Authors: Tom Aston
Tags: #"The Machine, #novel, #Science thriller, #action thriller", #adventure, #Tom Aston, #Ethan Stone, #thriller, #The Machine
Stone found himself deep in thought, wandering around the hostel for a few minutes. He looked at the message board of the hostel, a forest of advertisements for cut-price Chinese visas, bogus student ID cards, twenty-four hour bespoke suits, and “massage services” priced for the backpacker market. He realized he was on his guard, looking around, gathering intelligence. It was a habit he’d acquired from the Special Forces days, of scoping out his surroundings for escape routes and possible sources of attack. He knew by now that this was his subconscious, expecting something to happen. It made his heart rate drop, and he felt calm. As if his body and his mind were readying themselves for combat.
Stone looked at his watch. Nearly time to go and meet Mr Semyonov. Stone had one more thing to do before he left. He was covered in the sheen of sweat that pervades South China, sweltering under the feeble rotations of the Chungking Mansions ceiling fan. He’d take a cold shower and then leave.
Stone was on his way out when he checked his computer one last time for messages. He might have expected it. Junko Terashima.
Stone-san! Thank God it’s you. I’m on my own, hiding out in Quarry Bay. I’m nervous, Stone. I wish I hadn’t come. I think someone is following me, maybe GNN. Someone at GNN has picked up my story, already, but it’s worse than that. There’s something I need to tell you. Can you get me on chat -
His instinct told him to mistrust this, but then again he had no choice. Stone clicked on the link to the Internet chat device and waited for Junko to come online.
Mong Kok, Hong Kong
Junko Terashima was there in less than a minute.
I came to Hong Kong because one of Semyonov’s men said he would talk to me. One of his insiders.
Who? Are you sure you can you trust him?
He’s calling himself an insider at ShinComm. A man called Oyang who works with Semyonov at ShinComm. He wants to meet me at 7pm, but now I’m here, I’m nervous. I think I’m being followed. But I figured I had to see the ShinComm man, because that’s more important for my story.
Junko. 7pm is the same time as Semyonov’s party. They’re keeping you away from Semyonov. They’re playing you, keeping you at a distance.
I know they’re keeping me away from Semyonov. But that’s part of the deal. I have to go with it to get the story.
Junko. For god’s sake don’t be so trusting.
That’s what China21 said to me.
What the hell? Who are China21?
They are my source about the weapons. They know about the ShinComm factory. They told me about that weapon you saw in Afghanistan. If you use it long enough it stops the heart with low frequency vibration.
Stone’s fingers stopped on the keyboard. He realised his jaw had just dropped, cartoon-style. The words repeated in his head. “…
it stops the heart with low frequency vibration.”
Who was this naïve, sappy Japanese girl to tell him that? Who the hell was she to have those kind of contacts?
To hell with ShinComm, Junko. You were supposed to see Semyonov’s people, but now it turns out they work with him in China. Sit tight, and give me the address.
- They told me
- Tell me the address Junko
Ming Dai Hotel, Quarry Bay. Malaya Street. It’s at the Snake Market.
Stone stuffed the little computer in his backpack and ran from the hostel. Junko had every reason to be scared. If anything she wasn’t scared enough. Junko had no idea what she was into.
Stone skipped down the escalator onto the concourse of the Hong Kong MTR subway station at Jordan, his mind working fast. He’d come to Hong Kong because of Semyonov. He’d formed an idea in his mind about Semyonov as an evil arms maker and poured into it all the anger he felt about Hooper and that bastard Ekström. He’d been emotional. He knew barely anything about Junko Terashima, about ShinComm Corporation or any of them. And now there was a dissident group involved too, called China21.
To hell with Junko’s meeting with her insider from ShinComm – whatever he knew. He’d find the girl, get her out of there and take her down to Semyonov’s big party at the Zhonghua to talk to the man himself. Then he’d put this Junko on the plane back to Japan. She was a danger to herself and others.
Chapter 11 - 7:08pm 29 March - Quarry Bay, Hong Kong
The broiling Hong Kong day was turning into humid night. The red sun of the tropics was melting into the harbour as Stone pushed through the sweltering crowds into the Malaya Street Market. The Snake Market. What was that girl Junko thinking of?
The “Market” was a narrow lane packed with stalls of snakes, reptiles and other creatures in buckets and cages, positioned next to a red light district. The snakes hung in black, shining strips from wires, the stallholders steadily butchering them with scissors. Men in undershirts sat on wooden crates, drinking snake bile and Mau Tai rice liquor to give them "virility" before their outings to the neighbouring whorehouses. Mongooses prowled on chains around wire buckets writhing with the snakes. Steam from vats of noodles mingled with the acrid smell of the Mau Tai. Stone threaded his way through, looking up as he went for the Ming Dai Hotel. There was a row of beheaded turtles, hanging by their tails, their green legs waving reflexively in the humidity.
One thing was for sure – it hadn’t been Junko, aka Miss Hello Kitty, who chose this place. Some of the locals were pointing at Stone and shouting in Cantonese. That didn’t make sense either. White Westerners weren’t a rarity in Hong Kong, and they must have tourists down here, ogling the snakes and the bile-drinkers. A bad atmosphere. Stone’s threat-radar twitched like crazy. He checked his watch. Seven-ten. Shit - already late for Junko’s meeting.
Stone shoved in between a pair of iron barrels - ovens, two metres high, forming a blackened gateway. Their oily smoke drifted balefully over the market. As he peered through the fumes his foreboding was replaced by dread. A large painted sign for the Chinese character “Ming”. This was the Ming Dai Hotel, and it was swarming with police. A woman wailed hysterically in their midst. Kids looked on, slack-jawed, and a solitary tart stood outside in a mini-skirt, holding a cigarette between her lips, texting, looking up occasionally.
Stone was too late. Whatever was going to happen had already happened. He could go in the hotel and find out more, but he was too late. He would be arrested and questioned just for looking around. He’d have to regroup here.
Stone slipped back behind one of the tall iron ovens. There was a stallholder, a skinny woman, fanning herself languidly as she stared at the police.
‘What happened?’ asked Stone.
The ama didn’t look round at him. Carried on staring at the police operation. ‘She dead. Girl dead in hotel.’
Stone’s fists balled in anger behind his back. ‘Murdered?’ he asked.
The ama shrugged her shoulders and tapped her thumbs to her fingertips. A Chinese gesture that meant she didn’t know.
Stone face burned at the realization that his only option was to slink away like a thief and hope he hadn’t been noticed. Anger pulsed through him. He had an urge in the pit of his stomach to at least verify what had happened. But looking at the dead woman, even if he got that far, would tell him nothing – other than confirm it was Junko Terashima. Stone would be left with the same facts. The ShinComm guy, or whoever he was, had arranged to meet Junko in this shithole of a hotel. It was only too clear why. A red light area, next to the Snake Market. The Ming Dai Hotel was rented by the hour, occupied by prostitutes. The police would assume that Junko was just another working girl who’d been unlucky. Stone was seething as he shouldered his way through the crowds. Stone had never met this girl, and there was nothing he could have done. But coming after the business with Hooper...
Stone needed at least to check it was Junko who died. He needed to hang around, ask some questions. He shuffled over to one of the stalls. A snake writhed and lashed as a stallholder clipped its snout to a wire, scissors in hand, ready to peel the reptile open. A mongoose snapped at the writhing creature. Junko had been stupid. Stone had had no chance to stop her. He burned with guilt nonetheless, his guts twisted in determination to find her killer. He could think only of revenge. Revenge for Hooper, and revenge for Junko, the pretty Japanese girl he’d been speaking to only an hour before.
But revenge is best served…
Stone stopped and forced himself to think clearly. He’d been repressing the anger about Hooper, and now this. He had to force himself not to care, rediscover the old Stone, the cool killer. He would check out as much as he could, then plan on revenge. Revenge meant ruining Semyonov and exposing him, and anyone else who was behind this. Anger is hot, indiscriminate, but revenge is cold, hard and refined. It is focused. Stone would have to be focused. He would need to be at his very best.
The killer could be watching Stone right now. Possibly following him. All to the good. He stopped and stood tall to show himself. If someone was watching, Stone wanted to be seen. And he wanted to be found.
Stone clenched his jaw to channel the anger. Calmed his body and slowed his breathing. Analyzing. The primitive thirst for revenge was something he hadn’t felt for years, and he was going to use it. Junko had been lured to that hotel. Stone was going to lure the killer in turn. For Hooper, for Junko - someone was going to pay an exorbitant price.
His mind and senses switched to full alert in the crowd – cycling through motives, possibilities, methods. One thing didn’t make sense for a start. Why so crude? It was crude for Semyonov’s SearchIgnition people, with their cool suits and master’s degrees. It would take the police all of two hours to work out Junko wasn’t a prostitute, and find her real identity. And yet the whole thing had been timed to draw Junko away from Semyonov, and give Semyonov’s people their alibis as they attended his “event” at the Zhonghua. The killing had been contracted out for sure. The couple of hours before identification would give time for a hitman to make his exit. That’s all anyone needed in Hong Kong.
Stone checked his watch. He itched to go to that party, to confront Semyonov face to face, to drag him out from his pampered five-star hotel. But this was a time for ruthlessness and cunning. He would give it a few more minutes to gather what information he could, then he would have to give it up and go after Semyonov. But he’d be coming back to this place.
Stone walked out from the market into the main street, all traffic and noise. He walked about 300 metres around three sides of a square, back round to a dark doorway where he could observe the police vans, by the entrance to the Snake Market, and check for anyone tailing him
Stone stood in the shadows as the police operation proceeded. Amongst the Hong Kong Police were a number of tall Chinese men in olive uniforms. They were speaking Mandarin, not the Cantonese language used in Hong Kong, and the heavy “R” sounds of their accents told Stone they were from Northern China. Officers of the
, the Public Security office from Beijing.
This didn’t make any sense either. Stone had spoken to Junko only an hour or so before. She’d been murdered a matter of minutes ago, and yet the Beijing Public Security people had taken charge from the Hong Kong Police already.
How did the Beijing
know Junko was here? They’d followed her. And who’s to say that they hadn’t followed Stone?
Chapter 12 -
Bay, Hong Kong
Stone stayed hidden in the shop doorway for another ten minutes. He saw the
come out of the Snake Market with a body bag, and place it into their olive green truck. No chance to identify the body. Most of the police had gone away, though not all. Things were getting back to normal and cars drove past once more.
It was dusk already. The street was alive with neon, heavy with traffic again. The
truck finally pulled away, and the little crowd of onlookers from the Snake Market had finally dispersed. Only the prostitute remained there, chain-smoking cigarettes in her cheap miniskirt and high-heeled ankle boots, arms crossed in boredom.
Stone watched as a man approached her, a regular “john” by the look of him. But what happened next was a surprise. Stone saw the girl shake her head and turn away a few steps, looking back down at her phone. Didn’t she want the business? Who was he? The man followed her and grabbed her shoulder. Stone stepped instinctively forward, but the girl swivelled fast from her hips, eyes flashing. The man stepped back.
Stone realised she’d just spit in the guy’s face. The man raised his hand to slap her. Again she was too quick. Stubbed the cigarette on his arm and deftly flicked a foot behind his ankle.
The punter lay on his back with the spittle still on his cheek. The woman flicked her cigarette down at him in an extravagant gesture of disgust, then stalked away, hips swinging on the high heels, through the traffic in Stone’s direction. This was no tart after all. She’d been observing the whole thing. Police,
, body bag. Everything.