario Danas, who wished them both a Happy Valentine’s Day with a bright smile and a surprisingly charming manner.
There was nothing sinister about the factory or its owner at all. This was going to have to be the ordinary kind of story, after all.
“Well, so much for a BRITISH business doing well in the current economic climate,” Sarah Jane said as she drove out through the gates she had once crashed through in a bus to stop the alien invasion plan. “It’ll have to be something on the lines of ‘Eastern European Entrepreneur...’”
“Sounds horribly tabloid,” Rani commented. “He comes from Croatia. They had a bad time there. It’s nice that he’s been able to make a new life for himself here in England. And he was rather good looking, don’t you think?”
Rani looked at Sarah Jane. Sarah Jane looked back at Rani, then both of them laughed.
“Too old for you, and too young for me,” Sarah Jane said. “Besides, you and Clyde...”
“Me and Clyde haven’t really decided about that, yet,” Rani admitted. “He’s not... He’s still...”
“Too much of a boy worried about how it looks to other boys.”
“Something like that.” Rani looked at the box of chocolates she was still clutching. It looked very attractive, a glossy black heart shaped box with a red ribbon around it, all sealed inside cellophane. There was nothing written on the front of the box at all. Underneath was a very small panel with the obligatory list of ingredients and nutritional information. But that wasn’t sinister. It was just marketing – ‘the box of chocolates you know by the taste, not the name.’
“Funny thing is, I really don’t feel like eating them after spending so long in the factory with the smell of chocolate everywhere,” she said.
“I know what you mean,” Sarah Jane agreed. “How about a pizza instead?”
Rani had still not been tempted by the chocolates the next morning when she hurriedly wrapped the box in some blue tissue paper and slipped it in her school bag. It occurred to her that, if Clyde WAS getting her a Valentine’s Day present yesterday evening, then she ought to have something for him. In case she had misread the signals, though, she wasn’t going to show her hand, first.
“Rani!” Clyde was waiting at the school gate when she arrived the next morning. She waved to him and he blushed, which wasn’t his usual reaction to her. He looked around to make sure none of his form room gang were near and then produced a card and a small gift box wrapped in gold paper.
“Hppy Vltns Day,” he mumbled as if the words caught in his throat somehow.
“Oh, thank you, Clyde,” Rani said, doing a command performance of somebody completely surprised by the thoughtfulness of a friend. “That’s lovely of you. Here... I’ve got something for you.”
She felt a little mean. The tissue paper had slipped partially off and the fact that it was a heart-shaped box of chocolates was obvious. It wouldn’t take him long to work out that it was a box of chocolates from the factory she visited with Sarah Jane, and that they were bound to give out free samples.
If he had worked that much out, though, he gave no sign of it. He accepted the Valentine’s Day present with what seemed to be a genuine smile. Then he stuffed it in his bag and ran to talk to Dean Waring. Rani made her way to her form room and, under the desk so nobody else could see, she opened the package.
It wasn’t chocolates. It wasn’t something that cost much more than ten pounds, either, since that was what he borrowed from Sarah Jane. But it was a proper gift that he must have thought about. She felt even more of a heel about passing on the freebie chocolates to Clyde as she lifted out the silver charm bracelet complete with a half dozen charms to start the collection. It looked second hand, not new. It might charitably be called antique. She didn’t care. She thought it was lovely. She tried it on and it fitted beautifully. She slipped it back off again and put it safely in the gift box before the form master, Mr Bradbury, came in and called the class to order for register. Her father had laid down strict rules about wearing jewellery in school and she couldn’t be caught out breaking the rule.
Registration was a bit unusual this morning. As he called each name, Mr Bradbury walked around the class handing a chocolate to each student. It was a large chocolate, easily three inches across and heart shaped. Rani recognised the marketing style of Magic Confections in the black foil with a red bow design across it.
“What’s this for, sir?” Rani asked when he passed one to her.
“Apparently every school in the borough has received them,” the teacher answered. “Free Valentine’s Day sweeties for all. Just don’t eat them in lessons and remember to put the wrappers in the bin. And nobody tell Jamie Oliver that you’re being encouraged to eat chocolate in school.”
Everybody laughed. Rani looked at the chocolate and still didn’t feel like eating it. Having seen how they were made really had put her off. She didn’t expect the feeling to last. Sooner or later she WOULD eat chocolate again, but staying off it for a day or two wouldn’t hurt her psychologically.
Gita Chandra was having a delightfully busy day in Bloomin’ Lovely. Men had been rushing in all morning to buy flowers. With every bunch she had been giving away an extra surprise, a free chocolate from the huge basket that had been dropped off just as she was opening up. A very pleasant man with a European accent had told her they were doing a special Valentine’s Day promotion, spreading chocolate joy. The basket cost nothing. There was no pressure, no sales pitch. All she had to do was give the samples away with the flowers.
In a quiet moment when the shop had only one gentleman in it trying to decide between roses or a mixed bunch of spring flowers, she surreptitiously unwrapped one of the chocolate hearts and took a bite. It was very nice chocolate, creamy and melt in the mouth. She was going to finish it off, but the gentleman had made his choice and came to the counter.
“A dozen red roses,” she said as she trimmed the stems and made them up into a nice bunch with cellophane and ribbons. “The classic choice. I’m sure your Valentine’s Day lady will appreciate them.”
“They’re not for a lady,” the gentleman said. “They’re for my boyfriend.”
“Oh...well...” Gita did her best not to sound surprised. “Well... I hope he appreciates them. Here, have a Valentine’s Day chocolate. Have another for your boyfriend.”
“Thanks. Looks nice. I might try it now.”
He handed over his credit card to put into the scanner and opened the chocolate. Gita looked up to ask him to put his pin number in and was startled when he grasped her by the shoulders and kissed her passionately on the lips. She was even more startled to find herself responding to the kiss.
Then both drew back.
“Er...” she said. “I mean... oh... that was.... I don’t know what came over me. I think....”
The man blinked and shook his head, then typed his pin into the credit card scanner. Gita completed the transaction and gave him back his card and receipt as well as his bunch of roses. He hurried out of the shop.
Gita watched him go, then went to the door. She snicked the lock and put up the closed sign, then she went into the back room. Among the buckets of fresh flowers and rolls of cellophane and ribbon she kept the monitor for the CCTV camera that overlooked the counter. She rewound the recording of the last ten minutes and watched to see if what she thought had happened really had happened.
“Oh dear,” she said to herself. “I think I need a very strong cup of tea.”
Sarah Jane had just finished emailing her article about Magic Confections to the business editor of Metropolitan Magazine when she heard the sound of footsteps on the stairs. Rani and Clyde ran into the attic looking hot and bothered from running.
“Why are you two out of school?” she asked. “What’s the matter? No, sit down first, get your breath, then ONE of you tell me.”
“Everyone at school has gone mad,” Clyde said when his pulse had nearly returned to normal.
“Define mad,” Sarah Jane replied.
“They’re all kissing each other,” Rani said.
“Define ALL,” Sarah Jane added.
“I mean all,” Rani contnued. “Everyone, students, teachers, dinner ladies!”
“Students are kissing teachers?” Sarah Jane looked alarmed. “That’s not...”
“No, the students are kissing each other. But... I mean... Dean Waring tried to kiss Clyde. And Mr Bradbury kissed Mrs White... and we all know Mrs White is married to another lady. And the dinner ladies were kissing each other. And....” Rani blushed deeply. “Miss Pemberton, the school secretary.... I saw her.... I went to dad’s office, and she wasn’t at her desk, and the door was open. She was leaning over him in his chair and....”
“It was a full on snog,” Clyde explained. “And everyone in the playground was at it. First years right up to fifth. Rani and I ran for it. But we saw people in the high street at it, as well. This bloke... his car was getting a ticket... and he snogged the parking meter woman.”
“That probably isn’t going to get him off the ticket,” Sarah Jane noted. She turned from her laptop computer. “Mr Smith, we need you.”
Was it her imagination or was the fanfare of music that accompanied Mr Smith’s spectacular boot sequence more romantically arranged today?
Perhaps it was her imagination. When he was fully online he sounded perfectly normal.
“Mr Smith, can you detect any abnormal chemicals in the atmosphere around Ealing? Are there reports of unusual behaviour anywhere outside the Borough, for that matter? How widespread is this?”
“No chemical abnormalities, Sarah Jane,” Mr Smith reported after several minutes. “And I am getting no reports of unusual behaviour anywhere. What sort of unusual behaviour do you mean?”
Sarah Jane was spared having to explain to a computer why people randomly kissing each other at inappropriate times and in inappropriate places was unusual behaviour by a frantic ringing of the front doorbell. Mr Smith displayed his CCTV view of the doorstep. Rani gave a horrified cry.
“It’s my mum! What’s she doing here? She should be at the shop. WE should be at school.”
“Mrs Chandra is in a high state of agitation,” Mr Smith pointed out. “I am reading increased levels of adrenaline and endomorphines and she is expelling small amounts of H2O with sodium chloride from her eyes...”
“You mean she is crying?” Sarah Jane questioned.
“Mum is crying?” Rani was alarmed.
“You and Clyde stay here and tell Mr Smith about all that unusual behaviour you witnessed,” Sarah Jane told her reassuringly. “I’ll go and talk to Gita over a cup of tea in the kitchen.”
“I’m sorry to bother you, Sarah,” Gita said as she accepted the tea and a slice of cake from Sarah Jane. “I feel a bit silly about it all, now. But I just don’t know what to do or say, or...”
“Just tell me what happened,” Sarah Jane told her kindly. Gita Chandra was an annoyingly fussy woman who tended to overreact to everything, but she was harmless, and Sarah Jane was touched by her genuine distress. She listened to her story patiently, filtering out the unwanted detail until she got to the heart of the matter.
“I’ve never kissed another man that way,” she said. “Not since Haresh and I started courting. And certainly not a complete stranger. And not one who... was buying roses for his boyfriend. I feel so ashamed. What will Haresh say?”
“There is no need for him to know,” Sarah Jane suggested. “It was just a moment of irrational behaviour.”
“But I can’t not tell him a thing like this. We’ve never had secrets from each other. And I know he’s going to be so angry. I’ve never... and I’ve never wanted to. I love him. We have a good marriage. Oh, poor Rani, she will be so disappointed in me.”
“Gita, really, don’t worry about that,” Sarah Jane told her. “Tell me again, EXACTLY what you were doing before the... moment of weakness.”
“I was wrapping the roses and talking to the customer. It’s important to have communication with the customer, you know. Flowers are not just baked beans and bananas. They’re a form of communication in themselves. Say it with flowers, you know.”
“Yes, I’m sure,” Sarah Jane said. “But what did you do that was unusual?”
“Nothing... only... well... I ate some chocolate. So did the customer. The free samples....”
“What chocolate? Do you have any of it...”
Gita was puzzled by that question, but she reached into her pocket and showed Sarah Jane the slightly melted and unappetising remains of the chocolate heart she had been tasting before the so embarrassing incident.
“I don’t know why I kept it. I just wasn’t thinking.”
“I can believe that,” Sarah Jane said. “I wonder....”
“Do you think the chocolate did it?” Gita asked. Sarah Jane was surprised. She had cottoned on faster than expected.
“No, that would be silly. I mean... chocolate is supposed to be the food of love. But it doesn’t work THAT fast. I think it was one of those sunspot things. You know, there was an article about it in the Telegraph last week. Sunspots causing people to act irrationally. There was a man in Peru, I think it was, who was working in his field for five hours, and when he was done he went into town and told everyone he was a fish.”
“His wife put him to bed and gave him a nice cold glass of water and an aspirin, and when he woke up the next day he couldn’t remember anything about it, but some local scientists discovered that there had been particularly heavy sunspot activity that day.”
“So... you think... maybe this wasn’t....”
“It wasn’t your fault, Gita. You didn’t want to kiss a strange man. You love Haresh. That’s why there’s no need for him to know about it. It’s nothing to do with how much you love him. You know you love him, and after all, today is Valentine’s Day. Aren’t you planning a nice romantic meal later? Rani said she was going to do her homework over here so that you have the house to yourselves...”
Gita smiled through her tears.
“She’s a good girl. Not like most teenagers, always in trouble. And so thoughtful in that way. Yes, I’ve got the meal planned. I was going to shut the shop early so I could get on with the preparations. Oh, what am I thinking? I’d better get back there and open up. If I’m closing early, I need to make the most of the afternoon rush...”
Sarah Jane watched her hurry off and then slipped quickly upstairs with the remains of the free sample chocolate. The tall tale about sunspots in Peru had distracted her from it.
“I think I know what caused this sudden rash of kissing,” Sarah Jane said as she entered the attic. “It’s...”
“It’s the chocolates,” Rani told her. Clyde waved his open box of Valentine’s Day chocolates. “We got Mr Smith to analyse them.”
“Yes.” Sarah Jane was impressed. They had worked it all out at the same time she had. “What did Mr Smith find?”
“There is an unusual enzyme in the chocolate which raises the Human awareness of pheromones,” Mr Smith answered. “The effect is temporary, lasting only a few minutes at the most, and I do not believe it has any harmful after effects. However, the enzyme is of an unknown type and I cannot rule out alien origin.”
“That’s what I thought,” Sarah Jane sighed. “Ok, come on, you two. Grab your coats.”
“Where are we going?” Clyde asked.
“The factory?” Rani queried.
“The factory,” Sarah Jane confirmed. “I really did hope Mr Danas was on the level. He seemed so nice....”
“Too young for you, remember!” Rani told her.
The factory was far less trouble to get into than Sarah Jane had been expecting. She simply drove up to the gate and said she was there to see Mr Danas. The gateman gave her name to reception and she was told where to park. At the reception she was asked to wait only a few minutes before being shown up to the manager’s office. That wasn’t how it usually worked. It certainly wasn’t how it worked when they made Bubbleshock here, under the gaze of the alien Bane Mother.
“This could be a trap,” Sarah Jane told Clyde and Rani as the lift ascended. “I think you two should have waited in the car.”
“Too late, now,” Clyde answered. And it was. The lift reached the third floor and the doors opened, accompanied by the usual computer generated ‘doors opening’ voice. They stepped out onto the landing. Mr Danas’s office door was open. They heard him call out to them to ‘come in.’ His voice sounded odd.
They did so warily, fully expecting Mr Danas to have turned into some kind of bug-eyed alien with claws or more teeth than anything should have.
They didn’t expect him to be sitting at his desk with his hands over his face, crying.
“I didn’t really expect you,” he said, looking up at Sarah Jane. “I thought the police, or the health authorities.... But....”
The phrase he used next was Croatian, but since Clyde and Rani had briefly travelled in the TARDIS, they, as well as Sarah Jane, heard the words translated to English. It was the Croatian equivalent of ‘the game is up’.
Sarah Jane sat down on the same seat she had sat on when she interviewed Mr Danas yesterday. Rani sat next to her. Clyde looked around and pulled a spare chair into place.
“Tell me everything,” Sarah Jane said to the distressed chocolate maker.
She was a little surprised when he did exactly that. He went all the way back to his childhood in a small town outside Zagreb where his father made chocolates. Danas confectionary was sold all over Yugoslavia. The company made a lot of money and employed thousands of people. Then came the war that broke up Yugoslavia. The factory was destroyed. His father was killed. Danas and his mother escaped and struggled to survive, penniless and homeless, until they were able to come to England where they had relatives who sponsored them until their citizenship was accepted. Mr Danas worked hard to build a chocolate making business here just like the one his father built in Croatia. He made chocolates with the same irresistible secret ingredient that his father made....
“Secret ingredient?” Rani questioned. “You do know that foodstuffs in the EU are not meant to have secret ingredients. EVERYTHING is meant to be approved by the relevant authorities and listed on the packaging.”
“I know that,” Mr Danas said. “So did my father. But we both got the recipe from my mother. She has gypsy blood in her, and is a skilled herbalist. The secret ingredient is a natural product, completely organic...”
“I’ve heard that one before,” Sarah Jane told him, remembering the ‘organic’ labelling on Bubbleshock. People trusted that word too much these days. They never stopped to think what it meant. The ‘milk’ of the alien Bane Mother was organic, but it should never have been put into fizzy pop. “Cannabis is a natural, organic product, but it is still illegal. And from what we’ve found out today, your secret ingredient is just as much trouble. I’ve had your chocolate analysed. You have to stop producing it.”
“I already have,” Mr Danas assured her. “When I found out.... You must understand, I had no intention of harming anyone. The ingredient was meant to make the chocolate irresistible. It is meant to make people buy more of it.”
“Like that’s a good idea in a country where diabetes is on the increase?” Clyde commented. “You just wanted to make a profit.”
“I just wanted to make good chocolate and give people jobs,” Mr Danas replied. “I wanted to do good. I am sorry. Something went wrong with the batch we distributed today. Too much of the secret ingredient went into it.”
“It didn’t make the chocolate irresistible, it made people irresistible to each other,” Rani pointed out. “My mother kissed a complete stranger. My father kissed his secretary. Dean Waring tried to kiss Clyde. And if he’d actually eaten any of the chocolates, he might have kissed him back.” She looked at Clyde. “Why didn’t you eat them? I never asked.”
“I couldn’t afford to get anything for my mum, after buying your present. I thought... you wouldn’t know... you wouldn’t mind... if I gave the chocolates to her. I was going to get some new wrapping on the way home from school.”
Rani looked at him and then leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
“You act so hard, such a cool character. But you’re a big softy, really, aren’t you? And I like you that way.”
Sarah Jane watched Clyde’s blush cover his whole face then turned back to Mr Danas.
“You know what you have to do,” she told him. “Every last chocolate from that batch must be recalled. And you have to stop putting your secret ingredient into them. I think it is commendable that you want to create jobs. But you can’t break the law to do it. I am going to be watching you, Mr Danas, in ways you can’t begin to imagine. I will be buying your chocolates regularly, to test for unauthorised ingredients that may have adverse effects on consumers. Do you understand me?”
“I... think I do,” Mr Danas replied slowly. “You... are not going to report me to the authorities?”
“If you disregard this warning, I have contact with higher authorities than the Food Standards Agency,” Sarah Jane told him. “They will come down on you like a ton of bricks.”
“That will not be necessary,” Mr Danas assured her. “May I... to thank you for your understanding... would you accept... these...” He produced three huge heart shaped boxes, twice as big as those he gave out yesterday. “I can guarantee they do not have the secret ingredient. They are just very good chocolates.”
“I WILL be checking,” Sarah Jane said as she accepted her box.
“I’ll take your word for it,” Clyde said. “But if my mum starts snogging anyone, I know where to find you.”
“Same here,” Rani added.
“So, it wasn’t anything alien going on,” Clyde asked when Mr Smith confirmed that the new batch of chocolates were free of anything suspicious. “Just Croatian gypsy herbs?”
“Not quite,” Sarah Jane replied. “Mr Danas may have been born in Croatia, but I scanned him the first time we met.” She held up her sonic screwdriver meaningfully. “One of his parents, possibly his mother, came from Azania in the Cassiopeia sector. I think the natural, organic, secret ingredient might have been cultivated from seeds originating on another world. Azania is a peaceful place, full of gardens. The Doctor took me there, once. It had to be by accident. We never went anywhere nice on purpose. But the people love growing things and cooking with them. His mother obviously carried on the tradition when she emigrated to Earth. No harm in that as long as it stays out of the chocolates from now on.”
“I’m still not sure I want to eat any for a little while,” Rani decided. “But... I think I might have a use for some of these ones.” She picked up what was left of the box she had given to Clyde. “I’ll see you both later. Stuff to do.”
Rani’s mum and dad got home to Bannerman Road at the same time. Both of them looked unhappy. Rani watched them come into the house. Her father sat down in the living room and put the television on without looking at it. Her mother came into the kitchen to begin the Valentine’s Day meal she was going to make, but she didn’t look like she was ready to enjoy it.
“Hello, mum,” Rani said brightly. “How was your day?”
“It... was... a bit strange,” her mum admitted. “I’ve been a bit....”
“Never mind. You’re home now. And you and dad are going to have a lovely evening. I’ve made you a special dessert. It’s in the freezer. Vanilla fudge ice cream with luxurious melt in your mouth chocolate pieces. So don’t worry about calories or anything. Both of you have a big serving of it after dinner and relax. I’ll be over at Sarah Jane’s, so you’ve got the house to yourself. Happy Valentine’s Day, mum.”
She hugged her mum and went to the living room. She kissed her dad on the cheek, much to his surprise.
“Who are you and what have you done with my daughter?” he asked.
“Don’t be daft,” she replied. “Have a nice dinner, and eat plenty of the dessert I made. And don’t worry about what went on at school. It was just sunspots.”
She grabbed her school bag and headed across the road. Before she stepped into Sarah Jane’s house, she opened up the gift box still safely nestled among her books. She put the charm bracelet on and hurried up the stairs to show Clyde her appreciation of his Valentine’s Day gift without any help from chocolates with secret ingredients in them.