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) (5 page)

BOOK: The Machine (An Ethan Stone Thriller)
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‘Very good,’ said Stone. She certainly had researched him. No doubt knew a lot more. ‘I’d say you went to a “good school” yourself. Ivy League?’

‘Sure,’ she said, scathingly. ‘Except unlike you, I wasn’t embarrassed by it, and I didn’t drop out. You did a year of math, then a year of Chinese, weirdly, then you flunked out and joined the army.’

Stone was impressed. Not many people knew about his time in the army. Doesn’t go down too well in the “peace community”.

After five minutes in the green hills of Lantau Island, the Limo was speeding down the highway into the city. ‘OK, you get the idea, Stone,’ she said. ‘I did my homework. I know about you. More than you know about me. You move around. You never use banks or credit cards. You’ve been spotted using at least five different identities. You’ve done some clever stuff, exposed some bad people. Especially the Al-Wahabi scandal, which just landed you in hot water. Which I guess is why you cleared out of Europe, hey?’ She smiled mischievously. ‘But, let’s cut the fluff-talk. What do you know about Junko Terashima?’

‘I’m not here for Junko,’ he replied. It was partially true.

‘So you’re telling me you don’t know her? You just
happened
to fly to Hong Kong?’ She’d changed tactic. Now she was the hectoring TV interviewer, hovering artfully between derision and sneer to make her “subject” look dishonest and shifty.

Stone wasn’t having it. ‘Very good Virginia, but you’ll have to save all that for the camera.’

    ‘Stone,’ she said seriously. ‘This is not about stealing your story, or stealing Junko Terashima’s story. Junko thinks she has something huge, and so do you. We checked her email.’

    This was meant to be the business end of the conversation. Virginia Carlisle was laying on the serious look, like she was interviewing a politician. A good look too. The sexy librarian on speed.

    ‘Let’s get this straight,’ said Stone, beginning to enjoy himself. ‘You fired Terashima, but you’re still hacking her email. That’s like the jealous wife who thinks her ex-husband’s still doing the secretary. It indicates an unnecessary level of interest on your part, wouldn’t you say?’ He looked coolly back into her eyes. ‘Like I said. You fired her, but now you wish you had her story. So you’re going to steal it.’

    ‘Junko’s in over her head,’ she said, disconcerted. ‘She’s in danger. She should have told me. Tell me what she told you.’

Terashima hadn’t told Stone much of anything. ‘You mean the Semyonov thing?’ he asked, fishing to get something out of her.

‘You really don’t know, do you?’ she said. ‘Junko disappeared in Hong Kong two days ago. And, yes, we’ve got to assume she’s looking for Semyonov. He travelled to Hong Kong, straight after his bombshell announcement in San Jose. He’s planning on some even bigger announcement at a party here in Hong Kong, apparently. Today, at the Zhonghua Hotel. It’s huge. If Junko’s got anything, I need it before that party.’

‘Too bad you fired her in that case,’ said Stone. ‘Maybe you should find her and ask her nicely.’

‘Look,’ said Carlisle. She looked a little desperate for a second, then tried another tack.
Sanctimonious concern.
Hilarious. ‘She’s a young reporter and she’s gone AWOL in Hong Kong, Stone,’ said Carlisle. She checked into her hotel, but since then - nothing.’ Virginia Carlisle, the caring employer.
Love it.
‘Tell me what you know, Stone. For Junko’s sake.’

    Carlisle’s “concern” would make a strong man vomit. But sometimes you have to choke it back and focus on what’s important. What Carlisle was doing really didn’t add up. GNN had fired Junko Terashima just days ago. Yet now Virginia Carlisle - star reporter of GNN – is chasing around Hong Kong after her. 

     No. Junko hadn’t disappeared at all. She’d gone into hiding, and Carlisle, or GNN, wanted her badly. Which meant they realized after they fired her that Junko really did have that big story.

Whatever, this wasn’t just about Junko anymore. Stone could make use of this glamorous reporter. It made sense to keep her onside. But he too needed to find Junko, and he couldn’t do that with Virginia Carlisle around. Stone called for the driver to stop the car.

‘OK, Virginia,’ said Stone. ‘I’ll try to help you. Write down your cell phone number for me.’

‘I don’t give out my...’

‘Just write it down,’ he said. She looked surprised, but took out a card and scribbled her cell phone number, amazed at her own obedience. It was a trick which worked surprisingly often.
Order them to give the information
.

They were downtown already, on the Kowloon side of the harbour. The Mercedes pulled over to the teeming sidewalk of Nathan Road. Stone opened the door. In came the broiling, humid air of Mong Kok. He stepped out. Skyscrapers towered above dilapidated mid-rise blocks, crusted with layer upon layer of neon signs.

‘Here’s the deal, Virginia,’ he said, shouting through the window. She craned forward to hear him over the traffic noise. ‘You get on the phone to your Hong Kong news office. Tell them to get us into Semyonov’s party tonight. Both of us. Then we can talk, at the Zhonghua hotel.’

‘What about Junko?’ she said angrily. ‘Where are you going?’ Virginia didn’t like surprises.

‘I’ll call you,’ said Stone, and then strolled off into the mid-morning heat of Hong Kong.

Chapter 8 - 8:30pm 28 March
- Special Circumstances Training Facility, Southern California

 

Johan Ekström looked in the mirror in his office.  He liked mirrors.  Ekström was a tall, slim man with the body of a natural athlete, and ten days on from his “research contract” in Afghanistan, he was back in his normal job.  His hair and skin were back in shape.  He wore his blond hair short, but not military short. 
Rugged good looks
, was the expression he would use to describe himself.  But not too rugged.

Ekström was a well-paid man by most people’s standards, but he often reflected that he should be paid more, for he regarded his qualities as unique.  He was a killer, and assassin – but he was an artist, and a very skilled artist at that.  Few soldiers enjoy killing at close quarters – they have to be drilled to do it, and they suffer trauma as a result.  Perhaps five per cent of soldiers realise they can kill easily, and what’s more they enjoy it.  Homicidal thugs, living the dream. 

Ekström was different.  He was in a very small percentage of his chosen profession.  He thought perhaps he was unique – for he enjoyed killing as an intellectual exercise, not just for the deed itself, the power thing, the visceral rush it gave him.  He got off on the planning of an operation - the preparation and (it was a pun he was fond of using) the
execution
.  True, his fast-twitch reflexes and fitness were outstanding, honed by training in yoga and martial arts.  True, he derived enjoyment from killing – that deep enjoyment in the pit of the belly that only devout killers ever know.  But Ekström was no thug.  He was a skilled professional, a seasoned practitioner.  He was also creative.  He got as much of a kick out of directing a team of field operatives as he did from pulling the trigger alone.  He loved everything about it. 

Ekström left the mirror and sat down once more at his desk.  Though he thought he deserved more money at Special Circumstances, he would never complain.  This job, well… he was living the dream.  Anyone can be a hitman for a few grand a time, but the creative planning of assassinations was Ekström’s thing, and this job gave him chance to indulge that impulse.  He sometimes got to make the hit himself, but mostly he was planning and scheduling things for his team of “assets”, his professional assassins placed strategically around the world.  What other job would give him this kind of opportunity?

His employer, Special Circumstances Corporation, was a private military contractor – and employer of mercenaries.  SCC was involved in all manner of work from protecting oil workers in Nigeria and Iraq, forming bodyguards for G20 summits or for African despots, and fighting as mercenaries in minor conflicts.  Ekström’s own unit was known as I & T - “Interdiction and Termination”.   I & T was described in the literature as “a professional, entirely anonymous, fixed-price service for dealing with troublesome individuals and groups”.   Corporate Contract Killers might have been a better name.  Ekström could never understand why marketing people used one name for something, when another name was more correct.

A job request had just landed on Ekström’s desk. The usual details: the name of the target individual, photographs, a brief biography and suspected location.  As leader of the I & T Unit, Ekström also had the name of the client, the people paying for the hit – although this information was never passed on to the “asset” who performed the job.  In case the asset loused up and was captured, or simply decided to make a double-turn on the job by selling the information.  This latest job looked rather dull and unchallenging to Ekström – a journalist, female.  The client name was interesting, though.  SearchIgnition Corporation. 
Tut tut…

Dealing with a lone female like this was child’s play, but Ekström had thought of a way to make the contract more interesting.  He was going to indulge his taste for the extraordinary.  He checked the detailed instructions he’d written for a third time.  It was unusual, but it still shouldn’t present too much of a challenge to the operative.  And because his scheme was so exotic, Ekström had a mind to see the killing for himself.

He tabbed down on the screen to the field marked
Special Instructions,
and typed:

 

Operative to make SmoothVision video film of procedure… 
 

Chapter 9 -
2:25pm 29
March -
Mong Kok, Hong Kong 

Stone sat at a trestle table set up under plastic sheeting.  He was at a café in a crowded side street behind Nathan Road.  The waiter slammed the plate of
baozi
steamed dumplings onto the table, along with soya milk in a white plastic cup.  Stone opened his tiny laptop. 

It had still been early when Stone stepped out of the limo on Nathan Road, but already the streets teemed with shoppers and street vendors.  This was a world away from the mirrored skyscrapers of Hong Kong’s postcard waterfront.  Strangely traditional.  Old-fashioned Chinese mingled with the trappings of the British colony – British buses, driving on the left, and the street signs could have been in London. The neon lights and the Japanese brand names were still there, but only as a veneer on a deep-rooted Chinese culture unchanged through the years of British, Japanese and Communist rule.

Stone looked at the laptop over a mouthful of the
baozi
.  His first job was to get to Junko Terashima before Virginia Carlisle did.  He’d been to a phone shop already, and bought a prepaid cell phone and 3G Internet access on a USB stick.  Paid cash and wrote a false name on the document.   An untraceable Internet connection.

Stone’s fingers moved rapidly over the keyboard as he logged into the triple encrypted server of his NotFutile web site – “leak central” they called it.  Still in business. 

 Stone used the anonymiser on the NotFutile.com server, and typed an email to Junko.  No mention of Virginia Carlisle – it would only freak her out.  He reread it before he hit
send
, then closed the computer.

Stone picked up the chopsticks and looked up the five-star Zhonghua Hotel, holding a pork dumpling in mid-air.  The Zhonghua, in the downtown Central district of Hong Kong Island, was a symbol of the new Hong Kong establishment – built with Chinese government money and a byword for opulence and service.  A telling venue for Semyonov’s big “announcement” that evening, since it appeared Semyonov was jilting the US and falling head over heels for China. 

Stone felt he knew Junko Terashima, but in reality knew very little about her.  He couldn’t assume that she would turn up at Semyonov’s party.   For one thing Carlisle would be there.  On the other hand Semyonov’s party was his chance to put the billionaire on the spot – Stone was definitely going to be there.  So if he could, he needed to find out what Junko knew before that time.  A tight schedule.  But not impossible.

Stone called the
laoban
, paid him, and made his way to the eighteenth floor of Chungking Mansions, a tower block about a kilometre away.  Stone needed to keep on the move, stay below the radar, like he had done when he started NotFutile.com three years ago.  Chungking Mansions was a place he’d been before – after he left the army, in the days when he moved around constantly.  A hostel with dormitory rooms for backpackers.  Stone wouldn’t look out of place, and there were no questions asked.  More his style than the opulent Zhonghua in any case.  Stone found himself a bunk, then checked his email.  Nothing yet from Junko Terashima.   

He was going to enjoy this - the game of bluff and wits that got you into places you shouldn’t be.  He was a past master of crashing press conferences, shareholder meetings, parties – weddings even, if it got him in front of the bad guy.  Anything in order to get up close and personal with the big boys of the global arms business.  Those guys, they were the real bringers of death, and Stone had found it much more productive to get in their faces than to simply “expose” them online.  And Semyonov – now there was a man worth going after.

Stone enjoyed the clandestine side of his work as much as he hated the publicity side of it.  He relished the idea of crashing Semyonov’s media party.  Virginia Carlisle certainly couldn’t be relied upon to procure the invite for him.  And it would be best to surprise her even if she had.  It would require a little nerve and a few acting skills, no more. 

Stone checked for email again.  Still nothing from Terashima.  It was no big deal.  Stone could go to the Zhonghua Hotel and Semyonov’s “party” alone.  Terashima ought to crash Semyonov’s event herself.  But something about Junko said to Stone that she wouldn’t.  He’d catch up with her when he could.

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