Read The Machine (An Ethan Stone Thriller) Online

Authors: Tom Aston

Tags: #"The Machine, #novel, #Science thriller, #action thriller", #adventure, #Tom Aston, #Ethan Stone, #thriller, #The Machine

The Machine (An Ethan Stone Thriller) (10 page)

Stone might be manacled, but he had to make the most of his one advantage.  Stone knew he hadn’t killed anyone.  Though the fact that video evidence had just been placed on his computer was not going to help him any. 

Zhang nodded again, as if he didn’t believe a word.  Standard interrogation practice, in both East and West.

‘I have explained myself,’ Stone said, ‘Now it’s your turn.  What is the real reason you are talking to me, professor?  All this -  it’s very irregular.’  Trying to get Zhang to react.  It wasn’t going to be easy.  Zhang’s eyes were so narrow in his ancient, lined face they looked like they were nearly closed. 

‘Continue talking,’ said Zhang.  ‘If it pleases you to surprise me.’

Stone left a silence of at least a minute before he spoke.  No sense making it easy for the man.  ‘Firstly,’ he said.  ‘Neither you, nor your comrades here, are from Hong Kong.’  Zhang arched a questioning eyebrow.  A good sign.  Stone carried on.  ‘Your comrades in the car were speaking with a Beijing accent.   You are a visitor to Hong Kong, Professor.  Your skin betrays your years in the arid North of China.  The humidity down here in the South preserves the skin,’ Stone explained. 

Zhang’s dry, leathery face smiled mockingly.  ‘Is this a discussion about my complexion, English?’

Stone went on, ‘Since Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of China, with its own police, it is highly irregular that you should take custody of me.  Professor.’

Zhang knew he was right.  It was a long shot, but Stone had the chance here to discover what the Gong An’s real interest was – in Terashima, in Semyonov, New Machine Technologies, or whoever.

‘Observant,’ said Zhang.  ‘But let me ask you.  Why did you murder Miss Terashima?’

It was time to bluff his way out of this.  ‘Professor Zhang,’ said Stone.  ‘You are an intelligent man.  So let’s cut out the chat, shall we?  Your Gong An people from Beijing were on the scene only minutes after the murder.  You must have had her followed.  You probably had me followed.  That means you know I didn’t kill Junko Terashima.’ 

Stone could see Zhang’s plan.  It followed a time-honoured sequence.  Threaten prisoner with bogus murder charge.  Prisoner denies charge.  Zhang tells prisoner it can be so much easier if prisoner tells everything he knows about third person.  In this case, Semyonov.

‘You were seen entering her room,’ continued Zhang.

‘You were there,’ repeated Zhang.  His heart wasn’t in it.  Zhang knew he wasn’t the murderer.  And Stone smelt Semyonov’s influence in this.

Zhang tried the silent thing again, but had already realised Stone could out-silence most people, so he restarted his volley of questions.  ‘What are you doing in Hong Kong, Stone?  What was your relationship with Terashima?’

  Better.  The more questions Zhang came out with, the more he would reveal what he was up to.  Stone lounged back and look insolently at him again, forcing Zhang to try something else. 

‘Why did you go illegally into the Zhonghua Hotel to harass Mr Semyonov?’

It was Zhang’s first mention of Semyonov.  Semyonov had basically defected to China the night before, and of course Beijing would protect him.     

Zhang realised he was talking too much and clammed up again.  Stone knew what was next, though.  Back to the threat.   

‘You should talk, English.  You are in trouble for this murder.  Tell me what happened.  Otherwise you face long years in my Chinese jail.  Or the firing squad in Guangdong.’

‘You are an investigator, Professor Zhang’ said Stone.  ‘Threats are unworthy of you.’ 

The smile had gone from Zhang.  His threat hadn’t worked the way it normally did with Westerners.  Stone hadn’t even asked for a lawyer.

‘Let me get to the point, Professor Zhang,’ said Stone leaning forward.  ‘You know I didn’t murder Junko Terashima.’

‘Supposition,’ said Zhang with very correct English pronunciation.

‘But true,’ said Stone, ‘You, Professor, are a Beijing intellectual.  You are not here for the murder of Japanese girl in a Hong Kong whorehouse.  You’re investigating something more complex,’ he said.  ‘You know I didn’t kill her.  You’re using the threat of a murder charge to discover what I know.’

‘Perhaps,’ said Zhang slowly.  ‘But this is no idle threat, English.  The man who went to Terashima’s room was on camera.  He hid his face from the camera, but it was a European man.  He looked like you.  The murder charge is real.  I suggest you begin talking, Stone.’

Finally Zhang was showing his hand. 

‘Who are you watching, Professor?  Who are you really investigating?’ asked Stone.  ‘Me?  Or Semyonov?’

‘Semyonov is a friend of The People’s Republic of China,’ Zhang said, flatly.  Too flatly.  So it was Semyonov – but was Zhang investigating, or protecting the man?  Whose side was Zhang on?

‘He’s a friend of China – but you don’t trust him, do you, professor?’ said Stone.  Trying to flush him out.  ‘What about the weapons trading?  Is that what this is about?’

Zhang began the neutral half smile again.  It looked inscrutable, but Stone was getting used to this.  The neutral thing meant Zhang was thinking what to say.  At length Zhang asked another question.  ‘Since you bring it up, do you believe the gossip about weapons trading which Miss Terashima talked about?’

‘Why should I know anything about it?’ replied Stone, deadpan.  Trying to irritate the Professor.  Let Zhang think he was onto to something and then cut him off.  Zhang had dropped his guard with that last question.  If Stone could get him ruffled again he would drop it again.   He threw one of the professor’s mocking half-smiles back at Zhang.

‘Let me remind you of the murder charge against you English!’ shouted Zhang, slapping the table. 

We’re in business.

‘I know all about you, Stone!’ continued Zhang, ranting.  ‘Dropped out of university,’ Zhang said this contemptuously, ‘Then you spent seven years in the British Army Special Forces.’  Zhang’s slit-like eyes tried to cut into Stone.  ‘You are a bourgeois troublemaker.  A self-publicist...’  And on it went.   At last Zhang had opened up about Stone.  He had a file many centimetres thick on him by the sound of it.

And “self-publicist”.  Stone loved that one.   There could be no stronger insult from Zhang.  He’d probably spent forty years fighting for his ideals, watching his country destroy itself through the Cultural Revolution, then rebuild, but Zhang was devoted through it all to the memory of Mao Zedong.  Equality.  The Communist system.  The Iron Rice Bowl.  Only to find that after Zhang's lifetime of loyalty, it was the regime itself which had abandoned Communist ideals.

‘I campaign against war, weapons trafficking and people who make fortunes from weapons,’ said Stone.  ‘I am still a soldier.  I am a soldier for peace; and you are a warrior of the mind, Professor Zhang.  We have much in common.’  He knew it would be irritating. 

‘Please, Mr Stone,’ spat Zhang contemptuously.  ‘You are SAS.  Your exploits may dazzle the young women who chase after you, but your soul is that of a killer.  The SAS kills people.  My file tells me you are a killer, Mr Ethan Eric Stone.  And you think you can carry on your filthy trade in China.’

Stone’s cool grey eyes looked back at the leathery face.  ‘No, Professor,’ he said.  ‘Your file tells you I gave up violence when I left the army.  My methods are unorthodox, but I am no killer.’  At least he was gaining some kind of engagement with Zhang now.  ‘Your intelligence tells you that I never got to Terashima’s room.  I’d be amazed if you hadn’t ID-ed Johan Ekström as the killer.  Also, your intelligence tells you that I went to Semyonov’s little “party” to confront him about his export of weapons from the People’s Republic of China.’

‘China does not need capitalist running dogs like Ekström to sell its goods,’ said Zhang.  The words were full of contempt again, but Zhang had shown he knew about Ekström too.  That was a guess on Stone’s part.

‘What about Semyonov?’ asked Stone, looking down.

‘He is a great friend of the Chinese people,’ observed Zhang again.  His stock phrase on the subject.

‘He’s just handed over his whole fortune - twenty-five billion dollars - to a Chinese state enterprise.  An enterprise with no sales or products supposedly.  Or is nice Mr Semyonov helping China with some new weapons?’

‘You think you are clever, English, but you are mistaken.  Semyonov
laoshi
is here to work on the Machine.  Nothing else.’

There.  Zhang had sprung a surprise of his own, and was looking suitably pleased with himself.  And it had worked.  Stone was surprised.  “The Machine”?  Also Zhang referred to Semyonov back there as “
laoshi
”.  Teacher.  Why would he do that?

‘You think you know it all, Stone.  But your understanding is that of an imbecile,’ Zhang continued.  ‘Twenty-five billion dollars is a small price to pay to work on the Machine.’ 

The Machine – Zhang had thrown that out there for a reason, had he?  He was fishing to assess what Stone knew about it.  The answer was nothing, but Stone had to keep him talking.

‘Semyonov is an exceptional man,’ said Stone.  Zhang nodded sagely.  ‘Is that why China has allowed him to collaborate on The Machine?’

Abruptly the grey steel door opened at the back of the room.  An officer strode over to Zhang, speaking to him in rapid Mandarin. 

Zhang’s eyebrows shot upward in consternation. Zhang jumped to his feet, anxiety on his face for the first time. 


Shi duide ma?  Ta si le?
’  Stone got that bit at least. 
Is it true?  He’s dead?
  Who was Zhang referring to?  Or it could be “she’s dead”.  Junko?

Zhang was still standing, looking distracted, like he didn’t know what to do next.  He looked round at Stone, almost as an afterthought, as if what he’d just heard had made him forget everything.

 ‘Tell me truthfully.  Do you know how Miss Terashima died?’ Zhang asked.

Stone said nothing.  He’d seen the video clip of a girl’s death.  Zhang’s question meant they hadn’t even been through Stone’s laptop yet. 

‘An insect bite,’ Zhang said.  ‘Most unusual to die so quickly, even here in the tropics.  We tested the venom.  Japanese hornet, if you please,’ said Zhang in his deliberate English.  ‘Seven centimetres long and quite deadly.’

Stone stared insolently back.   ‘You expect me to believe that?’

‘It is of no consequence whether you believe it, English,’ sneered Zhang.  ‘I assure you the Japanese hornet’s eight different venoms in the bloodstream are unmistakable.  Besides.  My men found this in the hotel...’  Zhang took something from his pocket and tossed it on the table towards Stone. 

‘We will talk later,’ said Zhang.  ‘For now, I permit you to rest, English.  In your cell.  I thought it only right to reserve a special cell for you.  Built a century ago by the British Imperialists.  Very old and very small.  I think hot and dirty.  The insects also are quite disagreeable.’ 

Zhang’s eyes creased with a hint of pleasure as he strolled from the room.  Stone looked at the desk and examined the object Zhang had thrown to him.  It was the carcass of a huge, multicoloured bug, about seven centimetres long - the Japanese hornet.  Except it wasn’t a real insect at all.  It was man-made – a beautiful manufacture of metal and plastic.

Chapter 17 - 4:02pm 29 March - Special Circumstances Training Facility, Southern California

 

At four in the afternoon on 29
th
March, Ekström received another order from SearchIgnition Corp for an assassination in Hong Kong.  This time it looked more interesting, and the location suggested a very fitting method for the execution.

Ekström authorized deployment of the South East Asian regional asset based in Hong Kong for the procedure.  A text alert was sent, followed by an encrypted email with Ekström’s detailed instructions and photographs of the target.

 

Subject:  Ethan Eric Stone, United Kingdom National

Location:  Old Bailey Prison, Central, Hong Kong

Chapter
18 - 7:54am 30 March - Old Bailey Prison, Hong Kong Island

 

Stone was hooded again and taken down several flights of stairs. 

So.  Stone would have to pay a price for irritating the
Gong An 
investigator.  Zhang wanted to punish him for his impudence.  The cell they found for him hadn’t been used for decades and was filthy.  It must have been an effort for the local police to find anything like that in their orderly detention centre.   

Stone sat on the cold brick floor and thought again of the video he’d seen the night before.  Could the violently coloured insects he’d seen crawling over the terrified girl’s body really have been man-made?  And if so, who the hell had made them purely for an assassination? 

There were other questions popping still, basic questions that wouldn’t go away.  First – why?  If Semyonov was doing all this – making weapons, testing weapons on live subjects, murdering journalists – then why?  Semyonov had everything, literally everything.  Yet he had sold it up and given away the money.  So why?  To go and work on the Machine, according to Zhang.  Could that possibly be true?

Stone was in a filthy prison cell in Hong Kong.  Things weren’t exactly going according to plan.  He’d come out here in a blaze of anger over the cold-blooded killing of Hooper.  That was the truth if he was honest.  He’d seen some of what Junko Terashima knew, and he had evidence that the weapons in Afghanistan came from Semyonov’s firm – New Machine Tech, or ShinComm or whatever.  It had looked like a clear case. 
Tech genius is exposed for dabbling in exotic weapons, dozens of villagers dead.  Plus Hooper. 
It looked even more obvious when Semyonov ran away from the US taking every cent with him. 

But things weren’t that simple.  Terashima was dead, and her information with her.  And now there was something called the Machine.  By rights Stone should go on home, do some research and figure it out.  But as of now, in a sweltering Hong Kong prison cell, that was not one of his options.

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