Chapter One

The Vanishing

Claire Redfield rolled over in bed and sighed, luxuriating in the sense that for a few minutes, nothing was chasing her, nothing wanted to eat her, and no one needed her help. She always felt this way when she stayed with Chris -- like she'd come home. Safe, protected, warm.

It was one of the reasons she didn't visit very often.

The bright morning light struck her like a slap in the face. Moaning, she rolled over and right off the edge of the bed, landing in a tangle of bedclothes and pillows and legs, holding one hand to her head to calm the repetitive throb telling her she'd had one too many Coronas the night before. She shook her head, a mess of tangled hair falling in her face. Right. Glass of water, shower, clean clothes, face Chris. She could handle it as long as she did it in that order.

But as Claire stood beneath the spray of water, her face tilted back, her eyes closed, she didn't know what she was going to say. Hey Chris, did it never occur to you that you weren't protecting me by taking off and not telling me about it? That the first place I'd look would be Raccoon bloody City, which just so happened to be overrun by zombies? It had been weeks since they'd escaped the Antarctic base, but neither of them had so much as mentioned Claire's wild search for her brother. She wondered how he felt about it -- angry? Scared? Flattered? She had no idea. Chris didn't like to talk about his feelings. That was fine by her, as long as he talked about hers.

She toweled her hair dry and slid into jeans and T-shirt, hoping she wouldn't run into Jill downstairs. It had happened once, and it had been awkward as hell. Chris didn't want his baby sister to know his girlfriend slept over. She shuddered to think what he'd do if he knew some of the places she'd slept.

She stomped noisily down the stairs, giving Jill plenty of time to escape. The kitchen was empty, immaculate as always, and bereft of food. "Nice," she muttered, staring at half a carton of milk (expired two weeks ago), the remains of yesterday's supper (Chinese food and beer), and a few bottles of ketchup (Chris always forgot whether or not he had any and bought more). Disgusted, she slammed the refrigerator door. Only then did she notice the folded piece of paper stuck to the freezer with a bright purple magnet.

Uh oh.

Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she unfolded the page and began to read.

Baby Claire,

Sorry to do this to you again, little sis. Urgent business. Had to take off in a hurry with Jill. Didn't want to wake you,

so left you a note. Shouldn't be more than two weeks -- DO NOT come looking for me. I want to find you right

here when I get back.

Listen to your big brother, stupid face.

Love ya.

Chris

"That bastard!" she exploded, crumpling the paper in her hands. That condescending, self-righteous jerk! Who did he think he was, leaving her a note -- a note! -- ordering her to stay put while he took care of "business" with Jill?

She stormed through the house, deliberately overturning cushions and leaving cupboard doors wide open as she searched for some sign of where Chris might have gone. After everything she'd been through -- after Raccoon City, Antarctica... Steve... she'd earned the right to be treated with some respect!

At last she sank onto the cushionless couch, biting her lip to keep from tears. God knew what might happen to Chris while he ran around on his "business." She should be there. She should...

Slowly, she sat up, a look Chris would have recognized on her face -- a look that would have sent him running for cover.

She should call Leon.

He answered on the third ring. "I don't know where they are."

"How'd you know what I was going to say?"

"Sixth sense. Come on, Claire, haven't you had enough of zombies by now? Be grateful you're not out there with them."

She pounced. "I knew you knew something! Out where, Leon? With who?"

He sighed heavily into the phone. "Promise you won't do anything stupid."

"If you answer me within the next thirty seconds, I promise I won't come over there and kick your butt."

"Claire..." He tried to sound firm, but wound up laughing. "All right. I know you'll get it out of me, so I might as well tell you. The STARS had a tip that Wesker is after a virus sample at an Umbrella base somewhere up north."

"Up north? Where up north? Canada up north? Greenland up north? Arctic up north?"

"I swear, that's all I know -- and I only know that because I talked to Barry before he left. I'm as out of the loop with them as you are, Claire."

Her eyes narrowed. "I have my own score to settle with Wesker, you know." Besides -- it was just possible that Steve was still alive. And if he was, she'd find him when she found Wesker.

She wasn't in love with Steve, never had been -- but he was a good friend, someone who had risked his life time and again for her, had overcome a horrible past to protect her. How could she abandon him now?

"Claire," Leon was saying loudly. "Claire, are you listening to me?"

"No, I'm not. Sorry. Want to go Umbrella hunting with me?"

"What?" he exploded so loudly she held the phone away from her ear. "NO, Claire. That's what I was just saying! God! Why can't you...?"

She derived a certain amount of satisfaction from banging the phone down on him. She liked Leon -- a lot, if she was honest -- more every day. But she wasn't going to take this kind of crap. If he didn't want to help her find Steve, she'd find him on her own.

Settling herself at Chris' computer, she logged into his email on the fourth try. Chris was so predictable. When "glock," "magnum," and "Claire" failed, she plugged in "Jill" and gained access. A momentary surge of annoyance interrupted her -- why the hell had JILL supplanted her as Chris' password? -- but then she was skimming his inbox.

Nothing. She checked the trash folder -- nothing again. Crossing her fingers, she recovered the deleted files.

Jackpot. "Arctic," she muttered, jotting down the coordinates on a scrap of paper. Lovely. More snow.

Now she just had to figure out how she was going to get there. "But I'm coming for you, Steve," she whispered, staring at the piece of paper in her hands. "I'm coming for you, and I'm coming for Wesker."

"No need," said a hard, flat, smooth voice from behind her. "I'm already here."