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Disclaimer: All property of JE

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Chapter One: A Not-So-Pearly Gate

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Joyce Barnhardt

I barely registered the moment that I died. One minute, I was standing in my bathroom, admiring my reflection in the mirror as I towelled off from a shower, and the next, I was standing before a little man who held a manila file in his hand.

"What the hell-" I said, looking around. White tiles stretched all around me. There were no walls, no buildings, no streets, or anything else around me except for the little man. He wore a black suit and a bored expression as he flicked through sheets of paper.

"Joyce Barnhardt?" he said.

I narrowed my eyes. "What the hell did you do to me?"

The little man gave me a disapproving look. "You might want to watch your language. You've got enough points against you already."

"Where am I?" I snarled, whirling around, but the white tiles stretched on and on around me, with nothing else in sight.

The man sighed. "Ms. Barnhardt. You're dead."

I froze.

"What kind of joke is this?"

"You slipped in your bathroom and hit your head on the side of the bathtub."

I glared at him. "This isn't funny. Who put you up to this? I swear to god, I'm going to blow a hole in your head if you don't tell me-"

"Ms. Barnhardt. It's not wise to threaten the one person who could give you any hope of salvation."

I looked down. I was still draped in a towel. My .45 was nowhere in sight. Damn!

"You've got quite a lot of counts against you," the man was saying, flicking through the file he held in his hand. "Adulteress activities, swearing, violence, impure thoughts concerning dogs..."

"That's a lie! Who told you that?"

"We have a detailed record of your life, Ms. Barnhardt. And, if we're basing judgement on that, your afterlife status isn't looking good."

A cold feeling settled inside me, sliding through my stomach like cold casserole. Death. Afterlife. This couldn't be happening. Not to me. For crying out loud, I was Joyce Barnhardt. I was only thirty years old. And no way could I have died in such a loserish way as tripping in my own bathroom.

But, my anger and confusion was already quickly disappearing and being replaced by a cold resignation.

"I'm...dead," I said, feeling the words in my mouth.

For the first time since we'd met, the little man's expression softened and became momentarily sympathetic.

"Yes," he said softly.

My legs gave way and I collapsed on the floor.

"So, what now?" I asked finally. "Fire and brimstone?"

"Yes," he said, pausing for a moment to let the word weigh in the air. My stomach coiled and twisted in a choking knot, before he continued, "that is, unless you make up for your sins."

"What do you mean?"

"I'll give you one chance to return to Earth and mend the damage you've caused."

"Huh?"

His eyes flicked down to the file. "For instance, it says here that on July 9, 2008, you slept with a married man and ruined the marriage. The man's name was..." he flicked through some pages. "Dickie Orr."

I gave a snort. "For your information, that marriage was already in the shitter before I stepped in."

"It had a lasting impact on his wife."

I rolled my eyes, which brought me another stern look.

"His ex-wife Stephanie Plum now faces commitment issues due to that traumatic incident," he said.

"Like hell she is! She's doing fine with that cop of hers!"

"...A man to whom she can't bring herself to marry or even admit she loves."

I shrugged. "Hey, not my problem."

"Actually...it is. Since you robbed her of commitment and happiness, you have to make up for it by helping her find a man to commit to and marry."

"Like hell I am!"

He shrugged. "That's your decision, Ms. Barnhardt."

The temperature around me suddenly rose a notch. I could feel the unprotected skin on my shoulder begin to tingle with the sudden heat. The light suddenly dimmed and darkness crept in at the horizon.

"On second thought," I said quickly, "that doesn't sound too bad."

The little man smiled. It had the tinges of a smirk. "That will be your first assignment, then, Ms. Barnhardt."

"And after that, I'm home free?"

The smirk became more pronounced. "No, Ms. Barnhardt. You have quite a long list of misdemeanours. You'll have to address as many of them as you can. In two months, we'll meet again and assess your progress and your final...judgement."

I swallowed.

He handed me the file. "Remember your time limit, Ms. Barnhardt."

With those parting words, the world around me abruptly dissolved into blackness.

-.-

When I woke up, I was lying on the cold floor of my bathroom linoleum.

I felt my body. I felt my face. Relief washed over me. I wasn't dead. I'd fallen and hallucinated the whole ordeal. I didn't have to repent for my sins and match-make Ms. Stick-Up-Her-Ass.

I leapt up, a grin plastered on my face. I turned to face myself in the mirror.

The mirror reflected only the wall behind me. My reflection was nowhere to be seen.

I screamed.

This couldn't be happening. Not again.

I backed away from the mirror and almost tripped on an object lying on the floor. It was a manila file folder. A sticky note was attached to it and in black marker was written: Yes, Joyce, you're dead.

I closed my eyes.

This was definitely not a good start to my day.

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Disclaimer: I can't really say whether this is Babe or Cupcake because that would ruin the ending, but let's just say that just because I mentioned Morelli doesn't mean he's necessarily who Steph's going to end up with. :)

Please review and let me know what you think.

-MJ

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