SEPTEMBER 26, 1998

With the guys waiting outside in barry's truck, Jill did her best to hurry. It wasn't easy; the house had been tossed since the last time she'd been there, the floors were strewn with books and papers, and it was too dark to navigate around the debris easily. That her small home had been violated was upsetting, though not much of a surprise. She figured she should just be thankful that she wasn't really the sentimental type - and that the intruders hadn't managed to find her passport. She grabbed random handfuls of clean socks and underwear in the cramped darkness of the bedroom and stuffed them deep into her weathered backpack, wishing she could turn on the lights. Packing a bag in the dark was harder than it sounded, would be even if one's house hadn't been trashed; but she knew they couldn't afford to take any chances. It was unlikely that Umbrella still had all of their houses staked out, but if there was anyone watching, a light in the window could draw fire.

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At least you're getting out. No more hiding.

There was that much. They were headed for foreign soil, to storm enemy headquarters and very likely get killed in the process, but at least she wouldn't have to hang out in Raccoon anymore. And from what she'd read in the papers lately, maybe that was for the best. Two attacks in the last week... Chris and Barry were skeptical about the danger, even knowing what the T-Virus did to people - Barry thought it was some kind of a PR stunt, that Umbrella would "rescue" Raccoon before anyone got hurt. Chris agreed, insisting that Umbrella wouldn't crap in their own back yard, so to speak, what with the Spencer estate disaster so recent. But Jill wasn't prepared to assume anything; Umbrel- la had already proven that they couldn't contain their research. And with what Rebecca and David Trapp's team had faced in Maine... Now wasn't the time to think about that - they had a plane to catch. Jill scooped the flashlight off the dresser and was about to head for the living room when she remembered that she only had one bra with her. Scowling, she turned back to the open drawers and started to dig. She had enough clothing already, chosen from what Brad had left behind when he'd fled Raccoon; she and the guys had been holed up in his vacant house for several weeks, ever since Umbrella had hit Barry's house, and although none of Brad's stuff fit Chris's tall frame or Barry's massive one, she'd been able to make do. Lingerie, however, wasn't something the S.T.A.R.S. pilot had stocked up on. She didn't particularly want to hop off the plane in Austria and have to go bra shopping. "Vanity, thy name is underwire," she muttered softly, pawing through the rumpled heap. She found the elusive article only after she'd gone through the drawer twice, and crammed it into the bag as she jogged toward the small front room of the rented house. It was only the second time she'd been there since they'd gone into hiding; she had the feeling she might not be coming back for a while. There was a picture of her father on one of the bookshelves that she wanted to take. Stepping nimbly through the dark clutter, she hooded the flashlight with one hand and trained the narrow beam at the corner where the shelf had been. The Umbrella team had knocked the whole thing over but apparently hadn't bothered to go through the books themselves. God only knew what they'd been looking for in the first place. Clues as to where the renegade S.T.A.R.S. were hiding, probably; after the attack at Barry's house and the disastrous mission at Caliban Cove, she no longer had any illusions about Umbrella simply ignoring them. Jill spotted the book she wanted, a rather lurid-looking paperback entitled Prison Life; her father would have laughed. She picked it up and rifled through the pages, stopping when the light fell across Dick Valentine's crooked grin. He'd sent the picture along with one of his more recent letters, and she'd tucked it into the book so that she wouldn't lose it. Hiding important things was a habit she'd gotten into young, one that had just paid off yet again. She let the book drop, the need to hurry suddenly forgotten as she gazed down at the photo. A faint smile played across her lips. He was probably the only man she knew of who looked good in the bright orange jumpsuit of a maximum security pen. For just a moment, she wondered what he'd think of her current predicament; in a roundabout way, he was responsible, at least for her getting involved with the

S.T.A.R.S. in the first place. After he'd been sent up, he'd urged her to get out of the business, even saying that he'd been wrong to train her as a thief...

... so I take a legit job, actually working for society instead of against it and people in Raccoon start dying. The S.T.A.R.S. uncover a conspiracy to create bioweapons with a virus that turns living things into monsters. Obviously nobody believes us, the S. T.A.R.S. that can't be bought by Umbrella are either discredited or eliminated. So we go underground, try to dig up proof and come up empty-handed as Umbrella contin-ues to screw around with their dangerous research and more good people are killed. Now we're off on what will probably be a suicide mission to Europe to see if we can infiltrate the headquarters of a multibillion-dollar cor-poration and stop them from destroying the goddamn planet. What would you think, I wonder? Assuming you'd even believe such a fantastic tale, what would you think? "You'd be proud of me, Dick," she whispered, scarcely aware that she'd spoken aloud and not at all sure if it was the truth. Her father wanted to see her in a less perilous line of work, and compared to what she and the other ex-S.T.A.R.S. were currently up against, burglary was about as dangerous as ac- counting. After a long moment, she carefully placed the photo into a pocket of the backpack and looked around at the broken remnants of her small home, still thinking about her father and what he'd say about the strange path her life had taken; if things went well, maybe she'd be able to ask him in person. Rebecca Chambers and the other survivors of the Maine mission were still in hiding, quietly networking through the

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S.T.A.R.S. organization for support and waiting to hear what she and Chris and Barry could tell them about Umbrella's headquarters. The official HQ was in Austria, although they all suspected that the minds behind the T-Virus had their own secret complex elsewhere - which you won't find out if you don't get your ass in gear; the guys are gonna think you stopped to take a nap. Jill shouldered the bag and took a final look around the room before moving toward the back door, through the kitchen. There was a lingering scent of rotten fruit in the dark air, coming from a bowl of apples and pears on top of the refrigerator that had long since disintegrated into mush. Even though she knew better, the smell caused a chill to run up her spine; she hurried for the closed door, trying to block out the sudden vivid flashes of memory of what they'd found at the Spencer estate...

... rotting as they walked, reaching out with wet and withered fingers, faces melting with pus and de- cay -

"Jill?"

She barely contained a cry of surprise at the sound of Chris's soft voice just outside. The door opened, Chris silhouetted against the darkness by a distant streetlight. "Yeah, right here," she said, stepping forward. "Sorry it took me so long. Umbrella's been through here with a bulldozer."

Even in the bare light she could see the half grin on his boyish face. "We were starting to think the zom-bies got ya," he said, and although his tone was light, she could hear real concern beneath it. Jill knew that he was trying to ease the tension but couldn't find it in herself to smile back. Too manypeople had died because of what Umbrella had un- leashed in the woods outside of town; if the spill had happened closer to Raccoon... "Not funny," she said softly. Chris's grin faded. "I know. You ready?"Jill nodded, although she didn't feel particularlyready for what lay ahead. Then again, she hadn't felt ready for what they were leaving behind, either. In a matter of weeks, her concept of reality had undergone a massive shift, turning nightmares into the common- place.

Evil corporations, mad scientists, killer viruses. And the walking dead... "Yeah," she said finally. "I'm ready."Together, they stepped outside. As Jill closed the door behind them, she was suddenly struck by a strange and ominous certainty that she would never set foot in the house again, that the three of themwouldn't be coming back to Raccoon City at all...

... but not because anything happens to us. Some-thing will happen, but not to us.

Frowning, hand on the doorknob, she hesitated for a moment and tried to make sense of the bizarre thought. If they survived the recon, if they were successful in their fight against Umbrella, why wouldn't they come back to their homes? She didn't know, but the feeling was uncomfortably strong. Something bad was going to happen, something...

"Hey, you okay?"

Jill looked up at Chris, saw the same concern on his youthful face that she'd noticed earlier. They'd gotten pretty close in the last few weeks, although she suspected that Chris might like to get a bit closer.

Oh, and you don't?

The sense of impending unpleasantness was alreadyfading, other confusions and uncertainties stepping in to take its place. Jill shook herself mentally and nodded at Chris, letting the feelings go. The flight to New York wasn't going to wait for her to indulge in self-analysis... or to worry about things that she couldn't control, imagined or otherwise.

Still, that feeling... "Let's get the hell out of here," she said, and meant it. They moved out into the night, leaving the house dark behind them, as lonely and silent as a tomb.

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