Two weeks ago, a truly wealthy, notorious bully named Wayne Shilling was abducted in the hallway outside his Penthouse Suite. Precisely one week later, he was returned (gently used) – same time, same spot. The billionaire had immediately gone to his room and locked himself in. A few days later he emerged, game face crushed into place. Media pried, House Detectives tried, but Shilling refused to talk. With no sizzle, the story slipped out of favor…and attention went elsewhere looking for the next shiny object. Nevertheless, a sense of unease pervaded the upper strata of the Hotel.
Last night, in an after-hours bar called “Off Grid,” I sat across from Simon Barks and his battalion of empty beer bottles. By day, Barks works as a Hotel Chauffeur. Years on the job have made him a curator of information about guests, their dreams and secrets. Come night, when warranted, he slips on the mantle of a Karmic Robin Hood – dishing out doses of “perspective” to folks who seemed to have misplaced their conscience.
After some small talk, I finally asked, “The Shilling abduction last week, was that you?”
He lowered his bottle slowly to the table like a chopper coming down for a landing. “Mr. Shilling lives in a bubble, a very very exclusive one that seemed to be retarding his growth.” He shrugged. “Apparently some people felt he needed to get out more and see the world.”
Leaning forward, he flashed a wide grin and whispered, “We’ve had him in our crosshairs for years. Maybe you’d like to hear about it.”
I nodded. So Barks was off and running – a little light on details, but heavy on the dark pleasure he took in the telling.
Side-stepping Security, he and his cohorts had seized the billionaire, slipped down through back channels to the vast uncharted area that extended below and beyond the Hotel. They called it the Catacombs – a warren of tunnels and passageways that snaked in every direction. This was the Hotel’s “steerage” area – a place teeming with the very poor, the very unsocial and a combustible collection of misfits, prophets and artists.
Shilling was immediately set up with a family as home base. For the following week he would become part of their household – eat, sleep, do chores, etc. Escape was not an option.
The rules of engagement were simple. First and foremost, Shilling would not be allowed to speak. His only “job” was to be there, pay attention…and do some fact-checking in his heart.
Barks had no specific plan for the billionaire. Life in the Catacombs came at you hard – testing and probing, slamming against any form of ignorance and arrogance. Shilling would encounter rats and squalor and disease; fighting and addiction and hopelessness. At the same time he could not help but absorb the deep sense of community, the raw unscripted aliveness he had never known; the scars on young children raised in hardship…the abiding love that tried to hold it together.
But the most important moments came at the beginning and end of each day. At the appointed hours, Shilling was led down a tunnel to a spot where the concrete above had been ripped open by a strike of lightning. Beneath the changing sky, framed in a jagged hole, the billionaire was left alone with the sunrise…left alone with the sunset…and his journey on this earth.
On his final day he was not bound or gagged – simply blindfolded, led back up through secret passageways and deposited at exactly the same time and place from where he had been borrowed.
I asked the obvious. Would Shilling be changed by this experience? Barks remained optimistically noncommittal. A shrapnel of reality was now embedded in Shilling’s system. It would fester. How deep it would burrow was anyone’s guess. But, in the end, the odds looked decent.
Story finished, Barks gave me a long complicated look. Then we both smiled, raised our beers and clinked glass.