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) (9 page)

Stone became aware someone had followed him out.  A door closed behind him.  Stone’s ears pricked up for danger, but he was still scanning the yard for Semyonov.  There were footsteps.  The Communist Party men were being helped into a black Mercedes, surrounded by Chinese paramilitaries in olive dress uniforms, shiny black webbing and boots.  Soldiers of the Public Security again – the
Gong An. 
  All unusually tall and even more unusually, holding European-made HK sub-machineguns.

Stone stood in the shadow – still no sign of Semyonov’s huge, white head.  Stone kept an eye on those tall guards.  Some kind of elite Chinese unit sent to guard Semyonov.  What the hell was that guy up to?

A sleek, white sports car flashed in front.  The soft whine of an electric motor, no other sound.  Semyonov.  It had to be, driving his electric sports car.  Driving himself.  There were steps behind him again, but Stone kept his eyes on the car high-tailing it out of the car park.  The brake lights flashed bright red in the darkness as the car paused before joining the traffic, then disappeared toward the Harbour Tunnel. 

Behind Stone, the footsteps sped up.  There was a shout from the black limo in front of him.  Two of the paramilitaries pointing their weapons his way.  The footsteps were right behind him now.  He spun, arm raised, ready to lean his weight into an elbow to the temple.  But then stopped himself as the assailant grabbed his sleeve and pulled him.

‘For Pete’s sake, Stone!  Make it look realistic!’ 

For Pete’s sake?
  Virginia Carlisle, GNN.  She planted her lips on him, then dug her fingernails into his butt.  She’d followed behind, looking for Semyonov like him.  Now she’d seen the guns and she was pretending they were drunken lovers, sneaking out on the loading bay.

‘I didn’t know you cared.’

‘I care enough to stop from getting shot, Stone!’ she breathed, and dug her fingernails into him again. ‘C’mon, kiss me!  Before I get my ass blown off.’

She was an attractive woman.  He couldn’t help noticing.

‘Will this be on GNN “Wake up World”?’ asked Stone, looking sideways at the tall soldiers in green.  They were barking orders in Mandarin, but had lowered their weapons.  There was really no danger.

Still - no sense in turning down some free entertainment from Ms Carlisle.  Or was it acting lessons?

Stone gave in and ran his fingers up from her thighs to her butt to her back, then pulled her backwards into the shadows in a fair approximation of a drunken clinch. 

‘For God’s sake!  Get your hands on me, Stone!  You might get off on this guns and danger thing, but I’d rather live to tell the tale.’

What was her game?   

In any case – a good thing she was here.  Stone needed to have a talk with her about Junko Terashima.

 

-oO0Oo-

 

Virginia Carlisle took Junko’s death exactly as Stone expected.  Shock and grief – but controlled grief.  There was even a tear which may or may not have been real.   It wasn’t that Carlisle was as hardened to the nastiness of the world as he was.   Mercifully not.  It was just that she was one of those “well-balanced” people who have a mechanism for shutting out the misfortune of others.  Bad luck, unhappiness, depression – well-balanced people like Carlisle avoid it, like it’s a contagion.  Which is not a bad way to be.

Carlisle reminded him of the stuck-up babes from his university days.  Bright, attractive, always knew the right things to do and say.  They started their careers while still at high school.  They were building a career – a life.  People from Stone’s background go to school, university if they’re bright, they get a “job”.  Then they work, for a long time.  

People like Virginia Carlisle had realized years before Stone that the minute you got a “regular job”, you were hosed.  Finished.  People like Stone got a “regular job”.  People like Carlisle got a “life”.  At eighteen, Stone had a vague sense that he wanted a “life”and not a “job”, but unlike Virginia Carlisle, he had no idea what to do about it.   He did a year of maths at university, then decided it was boring.  He did a year of Chinese because it looked cool.  Turned out it wasn’t cool after all, so he dropped out.  Then it was the army.  All the while Virginia Carlisle and the boys and girls like her shook their beautifully coiffured heads and got on with their “lives”.  Just about the time Stone had been sent on his first Afghan tour.

In any case, Virginia had more than a “life”, she had an
uber-life
.   She was a socially ambitious Ivy League woman.  She gravitated straight to the
in-crowd
wherever she was.  In fact, she practically defined the in-crowd.   Stone had been one of the
out-crowd
all his life, and often an out-crowd of one.  He was always a force of one.  It suited him that way. 

Stone ought to be against someone like Carlisle on principle.  But he wasn’t against her.  They were just different.  All people have ways of living their lives.  Stone might look down on some of the things Virginia had done.  He despised her falseness, her play-acting, that she was always the “face that fits”.  He hated that she took the credit for everyone else’s work, that she would do that to Junko and she’d do it to him.  He should hate her.

But he didn’t hate her.  Why was that?

 

-oO0Oo-

 

At the backpackers’ hostel, Stone sat up looking at his laptop, and pulled out the two slips of paper Semyonov had given him.  Semyonov had stonewalled him better than he could have thought possible.  He’d got nothing but clever wordplay from the man.    He left with only the two slips of paper Semyonov had written on simultaneously.  Semyonov had said it was poetry.

The SearchIgnition search engine confirmed that it was indeed poetry.  From a Roman poet called Horace, who lived two thousand years ago.

 

exegi monumentum aere perennius

 

odi profanum vulgum

 

This was getting ridiculous.  He’d got nothing from Semyonov, and now he was reduced to looking for significance in Latin poetry.   The search engine duly gave translations, and Stone wrote them down.

 

I have created a monument more lasting than bronze

 

I hate the ignorant masses

 

Perhaps the second one was Semyonov’s weary, cynical answer.  “I hate the ignorant masses”
.
 Could be.  But Stone was clutching at straws.

Just then, an alert popped up on the laptop.   An incoming email via the NotFutile.com web site.  Stone had a bad feeling.  Ekström.

Last time, Ekström had sent a video of a slaughterhouse.  This time he’d gone one better.  He’d emailed video footage of the murder of Junko Terashima.  

Stone was dealing with an evil psychopath, but he was past the anger stage.  He climbed onto to his bunk, numbed by hatred, and forced himself to sleep.

Chapter 15 - 3:42am
30 March -
Kowloon, Hong Kong

 

Stone woke up habitually at the least sound.  A habit from the days of undercover surveillance under the foliage in Kosovo or Afghanistan.  He instinctively lay perfectly still so as not to betray his position.  Listening for tiny rustlings or distant voices.  Only when he identified where the sound was coming from could he nod off back to sleep. 

Even so he woke with a start in his bunk, to the sound of the barking of attack dogs and a hoarse Scottish voice shouting over and over, ‘Stay where you are!  Don’t move.  DO NOT.  FUCKING. 
MOVE
!’

Stone was in the backpackers hostel.  Eighteenth floor of the Chungking Mansions.  A Kowloon tower block.  On the top bunk of three in a dorm of eighteen people.

‘I said, do not fucking move!’ bellowed the Scottish voice again.  A British officer of the Hong Kong Police, a hangover from the old days.  Three Chinese policemen behind him. 

Assorted backpackers and students from Canada, Malaysia, Japan, Mexico were scrambling for backpacks and money belts.  Girls covered themselves with the bed sheets, squinting into the strip lights.  Two lads dropped little bags of white powder behind the bunks.  They were thinking ‘drugs raid’.

Stone knew it wasn’t.  Amid the rustling and scrambling in bags, Stone sat up and dangled his legs over the side of the bunk and looked at the officer.  Then he slowly strayed an eye over the three Chinese policemen in blue shirts and cargo pants.  Probably fit enough, with decent martial arts.  All four had pistols, but still clipped into their belts.  An escape looked on for the moment. 

Then a scream.  A couple of tall Chinese men in those olive drab uniforms and shiny black boots had appeared in the brightly lit dorm.  More screams as the others saw the sub-machineguns pointed their way.  Dogs barking, girls screaming.  Boys shouting ‘Don’t shoot!’ and holding their hands in the air.

‘SHUT.  THE FUCK.  UP!’ bellowed the Scottish guy.  His was a limited but effective vocabulary.  A tense silence.  The Scot began eyeballing all the men in turn and pointing with a stick.

Enough of this.  Stone jumped softly down from the bunk.  The Scottish guy stepped back. 
Too slow
.  Stone could have leaned his weight into the cop.  Caught him a percussion blow on the temple before he’d even raised his hands.  The other three cops were distracted, their eyes flitting about the room at those hands in rucksacks and arms shooting in the air.  Stone could have had them too.  Maybe.  Would have been fun to try at any rate.

The two olive drab boys at the door were the problem.  They were pros all right.  The one was covering the room with his assault weapon, causing all the screaming.  The other fellow had crouched low to get a shot upwards at Stone’s head, at an angle where he could be sure not to hit anyone else.  Near enough to give no chance of missing, but far enough to be out of reach of an unarmed, but dangerous, man.  Such as Stone.  If the Scots policemen hadn’t recognised Stone, the
Gong An
boys certainly had.  They were pros.  And they knew all about him.

Stone offered his wrists to the Scottish officer.  His forearms were wiry, covered in light blonde hair.  The policeman looked in distaste at the green, homemade tattoo of new age design on Stone’s right forearm.

‘How did you know it was you we wanted?’ said the policeman, his tone triumphant but suspicious as he broke out the cuffs.  ‘Something to hide, have we?’

‘You are arresting me for the murder of Junko Terashima,’ said Stone. 

That video of the killing he’d received through the NotFutile.com anonymous electronic dropbox.  Completely untraceable.  But there on the hard drive of Stone's computer nonetheless.  Stone had just been framed.  

Chapter 16 - 4:05am
30 March -
Hong Kong

Four a.m.  Stone was hooded and cuffed, riding in the back of a car.  He tried to remain alert and glean what was happening. 

Early mornings were a bad time for Stone.  Most people have that small ecstasy the start of a new day brings.  That tiny reminder of being alive.  For Stone, his days began with a reminder of people he’d seen killed.  Comrades, enemies, random bystanders.  They all looked the same dead.  Some call it post-traumatic stress.  It wasn’t.  It might be post-traumatic for all he knew, but it wasn’t stress.  

The peace activist thing was Stone’s way of dealing with it, but it was times like this, in the wee small hours, that he was honest enough with himself about how pathetically unsatisfying his new life was.  After the thrill of combat, nothing is the same again.  Hooded and cuffed in the back of the car, Stone felt a dim echo of the same thrill, reverberating in the pit of his stomach.  And he thought of that time with Hooper, trapped together in the dark cellar in Afghanistan.

Through the hood, Stone heard the noises change as they went under a tunnel.  They were passing back over to Hong Kong Island.  The car went round a series of bends.   They were in Mid-Levels, or maybe Happy Valley.  The upscale part of Hong Kong Island. 

Finally he was set down in a room.  There was a curt order in Chinese and his hood was removed.  Stone squinted into the bright lights.  Two of the olive drab and shiny boot team were in the room, at the back, with their guns.  Impassive, efficient, alert.  Then, facing Stone across a small melamine table was a solitary Chinese man in Communist Party garb – buttons right up the front of his jacket to the neck.  He even wore a Mao cap, like a stereotypical Communist Party man.  He was middle-aged and had that neutral look you often get with older Chinese people.  Neither smiling nor frowning.

The Chinese man’s eyes glittered with intelligence though.  Bright black eyes looked out from the slits in the wrinkled flesh of his flat Chinese face.  Stone stared back insolently.  He was beginning to enjoy this.

‘My name is Zhang, Englishman,’ he began in fluent English.  ‘You will address me as Professor Zhang.’

Stone knew all about what the word professor meant.  Or didn’t mean.  ‘I thought we called each other
tongzhi
in China?’ Stone used the Chinese word for
comrade
.  Old fashioned in the new China, but Zhang was definitely one of the old guard.

‘You are not my comrade, English,’ Zhang replied contemptuously.  ‘And you will call me professor.’  Zhang pulled himself up a little.  ‘It appears you know why you are here.’

‘No,’ Stone said.  It was the opposite of what he’d said when they arrested him.  Hopefully that would annoy Zhang.  His eyes stayed on Zhang – his hands, mannerisms, his eyes.  But the investigator was difficult to read.  His body language said nothing as yet.

‘You confessed at the time of your arrest,’ countered Zhang, as if already tired of the proceedings.

‘You choose your words with care, professor, so I shall do the same,’ said Stone.  Zhang nodded back to him, and Stone went on.  ‘I knew why I had been arrested.  And I can see from what you have said, that I am right.  I was arrested for the murder of Junko Terashima.  But your men have made a mistake.’

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