Ellery had run over his mental script for this conversation a number of times, but now that the moment had come, he forgot his prepared remarks and blurted out, “I wanted to tell you earlier, but I didn’t get the chance. I’ve agreed to help Odette Wallace find out who’s trying to kill her.”
Whatever Jack had expected to hear, it wasn’t that. Something like relief flickered in his eyes, but whatever that emotion was, it was gone in an instant, to be replaced by another emotion that looked a lot closer to outrage.
“Are you freaking kidding me?” Jack demanded. Not that he said freaking, and though Ellery had heard and also used the word-that-was-not-freaking many times, he’d never heard it used with quite that scalp-prickling emphasis. Not from Jack.
“No. I’m not. But it’s not what you think.” Which had to be one of his dumber comments.
Jack surely agreed because he shot back, “Really? You’re not helping her, or you are?”
“I am, but I’m not acting as her bodyguard.”
Jack’s jaw dropped. Not an expression Ellery had seen much, and in other circumstances, amusing. In these circumstances? No. Not at all. Jack sounded a little winded as he repeated, “Her bodyguard?”
“Mr. King, her lawyer—”
“I know who King is.”
“—is hiring an actual bodyguard. I’m just—”
“You’re just what? You’re a private investigator now?”
Ellery had been interrogated by Jack once, but even when Jack had considered him a murder suspect, he hadn’t used that tone of voice. It rattled Ellery. Jack’s tone and the artic blast of his gaze. “No! Of course not. I’m just helping her out with her-her problem.”
“Any problem that woman has is a problem of her own making. Why would you involve yourself in something like this?”
“She asked for my help.”
Once again, Jack seemed at a loss for words. “How the hell would that happen? How would she know you even exist?”
That probably sounded ruder than intended, right?
“Apparently, Kezzie Harwood told her I’d helped figure out what happened when Brett was murdered.”
“That’s just freaking fantastic.” Once again Jack did not say freaking. He was pretty irate, no question. “Did she actually hire you?”
Ellery faltered. “Well, yes, she did actually…hire me.”
There was a dangerous gleam in Jack’s eyes. “She’s paying you, then? So you have a private investigator’s license I’m unaware of? Or are you operating without a license?”
“Oh, come on, Jack,” Ellery protested. “You know it’s not like that. I’m not pretending to be a PI.”
“I’m acting as a-a consultant.”
“So you’re what…an armchair criminologist? What exactly are your qualifications for this job?”
Throughout their entire conversation, Ellery had been telling himself to keep cool, to listen and not react defensively, to look at the situation from Jack’s point of view. But Jack knew damn well what Ellery’s qualifications were. He’d even admitted to Ellery’s mom that Ellery was good at puzzles and had been of use on a couple of cases. So, in Ellery’s opinion, Jack was kind of being a jerk just to be a jerk. He wasn’t letting Ellery really explain. He was simply drawing his own—worst—conclusions.
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