I didn't remember the guy who flagged me down that day, but
he certainly seemed to know me. I had the time and he was
paying for my latte, and as he started talking it became
obvious that he really did know me. Just as he seemed
to know that I had free time that afternoon, and that I'd
never turn down free Starbucks.
He ran down what had happened to all the people I'd known in
those days, students and teachers alike. "You gotta watch
your health though," he said ominously, looking at his watch.
"You have what you think is a little fainting spell, and the
docs don't really think it's all that serious, but if you
were to have one of those new non-invasive CAT scan angiograms
they'd find you were a week from keeling over dead without a
a quadruple bypass. It happens a lot nowadays, even in people
who don't have a history of heart trouble. Some people think
it's the pollution."
"Well my family doesn't have a history of heart disease."
"Well there you go. You need to be aware of these things."
He looked at his watch again. "Got to go," he said. "Here,
take one of my cards. Maybe we'll be in touch again."
"Yeah, sure." I dropped his card in my wallet, where it
would wait with the others I tend to randomly collect until
I throw them all out.
A week later I fainted dead away while I was walking back to
my office from the restroom. The doc was more concerned with
the bump on my head than my heart, but I asked about getting
one of those angiograms just in case. Fortunately it was
covered by the insurance, because a week after I fainted I
was getting a quadruple bypass.
As I was coming out of the anaesthesia, my doctor said that
my procedure had gone well and that I was lucky, because
my condition was caught in time. Two of my arteries were
almost completely clogged, and any simple thing like a blood
clot or the slightest extra plaque would have finished me.
"You'd probably have been dead within a week if we hadn't
caught this with the angiogram," he said beaming. Modern
medicine had triumphed again.
Naturally I remembered the prophetic visit and as soon as I
was strong enough I retrieved his card. It said:
There was no phone number, and I gradually convinced myself
that it was a kooky coincidence. I was having to do physical
therapy to recover my strength, and my leg hurt like hell
from the operation where they took the arteries for the bypass.
The very first time I ventured down to Starbucks Richard
Hampton was there waiting for me, with two cups of fresh
Hope is the foundation of both Happiness and Despair;
Always place your Hope in the hands of a professional.
"It's the Happiness Broker," I said a little mockingly.
He nodded. "I owe you. Please sit. The healing will
not go well. You will need another bypass within a year."
"And why would you be owing me for this?"
"I had a seven year old girl with leukemia whose biggest
dream was living long enough to see Disney World. I'm
afraid I was in a bind, so I used you against my own sense
of ethics. I'm prepared to fix the situation."
"I fail to see the connection between my heart trouble and
the unfortunate plight of a little girl I've never met."
"Come now. Surely you noticed that I knew what your condition
would be. There are forces in the world that are required to
balance out. My specialty is kids, especially kids with terminal
diseases. Sometimes I can save them. More often I'm able to
make their passing more bearable. When I can do nothing else
I can give someone emotional strength. But there is always
a cost. In this case that cost was your heart disease."
"Are you trying to say you caused my heart attack?"
"I'm saying that I caused your heart disease. I created
it and gave it its character. That is why I was able to warn
you about it and save your life. And your pain bought a little
girl four months of relatively healthy life. It's not a fair
bargain to make on your behalf without your consent, but as I
said I was in a bind."
"This is crazy." I would have started to get up, but I was
still too weak.
Richard swept his arm at the crowd outside. "Point out someone
you don't like," he said.
"That guy leaning against the light post looks like a crack
Richard brought out a PDA. "Nelson Tyler, age nineteen, ten
arrests and one pending trial which will result in conviction.
Mr. Tyler is out on bail at the moment, and he is actually a
heroin dealer, because that's his jones. The records
haven't confirmed it yet but the bookmakers say he'll probably
die in jail from withdrawal. Now watch ... that blue car."
As he spoke a seventies model blue Cadillac came into view.
Suddenly there was a loud noise, and the Caddy's front wheels
heeled hard to the right. It was very sudden. The young man
Richard had called 'Nelson Tyler' was caught between the car
and the light pole. His eyes registered surprise more than
pain as he slumped over the hood and his blood drained onto
the road. People began to scream.
"Did you ... you couldn't have done that."
"But I did. You have a knack for this. Mr. Tyler was an
excellent choice; the world will be no poorer for his untimely
demise, but it might mean three or four more years of life for
some little child."
"But how ... why ... if that's so ... then why me?"
"There are all kinds of balances in effect. The most important
is what might be called the 'Law of Conservation of Happiness.'
The Powers that Abide will only allow a certain amount of
happiness in our world; if we want to create more, we must
offset it with suffering. My job is to try to migrate the
happiness that's allowed to the people who will use it best.
But for each agent like myself there is a kind of karmic
balance, and my powers ebb and flow according to what I've
been doing recently. At the time I was tapped, and under those
conditions I can only reach out to people who have some kind
of connection to me."
"Why would happiness be conserved? Is there some kind of thing
like that for pain too?"
"Oh no, misery isn't capped."
"That is completely fucked."
Richard shrugged. "I don't make the rules. I'm just a small
player; asking me about stuff like that would be like asking
your real estate agent about macroeconomic fiscal policy.
I just try to ease the way for terminally ill kids. There are
lots of agents like me, working for all manner of sometimes
contradictory purposes. Some of us are humans recruited like I
was. Some are what you might call spirits or entities. Some of
those are dead humans, and others are human creations. There
are big players and small, and we all work to influence the
distribution of the happiness that is allowed in our individual
"So you caused my heart disease to cure a seven year old girl?"
"Actually it wasn't enough to cure her. But it made her happy
in her last months."
"Well," I said. "Good for her. I guess now you can just reach
out and touch random strangers."
"Not exactly. You picked our friend mister Tyler, whose body is
already cooling across the way. I do a lot of work with Muslims.
Their big contract makes it easy, what with the whole seventy-two
virgins thing and all."
"You know, you'd really be better off if I didn't go into too
much detail about this."
"But something tells me you have to if I ask."
Richard shrugged. "You're covered yourself under the American
contract. Fundamentalist Christians get to bask in the
presence of the Powers that Abide. Muslims, their deal is
easy to work with. Very concrete. If they meet certain
requirements they go to a nicely rendered heaven. The
virgins are astral beings and there is a low overhead for
providing them. Personally I think the Christians get a
raw deal, the Powers that Abide don't have much to say to
beings of our caliber."
"So there is an afterlife?"
"For some people. Some people get in on a package deal,
some make arrangements for themselves. There's a lot of
"And the American deal? That didn't protect me much from
"No, it didn't, but America isn't concerned with individuals.
The American Founders didn't negotiate for happiness
per say, but for a nice stable arena upon which to pursue
happiness. It was a very slick maneuver.
That's why the biggest natural disaster in our
entire history was the Galveston hurricane, and that a whole
century ago, only six thousand dead. America has never had
fifty or a hundred thousand corpses all at once like other
places regularly do, even with half our cities built on the
coast and the other half on earthquake zones."
"What about the Civil War?"
"We did that to ourselves. Also the wars we keep picking,
which are the price of that security -- Conservation of
Happiness again. Our leaders don't always know why
they're doing what they do, but their actions are negotiated
in ways you can't imagine and are often written into destiny
even before they happen. Believe me, you have more free will
than the President does. You will notice that for all our
adventures we have never been invaded ourselves, and we have
vanquished the few idiots who dared to attack us."
He sipped his latte and continued, "Other contracts are just
the opposite, and you have to tiptoe around the big picture.
Like the Muslims. Their contract is all about
individuals. That's why their countries keep falling apart
even though their armies once swept the world."
"What about their women?"
"Conservation again. Somebody has to suffer."
"Like I had to suffer for your little girl."
"True. But I am here to make amends. As you can see my
powers are once again waxing, and I can restore your health.
You will not have the chronic pain or second heart attack
which are now written in your future."
"Wonderful. Do it then."
"There's one small catch."
"Let me guess. Somebody has to suffer. Didn't the
unfortunate Mr. Tyler over there..."
"No, but I'll make use of his passing elsewhere. In
your case I have in mind a very old person, ninety-eight
years old, and improbably healthy. She will have a short
and completely unsurprising illness. She has had a long
and fulfilling life."
"Which you will cut short."
"She's ninety-eight years old. You want to call that
short, you can compare it to your own life expectancy if
I don't fix what I've already done to you."
I stared at him for a long time.
"You don't have to actually believe in it you
know. All I need is a sense that you agree with the
I stared at him some more. "I don't really believe in
any of this crap," I said. Meanwhile, the ambulance was
taking away the unfortunate Nelson Tyler's body.
"That's all right."
"Then do it."
The next day I woke up feeling better than I had in months.
My leg wasn't sore. I had incredible energy. I felt like
running around the park just for the joy of it.
My doctors were mystified, but after a suspiciously grueling
battery of tests they pronounced me healthy and my recovery
Two weeks later I happened to open the paper and saw this:
Legendary prolific and socially conservative romance author
Barbara Cartland passed away at the age of 98 after
suffering "a short illness."
I went back to the Starbucks and fumed. Show up, Richard
I demanded silently. After an hour or so he actually did
"I guess this means I've figured out how to call you," I
"I'll say, you're rattling the whole Database. What did
you expect? I told you exactly what kind of person would
have to pay for your rejuvenation. Most people have better
sense than to go looking for that information."
"I didn't go looking for it, it leapt into my face."
"Well, sometimes that does happen. As I've said, you seem
to have the knack.
"I didn't expect it to be somebody I'd heard of. Somebody
"Well, famous people have to die too. People you've heard
of will die. You will die. I don't make the rules."
"You just enforce them."
"Oh no, I'm just a little bitty player. I'm just as bound
up by the rules as you are. I do what I can to move the
suffering around where it will mean the least, but there are
sharp limits to what I can do. It can be depressing as
hell at times. You can never help everyone who deserves it."
"Then why do you do it?"
Richard looked thoughtful. "Well, I was recruited not long
out of high school, and it seemed like a good gig at the
time. The perks are great. You've seen some of the powers
available to me. And I'm personally immortal. Even if I'm
not omnipotent I get to work the levers of life and death,
and leave my mark on the world. Would you want less?"
"You decide who lives and dies. You are Death."
Richard shrugged. "That character is based partly on
actors like me. But even with all our meddling, Richard,
most people just suffer and die at random. Being singled
out by a being like me is an unusual ... privilege."
"Yeah, I sure feel privileged."
"You'd feel a lot less privileged if I'd just let you die.
Give me a little credit, please. We work with the world
we have, not the one we'd like to have."
"Are you through with me?"
"This transaction is finished. You called me
to this table, remember. I have no further need for you
at the moment."
"Does that mean I'll be seeing you again? Maybe to get
cancer next time?"
"Most likely not. I have my principles, and I've
already abused you more than I would like. But there is
a connection between us, and the day may come when it's
all I have to do something important. I won't lie to
you and say I won't use that."
"Will you at least give me some warning next time?"
"I warned you this time, if you'll recall. And I will
warn you if I need you again. Which, I sincerely hope,
I will not."
I didn't see Richard again for over a year. In that time
my life resumed its normal pace, which was about two
metronome stops below "interesting." Which was fine by
Then, one day, someone tapped me on the shoulder as I was
waiting to board the subway. I turned, and it was
"What, no coffee this time?"
"I don't have much time, and I have to give you something."
He offered me a thick stick. "Take it with your left hand."
Not thinking about the ramifications much, I grabbed the
stick. Very suddenly we were alone; the crowd on the
platform was just gone. The stick started growing,
it grew an old bird's nest at its crown, and then a fat
snake slithered out of nowhere to spiral around it. I
tried to throw it down, but my grip was frozen and my arm
"What is this?" I asked, terrified.
"That is the caduceus," Richard said. "The symbol of my
power. My license, if you will, to practice as a Happiness
Broker. Now your power."
Richard was circling me, and I was almost forced to face him.
The caduceus started to shrink and, with a sudden whoosh,
flowed into my body through my left arm. For a
brief awful moment I actually felt it filling me. And
suddenly, I knew what he had given me.
I reached into my pocket and found the "PDA," my connection
to the Database. Its display said Welcome New User.
My head was filling with knowledge, of my rights and
obligations and powers and of all those balances that he
had told me he had to respect.
"What have you done?" I asked, shaking.
"I'm retiring. I have given you the job."
"But why? Aren't you mortal now?"
"You'll find out tomorrow. Take my advice
and stick to something simple like healing children. Don't
try to run with the big players. It's like a poker game,
and you can lose." There was a terrible roar and I realized
it was the subway coming, just as Richard stepped off the
platform in front of it.
His body was thrown twenty meters to bounce against the far
wall of the station, which was once again filled with
milling people. People who were now screaming in horror.
It occurred to me that it would be a good idea to be
elsewhere, and from deep within my new knowledge I realized
how to best do that. I allowed myself the appropriate
thought, and the next moment I was sitting at the Starbucks.
I even had a latte in front of me.
I will always remember that day; heedless my new obligations
I walked around town practicing small miracles. I could
always worry about obligations tomorrow. I would, after all,
live forever unless I threw my powers to another as
Richard had done. If I live to be a thousand or ten thousand
I'll always cherish that first day of total freedom, before I
learned how careful I must be. The best day of my life will
always be September 10, 2001.
And so now you know my story. And now you probably suspect
why I wanted to talk to you. Yes, it's about your daughter.
I'm afraid the diagnosis is correct. But it was caught
early, and I can save her. There's just a little catch.
I'm in a bind, and you're the only resource I have. You
have a connection to me and to her, that's very powerful.
You'll have to have a stroke, a big one. You might live,
but there are no guarantees. And you might prefer not to.
But you can save your daughter.
You don't have to believe me. All I need is a sense that
you agree with this plan, and I can take care of everything.