Gita Chandra woke up every morning with a smile on her face. This lasted through her morning kiss to Haresh, her morning kiss and send-off to Rani, her morning tea, and half of her morning drive to the shop. She'd put a new smile in place by the time she opened for business, and the first customer to walk through her door was greeted by a merry wink and a delighted, "Welcome to Bloomin' Lovely!"
This particular morning dawned clear, with a chance of showers later. Kisses bestowed, smile dimmed only by the slow crawl of cars ahead of her delivery van, Gita was well set to have a pleasant day. She did a brisk business: two weddings coming up, another couple booking an appointment to see what she had to offer, three deliveries to hospital (one with the new baby bouquet, which always made her so happy to carry), and the standard complement of walk-ins wanting something special for that special someone.
A lorry parked in the alley across the street around two. Gita had noticed the empty shop window where the coffee shop used to be. Bad economy these days all around, she'd thought then, and wondered about now, as three people began unloading boxes.
Well, Gita always tried to be a friendly neighbour, so she locked her door and walked across to say hello.
"Hello! Welcome to the area!" She waited until the nice young man could set down his boxes and shake her hand. "I'm Gita Chandra. I own the flower shop across the road. Bloomin' Lovely. If you're setting up a new business, I could put you together a bouquet or two for the front window, really brighten it up and let people know you've moved in!"
"Thanks," he said, uncomfortably. "We're good."
"Let me help with that." Gita took hold of the box he'd been carrying, and gasped a little at the weight. "Bit heavy. Kitchen equipment, is it? Are you opening another coffee shop? Oh, I miss the Perks Of The Job, that was the coffee shop that was here last. Lovely couple who owned it, very sad. The economy these days, you know."
"Yeah. No. Thanks." He took the box from her and made his way into the back of the shop. Gita followed him. As they went into the back, she saw two women unpacking the first boxes and pulling out ... Actually, she wasn't sure. Could be kitchen equipment, she hazarded.
The man turned, not realising she'd come in with him. "Sorry, now's not a good ... "
Gita walked up to one of the women, the younger Black woman rather than the more mature woman with the honey-brown, not quite blonde hair, who may have been Gita's age. "Gita Chandra. I have the flower shop across the roadf. Bloomin' Lovely. You can't miss it."
The woman shook her hand, caught off-guard. Gita noticed that happened to people frequently. She never did understand why. "Sorry, we're a bit ... "
"Busy," said the older woman. Her mouth was firm, but as Gita watched, she began to smile in the way that people who don't like to smile much sometimes do, with her facial muscles not quite right but ending up in the proper position anyway. "Thank you for dropping by." She looked over Gita's shoulder. "Mickey?"
The young man carefully swept Gita out of the room. "Thanks, we'll see you about that later, okay?" And the door shut, leaving her outside, very confused.
Well, they were busy. Moving day and all that. She'd come back and make friends later.
The next day, Gita arrived at the shop with her morning smile still attached, courtesy of willing stoplights and an extra cup of tea in her. Her pleasant glow lasted until she opened up the shutters for the day and saw the sign on the new shop.
There was a bouquet in the window.
Gita's smile faded and her eyes narrowed.
She made an excuse to go have a look at lunchtime. The front door was still locked, but she could see tables and counter in mid-setup. The walls had been painted a green she wanted to say was nauseating but honestly was quite attractive, the same shade of verdant green she'd been trying to find for her own shop. They already had a computer on the main counter, and the not-quite-blonde woman was frowning at what she read on her screen.
Gita waved through the window. The woman didn't see her, or was ignoring her. She said something to someone behind her. The bloke, Mickey, came over to read, and got the same frown.
Perhaps their store wasn't going to be solvent after all. Shame. Economy.
Gita's smile returned.
She brought Rani a cup of tea. "Rani, dear, you do a lot of investigatin' with Sarah Jane, am I right?"
Rani took a long sip of her tea, as if Gita's question required a thought-out answer. "We do. When she's working on articles. Why?"
"I was hoping you'd help me with something." Gita sat on the edge of her bed. "There's a new shop opened across the road. Sherwood Florist."
"It's not that clever." Half a dozen flower shops passed themselves off as Sherwood Florist. Terrible pun, she thought.
"It's funny, though."
"Anyway, they've just opened. Could you be a dear and find out more about them for me?"
"Sure, Mum." Rani kissed her on the cheek. "But I've got work to do right now."
Sherwood Florist opened three days later with no fanfare, not even a proper "Grand Opening" banner. Customers went through the door, and Gita noticed with some annoyance that a few of her regular walk-ins walked in to that shop instead of hers.
Rani hadn't found much about the other shop. Nothing good. The shop was part of the group A Charitable Earth, a philanthropic foundation. The charity's coffers were open for inspection, and other than somewhat high operating costs, Rani couldn't see anything questionable. Gita supposed they were most likely good folk doing good work, and if they lacked the people skills they might want to have doing their charitable work, then bless.
So charged up she was with her new-found amenable attitude toward her competitor, Gita baked some biscuits and walked them over. "Hello, my lovelies! I brought you a treat!"
The older woman -- Rani's research said her name was Ms. McShane -- stood at the counter, confused. "Thank you," she said after an awkward pause.
"It's no problem. I wanted to welcome you properly. No hard feelings."
"None." Ms. McShane picked up one of the biscuits, and played with the edge, crumbling it slowly, but not viciously, more like she didn't know what to do with it otherwise. Poor lamb.
"Where's your helpers? Or were they the movers?"
"Oh. No. They're out. Working."
"Doing deliveries already?" Gita's nervousness returned. She was on very good terms with the local hospital, and hoped this group hadn't taken away her biggest delivery zone.
The bell over the door jangled. One of Gita's favourite walk-ins, a young man who worked at the copy shop down the road and who loved picking up chrysanthemums for his young lady, walked into Sherwood Florist.
"Fine day, there, Paul," Gita said.
"Oh. Hello," said Paul, wiping his hair from his eyes. "I saw your door was locked and thought you'd gone out of business."
Gita gulped. She looked at Ms. McShane. "If you'll excuse me, love." She scooted back to her own shop and opened the doors. She couldn't afford to lose any more business.
The couple looking for flowers for their wedding signed a tidy contract with Gita, all bluebells and violets and hyacinths for the twenty-ninth, a quiet little commitment ceremony, they'd said. She was delighted, and started planning her arrangements as soon as the door closed behind them. A few minutes later, the bell rang again.
"Sarah Jane! I don't see you in here often. Fancy a nice bit of greenery to brighten up that stuffy attic my daughter spends all her time in?"
Sarah Jane smiled warmly. "Not today, thank you, Gita. Actually, I've come to ask for some of your expertise."
Gita returned her smile. "Now, this is a rare pleasure. Come have a cuppa, and you can ask me anything." She still had her nice set out for the couple getting married, and she fetched another teacup. "What's on your mind?"
"I'm doing a story about exotic plants. Can you tell me what you know about Venus flytraps?"
Gita was taken aback, but rallied herself and answered what she could, as well as Sarah Jane's odd questions about Pitcher plants and other carnivorous flora. "I can't wait to see your article," she said, taking another sip of tea. "What are you going to call it, 'Man-Eating Plants?'"
Sarah Jane laughed weakly, but it had been a weak joke, Gita supposed.
"Thank you for your help." As she stood, she glanced out the window, and startled. "Excuse me. Thanks again." Sarah Jane hurried out and practically ran across the street. Gita watched her through the window. That other woman was repainting the front door of Sherwood Florist. When she saw Sarah Jane, she stood, and they embraced like old friends.
Gita hurriedly put the tea things away and then went out to join them. "Sarah Jane, I didn't know you knew ... " She didn't know the woman's name.
"Oh, Martha and I have several friends in common. We hadn't seen each other in a while."
"You should come in," said Martha, holding Sarah Jane's hand. "Mickey would love to see you again, and you have to meet our boss."
"Boss? I heard you both went freelance?"
"We did. She's more ... " Martha glanced over at Gita. "Come meet her."
"I'll see you later, Gita," said Sarah Jane, rather firmly.
"Right. See you then." She watched them walk inside, heard the bell jingle, and the door closed.
Gita hurried back to her own shop. She still had most of the biscuit assortment from her earlier appointment. She pulled out the tin, put the prettiest ones on a plate, and went back to Sherwood Florist.
"Sorry, just me." The front of the shop was unoccupied. Gita set the plate down and leaned her head. She spotted the door left ajar to the back. Sarah Jane was saying, " ... but before he left the Earth, he gave me his access codes."
"That's brilliant," said Ms. McShane. "I almost made it into the London cache once. According to rumour, there's a huge inventory in Scotland, too, but no-one can get to it."
Martha said, in a voice that sounded sad, "We've been trying for over a year to find out where he stored everything. I've been in contact with Gwen, but she ... "
Mickey came to the doorway and saw Gita. She smiled broadly. "I brought some refreshments. I thought, Sarah Jane's meeting up with old friends, she might like to share a bit of something with them."
The women filed out of the back room. Sarah Jane shot Gita a nervous smile. "That's very nice of you, thank you."
"I was sorry to hear about your friend."
Sarah Jane blinked. "Sorry?"
"Didn't mean to eavesdrop. Your friend passed away? Left the Earth?"
Martha turned. "Yes. We're heartbroken about it. But Sarah Jane says he left her his ... bank accounts. We've been trying to track them down. For his family."
Sarah Jane said, "Gita, now that I think about it, I'm sure Rani said something about wanting to talk to you. It slipped my mind when I was in your shop, but she'd never forgive me if I didn't mention."
"Oh! I should call her right now. Rani's my daughter," she said to the Sherwood Florist staff. "She's a good girl, brilliant really. Sarah Jane's teaching her how to be a journalist. Thanks, Sarah Jane."
"Thank you for the biscuits," said Mickey.
Back in her own shop, she dialled Rani's mobile phone. "It's your Mum. What did you need, dear?"
"Sarah Jane said you wanted to talk to me." She heard Rani's phone give that funny little beep that meant she was getting a text message.
Rani said, "Right. I needed your help. On my school work. We're studying history."
"You know you should ask your father, dear. But I'll help where I can. What's the subject?"
"The subject? Oh. Um. Lady Jane."
Gita didn't see Sarah Jane leave Sherwood Florist, though clearly she must have done. As she was closing up shop, she spied Sarah Jane in the alley, helping Martha load a massive plant into the back of the shop. Clyde and Luke were with them, and Gita thought she saw someone punching the plant.
But then Rani burst through the door. "Hi, Mum! I was in town and wanted to catch a ride home with you!"
Gita stopped watching the odd goings-on across the street. "Of course."
A month passed, then two. Gita lost a little of her clientele to the new shop, but not as many customers as she'd feared. Sherwood Florist kept odd hours, often closing right in the middle of the day. As far as she could tell, it was just the three of them, yet quite often when Gita was peeking in, she noticed Martha and Mickey were both off on deliveries again, and sometimes she didn't see them for days. When she did see them, quite often one or the other sported plasters and bruises.
Curiously, she started seeing the Smiths at Sarah Jane's house, and Sarah Jane herself dropped by Sherwood Florist a lot, even when the shop was closed. The kids were in and out all the time. It was when Gita saw Rani going in that she'd had enough.
"My own daughter," she said as soon as she got home. "You know how hard it is to keep a small business afloat. Don't tell me you're working for them."
"I'm not, Mum. We're just spending time there, Clyde and me. Luke too, when he's in town. They're a trip." She grinned. "Liam and Cait came to visit last week. Oh, and Ace and Luke are doing chemistry together."
Gita frowned. "Who's Ace? And is he having Luke make him some new growth formula for his plants?"
"No, no. They're ... " Rani scratched her head and looked away. "Anyway, it's just fun over there."
"And not fun with your old mum."
Rani kissed her. "Tell you what, we'll come to your shop and spend our free time there."
"God, no. The last time Clyde came in, he knocked over a display."
"That wasn't his fault." But Rani wouldn't say whose fault it was, and Haresh gave them both the disapproving look he reserved for mentions of Clyde's name.
Weird things had always happened on Bannerman Road, happened everywhere, really. Gita believed with all her heart that they were not alone in the universe, but whenever she brought it up to Haresh, who had seen the same aliens she had, he just rolled his eyes and sighed at her. Sarah Jane always had a reasonable explanation: gas clouds, LSD in the water supply, fancy dress parties. Gita tried to make her believe what was going on, but to no avail.
Some people just didn't see what was right in front of their noses.
Take, for example, Mrs. Johnstone. She'd been killed in that terrible incident with all the planets in the sky, and those floating pepper pots. The poor woman had been crushed when her house collapsed in the earthquake, a terrible shame. Or so Gita swore she remembered. But Mrs. Johnstone had called her two days ago all of a sudden, and it was as if Gita remembered two different Mrs. Johnstones: one who'd died in a crumbled ruin of a house, and one who hadn't, who'd won a small amount in the lottery the next week, and there had been no planets or pepper pots at all.
"It's nothing," Sarah Jane assured her over tea. "Just this morning I could have sworn I put my keys in my pocket, and instead I found them by my bed of all places."
"I hardly think a dead woman is like a set of lost keys."
"Is your friend dead?"
"Well, no." She'd sounded hale and hearty. Gita smiled just thinking about it. She'd liked Mrs. Johnstone. The world was a warmer place with old ladies who crocheted caps and little blankets for the poor premature babies.
"It's fab," said Rani.
Gita said, "Rani, you remember Mrs. Johnstone dying, don't you?"
"She called two days ago. How could she be dead?" But she was looking at Sarah Jane.
"I call it The Pond Effect," Sarah Jane said.
"Why?" Gita asked.
Sarah Jane shrugged. "Oh. I forgot a pond once. Walked right into it."
Gita laughed. Rani did too, but her eyes wore that glittery, faraway look she did when she was around Sarah, and her laugh was wise.
She wasn't sure when her mental name for Sherwood Florist became That Weird Shop Across the Street, but Gita regularly made a habit of watching them. This turned out to everyone's benefit: she saw a rough-looking customer stalking towards their shop with what looked like a gun in his hand. Gita phoned the police immediately.
Curiously, by the time they arrived, the rough-looking man was gone, but when Gita made an excuse to go inside later that same day, she noticed an ugly scorch along one green wall.
"That," said Ms. McShane. "I was cooking. Grease spatter."
A few days later, Gita happened to be walking by, and saw Martha in the shop embracing a man who was certainly not her husband. Young fellow, natty dresser, and he was holding her just as tightly as she held him. Gita covered her mouth in shock. She ought to move on, but she paused long enough to notice Martha's tears, and the joyful, fierce smile she wore through them.
Trouble in paradise, she thought, and she made a point to be extra nice to Mickey the next time she saw him. He appreciated it, calling Gita "The Biscuit Lady." Funny bloke, didn't know much about flowers, working at a flower shop, but he was sweet, and she felt bad that his missus might be stepping out on him. He did a lot of work on the roof of the shop. They'd bought the whole building, he said over tea when Gita brought him a nice treat one day.
"Just making some improvements," he said with a smile.
Haresh didn't like it when she came home with gossip about the new shop. Even he'd been won over. "I know they're taking away some your business, love, but you've got to let it go."
"That's just the thing. They're not. I've had a dip in sales, but hardly any. I can't remember the last time I saw someone walk out of their shop with a bouquet. They don't do any weddings or events, but Mickey and Martha are always out on deliveries." She tapped her lip. "I wonder if they're even selling flowers. You don't think they're really into something else? Drugs or worse?"
"I don't. You said yourself Sarah Jane is friends with them, and the most unusual thing she's ever done is take in foster children. She takes Sky there. I hardly think she'd be spending time in a drugs operation, and I'm surprised you would, either."
"I don't." She really didn't. Martha was always asking after her health, and Rani had started eating better, a lot more vegetables and a lot less fried food, since she'd met the newcomers. "Is there an opposite of a mysterious illegal drugs operation?"
"Only in your mind, dear."
Gita was trimming nasturtiums when she heard the first explosion. Her shop's windows rattled, and two display vases fell off the shelf and shattered. She yelped, first thinking to look for a dustpan, second thinking "Explosion?"
She ran outside, and wished she hadn't. Overhead, three large vehicles which were not aeroplanes zoomed across the sky. People were watching and screaming and running. Gita saved her breath for dialling Rani. "Get indoors!" she shouted into the phone. "Get somewhere safe!" She dialled Haresh and yelled the same to him.
Her shop wasn't safe, not with all the glass. None of the shops along here were. One of the ships spit something green and terrible out of sight. She heard another explosion.
Her brain finally told her what her eyes already knew: They had come, whoever They were. Aliens.
Across the street, she could see into Sherwood Florist. Ms. McShane was on her computer. Martha was coming outside with ... That wasn't a bouquet. Those were guns. They were gun runners! And Sarah Jane had allowed the children to be near them!
Rage filled her. Gita nearly marched across the street, but just then Sarah Jane's little car squealed into sight and parked diagonally. "I brought the power enhancer!" she shouted, scrambling out of the car and tossing something to Martha, who attached whatever it was to her gun.
Immediately Martha began firing at the nearest ship.
On the roof, Gita could just make out Mickey with something. A projectile launched from his position and splattered onto the hull of the ship Martha was firing on.
The ship exploded in a flash of light. A large piece of the hull crashed atop the building where Mickey stood. Martha screamed. As Gita watched, Mickey appeared climbing over the side and down the fire escape. The pair embraced, even as the other two ships came around.
"It's not over," said Sarah Jane. Martha reaimed her gun as Ms. McShane came out of the building with a second one that matched it. They fired in unison. The ship blasted as it headed towards them, and spit green death.
"This way!" Gita said, but if they heard her, she didn't know. The others scattered just as the ship crashed directly into the building.
Gita prayed no-one was inside. But they wouldn't have been, would they? Only the three of them worked there, now panting outside and watching the third ship.
"I'm out of charges," said Martha.
Ms. McShane said, "I've got one shot, but it's not going to be powerful enough."
Sarah Jane said, "We could try talking to them."
"Not now," said Mickey. "This lot never wants to chat anyway."
"Getting ready," said Ms. McShane.
Just then, a bright light appeared on the street. Four large figures materialised. Gita nearly fainted.
Ms. McShane moved her gun back and forth between the ship and the four aliens. "Who's armed?"
"Everything was in the building," Martha said, and she glanced at Sarah Jane, who merely opened her hands.
"I told you, I don't like weapons."
That explained it all, Gita realised. Yes, Sarah Jane knew about the guns, but she and the kids had been trying to talk the others out of it, as peacemakers. Gita was suddenly very proud of her daughter.
The largest of the forms moved towards Ms. McShane. "You will surrender."
"We will not," said Sarah Jane, stepping up with the rest. "Leave this world and never return."
"That's right," said Gita angrily. She still had her nasturtiums tightly clutched in one hand. She stalked up to the big figure, all bumps and scales and green teeth, and she gestured in his face with the flowers. "Get out of here!"
The figure startled back, sneezing.
A moment later, he fell over, lifeless.
"That's it!" said Mickey. "Martha, remember?"
"They're deathly allergic," she said, and politely as possible, she grabbed the nasturtiums from Gita before advancing on the other three, who quickly turned into beams of light and vanished, along with the body of their companion.
That just left the ship, which hung over them ominously. Mickey said, "Sarah Jane, you got any more of those power boosters?"
Sarah Jane shook her head.
Ms. McShane said, "Run for cover. If this doesn't work ... "
Gita heard a high-pitched squeal, like a million microphones feedbacking. A blast of white light cut through the ship. Then she saw it: a fourth ship, a small, zippy little aeroplane-type, doing loops before it aimed and fired beams directly into what Gita assumed were the big ship's engines. A third bolt of light destroyed it utterly.
"I don't recognise this one," said Sarah Jane nervously.
Ms. McShane repositioned her enormous gun. "Same plan as before."
The little aeroplane-type did another loop. Then a voice boomed down: "Hey, everybody okay down there?"
Unlike the other aliens, this one sounded worried. And American. Bloody Yanks, thinking they could just fly over here and shoot British aliens if they pleased.
"Oh my God," said Martha, a grin spreading over her face. "You came back."
"Never could stay away from this place long. You'll be happy to know, the invasion fleet in orbit is leaving the area as fast as they can. Inter-ship chatter says something about poison. They won't be back."
Martha waved her handful of flowers. "Deadly threat these."
"Want me to vaporise the other drone for you?" Drone? Gita had pictured the alien vessels full of life, not piloted from somewhere else via joystick.
"Thank you, Captain, that would be lovely," said Sarah Jane.
Moments later, beams of white light hit the smoking hull of the crashed space ship atop Sherwood Florist, and then nothing was left but the crushed, ruined building. Gita watched with her mouth agape. Belatedly, she thought she ought to be recording all this. She fiddled with her mobile to get the video capture working.
The voice boomed again: "Let me find a place to park this baby, and I'll come down to say hi. I just got back. It'd be nice to see some familiar faces."
Martha said, "Go park it in Cardiff."
"That's kinda a far walk."
"Trust me?" She was smiling.
"Back to Cardiff with you," said Mickey. Maybe that's what the young people were saying these days, Gita never could keep up. "Go to Cardiff" could be the new "Make like a tree and leave."
"Fine, fine, see ya," said the voice, and with a waggle of wings, the little ship was gone.
Gita finally got the video feature working on her mobile phone. She pointed the camera, but there wasn't anything left to see. Sherwood Florist was a ruin. Martha, Mickey, Ms. McShane, and Sarah Jane stood outside the wreckage unfazed.
Ms. McShane sighed. "You know, this is the third flower shop we've lost this way."
Martha said, "I keep saying we should try a different business. Something less dangerous."
Her husband added, "We could have a pet store. Or shoes. Men's shoes."
"I like flowers," said Ms. McShane.
Sarah Jane placed an arm around her shoulders. "Maybe change the store name?"
Mickey said, "Yeah. 'Sherwood Florist' is unlucky."
Martha said, "I wanted to call it Everything But Roses. I was outvoted."
They continued bickering. Gita realised no-one was paying her any attention at all. She went back into Bloomin' Lovely, got out the dustpan, and swept up the broken glass. Then she called Haresh, who didn't believe her that three alien spaceships and a weird experimental American ship had appeared overhead and blown up the other flower shop.
She decided not to tell him she'd stopped the invasion with her nasturtiums. She loved her husband, but he'd likely suggest she'd gone round the pub for her lunch and had imagined the whole thing. Before he rang off, he told her about the news reports coming out: a bad gas explosion reported on her street. She'd best be careful, and he loved her, and he had to get back to grading.
Next she called Rani, who asked if everyone was all right, and said she'd come by after school to help clean up the mess. "Really nasturtiums?"
"Deadly poison. You can ask your friend Martha."
Which reminded Gita, she had that bouquet to finish. Them across the street were still chatting, and her door was open if they wanted to come in for tea. She went back to work with more nasturtiums.
As she arranged the flowers, she started smiling.