AFTER TRACKING HIM FOR NEARLY HALF AN hour, Nicholai found Dr. Richard Aquino on the fourth floor of Raccoon City's largest hospital. Seeing the Watchdog made Nicholai happy in a way he couldn't ex-plain, not even to himself. A sense that all was right with the world, that things were unfolding as they should...... with me on top, making the decisions. In a mo-ment there will only be three left, three little doggies for me to hunt in the land of the walking dead, he thought dreamily. Does it get any better than this? Aquino was just locking a door behind him, a look of sweaty fear on his pallid face as his gaze darted around nervously. He pocketed his keys and turned to-ward the hallway that led back to the elevator, pushing his smudged glasses to the bridge of his nose. Nicholai was amused to note that he wasn't even armed. Nicholai stepped half out of the shadows, planning to enjoy himself. After Nicholai had spent over an hour getting to the hospital, jogging most of the way, the mousy Dr. Aquino had had the nerve to try and hide from him  - although looking at him now, Nicholai thought it was more likely that the scientist hadn't even known that he was being hunted and had eluded Nicholai by pure accident. Aquino looked like the kind of man who could get lost in his own backyard; even now, the "watchdog" didn't realize that he wasn't alone anymore, that Nicholai was only three meters

away. "Doctor!" Nicholai called loudly, and Aquino jumped around, gasping, involuntarily waving his hands in front of him; his surprise was absolute. Nicholai couldn't help a slight smile. "Who, who are you?" Aquino stammered. He had watery blue eyes and a bad haircut. Nicholai stepped closer, deliberately intimidating the scientist with his size. "I'm with Umbrella. I came to see how you were progressing with the vaccine among other things." "With Umbrella? I didn't  - what vaccine, I don't know what you're talking about." No weapon, no physical skills, and he can't tell a lie without blushing. He must be brilliant. Nicholai lowered his voice conspiratorially. "Opera-tion Watchdog sent me, Doctor. You haven't filed a de-tails report lately. They've been worried about you."

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Aquino seemed on the verge of collapsing with re-lief. "Oh, if you know about... I thought you were...... yes, the vaccine, I've been very busy; my, ah, contact wanted the initial synthesis broken down into stages, so there isn't an actual mixed sample cultivated, but I can assure you that it's only a matter of combining ele-ments, everything's ready." The doctor practically bab-bled in his effort to submit. Nicholai shook his head in mock wonder, playing his part. "And you've done this all yourself?" Aquino smiled weakly. "With help from my assis-tant, Douglas, God rest his soul. I'm afraid that I've been running a bit ragged since his death, day before yesterday. That's why I've been remiss in my re-ports..."

He trailed off, then attempted another smile.

"So... you're the one they sent to pick up the sam-ple  - Franklin, isn't it?"

Nicholai couldn't believe his own luck, or Aquino's naivete; the man was about to turn over the only TGViral antidote in existence, and all because Nicholai had said that Umbrella sent him. And now another one of his targets would be showing up... "Yes, that's right," Nicholai said smoothly. "Ken Franklin. Where is the vaccine, Doctor?" Aquino rumbled for his keys. "In here. I was just hiding it  - the vaccine base, I mean, we've kept the medium separate  - I hid it in here for safekeeping, until you arrived. I thought you were supposed to come in tomorrow night... no, the night after, you're much earlier than I expected." He opened the door and gestured inside. "There's a refrigerated wall safe behind that rather tacky land-scape  - a recent addition by a wealthy patient, an ec-centric as I understand it, not that that's important..."

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Nicholai stepped past the driveling doctor, tuning him out, still feeling dumbfounded that Aquino had been selected as a Watchdog, when he suddenly real-ized that he'd allowed the scientist to get behind him. It all came together in that instant, a complete sce-nario in Nicholai's mind  - the stupid, gossiping science nerd, putting his enemies at ease, capitalizing on their underestimation of his abilities... The awareness took only a fraction of a second, and then Nicholai was moving. He dropped to his knees and swung his arms around, grabbing Aquino's calves and following through, liter-ally sweeping him off his feet. Aquino yelped and collapsed on top of Nicholai. A syringe clattered to the floor and Aquino lunged after it, but Nicholai still held his bony legs. The doctor had no muscle to speak of. In fact, Nicholai found it quite easy to hold the flailing doctor with one arm while reaching for the knife sheathed in his boot with his other. Nicholai sat up, jerked Aquino closer, and stabbed him in the throat. Aquino put his hands to his neck as Nicholai with-drew the blade, staring at his killer with wide, shocked eyes, blood pouring over his fingers as his heart contin-ued its work. Nicholai stared back at him, grinning and pitiless. Aquino had been slated to die, anyway, and that he'd attacked Nicholai only made his death a pleasure, in addition to its being a necessity. The scientist finally fell over, still clutching his bub-bling throat, and lost consciousness. He died quickly after that, a final spasm and he was gone. "Better you than me," Nicholai said. He searched the cooling body and found several more syringes and a four-digit code on a slip of paper  - undoubtedly the wall safe's combination. Aquino obviously hadn't ex-pected Nicholai to be around to steal the vaccine. Nicholai stood and walked to the safe, revising his plans as he always tried to do after any unexpected oc-currence. Aquino had been expecting Ken Franklin to pick up the sample, which meant that Franklin would be putting in an appearance, unless the doctor had been lying. Nicholai didn't think so. Aquino had been so convincing because he had been telling the truth, an ex-cellent technique to distract one's opponent...... so I synthesize the vaccine, maybe enjoy some hunting while I wait for Sergeant Franklin to show up, get rid of him  - and then destroy the hospital, Aquino's research along with it. If Umbrella's watching, they'll think everything is going according to plan. After that, there's only Chan and the factory worker, Terence Fos-ter... To hell with Mikhail and the other two, they weren't important anymore. As the soon-to-be only surviving Watchdog with information to sell, Nicholai would be worth millions. But with the TG vaccine in hand, there was no limit to what Umbrella might pay.

By the time they reached the building's back rooms, Jill was almost ready to admit defeat. They'd been everywhere, picking locks, slogging through each taste-fully furnished room, stepping over corpses and creat-ing a few new ones. A broken picture window outside the tower's chapel had allowed several carriers to get in, and they'd come across another viral spider in the hallway just past the library. Along the way, she told Carlos a little about the mansion and grounds of the Spencer estate, history that she had dug up after the S.T.A.R.S.'s disastrous mis-sion. Old man Spencer, one of Umbrella's founders, had been a fanatic for secret hiding places and hidden passages and had hired George Trevor, an architect renowned for his creativity, to design the mansion and to help renovate a few of the town's historical land-marks, tying parts of Raccoon to Spencer's spy fan-tasies. "This was all thirty years ago," Jill said, "and the old man was completely crazy by then, so the story goes. As soon as everything was finished, he boarded up the mansion and moved Umbrella's headquarters to Eu-rope." "What happened to George Trevor?" Carlos asked. They stopped outside yet another door, what had to be one of the last rooms. "Oh, that's the best part," Jill said. "He disappeared just before Spencer skipped town. No one ever saw him again." Carlos shook his head slowly. "This is one nut job of a place to live, you know that?"

Jill nodded, pushing open the door and stepping back, revolver up. "Yeah, I've been thinking that my-self."

Nothing was moving. Stacks of chairs to the right. Three statues, busts of women, straight in front of them. There were two corpses huddled together to the left of the door, a couple, holding each other, making Jill wince and look away  - and there, hanging on the southern wall in heavy gold frames, were the three clock paintings. They walked into the room, Jill nervously studying their surroundings. It seemed normal...... but so did that room in the mansion that turned out to be a giant trash compactor. On impulse, Jill stepped back and used one of the chairs to prop the door open before going to take a closer look at the paintings. Well, kind of paintings. She supposed technically they'd be called mixed media. The three pieces were of women, one on each canvas, but each also contained an octagonal clock  - the first and last set at midnight, the one in the middle at five o'clock. A small, bowl-like tray protruded from the bottom of each frame. They were labeled as the goddesses of the past, present, and future, from left to right.

"On the postcard, it said something about putting your hands together," Carlos said. "That's like the clock hands, right?" Jill nodded. "Yeah, makes sense. It's just obscure enough to be annoying."

She reached forward and lightly touched the tray on the middle frame, a dancing woman. There was a tiny click and the tray dipped like a scale, the weight of her hand pushing it down. At the same time, the hands of the clock started to spin. Jill jerked her hand back, afraid that she'd set some-thing off, and the clock hands quickly spun back to their previous settings. Nothing else happened. "Hands together...," she murmured. "Do you think they mean that all of the clocks have to be set for the same time? Or do they mean literally, the hands aligned?"

Carlos shrugged and reached out to touch the tray of the future goddess, definitely the creepiest of the paint-ings. The past was a young girl sitting on a hill, the present a dancing woman... and the goddess of the fu-ture was the figure of a woman in a slinky cocktail dress, her body enticingly posed, but with the bald, grinning face of a skeleton. Jill suppressed a shudder and didn't let any thoughts get started on the theme of imminent death, like I don't have enough of that already.

The tray Carlos touched dipped down, but again, it was the hands on the clock of the present goddess that moved. Apparently, the other two were fixed at mid-night. Jill stepped back from the wall, arms folded, think-ing  - and suddenly she had it, she knew how the puzzle worked, if not the exact solution. She turned around, hoping that the missing pieces were nearby, and she smiled when she saw the three statues  - ah, the symme-try  - and the shining objects they held in their slender stone fingers. "It's a balancing puzzle," Jill said, walking to the statues. At closer inspection, she saw that each held a tray with a single, fist-sized stone. She picked them up, hefting each orb, noting the different weights. "Three balls, three trays," she continued, walking back to the pictures, handing the black stone -made from obsidian or onyx, she wasn't sure to Carlos. An-other was clear crystal, the third a glowing amber.

"And the goal is to make the middle clock hit mid-night," Carlos said, catching on.Jill nodded. "I'm sure there's a motif to the solution,a color match, like black for death, maybe... ormaybe it's mathematical. It doesn't matter, it won'ttake that long to try all of the combinations."

They set to work, trying each ball on one painting at a time, then using them all, Jill carefully studying the present clock's hand movements with each placement. It appeared that the different balls held different values, depending on which tray they were in. Jill was just starting to feel like she could figure it out  - it was defi-nitely mathematical  - when they lucked across the so-lution. With crystal in the past, obsidian in the present, and amber in the future, the clock in the middle struck mid-night, chiming softly. The minute hand started to move backwards with a clattering sound  - and then the face of the clock itself fell from the picture, pushed out by some machinery that Jill couldn't see. In the revealed hollow was the glittering gold cog that had been miss-ing from the tower's bell mechanism.

Sneaky, you pricks, but not sneaky enough.

Carlos was frowning, his expression openly con-fused. "What the hell is all this, anyway? Who would hide the gear at all, and why in such a complicated way?"

Jill plucked the shining gear from its hiding place, remembering her own thoughts on that exact subject only six weeks before, standing in the dark halls of Spencer's mansion. Why, why such elaborate secrecy? The files Trent had given her just before the estate mis-sion had been full of clues to the mansion's puzzles, lucky for her; without those, she might never have got-ten out. Most of the bizarre little mechanisms had been much too intricate to be practical, time-wise or func-tionally. What was the point? After giving it a lot of thought, Jill had finally con-cluded that Umbrella's real board of directors, the ones no one knew about, were paranoid fanatics. They were self-involved children, playing secret agent games and betting with other people's lives, because they could. Because no one had ever explained to them that hiding toys and making treasure maps was something people outgrew.

Because no one has stopped them. Yet.

Suddenly eager to wrap it all up, to place the gear and ring the bell and just leave, Jill phrased it much more simply to Carlos. "They're wacko, that's why. One-hundred-percent grade-A jacked-up batshit. You ready to get out of here, or what?"

Carlos nodded somberly, and after a final look around the room, they headed back out the way they'd come.

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