This is the 17th round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS<<link post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “Q“.
Readers have two weeks from the date of publication to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the first of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “Q” as submitted by its author.
Quid Pro Joe
Copyright 2020 — Perry Broxson
(4,200 words – approx. reading time: about 16 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Quid Pro Joe got his moniker from the God Father himself. The old man put down his fork-full of linguini and grinned at Joe. “You’re serious,” the God Father asked, wiping sauce from his chin. “You made the deal with Horny’s boys in Trenton? They’re gonna distribute the pills?”
“It’s a done deal,” Joe said, slurping Sangiovese. “I swapped them the reefer biz in Queens. Quid Pro Quo.”
The God Father belched a gassy laugh. “Quid Pro Quo,” he said, re-tasting his pasta. “Joseph D’Mico, consider yourself a made man.”
Joe bent his head in humility. The Dom took the wooden spoon from the salad bowl and touched each of Joe’s shoulders. “I hereby knight thee,” the Dom said, half-serious, “Quid Pro Joe.”
Joe loved his mob moniker. Much better than Smelly Sal or Three-toe Tony or Dog Cock Cataloni. He also loved his work. The high he received from making impossible deals possible, was his heroine. Bartering was his love, his obsession, his myopic passion. Which might have been fine, had he not been married to a younger woman that required constant attention.
He did love Peggy, just not as much as he loved making deals. He would have denied it, if asked, but admit it if tortured. Now, he was being tortured – tortured by the knowledge that Peggy was screwing around on him.
Flat on his not-so flat stomach, Joe was sunning poolside, drowsing, dreamily considering swapping his vitamin water for a tall glass of chilled vodka. He’d lost some of the weight his doctor had urged, and justified the 2pm toddy as an appropriate reward.
The thought of prying his sticky body out of the lounger, stamping barefoot through the kitchen, then downstairs to the bar, seemed daunting. Perhaps a snack would energize him. Hadn’t Peggy made a batch of cannolis before jetting off to Jamaica for her niece’s wedding?
What a lame story, he thought, rummaging through the fridge. He knew Peggy was fooling around on him, and he knew with whom. If her paramour wasn’t the God Father’s beloved son, Sammy the Sausage Corolla, he’d be sleeping with the fishes. And Peggy might get tossed in for good measure. But Joe knew such a grave reaction would not be prudent. Sammy and Peggy were untouchable. Sammy, because of his father, and Peggy because of Sammy.
Besides, Joe was no killer. He’d rather negotiate than assassinate.
Damn. No cannolis, only fruit and yogurt. Wait.
There was a single link of salami sausage.
Joe unwrapped it from the butcher paper and sniffed it. Not bad. He put it to his lips, then gagged. Like an anvil, the thought of Sammy the Sausage Corolla schtooping his Peggy struck him. He stamped downstairs and fetched the vodka bottle and returned to his lounger.
Soon, he succumbed to the soporific effects of sunshine and alcohol. Just as intoxication began to erase the pain of Peggy’s infidelity, Joe awoke. A smell, profoundly foul, roused him.
At first, he thought it was his own skin, sizzling in the slurry of baby oil. Then he considered the salami sausage. Had he dropped it? Had it spoiled in the few minutes he’d dozed? How long had he slept, anyway? He coughed and gagged and drooled, searching for the source of the offensive stench.
“It’s me,” Death said, tapping Joe’s sweaty head with his scythe.
Joe turned to see a hooded figure clad in black, brandishing a scythe in its skeletal hands. Joe shouted, the word coming out hawwwl instead of help. The ghoul pressed the joints of his finger-bones to Joe’s lips.
“Do I really smell that bad?” Death asked. “Personally, I don’t smell it. My wife, however, complained constantly.”
Joe flopped out of the lounger and cried, “I’m dreaming. This is just a dream. But you can’t smell in dreams, can you?”
“Wouldn’t know,” Death said. “I don’t sleep. Don’t dream. Just work. All day, every day – I harvest souls. It’s the damned dead bodies that cause the smell. I told Morticia it’s the price we pay to be King and Queen of the Underworld. She doesn’t get it.”
Joe looked at his empty vodka glass. “I’m drunk. This isn’t happening.”
“You may be drunk,” Death said, “but this is happening. In 3 minutes a man with a mole is going to ring your doorbell. You’re going to put on your robe and open the door. He’s dressed like a UPS man. He has a long box. He’ll hand it to you. His arm will be inside the back of the box, and his finger will be on both triggers of a double-barrel shotgun.”
“He shoots me?”
Death pulls his face in disgust. “Both barrels. He blows your face off.”
Joe caresses his face. He’s no Joe Pesci but he’s always considered himself passably handsome. “Why?” he asks. “And why would I open the door . . . knowing what I know?”
“Sammy the Sausage sent him to whack you,” Death said. “Apparently, he wants Peggy all to himself. Listen, the only reason I’m giving you a heads-up is because you and me, well, we’ve got something in common. My wife, Morticia, is banging my brother, Satan. When I saw your case, I felt bad for you. Thought I’d give you a few minutes to make your peace.”
“Sammy the Sausage,” Joe spat. “I’ll show that mook. I’ll get my gun and whack his whacker.”
The doorbell chimed poolside. Joe rose and slipped on his robe. Robotically, he began his trek to the front door. “Why am I doing this?” he called. “I can’t stop myself.”
Death walked alongside him. “It’s Fate,” he answered. “My cousins Time and Fortune arranged it, but it’s Fate that seals the deal.”
“Deal,” Quid Pro Joe said, suddenly hopeful. “Let’s you and me make a deal.”
The chimes rang again. Joe tied his sash and strode involuntarily through the kitchen, across the living room, toward the door.
“Sorry, Joe,” Death said. “You got nothing I want . . . except for your soul.”
“Your smell,” Joe said, reaching for the doorknob. “What if I can . . . you know . . . help you out with that funk? Could be, that’s all it takes to get Morticia back.”
Joe opened the door. A man with a bulbous mole wearing a brown uniform tipped a long box toward him. “Package for Joseph D’Mico.”
With all his might, Joe attempted to slam the door, to run like hell. Instead, he saw his oily arms reach for the pernicious package.
“Compliments of The Sausage,” the carrier said, sneering. He pulled the triggers and the chamber combusted and the buckshot launched.
Joe tightened his eyes and thought of Peggy, his second love.
“Wait,” Death said, slashing the gap between the buckshot and Joe’s passably handsome face with his scythe. Joe opened one eye. Twenty-four lead balls hung in space, like static planets.
“You think you can do something about my funk?” Death inquired.
“I can,” Joe said, smelling lead and gunpowder. “I know a guy. He’s a chemist – what they call a perfumer. Gimme some time and I’ll have you smelling like lilies and lilacs.”
Death wrung his boney hands. “I shouldn’t. It’s a major breach of protocol. Time and Fortune will have a shit-fit. Fate will go straight to Management and get my soul quota doubled. But I really do miss my Morticia.”
“I feel your pain,” Joe said, sincerely.
Death decided. “I believe you, Joe D’Mico,” he said. “But we’re doing this together.”
Death plucked the buckshot from the air and placed them in a rat-skin purse. As he maneuvered the frozen gunmen into the coat closet, Quid Pro Joe made a phone call.
“Eddie,” he cooed smoothly, “you still in good with that perfumer from Brooklyn? Nice. Gimme his digits and address, will ya? I’ll send you and Carla a deli platter from Frankel’s. Deal?”
Death watched expectantly. “Did you get it?”
Joe shooshed him. “Okay, Eddie. Give the kids kisses from Uncle Joey. Bye-bye.”
“Did you get it?” Death asked, jiving from foot to foot.
“I did,” Joe said. “But this perfumer guy is retired. He shut his business and moved to upstate New York. He’s dealin’ with some serious shit. It’s going to take” –
“Call him.” Death said. “No. Give me his address.”
“Hold my sleeve,” Death demanded. Joe did, and the two of them flew through the roof and over the tri-state area. They landed on the pebbled pathway of a stately cottage in a town called Lily Dale.
“I can see why he moved here,” Joe said, observing the unending acres of exotic flowers. “It’s paradise.”
Joe strode to the door. He paused his knock, looking at his companion, the ghoul in black. “It’s okay,” Death said. “He won’t see me. Only my immediate clients can see me.”
Joe knocked. After a minute, he knocked harder. After three minutes he called out: “Cyrus! Cyrus Goldstein, are you home? Eddie sent me.”
The door creaked open an inch. A bloodshot eyeball regarded Joe. “Eddie sent you?”
“Yes, Eddie sends his love.”
“His family’s good – Darla and the three kids?” Cyrus asked.
“Carla,” Joe corrected, detecting the test. “Yes, she and the two girls want you to come for Thanksgiving dinner.”
The door opened. The man was a mash-up of Einstein and Chaplin: dapper, comical, and eccentrically intelligent. “What do you want?”
Joe put out his hand. “I’m Joe D’Mico. I need a favor, Mr. Goldstein. I need a scent.”
“I don’t do that anymore,” Goldstein announced. “Good day.” He proceeded to close the door.
Joe put his foot in the gap. “You’re the best, Mr. Goldstein. I need the best. It’s for a . . . for a friend.” Joe looked to his left and saw Death grin.
“Thing is,” Joe continued, “he’s got a rotten job – but an honest job – he’s an undertaker. The smell, Mr. Goldstein, it’s too much. Too much for his wife. My friend . . . well, he’s losing her.”
“Come in,” Goldstein said, suddenly touched. He poured tea for them and sat to talk. “I’m losing my wife as well,” the old man said. “Jewel is in the other room, behind that green door. She’s . . . she’s changed. The disease has changed her. She doesn’t recognize me. We’ve been married for 51 years and she doesn’t know who the fuck I am.”
“Dementia?” Joe asked.
The old man nodded. “It’s why I quit the fragrance business. I’ve been her caregiver for 3 years. It never stops,” he said, his teacup shaking. “That damned disease never stops.”
“It does stop,” Death whispered to Joe. “She’s got another 7 really bad years, but it does stop.”
Joe put his hand on Goldstein’s, steadying it. “I’m so sorry. I’ll tell my friend – he’ll have to find another way to save his marriage – to keep his wife.” Joe stood and moved toward the door.
“Wait,” Goldstein said.
Joe turned, feigning surprise. “Yes, sir. Is there something” –
“Eddie called me. Said you’d be coming. You’re not just Joseph D’Mico,” Goldstein said. “You’re Quid Pro Joe. You’re Family. You’re made.”
Joe allowed a discreet and fleeting smile.
“You do things,” Goldstein said. “You do things for things done.”
“I could make you a splendid scent,” he continued, simultaneously ashamed and brazen. “But I’d require a favor.”
“What, what, what?” Death asked, flouncing in his bat-skin robe.
Joe sat back down and retrieved his teacup. “You name it, Mr. Goldstein.”
Goldstein’s bloodshot eyes slid to the closed bedroom door. “Jewel. I love her. But the person in that room isn’t Jewel. That thing is hateful and cruel and crazy. I refuse to call that she-devil Jewel.”
On cue, a goosey honk blasted from the bedroom. “Cyyyyy-Russsss!” Goldstein slapped his hands to his ears and trundled dutifully to his wife’s aid.
Joe turned to Death. “He wants her dead. Can you do it?”
“No,” Death said. “She’s got 7 years left on her cycle. It’s impossible.”
“Impossible,” Joe said, rubbing his palms. “Impossible is my specialty.”
“No,” Death said, “you don’t get it, Joe. There’s no wiggle room here. I can’t take a soul prematurely. There’s order. There’s inventory. The Accountants would rat me out and I’d get reassigned to Animal Extirpation. You think I smell bad now? Imagine me on Road Kill detail.”
Joe paused. His mind calculated and contemplated, crafting a scheme.
“You need a soul,” Joe said, talking it through. “Mine’s due, right? I mean, if you hadn’t stopped the shotgun, I’d be dead, and you’d have my soul.”
Death nodded. “Time,” he explained. “I just paused it. But you’re right, I’ll need to provide a soul . . . are you suggesting a swap? A proxy?”
“I am,” Joe said, touching Death’s shoulder. “Give me Jewel’s next 7 years. Kill Jewel. Get the scent from Goldstein. Win back your Morticia.”
Death puzzled over the scheme, running it through the mental wickets of the Mortality Bureau. “By God, it might just work.”
Joe extended his hand to shake and affirm.
Death pulled back his clattering hand. “Only if the scent works,” he said. “Only if I win Morticia back from Satan.”
Goldstein emerged from the bedroom. He had aged years in the mere minutes he was with Jewel. Joe stood and steadied the old man, fearful of a fall. Joe pulled him close and spoke intimately into his ear. The old man nodded, and the deal was done.
Death and Joe left the Lily Dale cottage. “Hold my sleeve,” he told Joe. “We’re going straight to Hell.”
As they soared through the folds of space, time, and dimensions, Death asked: “What did you say to Goldstein?”
“I told him to make the scent,” Joe said. “Then I told him to think of his most cherished memory of Jewel, and to kiss her . . . to kiss her goodbye.”
Death said, “I’ll need the scent if I have any hope of winning Morticia back. Will it be ready soon?”
“I sure as hell hope so,” Joe said.
The unlikely companions spiraled down, down, down, into a burning ring of fire. They landed on a slab of brimstone. Joe gasped as sulfur seared his lungs.
“Well, well, well,” Satan said, sitting on a throne made of glowing magma. “I had a sneaking suspicion you’d drop by, Lesley.”
Joe looked at Death querulously, “Lesley?”
Death glared at him. “You don’t think my mother named me Death, do you?”
“You’ve got a mother?” Joe asked, but was quickly interrupted by the grand entrance of a beautiful woman, wearing nothing by flames.
“Morticia,” Death said breathlessly.
“She’s mine now,” Satan said, taking her by the hand. “You had your chance, Lesley, and you blew it.”
Death raised his scythe. In response, ten thousand demon dogs appeared, snarling and snapping and ready for battle. “I’m not afraid to die,” Death said, dipping his weapon in lava.
“Lesley,” Morticia said, “I never questioned your courage or even your love. It was your aroma that pushed me into the arms of your brother.” She pressed her nose to Satan’s neck and rolled her eyes in ecstasy. “Sulfur and sandalwood . . . oh, my.”
Joe tugged on Death’s robe. “You’re right, she’s hot.”
Satan acknowledged the earthly interloper. “Who is this unwelcome mortal?”
“Joe,” Joe said, stepping forward. “Just Joe.”
“He’s my friend,” Death said. “He’s here to help me . . . negotiate.”
“Negotiate,” Satan mocked. “There’s nothing to negotiate. I win, Leslie. I’ve got Morticia because you stink . . . you stink to the highlands of Heaven, and to the lowlands of Hell.”
Morticia dropped her head. Steaming streams of tears evaporated on her face. “Be kind,” she said to Satan. “It’s not his fault.”
“That is a fact,” Joe said. “Death’s . . . er . . . Lesley’s malodor is not his fault. But that doesn’t make it any less wretched, does it?”
Death looked down at Joe and whispered through his lipless teeth: “Not helping.”
Joe continued. “He stinks. No denying it. Leslie smells a million poopy diapers dunked in a vat of rat vomit, then roasted over a tractor tire.”
Death poked Joe with the handle of his scythe. “Easy,” he said.
Satan thrust back his horned head and laughed riotously. “It’s true. Even as a child, Mother could not bear to hug him.”
Morticia stroked Satan’s leathery wing. “Be nice,” she said. “He’s your brother.”
“He smells like a cabbage and asshole curry,” Joe said, holding his nose.
Death shook with anger, his ribs chittering like rattlesnake buttons.
“He smells like a turd taco, stuffed with burning hair and skunk nuts,” Joe said, slapping his knee.
“He does,” Satan cried, doubling with laughter. “He so does.”
“Stop,” Morticia said to Satan, said to Joe. “You’re being cruel.”
Death closed his hood over his face and wept.
Joe put his hands in his pockets like a Tennessee lawyer and paced the blazing cavern. After a few drawn moments, he looked up at Morticia and said, “But what if he didn’t?”
Morticia cocked her head.
“What if,” Quid Pro Joe proposed, “my friend, Lesley, was as fragrant as a bouquet of Spring Days?”
“That sounds lovely,” she said, her flames changing from red to orange to blue.
“Impossible,” Satan quarreled. “It’s his nature and vocation. He trades in the stench of sorrow and fleshly rot. I’m finished with this farce. Be gone.”
Packs of demon dogs drooled as their hackles raised.
“Let the man called Joe speak, dear,” Morticia said.
Joe walked boldly up to Satan on his throne. “What we need,” he said, “is a judge.”
“A judge,” Satan spat. “In Hell, I am the judge, jury, and torturer.”
Joe nodded passive-aggressively. “Of course you are, yes. But we need someone unbiased – someone who loves both of you equally – someone, someone, someone . . .”
“Mother,” Death answered. “We need Mother to judge.”
“Mother,” Satan said, “to judge what?”
Morticia snapped. “The smells. Haven’t you been listening? We need a judge to smell you and Lesley and to declare which is the most pleasing to the olfactory senses.”
“Precisely,” Joe said. “Couldn’t have said it better myself.”
“And the winner,” Morticia started.
Death slid his hood back. “The winner gets you, my beloved Morticia.”
She smiled and her flames flickered, showing her pearlescent skin.
“Your mother is God?” Joe gulped, finding himself kneeling before Her Majesty.
“Yes,” Death said, “I thought you knew. Isn’t that why you wanted her to judge the competition?”
Joe mumbled, “I’m flying by the seat of my pants, pal. We need a miracle.”
“Who comes before me?” God asked.
Satan began to speak, but Joe shushed him. “On earth, I’m known as Quid Pro Joe, but you can call me Joe. Here’s the thing, I need a favor. Well, two favors, to be more precise.”
“Two favors,” She repeats. “Name them and I shall judge their merit.”
“I need to bounce back to earth,” Joe said, “to a cottage in Lily Dale, New York. I need to see a guy.”
“That’s one,” God summarized. “The other request?”
“Yeah,” Joe said. “I’d like to get your opinion – your divine judgment on a thing.”
“Yeah, a thing,” he said.
Morticia spoke up. “Madam God, it’s me, Morticia. You’ve probably heard that I’m torn between your sons.”
“I have,” God said disapprovingly.
Morticia summoned her courage. “From goddess to God, woman to woman, I’d like for you to sniff my men – your sons – and give me your honest opinion: which smells best.”
The Divine Mother protested. “What justice is this? Lesley is abjectly smelly. He can never prevail.”
“Please,” Morticia asked. “The two things . . . the favors for Joe . . . if you would be so kind.”
Instantly, Joe found himself in the Lily Dale cottage of Cyrus and Jewel Goldstein.
“Your back,” Goldstein said, emerging from the basement lab with a vial.
Joe spun around, dizzied. “Yes, appears so. Are you finished with the scent?”
“Yes,” Goldstein said. “It is my finest fragrance. Take it. And her soul with it.”
They both looked at the green bedroom door. “I will. You have Joseph D’Mico’s word.” He took the vial and vanished.
“Let’s do this,” Joe said, landing in Heaven’s headquarters.
“A blindfold,” Morticia suggested. God nodded and a blindfold manifested, covering Her eyes.
Joe handed the cut-crystal bottle to Death. “Have you smelled it?” Death asked.
“No,” Joe admitted, grinning nervously.
“Mother,” Satan entreated. “I propose that the loser of this ridiculous competition be relegated to the Bureau of Animal Extirpation for 1,000 years.”
God agreed, rankled by her sons’ inability to settle personal matters between themselves. “So be it,” God declared. “Let the competition begin.”
Satan went first. He sprayed himself with his patented body-spray, a blend of sandalwood, sulfur, and slow-roasted souls.
“Nice,” God said, inhaling deeply. “Quite pleasant. Next.”
Death looked at Joe and Joe looked at Death. “It’s now or never, pal,” Joe said. “Want me to do the honors?”
Death nodded and handed Joe the perfume bottle. Joe squeezed the atomizer, expelling a sweet mist into the air, upon the putrid person of Death. “Go get ‘em, tiger,” Joe said, shoving his buddy forward.
Death knelt before his mother, the God of All, shaking like a frightened child. The blinded Divine Lady leaned forward and inhaled. Her face corkscrewed and her nostrils flared. She dipped closer and inhaled deeper. A beatific smile spread across her shining face. She ripped off the blindfold and declaimed, “Lesley!” She then did something she hadn’t done since Time immemorial. She hugged her son, Death.
Morticia flew to Death, her flames reddening with passion. She pressed her face into his cloak, breathing in his intoxicating essence. “I’m sorry,” she cried, “I was wrong to leave you. Will you have me back, Lesley?”
“Of course,” Death said.
“Mother,” Satan screeched, “Lesley cheated. This isn’t fair. I demand” –
Suddenly, Satan’s pitchfork was replaced by a shovel, and his regal attire replaced by a gray jumpsuit. The embroidered patch read: Animal Extirpation. And then he was gone.
“Deal’s a deal,” Joe said. And God winked in agreement.
“So it is,” Death said, and snapped his boney fingers. Magically, a woman appeared. She was old and bent and bewildered. She seemed feral to Joe, deranged and dangerous.
“Jewel,” Death said, “welcome to Heaven.”
God reached out and stroked her matted hair. As She did, Jewel transformed. To Joe, it was as if a wilted flower were receiving rainwater and sunlight. Jewel’s body straightened and slimmed and smoothed, and her face beamed, and her youth and beauty returned. Tears of joy burst from her diamond eyes. “My Cyrus,” she asked. “I’m so sorry. If only I could tell him I love him.”
“Soon,” God said, glancing at Death. “Soon.”
Back in Joe D’Mico’s Jersey home, poolside, Death said: “You pulled it off, Joe. You did the impossible. You bought yourself a few extra years; you helped the Goldsteins; you restored my relationship with Morticia . . . as well as with my Mother.”
“Not to mention,” Quid Pro Joe said, “giving the Devil his due.” They both laughed at the thought of Satan shoveling armadillos off Texas highways.
Joe lifted the vodka bottle and took a belt. He handed it to Death who waved it off.
“But what about you?” Death said. “Your lady – Peggy? Is there anything I can help you with?” Death brandished his scythe and smiled. “Perhaps Sammy the Sausage could suddenly find himself without a sausage?”
Joe put his arm around his new pal. “You know,” he said, “this is one I’ve got to handle. I appreciate your offer, but I’ve got what, 7 years to work through this – to win Peggy back. I like my odds. My money’s on me.”
Death took the vodka bottle and toasted, “To Quid Pro Joe,” and then drank deeply.
“Thanks,” Joe said. “Before you go, there’s some loose ends.”
“The mook in the coat closet,” Death said. “Don’t worry about him. He’s in Siberia.”
“Perfect,” Joe said. “Just one last thing. Could I have ‘em?”
“Have what?” Death asked.
Joe’s eyes went to the rat-skin purse on Death’s hip. “The buckshot,” he said.
Death poured the lead pellets into Joe’s hands. “Of course, but why?”
Joe smiled and clenched his fist around the projectiles. “In case,” he said. “In case I forget how precious life is.”
Death grinned. “Death ain’t so bad either, my friend.” He ran his finger along the arc of his scythe and laughed. “See you in seven.”
Death disappeared. All that was left was the enchanting scent of the elixir Cyrus Goldstein had created.
Quid Pro Joe jangled the balls in his palm. He thought and he thought and he thought. Finally, he dialed Peggy’s number.
“Peg, it’s me, Joe,” he said. “I want you back. I know you think it’s impossible, but I think we can make it. What’s it gonna take, Peg? Let’s you and me make a deal.”
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