So beautiful... even in death, beverly Harris was radiant, but Irons couldn't risk having her wake up while he wasn't watching; he carefully folded her into the stone cabinet beneath the sink and latched it, promising himself that he would take her out when he had more time. She would become the most exquisite animal he'd ever transformed, posed and forever perfect once he'd prepared her the proper way... a dream come true.

If I have time. If there's any time left.

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He knew he was feeling sorry for himself again, but there was no one else to commiserate with, no one to marvel at the sheer magnitude of all that he'd suf- fered. He felt terrible - sad and angry and alone, but he also felt that things had finally become clear. He knew now, knew why he was being persecuted, and that awareness had given him a focus - as de- pressing as the truth was, at least he was no longer lost.

Umbrella. An Umbrella conspiracy to destroy me, all along...

Irons sat on the scarred, stained table in the Sanctu-ary, his special, private place, and wondered how long it would be before the young woman came for him. The one with the athletic body, the one who'd refused to tell him her name. In a way, she was responsible for his newfound clarity, an irony that he couldn't help but appreciate; it had been her sudden appearance that had provided him with the truth. She would find him, of course; she was an Umbrella spy, and Umbrella had obviously been watching him for quite some time. They probably had lists of everything he owned, volumes of psychological profil- ing reports, even copies of his financial records. It all made sense, now that he'd had some time to think; he was the most powerful man in Raccoon, and Umbrel- la had designed his downfall, tailored each vicious backstab to cause him the most acute agony possible. Irons stared at his treasures, the tools and trophies that sat on the shelves in front of him, but felt none of the pride they usually inspired. The polished bones were simply something to look at as his mind worked, absorbed with Umbrella's treachery. Years before, when he'd started taking money to turn a blind eye to the company's doings, things had been different; then it had been a matter of politics, of finding himself a niche in the power structure that really controlled Raccoon. And things had worked smoothly for a long time - his career had progressed on schedule, he'd earned the respect of officials and citizens alike, and for the most part, his investments had paid off. Life had been good.

And then there was Birkin. William Birkin and his neurotic wife and their brat daughter.

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After the Spencer estate spill, he'd almost con- vinced himself that the S.T.A.R.S. and goddamn Captain Wesker had been responsible for all the trouble, but he could see now that it was the arrival of Birkin and his family, nearly a year before, that had started the ball rolling; the destruction of the Spencer lab had only hurried things along. Umbrella had probably started monitoring him the day he'd had the misfortune to meet Birkin - at first, just watching, planting bugs, and installing cameras. The spies would have come later... The Birkins had come to Raccoon so that William could concentrate on developing a superior synthesis of the T-Virus, based on the research being done at the Spencer lab. As quirky and unpleasant as William could sometimes be, Irons had liked him, right from the start. The male Birkin had been Umbrella's boy genius, but like Irons, he wasn't the type to brag about his position; William was a humble man, only inter- ested in fulfilling his own potential. They'd both been too busy to have much of a friendship, but there had been a mutual respect between them; Irons had often felt that William looked up to him...

... and my mistake was to allow it. To allow my regard for him to cloud my instincts, to keep me from noticing that I was being watched, all along.

The loss of the Spencer lab sent some big ripples through Umbrella's hierarchy, and only days after the explosion, Irons had been approached by Annette Birkin with a message from her husband - a message and a request for a favor. Birkin had been worried that Umbrella was going to demand the new synthe- sis, the G-Virus, before it was ready; apparently, he'd been most dissatisfied with the application of his previous work, something about how Umbrella hadn't let him perfect the replication process, Irons couldn't remember exactly - and with Umbrella looking to recover from the financial blow of the Spencer loss, Birkin had been concerned that they might compromise the integrity of the untested virus. Through Annette, Birkin had asked for assistance and offered him a little extra incentive to keep things fair. For a hundred grand, all Irons had to do was help keep the G-Virus under wraps - in short, watch out for Umbrella spies and keep an eye on the surviving S.T.A.R.S., making sure they didn't do any more "discovering" of Umbrella's research.

That was it. A hundred thousand dollars, and I was already watching my city, and keeping tabs on that rebellious little pack of troublemakers. Easy, easy money, and more to be made if everything went as planned. Except it was a trap, an Umbrella trap...

Irons had walked right into it, and that was when Umbrella had started plotting against him, using the information they'd gathered to seal his fate. How else could things have gone wrong so quickly? The

S.T.A.R.S. had disappeared, then Birkin - and before he'd even had a chance to assess the situation, the attacks had started up again. He'd barely had time to seal Raccoon off before everything had fallen to shit.

And all because I was helping a friend - for the greater good of the company, no less. Tragic. Irons stood up and walked slowly around the cut- ting table, idly tracing the dents and scars in the wood with his fingertips. Behind every mark was a story, a memory of accomplishment, but again, he could take no comfort. The cool, quiet atmosphere of the Sanctuary had always soothed him before, it was where he practiced his hobbies, where he was truly able to be himself, but it wasn't his anymore. Noth- ing was. Umbrella had taken it from him, just as they'd taken his city. Was it so far-fetched to deduce that they'd unleashed their virus to get at him, to rob him of his power and then sent that scantily clad brown-haired girl to rub his nose in it? Why else was she so attractive? They knew his weaknesses and were exploiting them, trying to keep him from retaining even a shred of dignity...

... and soon she'll come for me, maybe still playing dumb, still trying to seduce me with her helplessness. An Umbrella assassin, a spy and an exploiter, that's all she is, probably laughing at me behind that pretty face...

Maybe the spill had been an accident; the last time they'd met, William Birkin had seemed unsteady, paranoid, and exhausted, and accidents happened even under the best of circumstances. But the rest was fact, there was no other explanation for how com-pletely Irons had been ruined. That girl was coming to get him, she was from Umbrella and she'd been sent to murder him. And she wouldn't stop there, oh, no; she'd find Beverly and... and defile her somehow, just to make certain that nothing he cared about was left. Irons looked around the small, softly lit room that had once been his, gazing wistfully at the well-used tools and furniture, the sweet, familiar smells of disinfectant and formaldehyde emanating from the rugged stone walls.

My Sanctuary. Mine.

He picked up the handgun that lay on his special cutting table, the VP70 that was still his, and felt a bitter smile curl his lips. His life was over, he knew that now. This whole affair had started with Birkin, and would end here, by his own hand. But not yet. The girl would come for him, and he would kill her before he said his final good-byes to Beverly, before he admitted his defeat by taking a bullet. But he would see to it that she understood his suffering first. For every torture he'd endured, the girl would pay, the bill settled through flesh and bone and as much pain as he could inflict. He was going to die, but not alone. And not without hearing the girl scream in agony, creating a voice for the death of his dreams - a voice so clear and true that the echoes would reach even the black hearts of the company executives who had betrayed him.

The S.T.A.R.S. office was empty, cluttered and cold and layered with dust, but Claire was reluctant to leave. After her stumbling, frightened flight through the body-strewn halls of the second floor, finding the place where her brother had spent his working days had left her feeling weak with relief. Mr. X hadn't followed her, and although she was still anxious to help Sherry and find Leon, she found herself linger- ing, afraid to step back into the lifeless halls and hesitant to leave the one place that felt like Chris.

Where are you, big brother? And what am I going to do? Zombies, fire, death, your weird Chief Irons and that lost little girl - and just when I thought things couldn't get any more insane, I get to face off with The Thing That Would Not Die, the freak to end all freaks. How am I going to get through this?

She sat at Chris's desk, gazing at the small strip of black-and-white pictures that she'd found tucked in the bottom drawer; the four shots were of the two of them, grinning and making faces, a photo-booth memento of the week they'd spent in New York last Christmas. Finding the strip had made her want to cry at first, all of the fear and confusion she'd been holding back finally surging to the front at the sight of his well-loved smile - but the longer she'd looked at him, at the two of them laughing and having a good time, the better she'd started to feel. Not happy or even okay, and no less afraid of what was to come...... just better. Calmer. Stronger. She loved him, and knew that wherever he was he loved her back - and that if the two of them had been able to survive the loss of both of their parents, to build lives for them- selves and share a silly Christmas vacation in spite of having no real home to go to, then they could cope with anything. She could cope.

Can and will. I'm going to find Sherry and Leon and, God willing, my brother - and we're going to make it out of Raccoon.

The truth was, she didn't really have any choice, but she needed to go through the process of accepting her lack of options before she could act. She'd heard before that real bravery wasn't an absence of fear, it was accepting the fear and doing what was necessary anyway - and once she'd sat for a moment, thinking about Chris, she thought that she could do just that. Claire took a deep breath, slipped the photos into her vest, and pushed away from the desk. She didn't know where Mr. X had been headed, but he hadn't seemed like the waiting-around type; she would head back to Irons's office and see if Sherry had come back - or Irons, for that matter. If X was still there, she could always run.

Besides, I should have searched his office, tried to find something about the S.T.A.R.S. There's nothing here that can tell me anything...

Standing, she took a last look around, wishing that the S.T.A.R.S. office had offered a little more in the way of supplies or information. All she'd found of any use was a discarded fanny pack in the desk behind Chris's; according to the expired library card in one of the pouches, it had belonged to Jill Valentine. Claire had never met her, but Chris had mentioned her a couple of times, said she was good with a gun...

Too bad she didn't leave one behind.

The team had obviously cleared out all of the important stuff after their suspension, although there were still a surprising number of personal items left around, framed pictures and coffee mugs and the like; she'd spotted Barry's desk right away from the partly finished plastic gun model on top. Barry Burton was one of Chris's closest friends, a huge, friendly bear of a man and a serious gun nut. Claire hoped that wherever Chris was, Barry was with him, watching his back. With a rocket launcher.

And speaking of...

On top of everything else, she needed to find another weapon, or more ammo for the nine- millimeter; she had thirteen bullets left, one full clip, and when those were gone, she was SOL. Maybe she should stop and check some of the corpses on the way back to the east wing; even in her panicked run, she'd noticed that some of them were cops, and the hand- gun was an RPD issue. Claire didn't like the idea of touching any of the dead bodies, but running out of firepower was distinctly less desirable - particularly with Mr. X running around. Claire walked toward the door and pushed it open, trying to get her thoughts organized as she stepped back into the dim hall. Leaving the office put a damper on her resolve; she had to suppress a shudder at the still vivid image of Mr. X as she closed the door behind her, suddenly feeling vulnerable again. She turned right and started back toward the library, deciding that she wouldn't think about the giant unless she had to, wouldn't dwell on the memory of those blank, inhuman eyes or the way he'd raised his terrible fist, as if driven to destroy anything in his way... so knock it off already. Think about Sherry, think about getting some goddamn ammo or how to handle Irons, if you can find him. Think about trying to stay alive.

Just ahead, the dark wooden hall turned right again and Claire tried to steel herself against the task ahead; if memory served, there was a dead cop around the corner -

- like I can't tell by the smell -

- and she'd have to search him. He hadn't been too disgusting, at least, not that she'd noticed. Claire turned the corner and froze, staring. Her stomach knotted, telling her she was in danger before her senses could. The body that she'd jumped over on the way to the S.T.A.R.S. office was now only a bloody, tangled mass, flesh and broken limbs and shredded uniform. The head was gone, although there was no way to tell if it had been taken away or just smashed into an unrecognizable pulp. It looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer or an axe to the corpse in the few moments since she'd passed it, beating it into a clotted smear.

But when, how, I didn't hear anything...

Something moved. A shadow, soft and darting over the mashed remains some twenty feet in front of her, and at the same time, Claire heard a strange rasping sound, breathing... and she looked up, still not sure what she was seeing or hearing - that ragged breathing and the tick of talons on wood, the talons themselves, thick and curved, the claws of a creature that couldn't exist. Big, the size of a full-grown man, but the resemblance ended there - and it was so impossible that she could only see it in pieces, her mind struggling to put them together. The inflamed, purplish flesh of the naked, long-limbed creature that clung to the ceiling. The puffed gray-white tissue of the partially exposed brain. The scar-rimmed holes where the eyes should have been.

- not seeing this -

The creature's rounded head dropped back, the wide jaw opening, a ropy stream of dark drool pour- ing out and splattering over what was left of the cop. It extended its tongue, eely and pink, the rough surface shimmering wetly as it slithered out. And out. And out, the snaking tongue uncoiling and whipping from side to side, so long that it actually trailed through the ripped flesh of the corpse. Still frozen, Claire watched in horrified disbelief as the incredible tongue snapped back up, flicking drop-lets of blood through the shadowy air. The entire process had taken only a second, but time had slowed to a crawl, Claire's heart beating so fast that every- thing else was in slow motion - even the creature's drop to the wooden floor, its body flipping in midair so that it landed in a crouch atop the mutilated cop. The creature opened its mouth again and screamed...... and Claire was finally able to move as the bizarre, hollow shriek erupted from the monster, able to point her weapon and fire. The thunder of nine-millimeter rounds drowned out the howl that echoed through the tight hallway, bam-bam-bam...... and still screaming that chilling, trumpeting cry, the creature was thrown back, its claw-tipped arms flailing. Its spasming legs kicked up bloody chunks of the eviscerated body; Claire saw a ragged flap of scalp, one ear still attached, fly across the hall and smack into the wall with a wet slapping sound, sliding down...... and the creature got its legs beneath it somehow and flopped forward in a boneless lunge. It spidered toward her, lightning fast, gripping the wood floor with its terrible claws and howling. Claire fired again, unaware that she was also screaming as three more rounds hit the scuttling thing, ripping through the gray matter that protruded from its open skull. She was going to die, it would be on her in less than a second and its massive talons were only inches from her legs...... and as suddenly as the attack had come, it was over. Every part of the sinewy body quivered and shook as liquid gray dribbled from its burbling head, the thick claws tapping wildly against the wood floor in a frantic tattoo. With a final whispering whine, the creature died. There was no mistaking it this time. She'd blasted through its brain, it wasn't going to get up again. She stared down at the monster, her shocked mind digging for something to relate it to, some animal or even a rumor of an animal that came close, but she gave it up after a few seconds, recognizing it as a lost cause. This was no natural creature, and as close as it was, she could finally smell it - the odor was not as pungent as the zombies', it was a bitter, oily smell, somehow more chemical than animal...

... and it could smell like chocolate-chip cookies, who gives a shit? Raccoon City's got monsters, it's time to stop being so goddamn surprised when you see one of them.

The chiding tone of her mind's voice wasn't partic- ularly convincing. As much as she wanted to feel brave and determined, to step over the monstrous creature and get on with things, she just stood for a moment and for that moment, she thought very seriously about going back to the S.T.A.R.S. office, going inside, and locking the door behind her. She could hide, hide and wait for help, she could be safe...

Decide, then. Do something, one way or another, stop this wavering and whining, because it's not just you anymore. Will Sherry be safe? Do you want to survive at the cost of her life?

The moment passed. Claire took a careful step over the raw red flesh of the creature and crouched down next to the cop's remains, using the muzzle of the handgun to push a torn piece of bloody uniform aside. She swallowed down bile as she poked through the rotten flesh and bone, working not to think about who the cop had been or how he had died. Nothing, and she now had only seven bullets left, but she refused to panic, letting the disappointment fuel her determination instead. If she could search one bloody mess, she could search another. With a last look at the dead animal-thing, Claire stood and walked quickly toward the end of the corridor, her decision made: no hiding and no more running from the fear. At the very least, she could take a few of the monsters with her, raising Sherry's chances of escape. It would be better to die trying than not to try at all. She wouldn't waver again.

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