'How're you doing, Theo?'

He considered the question carefully, like a chess move in a slower-paced game than he usually played. He apparently hadn't showered in a few days, for he was slightly rank, and also hadn't shaved for the same period of time. His long, stringy blond hair was greasy. He certainly looked like a bum, which was not a disadvantage in his chosen profession, but if you looked in his face you knew he was more than that. His pale blue eyes, if perhaps a bit too wide and manic, glittered with intelligence, and were unclouded by the use of drugs or alcohol.

When he had finally finished calculating all the possible variations on his answer, he replied, 'I'm okay, Frederickson. How are you?'

'Actually, I'm feeling a bit out of sorts, and I'm looking for company. To your good fortune, Theo, I've chosen you. Let's play some blitz.'

'I don't play chess with masters, Frederickson.'

'Aw, come on. A couple of ten-minute games. We don't have to play for money.'

'I never play chess except for money. What, you think I do this for my health?'

'Okay, I'll give you odds. Your ten minutes to my five. A buck a game.'

More considerations, more calculations, thoughts skipping like stones on water across the cold, pale blue surface of his eyes. Finally he said, 'My five minutes to your one. Fifty bucks a game.'

'That's a little fast, and a little steep.'

He smiled thinly, revealing surprisingly good teeth considering the fact that he probably hadn't been able to afford a trip to the dentist in years. 'Come on, Frederickson. Be a sport.'

'I don't mind being a sport, Theo; what I'm trying not to be is a sucker. I like your game; you never saw an unsound pawn sacrifice you didn't like.'

'If you want a game with me, Frederickson, those are the odds I want.'

Theo Barnes obviously wasn't going to amuse me with a chess game, at least not under reasonable conditions, and so I decided to amuse myself by trying to rattle his cage a bit. I looked over at the player wearing Barnes's Hawaiian shirt just in time to see him glance up at a clock on the wall. Then he reached into his shirt pocket, carefully removed a rather large black-and-yellow capsule. Holding the capsule between his thumb and forefinger, he unselfconsciously popped it into his mouth, swallowed it without water.

'Who's your friend, Theo?'

'What friend?'

'The one wearing your shirt.'

'How do you know it's my shirt?' he asked without bothering to turn around.

'I was hanging out watching the action the day somebody dropped their hot dog on it.'

'He's … a student of mine.'

'No kidding? I didn't know you took on students. From the looks of him, he'd be hard pressed to pay for a meal, much less a chess lesson. You doing pro bono chess teaching these days, Theo?'

He flushed slightly, and this had the effect of making the scars on his face even whiter. Although I wouldn't have thought it possible, his eyes grew even colder. 'That's my business.'

'The New York Open is coming up. It looks to me like you're trying to load a sandbag.'

'Maybe you should mind your own business.'

'I'm surprised you're willing to be seen with him here. Most of these players know who you are, and what you do.'

'Not everybody is as nosy as you are, Frederickson. And I still think you should mind your own business.'

He was, of course, absolutely right, and so I proceeded about my own business, challenging one of the men analyzing in another room to a game. He turned out to be a Peruvian grandmaster. To an average player looking on, the game probably would have appeared close, with the contest about even right up to the point in the endgame when I finally tipped over my besieged king. In fact I'd been thoroughly outplayed, put at a positional disadvantage which had only grown worse right from the opening.

My brief, sour conversation with Theo Barnes and sound thrashing at the hands of the grandmaster had purged my loneliness and restored my normal taste for solitude, and so I headed home, trying to concentrate on my surroundings so as not to get stuck with an ice pick, but at the same time compulsively replaying in my mind, as chess players always do when they have lost, the moves in my last game, trying to figure out where I had gone wrong. As a result, I wasn't paying much attention to what was directly in front of me, and I almost fell into the lap of the person sitting on the stoop of my brownstone. I whooped in surprise and alarm, then almost tripped over my own feet as I hurriedly back-pedaled to the curb, where I stood and stared into the chiaroscuro pattern of light and shadow at the middle-aged woman who had taken up temporary residence at the entrance to my home.

The woman's gray hair was severely pulled back from her oval face and secured in a ponytail by a rubber band. I thought she might be in her mid-fifties, but it was hard to tell because what could have been exposure to sun, wind, cold, and rain had weathered her skin to the point where it looked like worn leather. She wore no makeup, and her full lips had a purplish-blue tinge from the cold of the late November night. Her eyes, in the moment I had looked into them when I almost stumbled over her, had appeared to be a pale violet. Her clothes must have come from the same Salvation Army bin as those of Barnes's 'student'-a long, flaring polyester skirt that was much too big for her and draped down over the steps, and a wool sweater with holes in it. It wasn't enough for the night and she was trembling, but I sensed that her shaking was as much from fear and anxiety as from the cold, for there was a desperate, haunted expression on her face.

My first reaction was that I didn't have the slightest idea who the woman was, or what she was doing on my stoop. But as we stared at each other in the night across the great territorial divide of the sidewalk, I experienced a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature as I slowly began to realize that I had, in fact, seen the woman before-in another context, and with her behavior and appearance so totally different as to suggest she might have blinked into existence on my stoop from an alternate universe instead of only a half block or so to the east. The woman sitting and shivering on my doorstep was none other than Mama Spit.

Mama Spit, as she was called by all the residents and store owners in the neighborhood, usually resided on a steam grate two hundred yards or so closer to the Hudson River. There she had sat, year-round, for the better part of two years, wrapped in a filthy blanket, wearing a filthy black wool seaman's cap I had never seen her remove, cursing and spitting at passersby-even those who tried to give her money. I was one of those who tried to give her something each time I passed by, which was unavoidably quite often since she was stationed just down the block, change from my pocket or sometimes a dollar bill, other times a piece of fruit or a sandwich wrapped in wax paper. I was always given a receipt of verbal abuse and spittle for my contributions, but she had never thrown my offerings back at me, as she did on most other occasions when people tried to give things to her. I had developed a strategy; when passing her from either direction, I'd always wait, well out of firing range, until she'd spat at two or three other pedestrians, then, when I knew she had to be running a bit dry on ammunition, I'd dart in, drop my offering of food or money, then hustle on out of there until I was again safely out of range. On one particularly cold day during the past winter I'd given her one of my brother's old parkas, which she had worn well into the spring. She'd apparently really loved the down-filled coat-which, of course, hadn't kept her from spitting and cursing at me when I made subsequent money and food runs past her. And then one day the parka was gone, presumably stolen right off her body by some other homeless person, leaving Mama Spit nothing in return but her old filthy blanket and a black eye and bruises on her face.

At least once a month, religiously, I called Social Services to request that something be done to help Mama Spit, get her into a hospital, or at least off the streets. Each time I was told by one bureaucrat or another that Social Services was aware of Mama Spit and her situation; she had been diagnosed a hopeless paranoid schizophrenic, but since she was not considered a threat to herself, and cursing and spitting were not deemed a serious threat to others, she could not be forcibly removed from the streets against her will. Now it seemed that Mama Spit, for whatever mysterious reason, had abandoned her grate, seaman's cap and filthy blanket, bathed and dressed in clean clothes, and apparently begun the first, tentative steps of a journey from self-destructive behavior, if not from the underlying madness. She'd made it as far as my stoop.

I cleared my throat, said, 'Uh, can I help you?'

Mama Spit half turned, raised a trembling hand, and pointed to where a small sign on a first-floor window proclaimed: Frederickson and Frederickson, Investigations. 'You're Mr. Frederickson?' she asked in a quavering voice.

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