NINE

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Walt lowered his voice to a sandpaper-rough bass. "I hope you're taking this studying thing seriously, Walt."

Virginia laughed and shook her head. "You've got way too much Irish in you to imitate a black man." She stopped on the sidewalk and he followed suit, turning to look at her. There was still some nagging disconnect that she couldn't quite put her finger on. "Cap's only looking out for your best interest, you know."

"I know. I'm studying, don't worry. Besides, I'm looking forward to us being equals." He nudged her with his elbow, and she forced a smile. It all seemed lighthearted on his part, but she couldn't stop that same old uneasiness from creeping back in, along with the guilt that tagged along with it.

Relax, she mentally chided. He's just being friendly.

She had taken Walt on her beat every day since their sudden pairing, introducing him to all the shopkeepers and residents she knew as they passed them on the street. They went down the list, knocking on the doors of the people she paid regular visits to. He got many comments on his red hair, which Virginia teased him about, but he kept his responses neutral and very professional. Stiff. She sensed he wasn't all that comfortable with the hands-on contact with the community.

Unlike Jack.

But he wasn't Jack. She needed to cut him some slack. It was going to take some time for him to be at ease with this new role.

They were about to turn around and head back when she spotted members of the Watts Stones, a largely Hispanic local gang, hanging near the corner bakery. Like a pack of stray dogs they spread themselves out, some lounging with their backs against the brick wall, others pacing, jostling, dancing, anything that would obstruct passage along the sidewalk. A young woman trying to make her way through the cluster was blocked and harassed, taunted with whistles and jeers as she back-stepped and moved around them, the fear visible on her face.

They needed to be dispersed.

"Okay, everyone, time to go," Virginia said as she worked her way into the middle of the group with Walt following close behind.

"Lieutenant. . ."

Virginia turned to the voice, recognizing the thick-bodied, young man ambling up to her with oversized jeans hanging low on his hips. Cortez was the current leader of the pack, a position that had fallen to him after the shooting death of the Stones founder during a turf war with a rival gang. Rumor on the street was it had actually been Cortez who had delivered the fatal shot, ensuring himself a battlefield promotion.

It had never been confirmed.

"So"—his eyes drifted over her before flashing to Walt—"I see you have a new cookie, a little gingersnap." He made a circle with one hand to lewdly thrust the index finger of his other in and out of. "How's it taste?"

Snickers and clapping surrounded them.

Walt took a step forward.

The snickering turned into a unified, mocking, "Ooooh."

Virginia put her hand on Walt's arm. Surrounded by twenty or so gang members, this was not the time to give in to a little verbal goading. "It's okay, Sergeant, not to worry. Cortez and I go way back." Her focus never veered from the man in front of her. "Don't we, Cortez? Right back to your father's incarceration."

He moved quickly, getting right up in her face to hiss, "Stepfather. That asshole is not my father."

"Oh, yeah . . . I keep forgetting."

Keeping the close proximity, he swept those dark, cynical eyes over her face. "Tell me, Lieutenant, how are you sleeping at night? I hear you have some powerful enemies."

The Silent Ones [✔️] (#2 in the Chilvati Series)Read this story for FREE!