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) (7 page)

Stone looked from the shadow as she stepped up onto the pavement in front of him.  She languidly lit up another cigarette, holding it in pouting lips.  Close-up, she looked too good to be a tart.  Her eyes were bright behind the smoky eyeliner, and her skin clear.  She leaned her hip against a lamppost and took out her phone once more, using her thumb to work the keys while her other arm trailed lazily behind her, holding the cigarette.  The smoke crept in blue tendrils into the still, hot air.

Stone could just about see her phone screen in the darkness.  This girl wasn’t texting.  She was looking through photos.  The hotel, the police, and then one picture after another of the
Gong An
.  Stone counted twenty at least, and then finally, the pictures he’d been expecting.  Three photos of Ethan Stone.

Well, well.  Time to tempt this woman into a quiet alleyway for a “conversation”.  

But at that moment a large motorcycle roared up to a stop beside the tart.  Stone saw her glance towards his way as the bike arrived.  A glimmer of a smile too.  She’d seen him all right.  Been watching him.  She swung her rear onto the seat of the motorbike, still holding the phone in one hand as she flicked another cigarette onto the sidewalk.  There was an unspoken insult in the ping of the cigarette towards Stone.   The bike’s engine burbled in readiness while she sat, sidesaddle, feet up on the rest.  Looking at the phone like she was on a barstool.

Change of plan.  It was too good to resist.  Stone stepped from the shadow and grabbed the phone from her hand as the bike pulled off.   A shout.  The bike jerked to a halt.  The rider in black leathers jumped off and faced up to Stone.  Gesturing, shouting.  But opening a knife in his palm. 

Stone didn’t look up.  He stood on the sidewalk, looking through the photos on the phone.  The blade in his peripheral vision stayed a safe two metres away.  He felt the smooth rush of adrenaline through his body, but let his heart rate drop.  This was the kind of confrontation he was good at.  The rider was screaming at him, but it was all bluff.  As long the knife stayed at that distance, it was cool.  Stone flicked through the photos some more, just to annoy the guy.

The guy was agitated, but he’d left it too long to be credible.  Stone goaded him.  Shot a cheeky glance, then looked back down.  ‘Nice photos.  The lady has a thing for men in uniform.’  He was acting cool, but his thumb was scrolling fast through the photos looking for confirmation.  And there it was.  The tart had been very scientific.  A close-up photo of Junko Terashima going into the hotel; then another shot, later, of a body covered in a blanket, but with a slender arm trailing from it, wearing Terashima’s watch and bracelets.  It was Junko all right.  Stone felt it like kick to the stomach.

The knife jabbed towards him.  Still a safe distance.  Stone didn’t move, but watched the guy’s feet with sly eyes, in case he was foolish enough to get closer.  Stone’s anger had just congealed into cold hatred and this guy with the bike leathers had picked the wrong time to look for trouble.

The girl’s heeled ankle boots came into view.  She stepped in front of the rider, put her hand on his chest.  A gesture of authority, that.  Almost ownership.  The rider palmed the knife.

‘You kill Junko,’ she said simply to Stone.  There was no anger in her voice, but Stone sensed it in her nonetheless.  She wanted to blame someone.

She was trying to make him angry, but it wouldn’t work.  Stone was back in business.  She’d be the one to get angry. 

Stone looked up from the phone finally, looked her in the eye, his eyes like chips of grey ice. ‘You know who killed her?’   He fixed her, but she simply looked back with the vacant eyes of an insolent teenager.  ‘Let me guess,' said Stone.  'China21, the “protest” group.  And you’re funded by Semyonov.’

That did it.

Hatred flashed across her face.  She spat viciously, a great gout of saliva landing on his chest.

Stone looked down in bemusement at his shirt, then smiled up at her.  ‘A simple “no” would have sufficed.’

She snatched at the phone but Stone pulled it away, teasingly holding it from her.  She glared, but stopped grabbing.  Stone responded by offering the phone to her with a mocking bow.  Resentfully she took it from him.

‘I warned Junko,’ she said.   She looked like she was carrying a similar set of emotions to Stone.  Anger, guilt, lust for revenge.  But suppressed.  She was suppressing it just like Stone had.  Like him, she’d been there to get Junko Terashima out of harm’s way.  They’d both failed.

Stone turned to go, but the woman spoke again.  ‘She told me about you, Mr Ethan Stone.  And your photographs from Afghanistan.’

Junko, Junko, Junko!
  How could she be so casual with information?  She’d given away her sources to this dodgy Chinese protest group, who knew far more than seemed possible.   No wonder she got killed.

Stone watched the motorcycle move away into the traffic.  The tart glanced round at him in the traffic.  A smile and a nod - patronizing.  Or trying to be.

Hooper was dead.  Junko Terashima was dead.  Stone would quell the anger, like he had done in the old days when he’d lost a comrade.  He would crush and quell the emotions.  There was no other way.

He looked at himself in a shop window and wiped the spittle from his jacket.  That Chinese girl – he’d barely met her.  But he’d connected with her.  She’d been thinking like him and repressing the same feelings. 

Stone checked the time.  He was hardly in party-mood, but Semyonov’s “event” was definitely one party he wasn’t going to miss. 

Chapter 13 -
8:12pm 29 March - Zhonghua Hotel, Central, Hong Kong

 

The magnificent Zhonghua Hotel.  Stone had made his way to a large lobby in front of one of the hotel’s ornate reception rooms: The Crabflower Club.  Stone walked in and picked up one of the house telephones at a distance from the entrance to the club.  He made like he was on the phone while he observed the entrance and figured out how he was going to crash the party.

A single hostess stood behind a counter at the entrance to the Crabflower Club, flanked by two tuxedo’d security men.  There were two obvious ways of getting in here.  A simple con – pretend to be someone else, bluff your way in, and be sure you get the body language right, and say the right things.  There was also “dumpster diving”.  The hostess was taking the tickets and letters of invitation from the guests and throwing them in some kind of waste bin behind the counter.  If Stone could make out he was a cleaner and swipe the bin, he’d be sure to find something to get him in. 

The problem was, the bin was hidden right behind there, beside one of the security meatheads.  Stone thought the simple con would be more fun in any case.  He observed the hostess and the two security men for a few more seconds.

Torso and arm movements are strong giveaways to activity in a person’s limbic brain, the body’s emotional centre.  The Chinese hostess was bending forward toward the guests, confident and friendly – but not subservient.  Every so often her body language would betray her and she leant back, or angled her torso defensively, side-on to one of the guests.  Someone she didn’t like.  She also subconsciously leaned or moved away from both the security guys whenever they stepped towards her. 

Stone had counted on searches, frisking, lynx-eyed detectives he’d have to make his way past.  But there was none of this.  It was all very low key - no doubt Semyonov wanted to look cool.  Getting in should be easy if Stone made the right impression on the hostess.  In the second he walked up, she had to trust him more than she trusted the security men beside her.  He put down the phone and approached the hostess, gaining eye contact for a second.   Warm smile.  Then he  flashed a look at the security boys.  They wore the lapel pin in the shape of a small, silver hammer.  The same silver hammer Stone had seen on Ekström in Afghanistan.  These were Special Circumstances men in tuxedos – and yet the atmosphere couldn’t be more different from what he’d expected.    

Stone looked again at the hostess.  She wore a Chinese silk dress, elegantly high up on the neck and with the leg slit from ankle to thigh.  Stone ran his eyes over her, from shapely hip to breasts.  The split-second examination that hints at interest and flattery.  So she knows she’s been noticed, but no more.  Helps build rapport with some women, and this lady was one of them. 

He glanced over the counter at the name badges for the guests.  Not many left.  He was late after his interlude at the Snake Market.  

‘There I am.  Armistead Harker,’ said Stone, glancing back up in her eyes. 

She returned the smile with a hint of flirtatiousness.  Leaned forward, looked Stone back in the eye and paused, like she was thinking about it.  The meathead to the right had angled his body.  Aggressive.  Not good.

‘Professor Stone,’ said the hostess, with a knowing smile.  ‘No need for that.’  She handed over a badge in the name
Ethan Stone
.  ‘We were expecting you.’ 

Well, well.  The woman had been told to look out for Stone, and she’d found him.  She was perfect hostess for Semyonov’s party - a good figure and “the smarts” as the Americans say.  Masters degree from one of Virginia Carlisle’s “good schools”.  Equally at ease in English and Mandarin.  All part of the carefully burnished image that surrounded everything to do with Semyonov – relaxed, cool, intelligent.  No one – least of all those Semyonov invited - would believe that he was anything other than the super-intelligent, cultured man.  A moral and intellectual hero, as George Watts put it.  Could it be that the naïve young reporter, Junko Terashima, was the only one to see through Semyonov’s facade?  Looking around at the cool intellectuals arriving at the Crabflower Club, Stone half-doubted Junko’s story himself.  But then there were still the men in tuxedos with a silver hammer on their lapels.  And Junko was dead.

 The hostess nodded imperceptibly to one of the guards as Stone walked past her into the club.  Stone half-expected to be followed inside.  He felt his mind calculating how to deal with the two guards.  They’d let him in quite deliberately – but why?    

The Crabflower Club was a different world from the teeming sweatshops and markets of Hong Kong only a couple of hundred metres away.  Stone had expected something of orgiastic extravagance, and indeed there was champagne, entertainers, and lavish food.  There were gorgeous models stalking around in revealing designer outfits.   But it was the omissions from the guest list which impressed Stone.  No politicians, racing drivers or fellow billionaires for Steven Semyonov.  Here were the up-coming futurologists, thinkers and entrepreneurs.  There were charity directors, architects and experts in little known technologies from the whole of the Pacific Rim.  Semyonov had handpicked the guest list, it appeared.  Semyonov’s parties in California were legendary, and it would be obligatory to have a good time, to get wild even.  Stone glanced around.  Certainly a buzz.  A room full of PhD’s had never partied so hard.

And it was a great party.  It was euphoric.  Because most people there
couldn’t believe
they were even invited to a party by Steven Semyonov.  Even Stone felt himself relax a little.  And if he was honest, Stone couldn’t believe himself that those SCC meatheads had let him in.  It was so relaxed.  He’d expected a truly fascistic security operation, but that was way wide of the mark.  The atmosphere at the Crabflower Club was open, welcoming.  The opposite of what he’d expected.

Steven Semyonov.  At twenty-two he had been the brains behind the start-up SearchIgnition Technology, whose technology powered the world’s top five search engines.  He’d just sold out at the age of twenty-nine for $25 billion.  Plenty of people want to meet a twenty-nine year old billionaire.  It’s only human.  But the nine zeros on his personal net worth weren’t the reason these people wanted to meet him.  Money, ultimately, is commonplace.   

The reason all these brilliant, clever, successful people had cleared their diaries and hot-footed to Hong Kong was clear.  It was written on their faces.  They were there for The Man.  For the chance to meet Semyonov, The Man himself.  For it was said that Semyonov was the cleverest man alive.

Stone was different.   Stone wanted to meet Semyonov to ask him, why, with all his money and intelligence, he was devoting his energies to designing his own exotic line of… weapons of mass destruction. 
Why?
  Because he could?  As a private joke?  For kicks?

But none of that fit in with what Stone saw around him.  The revelry was cranking up in the soft light of the Crabflower Club. Everyone was waiting for The Man.  To see him, speak to him, even touch him, like pilgrims touching a jade Buddha in a mountain temple.

  Vodka circulated, with caviar and Chinese dim sum of exquisite taste.   Champagne flowed amongst clever kids, and the designers and the IQ babes.  There was laughter, shouting, high spirits.  And then the buzz which it seemed could go no further, suddenly hit fever pitch.  The volume, the excitement went up a notch.  They could sense he was there, in their midst.  They felt his presence, his
aura
moving through the throng.  Stone stood alone, his champagne flute full in his hand.  He spotted Semyonov - his smooth, hairless head shining slightly with perspiration, his red eyes twinkling, but his face utterly impassive.  Thirty seconds here, a minute there, a smile.  Casting greetings and wisecracks around like candy to a crowd of kids.  They whispered, gossiped in excitement as he approached them in the crowd.  Star-struck.  

Stone looked with steely gaze across the press of tuxedos and cocktail dresses.  The guests were each shoving gently but insistently towards the spot in the crowd where Semyonov would move onto next.  Stone held his champagne glass lightly, maneuvered himself closer.  He tried to get Semyonov’s eyes.  To catch his gaze.  The man was shorter than Stone’s six-two, but not by much.  His smooth head – hairless but unshaven it seemed - and his chunky physique were distinctive.  Finally Semyonov’s impassive red eyes face turned towards him, just as a female hand grabbed Stone lightly on the bicep through his jacket.

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