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Maximus checked the coordinates on his wrist device.
Right on point, and on time.
This was where he’s supposed to meet the female FBI agent he’d been tracking and stonewalling for the past year or so.
In the middle of an unloading dock in Port Newark overlooking the Newark Bay.
Giant metal containers were stacked to fifty feet high in long rows and columns, creating a maze that he’d already mapped out in his mind. He knew exactly where all the entry and exit points were located.
Grace Darling, the New England vampire hive’s de facto cyber guru, had helped him intercept the agent’s communications to others in her secret branch of the humans’ federal investigation unit, allowing Maximus to impersonate one of the higher-ups for this particular rendezvous.
The special agent, Ariel Kyles (middle name Pain-In-His-Ass), was supposed to hand him critical information she’d gathered thus far on the fight clubs and their mysterious patrons.
There was more, she’d indicated cryptically, not giving any hints as to what else she found, but that it had to do with Project Evergreen, a top secret government genetic engineering program to create super soldiers.
In other words, Agent Kyles held information that could expose the Dark Ones to the human world.
Maximus glanced at his wrist.
She was one minute late. Something didn’t feel right.
He looked up and honed in on Simca prowling stealthily on top of the crates a couple of yards away, her sleek black coat blending into the moonless night.
Human eyes wouldn’t be able to track her unless they knew she was there. But Maximus saw her perfectly with his vampire vision.
Besides, he always knew where she was, the link between familiar and vampire extremely strong, as if she were an extension of his body.
Simca stopped abruptly and crouched low, her long, thick tail extended like a whip behind her.
She must have picked up on a foreign scent or movement.
They were up wind right now, and the odors permeating the dock, along with the sounds of water churning in the Bay, masked subtle disturbances. But not enough to fool Simca’s senses and instincts.
Proceed with extreme caution, her posture said.
Another minute ticked by. Maxmius was getting twitchy.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end, and his fangs descended from his gums as adrenaline kicked in.
“It’s a trap! Run!”
Maximus crouched reflexively as a woman’s voice bounced off the stacks of metal surrounding him, echoing eerily in the night.
Followed immediately by the staccato firing of a barrage of bullets, a hail of sparks and explosion of sound in the silent darkness.
It seemed as if an armory’s worth of automatic weapons were unloading at once, half of them aimed within five feet of Maximus’ position, the other half aimed at a location about a hundred yards away.
He couldn’t tell where exactly the female agent was located, if indeed it was she who gave the shout, given that the sound of her voice was pinged every which way by the metal containers. The nonstop shooting only added to the distortion.
And then Simca’s vision flicked through his own eyes.
He moved swiftly along one row, so close to the stacks he was almost a shadow sliding along the crates. A right turn at the end and he’d be close to the harbor. There, he could easily dive into the Bay and swim to safety. Bullets, even vampire-killers that were specifically designed to seek out a vampire’s body heat and explode his head and heart, would lose their efficacy when shot into water.
At least, he hoped so.
But instead of turning right, he turned left, in the direction that his instincts told him to go. Where the female agent was.
Even though he was here to intercept her mission, it wasn’t in Maximus to abandon a lone female to what looked to be a massacre in the making. Besides, he needed to find out who was behind this ambush, and why they were targeted.
Efficiently, he unsheathed the short sword from his back holster and the long dagger at his hip.
Two shooters behind a crate to the right, Simca’s feline eyes saw and funneled the vision into his own.
He turned sharply, crouching low, and slashed through the back of one man’s knees while impaling the other through the foot, bringing both to the ground and dealing killing blows before they could utter a sound.
Meanwhile, Simca pounced on a shooter lying on top of one of the crates, ripping out his jugular with her sharp teeth in one lethal bite.
The shooting continued unabated. A series of automatic firing mixed with a few longer-paced shots from a handgun.
The agent must be shooting back.
With Simca prowling on top of the crates ahead of him, Maximus could see the ground situation through her eyes.
At least a dozen shooters still spread out along the stacks of crates, advancing steadily on the lone human female Simca could not see, somewhere hidden in the shadows before the last towering pile of containers.
She was surrounded. Cornered. Nothing but crates on three sides of her. The only way out was to expose herself to the shooters who were closing in on her position.
Maximus quickly did the mental math.
There was no scenario in which he could eliminate all of the shooters before someone finally got to the agent, either physically or through a deadly bullet. Continuing to engage was suicide.
But before Maximus could decide, Simca took the initiative herself, without waiting for his directive.
With a few long leaps, the panther squashed one shooter under foot and swiped a massive paw across the throat of another.
Immediately, the shooting that had been focused on Maximus’ last location redirected to Simca, but she’d already pivoted on her hind paws to bound in the opposite direction.
“Fuck,” Maximus gritted out beneath his breath as he took off in a mad dash after his familiar, uncaring at the firepower he drew to himself.
This was the first time Simca had engaged without his command. He could hardly believe her disobedience!
But now was not the time to dwell on it. He had to focus all of his energy on saving her miserable feline hide.
While suppressing the fear for her safety that was all but paralyzing him.
He let his fury fuel him, making him move faster, his muscles pump harder, his eyesight focus sharper.
He was gaining on the feline now, and protected her rear by killing a shooter aiming at her head with a deadly knife throw. He took out another with his bare hands, snapping the assassin’s neck with a pull and a twist.
A couple of bullets managed to find their mark in his shoulder and thigh, but he didn’t slow down. His only thought was to get to his kamikaze familiar before she got herself killed.
At least they still shared their visual connection. He could see that Simca was almost upon the female agent, could even see from the panther’s vantage point that the female was crouched behind a metal crate reloading her gun.
A flash of black hair and pale skin. That was all.
Before blinding pain literally exploded in Maximus’ side.
He’d been hit again. And not by just any bullet.
By a vampire-killer.
The mini-torpedo-shaped bullet was still drilling through his flesh, determinedly moving toward his heart.
In the next split second, he was suddenly knocked flat on his back, Simca’s considerable weight pressing him down.
For a timeless moment, she stared into his eyes. Greenish gold drilling into azure blue.
I’m sorry, my warrior, she seemed to communicate.
A moment before she dug her dagger-like canines into his chest just as the bullet reached his heart.
Instead of exploding when the tiny missile found its mark, the bullet sluggishly changed direction, possibly deflected by Simca’s canines, and burrowed a fiery path through Maximus’ chest cavity until it finally stopped, quagmired in one of his lungs.
Maximus opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out.
The breath was still knocked out of him from the panther’s considerable weight on top of his chest and the staggering pain of his internal organs getting torn to shreds.
But his eyes were open and seeing, even though he could no longer feel his limbs, and all the sounds around him faded into background noise.
He saw and felt Simca’s body crouched on top of his shudder repeatedly as bullets tore through her hide, burying themselves into her flesh, instead of into his.
There was an infinitesimal pause in the shooting as their ambushers reloaded.
Simca pushed off of Maximus’ prone body, bleeding from multiple bullet wounds, and used the brief reprieve to launch an attack at the nearest shooter.
Time slowed to a crawl in the last moments of his consciousness.
Through a rapidly blurring vision, Maxmius saw the panther take one shooter down, then another. Saw the female FBI agent dash out of her hiding place, firing with deadly accuracy and efficiency from her handgun.
More shooters felled. Simca was slowing down, her wounds sapping her strength, while the human female took aim of her next target.
Maximus could no longer hear sounds. His sight was receding rapidly.
The one remaining shooter, perhaps desperate to take down his prey, perhaps because he had better visibility in the open, came out from behind the crates he’d been using as a shield, and opened fire with one machine gun in each hand.
A spray of bullets arched like a hail of fiery arrows toward the female agent, who was moving in a crouched zigzag closer toward the shooter, trying to aim for the best possible shot, as if she were down to her last bullet.
The other explosion of bullets rained down upon the panther as she bounded into the air from a pile of crates.
But her trajectory was not to flatten the shooter from above. She was poised to bear down upon the female agent, suspended in mid leap above the female’s head as if time had frozen.
Finally, the agent pulled her trigger. The last shooter went down, his automatic weapons still firing as he fell. The agent looked up just in time to see a black panther pounce from above.
Her eyes widened in silent shock, but she stayed glued to her spot.
Through Simca’s eyes, Maximus took in her features with crystal clarity.
Just as the panther looked like it would knock her flat on the ground, its body unraveled midair, and a shower of stardust enfolded the agent in a blinding glow.