'One of them, yes.'

'My name's Margaret Dutton, Mr. Frederickson. I know I've been terrible to you. I've acted terribly toward everybody. I … do remember some things. But you've always been good to me. I remember you gave me money and food. You're a kind man.' She paused and abruptly put both hands to her mouth as if to stifle a sob, or a scream. After a few seconds she put her hands back in her lap, took a series of deep breaths, then continued quickly, 'This is awfully hard for me, Mr. Frederickson, so I guess I'm just going to have to come out and say it if it's ever going to get said. I'm feeling much better now. I went to the Salvation Army center today. They let me shower, and they gave me these clean clothes. But I don't have any place to stay. They wanted to take me to a shelter, but I'm afraid of shelters. I went to a shelter once, and a man hurt me. I was … I was wondering … if you could take me in for just a little while, until I can get back on my feet. I promise I won't be any trouble at all. You have a big house, and I promise I'll stay out of your way. I'd be so grateful if you'd just let me sleep in a hallway and use the bathroom so I can stay clean. I know places where I can get food. I'm going to get a job as soon as I can, and find my own place to live. Then I'll pay you. I just need someplace where I can stay clean and be safe at night for a little while. I know it's an awfully big thing to ask, but. . there's nobody else.'

Well. The Ultimate Theory of Cynicism-namely, that no good deed will go unpunished-might not have been specifically hypothesized for New York City, but it was constantly proven there every day; the streets were filled with the bloody litter of good intentions and the decaying corpses of good Samaritans. I would be an absolute fool to take into my home a psychotic who'd spent the better part of two years sitting on the sidewalk, dressed in filthy rags, spitting and cursing at people, just because she'd managed to clean up her act for a few hours, a remission of her madness I had to presume was only temporary and which could evaporate at any moment. Performing this good deed could have decidedly bad consequences, like having the house trashed, getting hurt, or even killed if Mama Spit was in brief transition to another, possibly more dangerous psychotic state.

On the other hand, it was Thanksgiving eve, and everyone I loved and who loved me was out of town; Garth and his wife, Mary Tree, were on a skiing vacation in Zermatt, and the woman I was sure I would one day get up the courage to ask to marry me, Dr. Harper Rhys-Whitney, was on an extended tour of South American universities, lecturing to fellow herpetologists and assorted snake charmers. I missed her terribly. If I couldn't be with the people who lived in my heart, I figured I might as well celebrate the holiday by playing Indian to Mama Spit's Pilgrim, offering a bit of kindness to another human being who certainly needed it. I really couldn't refuse, for I couldn't very well leave the woman alone out on the streets with a mass killer on the loose, and Mama Spit had made it clear that she'd opt for the streets rather than go to a shelter.

Besides, I'd been an absolute fool on more than one previous occasion, and survived.

'Come on, Margaret,' I said, going back across the sidewalk to her and extending my hand. 'Let's get you inside where it's warm.'

Chapter 2

I put Mama Spit up in Garth's unused apartment on the third floor. His bedroom door had no lock on it, but I probably wouldn't have locked the woman in if it did. I had no choice but to give her the run of the place, along with a supply of fresh linens, a broad grin, and a hearty 'good night' that served to mask the fact that I was already having second and third thoughts about my little gesture; I was hoping I wouldn't come up the next morning to find the apartment transformed into something resembling a cell in Bedlam. I went up to my own apartment on the fourth floor and double-locked the entrance door behind me. Willing to accept my fate and whatever dire consequences might result from my act, which in itself made me feel rather pleased with myself, I slept soundly, and awoke on Thanksgiving morning to silence and sunlight streaming in through the window. I considered it a good omen; at least Mama Spit hadn't burned down the house.

I showered and shaved, had coffee while I perused the slim Thanksgiving edition of The New York Times. The news had the effect of slipping a gray filter over what otherwise looked to be a fine day in the snow-powdered city; three more people had been stabbed to death during the night, two in the Bronx and one in Queens. I dressed, went down to my office on the first floor and did some paperwork, then went out and bought a carton of coffee, with milk and sugar on the side, and a toasted plain bagel with cream cheese. These I took with me up to the third floor of the brownstone. The door to Garth's apartment was still closed. I knocked, but there was no answer. I opened the door, went in, and looked around, but there was no sign of Mama Spit. There was no damage that I could see, but there was a different look to the place that at first I couldn't quite put my finger on. Then I realized that what was different was that the place looked cleaner. Not that the apartment had been that dirty to begin with, but everything had been dusted, and there was the faint, not unpleasant smell of furniture polish in the air. Over on a chair were rags and a can of polish Mama Spit must have found in Garth's utility closet.

I found her in the bathroom, with more supplies from the utility closet, down on her hands and knees scrubbing the bathtub, which had been clean to begin with. The tile floor, sink, and toilet bowl were already gleaming. On the shower curtain rack over the bathtub hung a shapeless cotton bra, frayed pink panties, and mismatched wool socks with holes at the heels and toes.

'Good morning, Margaret.'

She started, then quickly turned and smiled shyly. 'Oh! Good morning, Mr. Frederickson! I didn't hear you come in.'

'I'm sorry if I startled you. I knocked, but there was no answer. I wanted to make certain you were all right.'

'Oh, I'm fine, thanks to you.' She paused, glanced up at the underwear hanging above her head, reddened slightly. 'I apologize for having my dainties on display. I washed them out, and they're not dry yet. I didn't want you to think I was a dirty person-I mean, the real me.'

For some reason, her words touched me. Suddenly I found I had a lump in my throat, and I turned away as I felt my eyes fill with tears. 'If I'd ever entertained such a notion, Margaret, you've certainly disabused me of it. My God, you've cleaned the whole place. You must have been up before dawn.'

She nodded eagerly. 'I wanted to get off to an early start.. I have to try to earn my keep. You'll see I'm a good cleaner.'

'I already see that.'

'It's been an awfully long time since I felt all right in my head, but I remember that I liked to clean when I did. I'll clean your apartment too. I'll keep the whole house clean.'

'That isn't necessary, Margaret.'

'But I really want to, Mr. Frederickson. And I'm going to start looking for a job first thing tomorrow morning.'

'Every time you call me 'Mr. Frederickson,' I have to stop myself from turning around to see who you're talking to. Why don't you just call me Mongo. Nearly everybody else does.' I held out the paper bag to her. 'Here. I brought you coffee and a bagel. I hope you like cream cheese.'

Her eyes went wide and filled with tears, and her hands trembled as she reached out for the bag. 'Oh, thank you,' she said in a quavering voice. 'I am hungry, but I didn't dare ask …'

'Well, if you're still hungry after you eat that, I'll take you out for a proper breakfast. But if you can hold out, you might want to save your appetite. I'd like you to join me for Thanksgiving dinner at my favorite restaurant.'

'Oh, my,' she said in a small voice, looking down at the floor. She wiped her hands on the front of her frayed sweater as more tears came to her eyes, rolled down her leathery cheeks. 'I can't go into a restaurant with you dressed like this.'

'You're dressed just fine. The owner's a friend of mine. He won't object; if I thought he would, he wouldn't be a friend of mine, and that wouldn't be my favorite restaurant. I'll lend you some money, and tomorrow you can go out and buy some different clothes. For today, what you're wearing now is perfectly okay.'

'Oh, Mr.-Mongo. It's too much! I've already said I'm going to pay you for letting me stay here. I can't take anything more from you.'

'We want you to look good when you go job hunting, right? You can add it to your bill and pay me back in

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