La Toile Blanche

'It's so fine and yet so terrible to stand in front of a blank canvas.'

The quote comes from Paul Cezanne, a 19th century post-impressionist painter, famed for bridging the creative gap between two visually distinctive periods in art. But even he would have at least slapped a little paint on the surface and given a fancy name to what I find myself staring at.

I'm standing in the middle of Paris's swanky 'La Toile Blanche' art gallery, owned by renowned art lover, Mr Hosea Careera. Naturally, the entire operation's a front for one of the most revered criminals operating in Europe today.

Behind me, 115 or so guests continue to mingle away, pointing at the various works on display and making light conversation around the merits of 'creative expression'. Among them I can practically feel Alex's hawk-like eyes piercing the back of my head. She doesn't trust me. More so now than ever before, what with our resident German assassin still strapped to the radiator in our hotel room. She resents me too, mainly for coercing her into keeping the entire affair secret from-

|"Holly!"|

"Ow! Damn it, Q! What have I told you about those blasted noise levels?"

|"Seriously? You're mad at me? You were supposed to check in every half hour! It's been... 34 minutes and 12 seconds, already!"|

"Gee, sorry dad! I was... caught up... thinking about... stuff." I tell him.

|"Oh, is that what that facial expression was? And there was I thinking you were constipated!"|

Luther.

"Now, now, Alex! Grown ups are talking!" I tell her.

|"Come on guys!"| pleads Q.

It was bad enough having one quasi-witted voice bouncing around inside my head, besides my own. Having two is proving anything but a party.

|"Okay, remember 'Hosea Carrera's' the target today, not each other. One of you needs to saddle up to him, nice and close, in order for your phones to get a clean lock onto his. Then it's a quick 60 seconds and 'hey presto'..."|

"Instant wifi!" I exclaim.

|"Holly..."|

|"Be a professional, Blondie."|

"Be seen and not heard, Alex."

|"Enough, both of you! Man! Need I remind you we're on a clock to find the location and date of the next Auction event? Cloning this bloke's phone is our only bleeding way of possibly obtaining that information!"|

"Relax Q, I'm sure there's an alternative source out there somewhere!"

|"There was, Holly. You shot him back in Moscow! Now, time's ticking, ladies. Do either of you have eyes on the mark?"|

"Nope!"

|"Nothing yet! What kind of host shows up late to his own event?"|

"The kind that likes to make an entrance, I guess?"

"You too, huh?" says a sudden voice behind me. Not sure why it startles me. I mean it's not like I'm standing in the middle of a public exhibition with a hundred or so other people. Oh wait, I am.

I spin around to see a young yet surprisingly cute looking guy addressing me. Or make that 'undressing me', from that look in his eyes I've seen way too many times before. Maybe it's the wine he's gulping down like it was purified H2O imported from Mount Tamborine.

"Hi!" I say.

"Hello!" he says.

"Hello." I say.

"Hi." he says.

|"Wow!"| exclaims Alex |"Your conversational skills are clearly on point, Holly! No wonder your still single!"|

"No wonder what?" I shout.

"I'm sorry?" asks the guy, with a perturbed look on his face. Heck, Holly, think!

"No... wonder what... mood... you find yourself in, you can always count on 'art' to... help lift your spirits!" I tell him.

|"Good save, blondie!"|

"Never a truer word said!" he replies.

"Yeah. Err... what did you mean by 'you too'?" I ask.

"Saw you talking to yourself a moment ago. I... regularly have moments where I can only be intellectually stimulated by having lenthy conversations with myself." he chuckles.

Deja vu's a b-itch.

"The name's Edward. Edward Jarvis."

"Hi, Catherine Tate. Pleasure to meet you." I say.

"'Tate' as in 'modern'?" he asks, with a knowing smile. "Surely not a coincidence?"

"Ah, well... what can I say, it's in the blood, I guess! And you, what's your excuse?"

"Slightly less obvious." he gushes. "Take this picture behind us, the one you appear to be so enamoured by..."

"'Enamoured'? I... wouldn't go that far. More 'perturbed' to be honest. At how something as plain and ordinary as a blank sheet of canvas could ever warrant being displayed amongst such fine interpretations of creative thought and emotion?"

|"Touché. Although a little heavy on the 'Art diva schtick'!"|

"As... I was saying," he continues, "take this art piece I 'submitted' to him some months back. I created it with the sole purpose of... evoking feelings of weightlessness, isolation... !"

|"Uh-oh. Busted."|

"Wow! I... had no idea you...! Yes... now you mention it, I... do get a... faint sense of... err... stuff."

An awkward silence ensues, thankfully broken by his sudden burst of boyish laughter. I follow suit, though more out an overwhelming sense of embarrassment. Time for a topic change.

"So, what's up with the host?" I ask. "Four hours into his own event and he still doesn't show? Here's hoping he doesn't turn out to be another rich, anti-social, recluse, addressing us via a live video feed! Maybe even pre-recorded?"

I cap off my witty remark with a schoolgirl giggle, just for effect.

"What, you mean my father?" he suddenly says. The giggles stop.

|"Wow, blondie! If your foot could reach any further into your mouth, you'd be the worlds greatest contortionist, you know that?"|

"Your father? Gee!" I say, through gritted teeth. "Who would have know? I mean, different surnames and all... I really should check my 'sources' before opening my big, fat, dumb, mouth!"

|"Hey, don't blame me, Holly."| squeals Q. |"There's no intel on Carrera ever having a son or daughter or... anything else for that matter. Well... not legitimately, anyway!"|

"Don't sweat it! He... doesn't like to talk about me much, as in 'at all'" he explains. "Says its not conducive to the professional image he's trying to project! Like he's 'afraid' of people finding out about me or something! Or ashamed."

|"Of course, why wouldn't he be? Extensive list of enemies he must have amassed over his 'career'... If any of em got wind of a potential exploitive weakness...?"|

|"Genius is right, Blondie! But if the dude's disclosing his true identity to you in the first 5 minutes... homeboy's ripe for some serious exploiting, himself. Do your thang, gal!"|

"Maybe he's... just trying to connect with you first." I say. "Before officially introducing you to the world, I mean. He did give you a prime spot in his much revered gallery, right?"

"Right. Yeah, I guess...!" he agrees, reluctantly.

"So... ah... is he... around? Your father, I mean? I'm dying to meet him!" I gush.

|"Careful what you wish for, there."|

"Yea. He's... taking care of business. He'll be down shortly."

That's when I see her. The girl from the airport with cropped black hair, standing in the centre of the crowd like some weird spectral ghost. What the heck is she doing here? Is she... following me? Just as her eyes flicker towards mine, Jarvis taps my shoulder, distracting me for a second, and when I turn back she's gone.

"Hey, err... be a dear and get me another glass, will you?" I ask. "And make sure it's a... freshly opened bottle, please?"

The look on his face leads me to think he thinks he's getting lucky tonight. Men.

|"Einstein, could you do a remote localised sweep on the floors above us? Something tells me that 'business' of his doesn't involve Christmas card deals with the local stationery outlet!"|

|"Way ahead of you, Alex. Reading several heat signatures two flights above your position, some kinda large open space... there's a window nearby... tapping into a localised CCTV feed now, hopefully get a visual from the outside."|

"Is it him?"

|"Confirmed. It's Hosea Carrera. Looks like he's having a dispute of some kind... possibly with a... potential client?."|

|"Can you get audio?"|

|"Hey, I'm a genius not a magician! Cut me some slak, will ya?"|

|"Sorry, kinda figured it was the same thing?"|

"Any ID's on the company he's keeping?"

|"A couple of your usual heavies on standby near a door... some dude in the middle sporting #worstsuitever, looks nervous too... then to our right we have... err... we... nope, that's pretty much it! Look, why don't we... go radio silent till he finally... err... everybody mingle, okay? Q, out!"|

Well, this is turning out to be a fun night out. If Hosea's a no-show the missions practically DOA and we're back to square one having lost two days of our-

|"Holly."|

"Yes?"

|"It's Alexia."|

"As in, I'm... talking to Alexia?"

|"No, dummy, your talking to Q... who happens to be looking at Alexia!"|

"Wait, Alexia is there with you now?"

|"For the love of... No! Alexia is there with you. Now!"|

"Sorry, I... don't quite follow."

|"Upstairs from your location, bumping fists with Hosea and his badguy buddies... It's her! I'm looking right at her! She's there!"|

"Oh... oh! Oh, this is very bad."

|"Somehow 'very bad' doesn't quite do the scenario justice! Where's Alex?"|

"Currently being entertained by some slimy-looking dude, old enough to be her father's senior Bridge partner. Wait, is Hinx up there with em?"

|"Let's see... large, ominous, skyscraper-looking dude, physically putting the rest of the world's male population in the shade? Yep, he's there!"|

Doesn't make sense. Hinx knows Alexia warned me about the hit. Whatever cover she was under at the time was clearly blown out into the open. But if he knows, why hasn't he exposed her? He's playing the long game. Must be. Question is, which-

"Hey sorry, got caught up with this potential-Hey, you alright? Look like you seen a ghost or something?"

Yeah. Or soon to be.

To be continued...