Xonacotl Sanchez parked her minivan at The Dining Room of St. Benedict, the soup kitchen the locals called Benny’s. She was small and slim with a dark primitive face that looked like it had been carved from tropical wood with five quick strokes of an axe and left unfinished. A few customers sat along the curb looking worn, six-thirty in the morning and nowhere else to go.
Lemon hurried up to her. “Willard’s dead.”
For a moment time held still. The hard desert sunlight felt like a stranger’s palm touching her cheek.
“I went to his camp at sun-up. A killer got there first.” Lemon’s eyes shifted away, then met her gaze and shifted again, like a guilty child who’d been caught.
“Someone murdered him?”
Lemon nodded. “Cracked his head open.”
Xonacotl’s parents had abandoned her at the border fifteen years before. They sent her ahead in the darkness and then disappeared. Willard had filled the role in her life of counselor, advisor and grandfather. A boiling rage coursed through her veins. “Who?”
“You need to call the cops. Let them find out.” Lemon cleaned Benny’s for a place to sleep when he wasn’t in jail. No way would he call them.
“They won’t investigate. An old homeless man. They won’t. If they tried, no one would talk to them.”
“Then what you gonna do?”
“I have to get this place ready for the morning meal. You know what I have to do.” The dining room manager was out for six weeks going to chemo and Xona, the lead volunteer, was filling in. She had hours of work ahead of her, then two hundred people to feed. Every day it got harder, like trying to outrun a train.
Lemon said, “Let him lay in the sun with flies goin’ in and out of his nose? Laying eggs in his brain?”
“How far is his camp?”
Xona followed Lemon to the back corner of the parking lot. They squeezed in the narrow space between the fence and the dumpster where people had pissed for decades. It reeked in the morning heat. Her eyes watered and her throat burned.
They pushed through the gap in the fence and crossed the back lot of a trucking company, then across a quiet street and down an alley trashed by the storm. A big sounding dog barked in a nearby yard. Somewhere a radio played a Mexican love song.
“In here.” Lemon swung open a rusted gate and pushed through chest high weeds.
The camp was six feet by twelve. Willard’s body lay sprawled in the shade of a tarp held up with string and thin bamboo sticks. A shallow fire pit lay nearby. A soup can with the lid bent back for a handle was half filled with a dark liquid.
Lemon looked like he was ready to run. He whispered. “You worried about ghosts?”
The Navajos who came to Benny’s had a lot of superstitions about death and the ghosts left behind. “I’m not that kind of Indian.” She was Aztec. Her parents had been scavengers in the vast dump outside Mexico City.
Lemon said, “He was a saint.”
“You argued with him every day.”
“He got me clean. I didn’t make it easy.”
Xona said, “Let me see your hands.”
She examined his palms and around his fingernails for blood, for bruised knuckles.
“You think I killed him?”
“You did something.”
“Shit.” He looked away when she studied his face.
She said, “I wanted to quit Benny’s and have my own life, spend more time with my husband and my kids. He told me I had to make my heart bigger.”
Flies buzzed around Willard’s face. She looked for something to cover him.
“Everybody gonna want to come and see.”
“Go back to Benny’s and tell them I called the murder squad. In a few minutes this alley will be crawling with police. Get the coffee started, okay? Ask the volunteers to get going on the deserts and the salad. You need to be there when the delivery comes.” She had a long list of tasks to complete before the meal service started and was already behind.
Lemon nodded. “Everybody loved that old man. Gonna be trouble. Got to find out who.”
“Yes.” But she didn’t know how.
Lemon hurried away. The dog in the next yard quieted down. Someone turned the Mexican station down to a murmur.
“Grandfather, what happened?”