The Do-Right

The Do-Right

by Lisa Sandlin


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781941026199
Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press
Publication date: 10/27/2015
Pages: 306
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Lisa Sandlin's story "Phelan's First Case" was anthologized in Lone Star Noir and was later re-anthologized in Akashic's Best of the Noir series, USA Noir. The Do-Right is her first full-length mystery. Lisa was born in Beaumont, currently lives and teaches in Omaha, Nebraska, and summers in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Read an Excerpt

The Do-Right

By Lisa Sandlin

Cinco Puntos Press

Copyright © 2015 Lisa Sandlin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-941026-19-9


SHE ASKED ABOUT the job in the ad.

The middle-aged cabinetmaker in the sawdusty apron who'd wiped off his hands to shake hers, who'd said, "I'm sorry, Miss," while making eye contact — he was all right, he was more than tolerable. Truth was, he was about the best Delpha could imagine.

The pinch-mouth office manager that shook her head once, the young one that stammered, the C.P.A. that batted away her Gatesville business-course certificate, saying, "Not for us," the shoe store owner that chuckled nervously, helplessly throughout his refusal — she'd expected those turndowns, but that didn't mean she didn't feel them. She felt them.

The bone-weary, though, was brought on by today's prospect. White shirt, neck-roll over the starched collar. Called her honey when she walked in the door. That hinky light crawled into his eyes after he read her Gatesville certificate, flicked it back at her. "Aren't you the cool customer?" this one said. "Sitting there on my respectable chair. Lay your ass over my desk, I might could slip you a five." He leaned forward. "Honey, my business wouldn't touch you with a ten-foot pole."

Her P.O., Joe Ford, a six-foot five-inch talking handbook for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, had advised her how to act in such a situation. Joe Ford had advised her how to act in every situation.

The parolee must maintain acceptable, non-threatening behavior at all times.

The parolee must follow their agent's instructions.

The parolee must obey ALL laws.

Must submit to search of person, residence, motor vehicle at any time.

No weapons.

No guns.

No bullets or anything that resembles a gun or bullets.

The parolee must not own any knife with a blade longer than two inches, except for a kitchen knife, and only if their parole agent says so.

Failure of any of these conditions will result in a return to prison.

"Tell you straight, Delpha, I hate pulling paper, but I do not hesitate. Don't wanna go back, do you?"

"Not ever, Mr. Ford."

"OK then, here's my Double-A life advice, Delpha. Number 1: Act."

"Act like what?"

"People come out, they run back to old friends and bad old ways to get comfortable. Don't go doing that. Act quiet and easy and eventually you'll feel quiet and easy. Till you get the hang of it, if you have to put on an act, do it, put one on." Joe Ford paused. "Now, second part: Ask."

"Ask," Depha repeated. Not something she had any practice doing. She shifted in the wood chair.

"Ask for a place to live, so you can leave that half-way house.

Ask for a job. For what you need. Out here they won't knock you down for asking. You don't help yourself, nobody's gonna help you. Now, they show you the door, you still be polite. You don't burn any bridges because who knows if you might run into these people again. They say no, you just say, 'I appreciate your time. Have a nice day.' Then you smile and leave."

As Mr. Ford had advised her, Delpha didn't burn down this fat-neck man's bridge. Neither did she say, "I appreciate your time. Have a nice day," like she'd said a bunch of times already. She took the elevator down, parsing out her breath till she could get some clear air.

She walked a block, swerved into an alley to breathe, about tripped over a weather-beaten white person with wispy gray hair squatting by a grocery cart, a spray of azalea in one fist and a twig of dogwood in the other. Delpha startled, then became rigid, chin lowered, arms down, hands visible, including the one with her purse.

The person studied her sideways and thoroughly and then went back to contemplating the two flowers. "Which one you think?"

Manner, voice, puff-sleeve blouse were womanish, but the gray chin whiskers, the pleated-style trousers and stained suit vest were male wear. Tennies could go either way. Delpha knew close enough which it was though.

She pointed to the azalea. Wouldn't it be fine Lord to step into a sunset-pink flower fluted like a party dress and pull it up fluttering round her shoulders? Wouldn't it be fine to be wrapped in that good-smelling, lighted skin?

The old woman nodded, tucked the azalea into the vest's breast pocket, and looked up again, thready eyebrows raised, inviting comment.


"Thank ye. I'm Miss Doris." She handed up the dogwood. "For you. Welcome back."

Delpha traced the powdery, tender, white, white petals. "You can tell ... I look that raw? Got it all over me, don't I?"

"Not like you think." Miss Doris jutted her chin whiskers toward Delpha's right hand. "You toting one of them handiworks."

Delpha looked down at her leather purse, cut, sewed, simply tooled in a basketweave pattern, adorned with neither rose nor lily. You could order either pattern from the prison gift shop or a combination or a cowboy or cowgirl, horse raring.

"Messed up my first one."

"They get testy you waste that leather, huh."

"Delpha's my name." The younger woman held out her hand.

Miss Doris wiped hers on the gabardine trousers and shook. She had to be in her sixties, but she held the squat limber as a frog. "Listen, look in the cart, get you out the blue blanket you can sit on it. It's got a down and a up side you can see."

"I need to be getting along, ma'am."

"Naw, stay." The deep furrows between her brows mashed closer.

"Well, I need to —"

"Just a little while. I'm a-feeling like the last pea at pea-time."

The younger woman's posture softened. "My mother used to say that." She hiked her thumb back of herself. "That place have coffee?" The sign on the building across the street from the alley read The New Rosemont Hotel $1 and Up. The glass door top of the steps needed a cleaning.

A glint came to Miss Doris's eye. "They sure do. Ask Calinda, she'll sell you some. I want the chicory and get her to pour some milk and sugar in it."

"You wanna sit down in there?"

Miss Doris wrinkled both her nose and her pursed lips. "Got my valuables, honey."

Delpha crossed the street and climbed the steps, thinking Honey — how a tone of voice divided everything in the world.

The lobby was furnished with groups of chairs cushioned in a mix of middle-aged blue velour or spattered-flowers print. Old men and ladies sat in pairs or by themselves. One determined gent had his feet planted before a mahogany sideboard and was taking calculated hold of a water glass. He was beginning the delicate operation of pouring water from a pitcher.

"'Scuse me, where is it you buy the coffee?"

The pitcher lowered shakily until it achieved purchase on the sideboard. The process was repeated with the water glass, then, taking bitty steps, the man turned himself to behold Delpha face-on. "Well. Aren't you a purty thing? Calinda's there in the kitchen fixing lunch." The little steps began rotating him back toward the water glass.

In the center of a large kitchen, two women confronted each other over opposite sides of a wood chopping table. A white woman with a cap of gray hair, an apron, and judgment on her plain face loomed over a pile of naked chickens, which identified her as Calinda. She had a few years on Miss Doris and looked to be using a cleaver to illustrate some point to a cocker-spaniel-type thirty years younger than her. The cocker spaniel glowered from between two flaps of blond hair, crimped by a perm into a zigzag pattern to her shoulders. Second later, perfumey air from that direction radiated into Delpha's nose. Gin.

"... not true. I do take care of her most nights," that one said.

"When you can be bothered. Got one thing better to do, you're doing it, and she's just laying there alone, pore old biddy."

"Years, years, how many goddamn years! Pleasssse let's put her in Shady Lanes. They have nurses."

"Jessie knows Moselle. You wanna take Moselle away from her? Moselle and the house is all she knows now. Besides you and me. And sometimes I think I might as well be Eleanor Roosevelt."

"You look like Eleanor Roosevelt."

"You mean that as an insult, Ida, but I don't take it as one. Mrs. Roosevelt was a great lady."

"But Shady Lanes has an ice cream machine." When the ice cream machine produced no effect, the cocker spaniel growled, "A real estate man wants to buy the house. I want to sell it."

"You already sold everything in it wasn't nailed down."

"Hell's bells, it's mine!" The younger, shorter woman lunged forward, flaps flying back to show clenched teeth. The old one, hooded eyes narrowed in warning, raised the cleaver.

This was a familiar-enough scene. Delpha walked to within four feet of the table, no closer, and reserved room to move in either direction. "'Scuse me. Gentleman told me to come in here. Could I buy two cups of coffee from you, one chicory?"

Cocker spaniel wrenched up a naked chicken by both its wings and slammed it tailbone-first into the butcher-block table. "Eat shit and die, Calinda."

Delpha sidestepped as the woman stomped past.

"That's twenty cents." The old one named Calinda set down the cleaver and wiped her hands on the skirt of her apron. "Cream and sugar?"

A young black man in kitchen whites popped from a side room that might be a pantry, took up the cleaver and began swiftly cutting up chickens into eating parts.

Delpha handed over two dimes and took a paper cup of black and one of cream and sugar for Miss Doris. She was thinking maybe she'd come back in and talk to this woman after they drank the coffee in the alley. After that. Half hour or so. She'd do it then. She would.

But she harked back to Joe Ford's hectoring and, goaded by two hands full of hot coffee, tightened up and asked, "You happen to have any rooms for rent, ma'am? And would you be interested in trading some work for the room?"

The young cook shot her a look.

"Bookkeeping," she amended, so as not to step on his toes, though she had once been assistant-assistant-cook for nine hundred. Nothing anybody would want to eat, though.

"Hotel has a C.P.A."

Delpha edged over to a counter, and, still facing the woman, set down the two hot cups to cool off her hands. "Well, cleaning, what you got. I'm looking for office work, days, but I'd take some part-time to get started. You scrub your bathrooms at 'leven o'clock, they're nice and clean mornings."

The old woman's neutral expression soured at the idea of bathrooms. "Couple of 'em here wander nights. Shrunk old peckers miss the bowl half the time."

The young man snorted.

"Didn't mean to listen, but I heard you and the other lady. If you got a sick person needs looking after, I can do that too, got some infirmary experience. You think on it, ma'am, and I'll come back real soon to hear what you decide. Right now I got a appointment. Thank you much for the coffee. Have a fine day." She nodded, picked up the cups, and left through the tired velour lobby.

Gotta put on an act, do it, put one on.


TOM PHELAN HELD up his left hand, inspecting his middle finger. An aching stump shy of an inch tall. Could have been worse. Everything on an oil rig weighed as much as a greased Volkswagen, fifty billion mechanical parts to ram or slam, mash, whirl, fly off or collapse and fall. Lack of sleep, wee inattention to the makeup tongs, and now he had a ghost finger crowding his index.

He set his elbows on the Beaumont Enterprise, May 21, 1973 edition. They'd centered the ad announcing his new business, boxed it in black, and spelled his name right. The other ad in the Classifieds — Wanted: Secretary — had brought in two girls yesterday. He planned to choose the one with the coral nails and the Dusty Springfield voice. But just then he got a call from his old high school friend Joe Ford, now a parole officer, and Joe was hard-selling.

"Typing, dictation, whatever you need, buddy. She learned it in the big house. Paid her debt to society. What say you talk to her?"

"Find some other sucker. Didn't know you put yourself out like this. Since when are you Acme Employment?"

"Since when are you a private eye?"

"Since Worker's Comp paid me just enough bread to swing a lease."

"Thought you liked the rigs."

"Still got nine fingers left. Aim to keep 'em."

"Just see this girl, Tommy. She knows her stuff."

"Why're you pushing her?"

"Telephones don't answer themselves, now do they?"

"Thought I heard they invented a machine that —"

Joe blew scorn through the phone. "Communist rumor. Lemme send her over. She can get down there in two shakes."


"I'm gonna say this one time. Who had your back the night you stepped outside with Narlan Pugh and his inbred cousins stepped outside behind him?"

"One time, shit. I heard it three. Time you realized gratitude comes to a natural end, same as a sack of donuts."

Joe bided.

Phelan stewed.

"Goddamnit, no promises."

"Nooo! Course not. Make it or break it on her own. Thanks for the chance, it'll buck her up."

Phelan asked about the girl's rap, but the dial tone was noncommittal.

8:32. Footsteps were sounding on the stairs to his second-story walkup.

Wasn't skipping up here, was she? Measured tread. The knock on the door lately lettered Phelan Investigations wasn't fast, wasn't slow. Not loud, not soft.

Phelan walked out of his office, through the secretary-to-be's office, and opened up. Well. Not a girl. A couple crows had stepped lightly at the corners of her eyes. A faint crease of bitter slanted from the left side of her barely tinted lips. Ash brown hair, jaw-length, roomy white blouse, navy skirt. Olive-tinted skin overlaid with a jailhouse tan. Eyes gray-blue, a little clouded, distant, like a storm rolling in from the Gulf. This one wouldn't sit behind the desk blowing on her polish. The hand he was shaking had naked nails cut to the quick.

"Tom Phelan."

"Delpha Wade." Her voice was low and dry.

Delpha Wade. His brain racheted a picture toward him but not far enough, like when the Payday gets hung up partway out the vending machine.

They sat down in his office, him in a gimpy swivel behind a large metal desk, both included in the rent. Her in one of the proud new clients' chairs, padded leather with regally tall backs.

"Have to be honest with you, Miss Wade. Think I already found a secretary."

No disappointment in those blue eyes, no hope either. She just passed a certificate with a gold seal across the desk. The paper said she typed seventy words a minute, spoke shorthand, could do double entry. The brunette with the Dusty Springfield voice claimed all that too, but she'd backed it up with a giggle, not a diploma from Gatesville.

"Your first choice of a job a P.I.'s office?"

"My first choice is a job."

Touché. "What number interview would this be for you?"

"Number one."

"I'm flattered. Get off the bus, you come here."

The blue eyes let in a smidgen of light. "That doesn't count the eleven places I applied 'fore they showed me the door. And one other that didn't have what you could call a interview."

No wonder Joe was pushing her. "Had your druthers, where'd you work, Miss Wade?"

"Library. I like libraries. It's what I did there."

There being Gatesville Women's Prison. Now that she'd brought it up. "How many you do?"


Phelan quelled the whistle welling up. That let out check kiting, forgery, embezzling from the till, and dope. He was about to ask her the delicate when she handed it to him on a foil tray. "Voluntary manslaughter."

"And you did fourteen?"

"He was very dead, Mr. Phelan."

His brain shoved: the picture fell into the slot. Phelan'd been a teenager, jazzed by blood-slinging, and reporters had loved the story. Underage waitress in a bayou dive, waiting for the owner to collect the take. Alone. Two guys thrown out earlier came back. Father and son, that was the kicker. The son had beat her, raped her, cut on her. But surprise. Somehow the knife had changed hands. The father had got slashed and son punctured. When the owner's headlights showed, the father abandoned his son and peeled out in their car. Delpha Wade had not let nature take its course. She finished off Junior on the pine dance floor.


Excerpted from The Do-Right by Lisa Sandlin. Copyright © 2015 Lisa Sandlin. Excerpted by permission of Cinco Puntos Press.
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