I have to revise a few chapters because I found that I changed a characters name in mid-stream. My OCD won't let that ride.
Bertoli opened the door and motioned for us to follow him inside. A young man with black hair and mustache and dark eyes leaned back in a chair at a desk, covered with piles of paper. An ancient computer sat on a table to the side. Three file cabinets lined one short wall.
"Hi boss!" The man sat up straighter. "Can I help you?"
"Not me, but perhaps you can tell these gentlemen whether two young women were here this afternoon to meet with Julio."
I spoke up. "They had a three o'clock appointment with someone here."
"Oh, them. Something about catering, right?"
"Sure, they met with Julio."
"Did you see them leave?" Giordano asked.
He shook his head. "Don't know. Julio had me take over out front. I didn't see them leave, but we were busier than usual today."
"Would Julio leave any notes on the meeting?" I asked Bertoli.
"Only if they reached a tentative proposal. But I would have to pass on whether we were going to made any agreement with anyone." He shook his head. "He didn't leave me anything."
"You said that you can't give out contact information for your employees, but would you call him for us and ask about his discussion with Nina and Jess?" Wilson said.
Bertoli hesitated. I could almost imagine wheels turning in his brain. "I could do that." he took out his cellphone and punched a number, then left the office so he would have privacy.
We waited for him to return, hoping he'd have news that would help us. But it was obvious from the frown on his face when he walked back through the door that he was unsatisfied with what he'd learned.
"Julio isn't answering either his home or cellphone. That's not like him."
"This is serious, Mr. Bertoli," Johnny said. "I think it's time you tell us where he lives. If you wish to accompany us, I have no objection, but we have to find and talk to him."
Bertoli hesitated, but then nodded. "Alright. He lives on Cedar, not far from the library. Luca, I'll be going with these gentlemen."
"Sure, boss. I hope Julio's not in any kind of trouble."
"So do I." Bertoli turned to us. "Let's go."
We all got into Johnny's car and sped off toward the part of Princeton where Julio lived with Bertoli giving directions. "It's that building, the one with the green awning."
Johnny parked not far away and we all got out. It was a four-story apartment house. No doorman but you couldn't enter without one of the residents letting you in. Bertoli pushed a button next to the name Julio Curci. There was no response. I reached over and pushed a random button.
"Who's there?" a tremulous voice came through the tinny speaker.
"Hey, Mrs. Carson, I got a delivery for you."
Johnny and Bertoli looked at me and shrugged.
"Sure, sure!" A buzzer sounded and we were in.
Bertoli took the stairs to the second floor and we followed. He knocked at the second door along the landing. Still no answer. By that time it wasn't surprising. Julio wasn't home. It was anyone's guess where he was instead.
"Does he have a girlfriend or a close relative who'd know where he went?" Wilson asked.
Bertoli shook his head. "He's only been here about a year. His family's all still back in Sicily."
"So now what?"
"We can wait for him to come home." He leaned against the wall and crossed his arms.
"Or we check to make sure he isn't just playing possum." I removed a credit card from my wallet and attacked the lock to the door.
Bertoli stood up straighter and glared at me. "Hey, what are you doing? Isn't that breaking and entering?"
"I'm a doctor and I'm afraid I need to get into this apartment to make sure Julio isn't so ill he can't answer his bell." The lock clicked and I pushed the door open.
It was a studio apartment. Kitchen alcove to the right, living area with a sectional couch and a big-screen TV straight ahead, and an unmade bed off to the left. Two doors led to the bathroom and a closet. Julio wasn't there.
I looked for any clues, beginning in the kitchen. The best I could do was a pad on the counter, but there was nothing written on it. "Anyone got a pencil?" All I got were three questioning stares. I grimaced back at them. "Haven't you ever used one to see what was written on the last page removed from a pad of paper?"
Wilson's face cleared first. "Oh!" He reached into his pocket protector and took out a mechanical pencil. "Will this do?" He held it out to me.
"Better than nothing." I rubbed the graphite on the pad, but all that showed up was a number. From the spacing, I guessed it was a phone number. I punched it into my phone but all I got was a recording from a movie theater not far away, giving the time of the showings of the latest films.
A phone began to chime. It wasn't mine. I'd never use that ringtone. Bertoli flipped open an older phone, shook his head, but answered anyway. "Hello? Who is this?" His face paled as he listened. "What do you want?" He reached for the pad I'd been examining along with Wilson's pencil. "Fourteenth? Yeah, I got that." He closed the phone and turned to us. "They want a hundred thousand for the return of my employees. From the description, I think they mean Julio and the two women."
"What else did they say?"
"I'm supposed to bring the money to the bus station on Fourteenth Street, and leave it in locker six-oh-four, then walk away. They say they'll deliver the three of them to the alley behind the restaurant within an hour."
"And you believed them?" I couldn't believe he'd be so trusting.
Bertoli shrugged. "Do I have a choice?"
"Can you come up with the money?" Wilson asked.
"It won't be easy."
"I can help," Johnny offered.
Wilson nodded. "We can too."
For once I didn't tell him not to speak for me.
"There's a bank with an ATM a couple of blocks down. We'll stop there." Bertoli started for the door.
I tried to figure the angles as we left the building, but he was right. We didn't have any other options. All we could do was hope the extortionists would release the sisters. I tried not to think about how frightened they must be. I knew Jess was strong, but wasn't as sure about Nina.
We drove to the bank and each of us tapped our accounts, coming up with the required amount. At a dollar store nearby, we picked up a cheap backpack and stuffed the bills into it, then continued on to the bus station. Inside, it smelled like every bus station I'd ever been in, a mixture of beer and sweat, urine and bleach that couldn't mask any of the rest. Fumes from the buses running outside penetrated to add just the right touch.
Banks of lockers were on either side of the ticket booths. Like all of the others, six oh four didn't have a lock. Luckily it wasn't in use, but there was no way to prevent anyone from opening it and removing the money before the abductors showed up.
"What do we do now?" Wilson asked.
"We leave the money and walk away." Bertoli opened the locker door wide and stuffed the backpack inside, then shut it again.
"Maybe someone should stay and watch it."
Bertoli shook his head. "I took enough of a chance having you three guys with me when I put the money in. They told me to come alone. And they also said to leave and not look back or something bad would happen to Julio and the ladies."
Wilson and I nodded and walked away.
Johnny hesitated, but he soon joined us outside the terminal. "I don't like this but I guess it can't be helped."
As Bertoli walked past us he said, "Let's get over to the restaurant. We should be in the alley when they drop them off."
It was a short drive, but my heart was in my throat the entire way. So many things could go wrong.
Out in the street it was still bright, between the streetlights and the light pouring out of the stores and restaurants, but the alley was dark. We found a spot to wait, near a smelly dumpster. I swear I heard the scurry of rats around us and was glad I couldn't see them.
We didn't have long to wait. A long black car, maybe a Lincoln, drove up to the mouth of the alley and stopped. Three bundles were tossed out before the car sped off again.