First place winner in the cross-over category!

JOE THE ANGEL AND THE PEPSI CHALLENGE
By Patricia Harrington

It was a slow day in the angel business.

Joe helped a couple with a sick kid stuck on a back road. They blew a tire and didn't have a spare for their old rattletrap. Joe had done a little manipulating so that a phone repairman would take an alternate route. Joe did his angel schtick by making sure the lineman listened to a traffic report about congestion on his route. Joe planted the notion: Take the back road. After that, it was up to the repairman to stop and help the family, which he did.

Joe's Policies and Procedures Manual stressed:

ANGELS MUST NEVER DIRECTLY INTERFERE
CLIENTS SHOULD MAKE THEIR OWN CHOICES

Joe found the line between helping and meddling a confusing one.

Joe sure knew that his prissy-faced supervisor didn't care for him. When his supervisor read Joe's activity reports, he would say, "Joseph, Joseph. We need details. Think who and what, when and where."

Joe usually trudged to work on Earth by way of Jacob' s Ladder. Though it didn't matter about staying in shape, old habits died hard. He figured the exercise was good, and the ladder wasn't used much since Jacob and the Big Angel had their dustup.

Joe had died because he got on the wrong end of a gambling debt. First, he borrowed money to play a sure thing and lost. Then he borrowed again to pay his wife's hospital bills. After Vera passed on, it wasn't long before Joe lagged behind on his interest payments. The loan shark sent a couple of testosterone-loaded goons to teach him a lesson. It was a fatal one. When Joe came up for judgment, the Big Guy gave him a break and let him into Heaven on a trial basis.

Joe was lucky the Big Guy overlooked some things in his past. When Joe was alive, he yo-yoed between being Dudley Do-Right and Freddie Flake-Out. Joe always had been short on patience and long on impulse. He still felt bad about his good buddy, Dino, even though Joe wasn't supposed to have feelings any more.

Joe and Dino were in Smitty's hoisting a few. After the fourth brew, the two had started arguing over a Pepsi Challenge commercial. Why couldn't the fight have been over something important like the Lakers and the Sonics? Joe insisted Pepsi was the best. Dino said, "That's crap. Coke is."

The two scuffled, shoving each other like kids. Only Dino lost his balance and struck his head on the bar. He was dead when he hit the floor. The witnesses told the cops it was an accident. Joe skated free, except whenever he thought of Dino, he felt pretty glum.

Joe's gut told him that knocking off his best friend would come back to haunt him someday.

Joe had been training on the job as an angel longer than most. Every time he took the written test to become a journeyman angel, he flunked. Finally, with Gert's help, he thought he had it made. Gert was his new angel friend and kind of liked him though there was no hanky panky in Heaven. When they took the test, she sat close to Joe, hands clasped together as if she would break out singing "Amazing Grace" any minute. She had written crib notes in invisible ink on the edges of her wings. When she fluttered them, the air current warmed, and the ink became legible so Joe could read the notes. The problem was, so could the Proctor Angel.

They demoted Gert, posting her to a busy four-way corner where motorists were making Hollywood stops, barely slowing much less stopping. Her job was to suddenly appear in front of the lead-footed motorists and scare the bejeezus out of them so bad that next time, they obeyed the stop sign.

Gert was steamed over her assignment. When she saw Joe, she put one hand on a hip that Joe thought was nicely rounded, and yelled, "Look at the trouble you got me into."

Joe was chewed out royally about his last job. It was the case of the old lady and the sweepstakes scam artist. Joe had watched the con operating for sometime but was stumped as to help. He read the angel's manual again. It said:

PERSONAL INITIATIVE RESULTING IN DIRECT INTERVENTION
BY ANGELS OR TRAINEES IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED

The old lady had given her credit card number to the fast talker, and he bilked her out of a couple Gs. Joe thought he could put in a fix, weight the situation so the old lady got back her money. All he did was add the bad guy's name, address, and a six-figure tax bill to an IRS auditor's list. Actually, Joe put it at the top of the list.

The good part is that the old lady got her money back. The bad part is that the con artist panicked. When the IRS agent called, flashing his credentials, the dumb boob ran out and was run over by an oil delivery truck.

Joe left some of those details out of his weekly report. His supervisor learned anyhow when he did a full background review.

Joe began to feel that his life was on instant replay. He climbed out of one mess to plunge back into another. He didn't think it was supposed to be like that in Heaven.

When the Big Guy heard about the incident, He summoned Joe and thundered through a thick, gray cloud, "Justice is mine!" The sound of His fury sent a contingent of angels scurrying for cover.

Joe's last scrape turned out to be more than a rip in a silver lining. Actually, Joe thought he'd died and gone to heaven--a case of overkill--when he heard about the assignment.

Seems this businessman, Bill Fillmer was facing the same situation that led Joe afoul of the goons who'd given him a one way ticket. The man had a wife with a rare disease, and her HMO wouldn't cover experimental treatments. He had to pay the extra costs out of his pocket and had maxed out bank loans on his business. Feeling desperate, Fillmer had gone to the same loan shark Joe had used.

Joe felt sorry for Fillmer, but what made him eager to take the case was learning that Fillmer owned a Pepsi Cola bottling company!

At the thought of all that Pepsi, old sensations flooded over Joe. He could see the dark amber liquid, hear the fizz dance, and taste the cold, sweet-tart liquid gliding down his throat. Joe dreamed about getting hold of a case of Pepsi and stashing it. He wouldn't drink it in Heaven. Just drink it on the days when he'd had to run up and down Jacob's Ladder. . . Who would know?

Joe signed on as a maintenance worker and set up shop next to the Quality Control Lab in the Pepsi plant. The QC tech pulled bottles off the assembly line and stuck a lab label on each one for testing later. Joe could hardly stand the idea of being so close to that much Pepsi. He had to remind himself that he was on probation and shouldn't be having earthly cravings.

Fillmer was in the habit of doing "walkabouts" in the plant, and he took to talking to Joe, venting a little. Late one afternoon after Joe had been there for a few weeks, Fillmer chatted about the weather, the Sonics, that kind of stuff. He looked around the plant, and sighed. "It took so long to build. I wonder if it's worth it anymore."

Joe, watching bottle after bottle clinking and clanking down the line, missed the defeated look in Fillmer's eyes. Instead of giving his boss helpful ideas, Joe was thinking about how much Pepsi he could rip off.

Joe had a primo opportunity that night after the swing shift crew left. He stayed to get the line ready for the morning shift. When he finished, he carried three cases of pop from the lab to his car. Joe figured no one would miss them for a while. The lab tech was on vacation. He'd get Fillmer squared away tomorrow, then take off.

Joe put the cases in his car's trunk and looked around to make sure no one saw him. He spotted Fillmer's car and next to it, an old Caddy. It looked just like the one the loan shark's goons had driven when they came to bust him up. Joe slammed the trunk lid and hurried toward the boss's office.

Joe cracked the office door open and saw Fillmer slumped over his desk. The goons were nowhere in sight. Joe walked over and found an empty bottle of sleeping pills by Fillmer's hand. Joe said, "Ah, why'd you have to do that?"

He lifted Fillmer's head and pried up an eyelid; the pupil reacted to the light. Joe knew Fillmer was still alive. Then Joe jerked around, sniffing the air. He smelled smoke and ran to the door, opening it carefully. He tiptoed down the hall and peered through the glass window on the plant door. The goons were torching the building.

Joe rushed back to Fillmer's office and dialed 9-1-1 and asked for an ambulance and the Fire Department. He scribbled a note about the OD, then stuck it and the pill bottle in Fillmer's breast pocket. Hanging onto Fillmer in the chair, he rolled him out of the office, down the hall and out to the sidewalk for the EMTs to find.

Then Joe raced to his car, catching a glimpse of the Caddy as it squealed away from the parking lot. He hopped in his Fiesta, and followed the goons, tailing them to the edge of town. He realized that they were headed straight for Gert's corner. He prayed she was on duty.

Soon he saw the Caddy approach the four-way stop. Joe muttered, "Gert, if you're there, do it now." And she did.

Gert stepped in front of the Caddy, but the goons didn't stop and she bounced off the hood. The car careened into a fire hydrant. Joe pulled up, hopped out and went over and checked on the two men. They were alive but out of it. Gert sat dazed on the ground. When her eyes focused, she yelled, "You again! I might have known."

Joe thought fast. He took the cases from his car and tossed them inside the Caddy's back seat, as if they had fallen when the car crashed.

Then he tried to help Gert. But she snapped, "Don't touch me," and limped off.

Next, Joe found a pay phone and called the police, telling them where they could find the arsonists who started the plant fire. Joe knew the cops would find the marked Pepsi bottles and put two and two together.



Once again Joe stood in front of the Judgment Seat.

The Big Guy's voice boomed from on high. "What have you to say in your defense?"

Joe rattled off a short list. "I saved Fillmer's life, and the cops arrested those goons. They ratted on their boss, so Fillmer's not going to have to pay him back."

The Big Guy thundered, "Were your motives pure?"

He had him there. Joe answered, "No, Sir, I'm sorry. They weren't."

The silence that followed seemed deafening to Joe.

Finally, the Big Guy pronounced sentence.

"Although you show repentance, Joe, you are not quite ready for Heaven. Therefore, you are sentenced to a Coca Cola factory in Purgatory where you will be a taste tester. With good behavior you could be back in two or three millennia, a reformed angel."

Joe sighed. Coke! He perked up. Hey--it could be worse. Maybe he'd see Dino.


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