After seeing so much Renaissance art and hearing cautions about mentioning the Mafia while touring certain areas of Italy during our recent trip, I definitely wanted to address the subject matter. Hence, this cautionary tale. You may find the opening a bit difficult to stomach, but if you make it through the first dozen or so paragraphs, you’ll make it to the end, and I promise it’s worth the effort. (Copyright © 2019 Josh Langston)
What was taking so long? If someone screwed up, she might not have to test the damn thing after all. That she could end it whenever she wanted didn’t matter. She still didn’t know when it would start, what it would be like, or how long she might last.
The sound came first. What she thought would never begin, quickly threatened never to end. Like an unrelenting wind, the constant jarring roar was accentuated now and then by the buzz of a dental drill, its pitch starting high and revving higher, shrieking upwards into a keening, nerve-baring whine that sometimes faded and sometimes ended in a short, grating crunch like a hammer striking gravel. The sound alone kept her on edge, but there was more—too goddamned much more.
Just yell, “Time!” and it’s over.
The still, stagnant air proved the sound of the wind to be a lie. Jenn wanted to reach her nose and pinch off the fetid odors assailing her, but she had no hands; she had no body. She was a floating head—a sensory platform without defenses. She squeezed her eyes shut, but couldn’t keep them closed; she had to know what was coming, had to see whatever was next, though she could do nothing about it.
Her padded chamber disappeared, leaving her to share a damp, earthen tunnel with a variety of creatures. A beagle‑sized rat looked up from the toddler on which it fed, a length of ropy intestine dangling from its needle-toothed maw. Jenn clamped her jaws tight, wondering, since she had no body, where the bile scorching her throat came from. The rat watched her float by.
Hold on. Hold on. Yell, “Time!” and it’s done.
Something dark, feral, and porcine snuffled at her, probed her hair with its hoary, yellow tusks and coughed on her in ragged spasms. It eventually lost interest, urinated profusely, then trotted off into the gloom.
She floated on, through vignettes of suffering, terror, and despair. She saw people, and parts of people—saw them tortured, healed, and tortured again. Their screams blended with the sound of the wind until her ears ached. Yet, she could cope.
All I have to do is watch. I can make it.
Then came the insects.
At first, their touches seemed tentative and merely tickled. As they continued, lightly probing her ears, eyes, and lips, Jenn knew she wouldn’t last much longer.
Just hold on, damn it!
Something heavier landed on her face, wiggling and squirming with determination. It pushed and probed, its needle-thin legs scrabbling against her cheek and lips, struggling, striving, fighting to stretch her left nostril wide enough to get in. Soon there were more. Another started in on the right side and blocked her nose completely. She’d have to breathe through her mouth soon, and then they’d all….
Screw this. “Time!” she screamed, then grabbed a bite of air before clamping her lips against the onslaught.
The lid went up, the lights came on, and the noise stopped. A woman in a white lab coat leaned over her and smiled. “Relax, Mrs. Cellino, you’re okay. It’s over now.”
Jenn struggled against the straps holding her arms, unable to rid herself of the feeling that something hideous remained on her forehead. When her arms were free she grabbed at her nose and rubbed it compulsively, then pulled her hair straight back so nothing touched her face.
Her breath came in short, ragged gulps. Her legs and buttocks felt cold and clammy. “Oh, God, I’ve….”
The woman in white nodded comfortingly. “Don’t give it a thought, dear; it happens. What’d you expect? You’ve just come back from Hell.”
The nurse folded down one side of the vinyl-lined box and helped Jenn stand up. “It’s why we insist that clients change into a gown before testing.” She patted Jenn’s arm. “Your things are in the dressing room. There’s a sink, washcloth, towels—everything you’ll need to freshen up.”
“Thanks,” Jenn said. “I’ll be right out.”
“There’s no hurry. Doctor Vergil just called; she’s going to be tied up for a while. But go ahead and change, you can wait in her office.”
Jenn took a hurried sponge bath then dressed. Once in the doctor’s office, she relaxed in a comfortable lounge chair. Her thoughts drifted back to the day her mother-in-law, Gloria Cellino, summoned her. It came as a surprise since the old woman hadn’t bothered to attend the wedding two years earlier.
She’d been escorted to Mrs. Cellino’s parlor, a stiffly formal room in an eastside mansion purchased with mob money before Jenn was born. She remembered how nervous she’d been as the old woman stared at her, then spoke without smiling. “So, you’re pretty, but you must have something going for you other than that. With his money, Victor could have any woman. Why did he choose you? What were you before he married you? A dancer? Hat check girl?” Vic’s mother plucked a crystal bell from the silver tea service and rang it sharply. “Do they still have hat check girls?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Jenn said. “I worked at a travel agency.”
A uniformed maid entered. As the old woman issued instructions, Jenn noted the obvious origins of Vic’s features; his narrow face, sharp jaw, and high cheekbones were replays of his mother’s. Like Vic, the old woman even squinted when she spoke, confirming her universal distrust.
“It’s not important. What I think doesn’t matter; Victor doesn’t listen to me anymore, anyway. But he might listen to you, and that’s why I asked you to visit.”
“Mrs. Cellino, I—”
“Hear me out. Victor’s father and I were married for forty-two years. I know what influence a wife can have.”
Jenn shook her head. “Victor has never asked my opinion about anything.”
“Just like his father, but that never kept me from influencing him.”
“I don’t understand,” Jenn said.
“Don’t be naive. I suppose you think you love him?”
“Victor? Of course.”
“Nonsense. He’s twice your age, and you have nothing in common. I doubt you even speak to each other in bed.”
“That’s not true!” Jenn looked down at her hands.
A mirthless smile twisted one corner of the old woman’s mouth. “At least try to look at me when you’re lying.”
“What do you want from me?”
“Two things. One simple…” the smile touched the other side of her mouth, “…and one which may be more difficult.”
The younger Mrs. Celino remained silent.
“I want a grandchild,” the old woman said.
“And I want Victor to survive to raise it.”
Laughing, Jenn shook her head. “Sorry. I’m not cut out for motherhood.”
“Your involvement would end with delivery,” said Victor’s mother. “I will see to the child’s care.”
“Vic doesn’t want kids, period. He’s made that very clear.”
The old woman squinted. Her cold, dark eyes commanded Jenn’s attention. “I don’t care what Victor wants.”
“Oh, fine,” Jenn said. “And just how am I supposed to keep him alive after he kills me for getting pregnant?”
“I will guarantee your safety, provided you follow my instructions.”
“Okay, just for the sake of argument, let’s say I play along. What could I do that his bodyguards can’t—especially if I’m out to here with a baby?” She scribed an imaginary belly with both hands.
“I said it might be difficult. He’ll have to change, or there’s no hope. You’ll make him see the light.”
Jenn chuckled. “Assuming it’s possible—which I doubt—why should I? What’s in it for me?”
“I’ve already got money.”
The two women eyed each other; the older one broke the silence. “You never looked beyond the money, did you? Not until it was too late. You thought money meant freedom.”
The old woman silenced her with a wave. “Spare me; I’ve been there, too. We both learned the hard way. Without freedom, the money’s worthless. True?”
Jenn nodded. “So, if you can provide freedom, why don’t you do it for yourself?”
“Because I’m too old, and it no longer matters to me. My interests are quite different—still selfish—but different. You’ve heard of the Witness Protection Program?”
“I’ve heard Vic owns somebody inside.”
The old woman smiled. “That wouldn’t surprise me, but I have a network of my own. He doesn’t know my people; they’re all from the old country. Do what I ask and I can give you your freedom and the money to make the most of it. You’ll have a new identity, a new address—probably even a new country. Interested?”
Jenn had said yes. Now, three weeks later, the plan was under way.
“Ah, Mrs. Cellino,” Dr. Vergil said as she entered the office, “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”
“No problem,” Jenn said. Vergil looked like Mrs. Santa Claus. Jenn marveled at the contrast—a kindly, grey-haired granny who sublet space in Hell. “I can’t get over how… how innocent you look.”
Vergil laughed. “I suppose it does seem odd, but we deal with a very delicate subject, and it’s crucial that my clients are relaxed. I confess I work at my image.”
“That makes sense.” Jenn rubbed her nose one last time.
Vergil nodded knowingly. “The roaches. It’s often the clincher.”
“Mrs. Cellino, it’s taken me a long time to develop the techniques demonstrated today. There are others, of course, but you’ll have to settle for a description of them.”
“I’ve seen enough,” Jenn said. “More than enough.”
“Then you’ve decided to proceed?” It was more confirmation than question. “You found the experience ‘real’ enough?”
“Are you kidding?”
“Hardly. The Hell scenario you experienced is our generic version, a sort of a non-denominational nightmare. While similar to some of our more orthodox themes, it operates on natural fears rather than supernatural ones. Still, it can be effective. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Oh, God, yes. If that doesn’t turn him around, nothing will.”
“We’ll certainly do everything we can to make that happen. But, you understand, even with our many successes, it’s not something we can guarantee.”
Jenn pawed through her purse searching for cigarettes. “Sure, I realize that.” The pack she found was empty. Oh, lovely. First Hell, now this.
“There are other risks as well.” The doctor stood and walked to a curtained window across the room. “How old is your husband?”
“Vic’s almost fifty-two.”
Vergil’s eyebrow crept upward. “And you?”
“Is there any history of heart disease in your husband’s family?”
Jenn was reminded of a long-standing joke about one of Vic’s relatives who “contracted heart disease” shortly after Vic learned he had traded family secrets for immunity from prosecution. She didn’t laugh. “No. The men in his family either die young or live forever. He’s got a grandfather and two great-uncles in their nineties.”
Vergil parted the curtains to let in the late afternoon light. “Have you finished his psychological profile?”
“Yes,” Jenn said. “As best I could. There’s a lot I just don’t know.”
“That’s understandable, but remember, the more we can tailor the experience to fit his belief system, the better our chances for success will be.”
“How good are the chances?”
Jenn blinked. “It is? Why? He’s not a believer. His form of worship is usually done with a checkbook.”
The doctor shook her head. “The issue is tradition, and belief based on experience. Consider the sensory nature of religious rituals. Many aspects of Catholic worship grew from the Middle Ages when the majority of the faithful couldn’t read.” Vergil leaned back against the windowsill. “Sensory input was terribly important. A life-size, life-like crucifix sent a powerful message. Just consider what God’s house looked like. The music in those old cathedrals was something to inspire awe, too. And don’t forget the incense and Communion. Taste, touch, smell—they were all important. They still are.”
Jenn remained dubious. “Victor’s a cold bastard. At least you don’t have to worry about his heart—he doesn’t have one.” She leaned back in her chair. “But this religion business bothers me. He goes to church maybe once or twice a year. Can you imagine what his confession must be like?” Jenn lowered her voice in a parody of her husband’s. “‘Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been six months since my last confession. Since then, I’ve killed a few people, sold dope to school kids, paid off cops, bought politicians, and spent a fortune on hookers and horses.’ Yeah, my Vic’s a real charmer.”
Vergil smiled. “If he was taken to Mass regularly as a child, the foundation for his belief system is probably still there. It’s just been a long time since he’s had a reminder that Hell is not a very nice place.”
Jenn remembered the rat and the roaches. “No shit.”
“It’s important that you plant the seeds. Over the next several weeks we’ll provide articles and information about near-death experiences which you can leave for him to find. We also have video of talk-shows on the subject. Meanwhile, we’ll be tailoring a scenario for him based on the information in the profile.” Vergil reached into a cabinet beneath the window and extracted a small glass vial filled with a colorless liquid. “When we’re ready, we’ll send you this via courier. You’ll need to call us the night before, then pour it into his morning coffee. Within an hour he’ll think he’s having a heart attack.”
Jenn stared at the older woman. “Then what?”
“You run to the phone to call an ambulance, but dial us instead. We’ll be there in minutes to pick him up and take him to St. Catherine’s. The VE mod’s already installed.”
“What’s a VE mod?”
Vergil smiled. “It’s what you tested. The name is something of an inside joke. Our equipment is derived from the work done in Virtual Reality, but because of our unique application, we prefer to call it ‘Virtual Eternity.'”
“Cute,” Jenn said. “But what about his bodyguards? They’re going to insist on going with him.”
“No problem. Unless they’ve had medical training, they aren’t going to understand what’s going on. Trust me, Mrs. Cellino, we’ve dealt with similar situations.”
“You don’t know Victor.”
“True,” Vergil said, “but we know the type.”
“He’s not some cranky old miser from a Dickens novel. He won’t frighten easily.”
“Of course he won’t, but a near-death experience is a far cry from what Scrooge encountered; it’s more like Dante than Dickens.” Vergil paused to consider the young woman. “Am I missing something? Have you changed your mind?”
“No. It’s just… What if it doesn’t work? What if he thinks it’s just a dream?”
“People wake up from dreams. Since he won’t be asleep, that option won’t be available to him.”
“Could he pass out?”
“Oh, he probably will, but we’ll be monitoring him. When he comes to, he’ll be right where he was before.”
“How will he know it’s Hell?”
The older woman adjusted her glasses and smiled. “You had a taste of it; was there any doubt in your mind? Besides, when we bring him around, we’ll tell him that, for a while, he was clinically dead. What other conclusion could he draw?”
Vergil opened a desk drawer and withdrew a sheaf of papers. “Here’s the contract. The deposit’s been paid.” She glanced at it. “It’s already signed. You can take it—walk away now and forget the whole thing—or we can get started right away.”
“And the fee?”
“As I mentioned in our initial interview, we charge a flat rate: one million dollars.”
“That seems awfully high,” Jenn said. Even if Vic’s mother does pick up the tab.
“That figure represents a significant amount of artistic development, to say nothing of the clinical services we’ll be providing,” Vergil said. “Our market is self‑limiting; there’s no repeat business.” She raised both hands, palms up. “And our overhead is stupendous.”
“It’ll be worth it, if it works. I can only imagine being married to someone decent, even if he’s scared into it.”
“This is the ultimate wake-up call,” Vergil said.
Jenn sighed. “Let’s hope so.”
Four months later, Jenn reported to her mother-in-law again. “I think it’s safe to proceed,” she said, “the tests were positive; I’m pregnant.” Though her own feelings about it were mixed, she assumed Vic’s mother would be excited.
“Are you certain it’s his?”
Jenn realized her jaw had fallen open. She closed it slowly, and clamped her teeth together until she knew she had herself under control. “Absolutely.”
“Good,” the old woman said. “Dr. Vergil said she was ready to proceed. I paid the last of her fee weeks ago.” She stared at Jenn as if looking at her would reveal some hidden message.
Jenn remained silent and concentrated on keeping her composure. The elder Mrs. Cellino finally spoke. “Since you’re the only one I know who’s tested it, I’ll have to rely on your judgment. Did it really seem like Hell?”
Instantly, Jenn drew both hands to her face. For months, her dreams had been crowded with replays of the experience. She shuddered and rubbed her nose, embarrassed by her Pavlovian response. “Yes,” she said, her mouth dry. “It was awful.”
“Good,” the old woman said. “Very good.”
The ambulance streaked away from Victor Cellino’s residence under a full complement of sirens and lights. It proceeded to St. Catherine’s hospital with half a dozen cars trailing behind. Several white-clad attendants stood ready. As soon as the gurney cleared the tailgate, they rushed it to a sequestered floor of a private wing.
Jenn followed the procession into a brightly lit room where a medical team connected Vic to an assortment of probes, monitors, and tubes. Dr. Vergil surfaced briefly and had an orderly show everyone out. Jenn and the bodyguards shuffled into the hallway where someone else in white directed them to a waiting area.
The bodyguards wandered aimlessly as Jenn played the role of grieving wife. Dr. Vergil was supposed to appear soon and tell her to go home. She hoped she wouldn’t have to wait much longer.
“Has anybody called his mother?” asked a bodyguard.
“Would you please, Vinny?” Jenn gave him a faint smile. “She needs to know.”
“No problem,” the hood said. “I saw a phone in the hall.”
Dr. Vergil entered the room. “Mrs. Cellino? We’ve got your husband stabilized; I believe he’ll pull through.”
“Great,” Jenn said, trying not to overplay her part.
“It’s too early to say if he’ll fully recover. He may not be the same after this.”
Jenn winced at Vergil’s words. Easy—don’t overdo it.
“I wish I could offer you some assurances,” Vergil said. “He has the best care available, but he needs time. Why don’t you go home? We’ll call if there’s any change.”
“Thanks, I’ll do that.”
As she turned to leave, Vinny re-entered the room. “More bad news,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Vic’s ma had a stroke about two hours ago. They took her to County General.”
Jenn felt faint.
“We’ll just have to hope for the best,” Vergil said.
“Yeah,” Jenn said. “I hope that’s enough.”
The vinyl covering of the sofa in the waiting room at Metro Reproductive Services clung to Jenn’s back and legs as if she wasn’t perspiring enough just thinking about what would happen if any of Vic’s guards followed her. The pregnancy hadn’t become common knowledge, and she intended to end it before it did. She made the decision the day before, after Mrs. Cellino’s doctor assured her the old woman wasn’t likely to recover.
There’s no way I’m going through with it on my own. Vic would kill me. Thinking of him reminded her to contact Dr. Vergil. She called from the receptionist’s desk.
“Well, what do you think? Is it working?”
“As I told you before,” the Doctor said, her voice tinny in the handset, “there are no guarantees. The scenario we developed for him includes some of the most vivid sensory manipulation we’ve ever done. We even used some of what you told me about him as a theme.”
“Some of what I said?” Jenn asked.
“When you acted out his confession, remember? Your remarks covered a lot of territory.”
“And all of it bad,” Jenn added.
“Think of it as inspirational,” Vergil said, “that’s what my staff did. In one scene, they surround him with zombie-like children who stab him repeatedly with hypodermic needles. In another, he’s beaten by thugs while a policeman watches, too busy to help because he’s accepting another thug’s bribe. There are several in that mode; my staff is quite creative.”
“I’m sure,” Jenn said. “Anything, uh, traditional?”
“You suddenly seem interested in details,” Vergil said. “Is there a reason?”
“I just want to be sure it works. By the way, how many times will he go through it?”
A nurse called her name and Jenn acknowledged her with a wave and a head shake.
“He’ll go through the entire scenario once,” Vergil said. “It lasts several hours, though drugs will distort his time sense, and it will seem longer.”
“Run him through it twice.”
“That’s highly irregular.”
The nurse motioned for Jenn from across the room. Jenn waved her off. “I’ve got to go. Promise me you’ll put him through it two times.”
“Really, I wouldn’t rec—”
“Do it,” Jenn said.
“I can’t guarantee what—”
“Just do it, goddamn it! I’ll accept the consequences.” Everyone in the waiting room turned to stare, but Jenn ignored them, too incensed to care.
“That would be a mistake, in my professional opinion.”
Jenn snorted. “What kind of professional drugs people for money and subjects them to Hell—literally?”
“Mrs. Cellino, really, I—”
“Did Vic sign any medical release forms? How do you suppose the Police and the state licensing boards would react to that?”
“Mrs. Cellino?” the nurse called. “We’re waiting.”
“I’ve got to go,” Jenn said.
“You’d implicate yourself?” Vergil asked, a note of superiority in her voice. “I have your signature on the contract. Right here, in ink: Gloria Cellino.”
Jennifer laughed. “You put Vic through that program twice, and be ready to prove it to me, or I’ll turn you in.”
Grumbling, Jenn hung up the phone and bustled through the waiting room toward the nurse. The other patrons all stared as if she’d violated some rule about remaining quiet or moving slowly. Screw the rules, she thought.
“Did I tell you I saw Mother the other day?” Victor Cellino sat in an overstuffed chair in the posh living room of his fashionable home. Dressed in a robe and slippers, he looked much older than his fifty-two years. “She still can’t speak clearly, but the doctors say her recovery is amazing.”
“That’s great, hon,” Jenn said.
“She asked about you. That’s pretty amazing too; she usually doesn’t think about anyone but herself.”
Though it had been two months since his “heart attack,” Victor’s hand still trembled as he poured his young wife a glass of juice.
“We had a nice long chat,” he said. “It’s been ages since we had that much to say to each other.” He eased back in his chair. “Y’know, it could be that heart attack was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“Oh, yeah. I’m tellin’ ya Jenn, it was horrible. I know what Hell is like, and I don’t want any part of it.”
Jenn sat back in her chair and tried not to smile.
“There’s gonna be some changes around here, that’s for sure,” he said. “I’m not taking any chances.”
He took a sip of juice. “I’ve already told the boys I’m outta the business. No more drugs, broads, or gambling for me. You’ll see.”
“I can’t tell you how happy that makes me,” Jenn said.
“There’s more, babe. I’ve got big plans.”
“I’m going to make a difference with my life, a real difference.” He finished off his juice and put the glass down. “From now on, my job is to do good. I’m gonna save people!”
“That’s wonderful, dear,” Jenn said.
Victor stood up and pressed a button on the arm of his chair. Vic’s bodyguard, Vinny, appeared at the door. He rolled Mrs. Cellino into the room in a wheelchair. Though her mouth was cruelly twisted from the stroke, her eyes remained as fiercely cold as ever. She remained silent, staring intently at Jenn’s trim, flat stomach.
Moments later, two burly men entered the room and took up positions on either side of Jenn’s chair.
“The first one I’m gonna save,” Vic said, “is you.”
As the men lifted Jenn to her feet, two others wheeled a large, coffin-like box into the room. They plugged in the machine’s power cables and erected an intravenous drip feed behind it. They opened the lid and dropped the front panel.
“I got this from an outfit called Virtual Eternity,” Vic said. “Mom told me all about ’em.” He patted the vinyl interior of the box. “I know it’s nothing like what I went through—actually being in Hell—but believe me, after a couple weeks in here, you’ll never be the same.”