H E I N H E R I T A N C E
According to her mother, Marc Joubert's life expectancy could be measured in days, perhaps even hours. It would soon be too late for him to make amends, too late for anything except regrets. God knew, she had plenty of those whereas her father most likely had none. With his usual reckless aplomb, he would face the prospect of meeting his Maker without a twinge of guilt or apprehension. Why would he be fearful? He had always enjoyed a flexible conscience and a supreme confidence in his ability to charm the stripes off the meanest tiger. He'd bargained with Saddam Hussein and come out the winner. He'd dealt with one of the bloodiest splinter groups of the IRA and made a tidy profit. When the Soviet army was being routed in Afghanistan, he'd sold Stinger missiles to three different factions of Afghani rebels and walked away unharmed. In her father's mind, talking himself through Saint Peter's pearly gates would barely present a challenge.
Belle paid off the cab driver, adding a generous tip as an apology for not having spoken a word, and crossed the few sweltering feet of pavement that separated her from the air-conditioned entrance to Miami's Good Samaritan hospital. When she'd left her Chicago office it had been unusually cool for late September. Here in Miami, it was hot and steamy enough to wilt her gray linen skirt and stick her tailored jacket to her back. She hoisted her hastily-packed travel bag higher onto her shoulder and willed herself not to feel frazzled. For a woman who prided herself on keeping her emotions on an even keel, her coping techniques had been conspicuously unsuccessful since her mother's phone call.
The hospital was vast, and Belle realized she was going to have to ask for directions to the Intensive Care Unit. Was she capable of sounding civil if she spoke? Belle closed her eyes, drew multiple deep breaths and managed to shove her anger back down into the deep hiding place she'd custom-built for it during two years of expensive therapy.
"I'm here to see Marc Joubert," she said to the gray-haired volunteer at the information desk. "He's had open heart surgery and he's in intensive care." She was relieved to hear that her voice sounded calm and perfectly pleasant. She left high drama to the other members of her family. Her parents and siblings could transform a piece of burned toast into a tragic opera in four acts.
The volunteer glanced down a list on the check board in front of her. "Yes, Mr. Joubert is in the hospital, but his visitors are restricted to immediate family only."
Thank God he wasn't dead already. "I'm his daughter. Isabella Joubert." Her voice suddenly sounded thick with tears. Belle gave a tiny shake to clear her head and held out her Illinois driver's license to prove her claim, waiting patiently while the volunteer searched for her name on the list of approved visitors. Instead of increasing her tension, the delay actually calmed her. Belle understood the need for rules and approved of security measures in public places. In fact, Belle appreciated rules and regulations in general since they made life more civilized and orderly. She only wished the other members of her family shared her point of view.
The volunteer smiled as she handed over a plastic card. "Thanks for waiting, Ms. Joubert. I've found your name, so you can go right up. Here's your pass. Intensive care is in the west wing." She pointed to her left. "You can take these elevators here. Go straight ahead and follow the maroon arrows when you get to the fifth floor."
The intensive care unit turned out to be a considerable distance from the elevators. Belle strode briskly along the corridors, trying to outpace the images crowding into her head from the last time she had seen her father, seven years earlier. Marc Joubert had been a vigorous sixty then, still at the height of his powers, a master of manipulative charm. It troubled her to remember that if it hadn't been for Sandro Marchese and her desperate need to get away from their failed love affair, she would probably have succumbed to her father's blandishments and remained in Miami. How ironic to think that a crook like Sandro had been responsible for pushing her out of the soiled family nest and into the world of honest, legal work.
Belle hated that memory and all the others involving her father. Not because Marc had been cruel and vindictive, but because he'd always seemed to be the ideal father. Why couldn't he have been a monster who beat his wife and tortured his children? Why did he have to be so damn lovable ... so seductively reasonable in his self-justification?
As usual, she could find no answer to her questions. Marc Joubert was living proof that it was possible to be both a devoted family man, a friendly neighbor, and a ruthless merchant of death. Belle's footsteps faltered under the weight of painful and guilty memories. What was she doing here? Despite seven years of trying, she'd never come to terms with her past, only found ways to keep it buried, where it couldn't hurt. This trip was opening up old wounds and making them bleed hot, fresh blood.
But it seemed that emotion was stronger than reason and she kept walking forward, although when the nurses' station came into view she almost turned tail and marched straight back to the elevators. In the end she was propelled forward by a primeval urge to see her father once more before he died.
"I'm Isabella Joubert," she said to one of the nurses, flashing her pass. "I'm here to see Marc Joubert, my father."
"Yes, of course. He's in room 506. Your mother is with him, but your brother and sister just went downstairs to the cafeteria. They'd been sitting with your father for five hours straight, ever since my shift started." The nurse gave her a sympathetic glance and handed her a tissue. To her chagrin, Belle realized that despite her best efforts, she was crying. From frustration and confusion and the ache of old wounds, she decided. It couldn't be from grief. She wouldn't allow it to be from grief.
She blew her nose, straightened her shoulders and walked to the door the nurse had indicated. Tapping softly, she walked in.
Her mother was sitting on one side of the bed, holding Marc's hand. Carole Joubert had none of her husband's warmth or wit, but she had an unlimited reserve of volatile emotions. Although she and Belle had never been close, and hadn't seen each other for seven years, she burst into a flood of tears the moment she saw her eldest child, scooping Belle into her arms and sobbing gustily, as if every second apart had been sheer torment for her.
"I thought you were never going to get here," she said, mopping her eyes. "Your poor father has been asking for you ever since he came out of surgery. I didn't know what to say to him. I was afraid you wouldn't come. You were so cold and hostile on the phone. You never did love any of us, did you?" She dissolved into another burst of tears.
Belle felt the sharp stab of old hurts. She drew in a shaky breath. "I'm sorry, Mom, I caught the first plane I could. I didn't mean to sound hostile when you called, but I was in a meeting and it wasn't easy to talk."
Carole's only reply was to sob into her wad of tissues. Feeling guilty -- no surprise there -- Belle untangled herself from her mother's embrace and cast a single, swift glance toward the shrunken figure in the bed. She had to swallow hard before she could speak. "How's Dad doing?"
She shouldn't have asked. Her mother's tears intensified to the point that she could barely speak, which was all the answer Belle needed. She poured her mother a drink of iced water and gently led her to a chair. "Rest for a few minutes, Mom. Maybe you could even try to catch a few minutes' sleep now that I'm here. You must be exhausted."
"I couldn't possibly sleep," Carole said with sudden composure. "For heaven's sake, your father is dying. The doctors say he's hanging on by sheer willpower and he might go at any minute."
"Dad always had plenty of willpower, that's for sure," Belle said with wry appreciation. "He's got to be the most stubborn man I've ever met."
Carole frowned. "Really, Belle, you're impossible. Now isn't the time for rehashing old scores, especially since you were the person at fault."
"I'm sorry." Belle didn't attempt to defend herself. She and her mother had such different personalities that they frequently misunderstood each other. But having agreed to come home to Miami, she was determined not to fight with her mother or anyone else in the family.
She walked over to the bed, her anger and frustration melting into a sorrow so intense that her stomach clenched in pain. She wondered if it had been easier to confront death in the old days, when people died at home, without monitors and blinking digital numbers displaying the inexorable failure of the body's systems. She'd thought she was mentally prepared to see her father laid low, but she found she was far from ready to endure a visible, second-by-second countdown to death.
Turning her back on the telltale electronic graphs, Belle eased herself between the machines and the bed so that she could take her father's hand. It felt dry and paper-light in her clasp, tethered to life only by the needles and tubes running in and out of his bruised flesh. Belle blinked hard and stared at the wall because it suddenly hurt too much to look down at this dying man who was her father. The man who had been the idol of her childhood and the lode star of her adolescence.
Her mother's voice came from behind her. "Look, your father is opening his eyes. I don't know if he'll be able to speak to you. Sometimes he has the strength and sometimes he doesn't."
Marc Joubert's gaze wandered for a moment, then fixed on Belle's face. It took a full minute before recognition dawned, this his mouth trembled into a smile. "Isabella, my beautiful girl. You came."
Helpless and aching, she returned his smile. "Hello, Daddy. I came as soon as I knew you were sick."
"I couldn't go without seeing you again." His smile faded into a grimace. "Don't ... cry, pumpkin."
She could feel the tears rolling down her cheeks, faster and faster. She looked around for a box of tissues but couldn't see one amidst all the high tech clutter. She rubbed her eyes with her knuckles. "All right, I won't."
He tried to stroke her cheek, but he lacked the strength to lift his hand with its accompanying welter of tubes and needles. Heart aching, she grazed her knuckles gently against his cheek and he closed his eyes, drifting off into another few seconds of unconsciousness.
When he opened his eyes again, his gaze was momentarily confused. "Isabella, my girl. You're still here. I was afraid I'd dreamed you."
"No, I'm really here. It's good to see you again, Daddy."
"So why are you crying?"
Belle shook her head. "I'm not crying. I'm just glad you're feeling well enough to talk."
"Talk has always been my strong suit." With visible effort, he brought his gaze into focus, the pain and drug-induced confusion conquered by his infamous willpower. The commanding Marc Joubert she remembered was in charge again, at least for a moment. "You deserved a better man than me for your father, Belle."
The old Marc Joubert would never have apologized, never have admitted to any possible failure on his part as a parent. Pulses pounding, Belle closed her eyes, not knowing how to handle this unexpected apology. In the end, she gave up on fighting the truth and leaned across the bed to rest her head on his shoulder as she had done so many times when she was a child. "I love you, Daddy, and when I was little I thought you were the best father any child could have."
"I love you, too." His fingers brushed her hair with shaky strokes. "God, I've missed you, Belle. You were such a happy child. Always laughing, even when you were a teenager, full of hormones and rebellion. You've no idea how much I've missed the sound of your laughter."
Had she once been a girl who laughed easily? It was difficult to remember a time when she'd been carefree enough to laugh. The darkness of her early twenties lay between the happy child her father recalled and the solemn, hardworking woman she had become. Since she didn't know what to say, Belle remained silent. A coping mechanism of hers that had been overworked in recent years, she thought grimly.
Even on his deathbed, Marc Joubert was a smart enough negotiator to know when to change the subject. He gave a final brief caress to her hair, then spoke abruptly. "Belle, I need your help."
She tensed, instantly wary, pulling herself out of his embrace as she sat up. Her father looked at her with an expression full of regret and self-reproach. "Don't worry," he said. "I'm not asking you to offend against those tiresome suburban moral values of yours."
"Suburban isn't a curse word, you know." The rebuke had been reflexive. Belle pulled herself up short and started over. "What do you want me to do, Dad? I'll help if I can."
Before answering, her father looked across at his wife, who smiled at him anxiously. "Marc, honey, don't tire yourself. You know what the doctors said--"
"Sure I know. They said I'm dying."
"No." Carole's smile dissolved and she gave way to a fresh bout of noisy tears. "No, they said you had to rest to regain your strength--"
"And I will as soon as I've spoken to my daughter." Marc sighed, sounding weak and exhausted.
Belle gestured to her mother, indicating the monitors that were spiking ominously. Carole subsided into her chair, sobbing, and Belle took her father's hand. "I'm listening, Dad. If it's legal, I'll try my best to do whatever you want."
"It's legal. Right up your alley, in fact." His voice grew so hoarse and shaky that Belle had to put her ear almost against his mouth in order to hear what he was saying. " There's a computer disk in my office at home. It's hidden behind your photograph, labeled Charitable Contributions. Take it, Belle."
"Yes, I'll find it. Do you want me to bring the disk here for you? Or I could print out the information."
"No." His voice shook with anxiety. "Don't let anyone know what you've got. Not anyone, understand? Keep it safe and use it after I'm dead. I need you to make everything come right, Belle."
"By making charitable donations? Haven't you taken care of that in your will?"
Her father's eyes were hazy again, their momentary power and focus fading. "Make it come right, Belle. I'm counting on you. You're the only one I can trust to do this. There's someone using my name..."
His voice faded away, and Belle remained silent so that he could catch his breath. She was relieved that he'd asked her to do something that seemed unlikely to pose any ethical dilemma for her. Although, even if her father planned to leave every penny he possessed to worthy causes, that wouldn't compensate for a lifetime spent selling stolen American technology to the highest bidders. But since the past couldn't be unwritten, Belle was grateful to know that he was planning to give a portion of his ill-gotten gains to charity. The gifts must be substantial, she reasoned, or he wouldn't need a computer disk to itemize his instructions. As far as she was concerned, the more of his illicit fortune that was given away, the better.
She squeezed his hand gently when she saw that he was watching her again. "I'll take care of it, Dad, I promise. You can count on me."
"That's my girl. I'm sorry, Belle, for everything. Always loved you bes..." His eyes closed and almost at once the monitors started to buzz an insistent ominous warning.
From the corner of the room, Belle heard her mother scream. She looked down at her father, panic sending her stomach into a sharp nose dive. She wanted to scream at him to hang on, to fight for life as he'd fought for power and success and money, but her voice was stuck somewhere behind the huge swelling that closed her throat.
"Marc!" Her mother's cry spiraled into a high note of hysteria. Pushing Belle aside, Carole fell across her husband's body, begging and pleading with him to talk to her one more time.
The flatline on the monitors explained why the once-mighty and powerful Marc Joubert couldn't answer her.
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