Sherry birkin was gone, and Claire couldn't fit herself into the ventilation duct to go after her. Whatever or whoever had screamed and scared the little girl so badly hadn't put in an appearance, but Sherry was history, maybe still crawling frantically through some dark and dusty tunnel. She had apparently been hiding by the duct for a while; there were empty candy-bar wrappers and a musty old blanket stuffed in the opening, the pathetic little hideaway tucked behind three standing suits of armor. Once she'd realized that Sherry wasn't coming back, Claire had hurried back to Irons's office, hoping that he might be able to tell her where the duct let out, but Irons was gone, along with the body of the mayor's daughter. Claire stood in the office, watched over by the dumb glass eyes of the morbid decor, and felt really uncertain for the first time since she'd hit town. She'd started out to find Chris, a goal that had expanded to include worries about zombie dodging, hooking up with Leon, and avoiding creepy Chief Irons, pretty much in that order. But in the few moments between meeting the little girl and that strange, howling scream, her priorities had shifted dramatically. A child was caught up in this nightmare, a sweet, little kid who believed that there was a monster stalking her.

Maybe there is. If I can accept that Raccoon's got zombies, why not monsters? Hell, why not vampires or killer robots?

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She wanted to find Sherry, and she didn't know how to start. She wanted her big brother, but was just as clueless as to where he might be - and she had begun to wonder if he knew anything about what had happened to Raccoon. The last time she'd talked to him, he'd avoided her questions about why the S.T.A.R.S. had been sus- pended, insisting that it wasn't anything to worry about - that he and the team had run into some political trouble at the office and it was all going to be sorted out. She was used to his protectiveness, but thinking back, hadn't he seemed overly evasive? And the S.T.A.R.S. had been investigating the cannibal murders, it wasn't much of a stretch to connect the past flesh-eating activity with the current...

... which means what? That Chris uncovered some evil plot and was hiding it?

She didn't know. All that she knew was that she didn't believe he was dead, and that for now finding Chris or Leon would have to take a back seat to finding Sherry. As bad as things were, Claire had defenses - she had a gun, she had at least a little emotional maturity, and after nearly two years of daily five-mile runs, she was in excellent shape. But Sherry Birkin couldn't be older than eleven or twelve, and seemed frail in every sense of the word, from the dirt in her pixie blond hair to the desperate anxiety in her wide blue eyes - she had inspired all of Claire's protective instincts... Thump! A heavy, hollow vibration rattled through the ceil- ing, making the intricate chandelier in Irons's office tremble. Claire reflexively looked up, gripping her handgun. There was nothing to see but wood and plaster, and the sound didn't repeat itself.

Something on the roof... but what could have made a noise like that? An elephant being air-dropped?

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Maybe it was Sherry's monster. The vicious scream they'd heard back in the private exhibit room had come through a duct or the fireplace, the origin of the cry impossible to pin down, but it could have been the roof. Claire wasn't particularly keen on meeting up with whatever had screamed, but Sherry had seemed certain that the creature was following her...

... so find the screamer, find the girl? Not my idea of the perfect plan, but I don't have much else to go on at this point; it might be the only way to find her.

Or maybe it was Irons up there and although her meeting with him had left a slimy taste in her mouth, she regretted not having tried to get more information out of him. Crazy or not, he hadn't struck her as stupid; it might not be a bad idea to find him again, at least to ask some questions about the ventilation system. She wouldn't know anything until she checked it out. Claire turned and went to the office door that opened into the outer corridor, where she'd put out the helicopter fire. The smoke had thinned in the adjoining hall, and although the air was still warm, it wasn't the heat of a fresh blaze. In that, at least, she'd been successful... Claire stepped back into the main hall, averting her eyes from what was left of the pilot...... and craa-ack!... She froze, and heard a massive splintering of wood followed by the thick, ponderous steps of some- one who must be huge moving through the corridor past the turn, the sounds deliberate and thundering. Guy must weigh a ton, and oh Jesus tell me that wasn't a door being torn apart... Claire shot a look back down the small hallway to Irons's office, her instincts telling her to run, her brain reminding her that it was a dead end, her body paralyzed between the two...... and the biggest man she'd ever seen stepped into view, shadowed by the thin haze of smoke drifting through the hall. He was dressed in a long army-green overcoat that only accented his size, and was as tall as an NBA star - taller, but with proportionate bulk. A thick utility belt was wrapped around his waist, and though she didn't see any weapons, she could feel the violence radiating off him in invisible waves. She could just make out his sickly white blur of a face, the hairless, sloping skull - and quite suddenly, Claire was certain that he was a monster, a killer with black gloved fists, each as big as a human head...

Shoot! Shoot it!

Claire aimed but hesitated, terrified of making a horrible mistake - until it took one massive step toward her on tree-trunk legs, and she heard the crunch of denting wood beneath its booted Franken- stein feet, and saw the black eyes, black and rimmed with red. Like lava-filled pits in a misshapen white boulder, blank but not at all blind, his gaze found hers - and he raised one meaty clenched fist, the threat unmistakable.

-shootshootshoot-

She squeezed the trigger, one, two times, and saw the impact - a flap of its lapel blew into shreds just below his collarbone, the second shot slicing cleanly through one side of the neck...... and he took another step, not a flicker of expres-sion passing over his rough-hewn features, the fist still raised, seeking a target, seeking to crush... The black, smoking hole in its throat wasn't bleeding.

Oh SHIT!

In a rush of adrenaline-boosted dread, Claire pointed the handgun at the creature's heart and pulled the trigger repeatedly, the giant taking another step, striding into the stream of explosive fire without flinching...... and she lost track of the shots, unable to believe that it could still be coming, less than ten feet away as the rounds hammered its mammoth chest...... and the gun clicked empty, even as the monster stopped in its thundering tracks, swaying from side to side like a tall building in a high wind. Without taking her shocked gaze from the reeling giant, Claire grabbed another clip from her vest and fumbled through reloading, her brain crazily trying to name this walking abortion.

Terminator, Frankenstein's monster, Dr. Evil, Mr. X

Whatever it was supposed to be, the seven-plus semi-jacketed rounds to the chest had finally taken effect. Silently, the towering creature slumped to his right, falling heavily against one smoke-blackened wall and sagging there - not crumpling, but not mov- ing, either.

Weird angle, that's all, he's dead, just propped up by his own weight...

Claire didn't move any closer, keeping the handgun leveled at the motionless giant. Was this the screamer? For as powerful and inhuman as it looked, she didn't think so; this was no primal, furious demon, howling for blood. Mr. X was more like some soulless ma- chine, bloodless flesh that could ignore pain... or embrace it. "Dead now, doesn't matter," Claire whispered, as much to reassure herself as to cut off the relentless stream of useless thought. She had to think, to figure out what this meant - this wasn't some freak zombie mutation, so what the hell was it? Why didn't it fall down? She'd emptied a mostly full clip - would somebody hear the shots, would Sherry or Irons or Leon or whoever else might be lurking around the station come find her? Should she stay where she was?

The creature that she'd already started to think of as Mr. X wasn't breathing, its muscular body per- fectly still, its face as closed as death. Claire bit her lower lip, staring at the still impossibly standing, leaning creature, trying to think through her confused fear...... and saw his eyes open, his shiny black and red eyes. Without so much as a wince of pain or effort, Mr. X swayed back to a stand, blocking the hall, his giant hands raising again...... and with a mighty swing, he crashed his fists through the air, his long arms whipping just in front of her as she stumbled back. The momentum was enough for both of his huge hands to plunge into the wall across from where he'd leaned. The impact buried his fists, his arms stuck in the wood and plaster halfway to his elbows.

Me, could've been ME...

Back through Irons's office and she'd be trapped. Without giving the matter any further thought, Claire moved, sprinting toward Mr. X. She flew past him, her right arm actually brushing against his heavy coat,

her heart skipping a beat as the material wisped across her skin. She ran, hung a left and dashed down the hazy hall, trying to remember what was past the waiting room, trying not to hear the unmistakable sounds of move- ment behind her as Mr. X jerked his hands free.

Jesus, what is that THING...

Back through the waiting room, slamming the door behind her as she ran, Claire decided that she would decide later. She ran, not letting herself think anything at all but how to run faster.

Ben Bertolucci was in the last cell in the room farthest from the garage, crashed out on a metal cot and snoring lightly. Keeping her expression carefully neutral, Ada decided to let Leon wake him up. She didn't want to seem overly eager, and if there was one thing she knew about men, it was that they were easier to handle when they thought they were in control. Ada looked up at Leon with a patience she didn't feel and waited. They'd checked out an empty kennel and a winding concrete hall before finding him, and though the cold, dank air reeked of blood and virus decay, they hadn't come across any bodies - which was strange, consid- ering the slaughter that Ada knew had occurred in the dank garage. She thought about asking Leon if he knew what had happened, but decided that the less they spoke, the better; there was no point in letting him get used to having her around. She'd seen the manhole in the kennel, rusting and set into a dark corner, and been gratified to see a crowbar on an open shelf nearby. With Bertolucci snoozing in front of them, Ada felt like things were finally starting to pick up... "Let me guess," Leon said loudly, and reached out to thump on the metal bars with the butt of his gun.

"You must be Bertolucci, right? Get up, now."

Bertolucci groaned and sat up slowly, rubbing at his stubbled jaw. Ada wanted to smile, watching him frown wearily in their direction; he looked like shit... his clothes rumpled, his lank ponytail frazzled. Still wearing his tie, though. The poor slob probably thinks it makes him look more like a real reporter... "What do you want? I'm trying to sleep here." He sounded grouchy, and again Ada had to suppress a smile. It served him right for being so difficult to find. Leon glanced at Ada, looking a trifle uncertain. "Is this the guy?"

She nodded, realizing that Leon probably thought Bertolucci was a prisoner. Their conversation would dispel that particular notion pretty fast, but she didn't want Leon to know more than he had to; she'd have to choose her words carefully. "Ben," she said, letting her voice carry a hint of desperation. "You told the city officials that you knew something about what's been going on, didn't you? What did you tell them?"

Bertolucci stood up and glared at her, his lips curling. "And who the hell are you?" Pretending that she hadn't heard, Ada upped the desperation, but just a hair; she didn't want to over- play the helpless female bit, it kind of clashed with the fact that she'd survived this long.

"I'm trying to find a friend of mine, John Howe.

He was working for a branch office of Umbrella based in Chicago, but he disappeared several months ago and I heard a rumor that he's here, in this city..."

She trailed off, watching Bertolucci's expression. He knew something, no question, but she didn't think he was going to give it up. "I don't know anything," he said gruffly. "And even if I did, why would I want to tell you?"

Original. If the cop wasn't here, I'd probably just shoot him. Actually, she probably wouldn't; Ada wasn't into killing for the fun of it, and thought that she could probably get it out of him using one of her more persuasive methods - if her feminine charmsdidn't work, there was always a shot to the kneecap. Unfortunately, she couldn't do anything with Officer Leon hanging around. She hadn't planned on their encounter, but for the moment, she was stuck with him. The cop obviously wasn't happy with the reporter's responses. "Okay, I say we leave him in there," he growled, talking to Ada but staring at Bertolucci with undisguised irritation. Bertolucci half-smiled, reaching into one pocket and pulling out a set of silver cell keys on a thick ring. Ada wasn't surprised, but Leon looked even more pissed off. "Fine by me," Bertolucci said smugly. "I'm not about to leave this cell, anyway. It's the safest place in the building. There are more than just zombies run-ning around here, believe you me."

From the way he said it, Ada thought she'd proba- bly have to kill him after all. Trent's instructions had been clear - if Bertolucci knew anything about Bir- kin's work on the G-Virus, he was to be disposed of; why, exactly, she wasn't sure, but that was the job. If she could just get a few moments alone with him,she'd be able to ascertain how much he actually knew.

The question was, how? She didn't want to shoot Leon; as a rule, she didn't kill innocents - and be- sides, she liked cops. Not necessarily the brightest lot, but anyone who took a job that required putting his or her life on the line had her respect. And he had great taste in weaponry - the Desert Eagle was top of the line...

... so why rationalize? I ditch him first and then circle back, doesn't mean I'm going soft... "Ggrraaaa!"

A violent, inhuman shriek pierced the tense silence. Ada snapped her Beretta around, aiming at the open gate that led back through the empty cell-block area. Whatever it was, it was somewhere in the basement... "What was that?" Leon breathed from behind her, and Ada wished she knew the answer. The still resonating echo of that furious scream was like noth- ing she'd heard before - and nothing she expected to hear, even knowing about Umbrella's research. "Like I said, I'm not leaving this cell," Bertolucci said, his voice breaking slightly. "Now get out of here before you lead it right to me!" Sniveling coward... "Look, I may be the only cop left alive in this building," Leon said, and something about the com-bination of fear and strength in his tone made Ada shoot a look back at him. The officer's gaze was fixed on Bertolucci, his blue eyes sharp and unyielding.

"... so if you want to live, you're gonna have to come with us." "Forget it," Bertolucci snapped. "I'm staying here 'til the cavalry shows up - and if you're smart, you'll do the same thing." Leon shook his head. "It could be days before anyone comes, our best chance is to find a way out of Raccoon - and you heard that scream. Do you really want to get a visit from whatever made it?"

She was impressed; some Umbrella freak could be lurching its way toward them even now, and Leon was actually trying to save the reporter's worthless hide. "I'll take the risk," said Bertolucci. "And good luck getting out, you're gonna need it..."

The rumpled reporter stepped up to the bars, looking back and forth between them, running a hand over his greasy hair. "Look," he said, his voice softening. "There's a kennel in the back of the building, with a manhole in it. You can get to the sewers from there, it's probably the fastest way out of the city."

Ada sighed inwardly. Terrific; so much for her hidden route to the lab. If she dumped Leon now, it would take him about five minutes to find her.

You can always kill him, if it comes to that, or... you can get him lost in the sewers and come back for Bertolucci while he's clearing the path for you.

Unlike Bertolucci, she didn't want to run into whatever had screamed and now that she knew he was staying put, luring the cop away was the next logical step.

The things I do to avoid unnecessary bloodshed... "Alright, I'm going to check it out," she said, and without waiting for Leon's response, she turned and sprinted for the gate.

"Ada! Ada, wait!"

She ignored him, hurrying past the empty cells and back into the chilled hall, relieved that the passage was still clear and feeling a little unnerved by her sudden reluctance to simplify the situation. Things would be a lot easier if she just got rid of them both, a decision she wouldn't have hesitated to make under different circumstances. But she was sick of death, sick and tired and disgusted with Umbrella for what they'd done; she wasn't going to take the cop out unless she had to.

And if she did have to, if it came down to some innocent's life or completing the job?

That she could ask herself that question at all told her more about her state of mind than she wanted to admit. She'd reached the door to the kennel; Ada took a deep breath, forcing every twinge of nagging emo- tion from her thoughts, and stepped inside to wait for Leon Kennedy.

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