Seven Little Girls

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Nick and Tori Carlson deal with crooked finance, murder, mafias, terrorism, diplomacy, war and peace; while editing a major magazine and acting as surrogate parents for seven little girls.

Thriller / Mystery
Richard Russell
Age Rating:

Chapter One

“Uncle Nick, just the man I need,” said Hetty as I walked in the door of the loft on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

It was Saturday afternoon and I’d just put in a boring half day in the office of the magazine, Confidential News and World Report, where I was the Editor-in -chief. Hetty, the dancer who lived with my wife Tori and me ever since she joined the Inner City Ballet Theater was teaching her third annual debutante ballroom dance class.

Hetty came from Tori’s and my hometown, Annandale, California. Four years earlier our daughter, Kat, became the winemaker there, and Hetty received an offer from the ballet company, so they just sort of swapped places. The debutante classes were part of how the company supported itself. The featured dancers taught debs ballroom to dance with their partners when they came out, at some pretty hefty fees. Hetty had been featured soloist for three years and, due to the pregnancy of the principal dancer, had recently moved into that slot.

“Two of these girls have tango notes,” said Hetty. “So, I kinda need a little help.”

Tango notes stemmed from the fact that, the first year Hetty did this she caused a bit of a stir. Hetty and I were both super fans of Valentino’s tango from the old silent movie The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. We learned to dance a pretty decent version of it. The dance, as filmed was almost as much apache as tango and obviously since it made Valentino a super star, erotically charged. Hetty taught two couples to dance it and caused the debutante ball it was done in to be featured in a couple society columns, none too flatteringly. So, for the last two years, Hetty sent home a note with any Deb who wanted to learn the tango that had to be signed by their parents.

The boys always learned much faster than the girls in these classes, I always assumed because from the time they entered the loft to when they left their eyes rarely left Hetty’s legs. The fastest way for any man to learn any dance step is to be taught by a ballerina in tights.

“If you have the time, Uncle Nick, I’d like to show it to them, and have you dance with both of them,” said Hetty.

“Let me change,” I said.

“Is your class staying for dinner?” asked Tori.

“No, Aunt Tori, my diet doesn’t appeal to them.”

Tori headed research at the magazine and when Hetty moved in with us she went into storm mode, the office’ shorthand for her demanding reams of research to be handled yesterday. Professional dancers are prone to several bad things. Anorexia, bulimia, smoking and drugs top the list, and injuries similar to sports injuries were also common, especially in the Balanchine method Hetty danced. Tori put together a simple exercise program and a special diet with supplements for Hetty, and was pretty rigid about making sure Hetty stuck to the program. The diet was rather bland, and most people who tried it never stayed for a second meal. Hetty didn’t rebel against it and after four years it was pretty much just normal. It was actually better for us as well, as we joined Hetty for her workout of stretching exercises every morning, along with our twelve-year-old son, Ray. Hetty’s only allowed treat was her Thursday night dinner with Confidential’s owner and publisher emeritus, Harold Reilly.

Our daughter Kat had spent three years with the magazine as a reviewer, and Thursday night Harold always accompanied her to a restaurant she was reviewing. When she left to pursue her dream of becoming a winemaker he was devastated. When we brought Hetty to New York, he immediately reinstated Thursday night with Hetty replacing Kat. It started out as Hetty’s only duty as an intern at the magazine, a “job” I arranged to give her a cushion at the start of her dancing career. She and Harold enjoyed it so much that they kept it up and twice a year Hetty actually wrote a review.

I changed into one of the exercise sweats Hetty bought me to exercise and dance in. She wanted me to dress in tights, but I had to draw the line somewhere. We’d toned down the dance a bit over the last couple years, replacing a lot of the apache elements with tango. Still changing the prositute/pimp elements for the gaucho/prostitute elements didn’t tone it down all that much. Hetty and I danced it and then traded off two dances with the couples. I helped the girls and Hetty the boys. The boys tended to do a little better, though Hetty did intimidate them a bit. At a little more than five seven and solid as a rock as well as gorgeous eighteen-year-old boys usually got shaky dancing with her, especially the tango.

Tori brought me a glass of wine when I finished and I sat at the bar watching with her.

“I think we should bring Rick and Candi home,” she said.

Rick and Candi replaced us on the foreign affairs desk when we moved up; they had gone to the Near East to cover an Israeli, Palestinian conflict and ran into a civil war in Lebanon.

“You think the Syrians will win then?” I said.

“I think that’s a given, and they’d like nothing better than to take Rick off the board.”

“What’ll that buy them? You think they want to make enemies of us? Their press here is bad enough already. And they know we’ve never been in their corner.”

“It’ll settle some of the radical elements, and you know they’re key there. I arranged for them to get out of Beirut tomorrow, and promised Candi I’d call in about an hour when they get up. I was on the phone when you decided to go home so I couldn’t bring it up at the office.”

“Better safe than sorry. Is Beirut safe?”

“Should be for a day or two at least.”

“So, do it. Tell them Monday afternoon I want a draft for you to fact check.”

“Fast track it?”

“I want it for the next issue. Then I want them on Iraq/Kuwait. Hussein is saber rattling big time. That’s the story for the rest of the year. Dig into Nasser a bit and see if you can find parallels to Hussein. Nasser parlayed defeat into near leadership of the Arab world. Hussein will be defeated if he pushes beyond diplomacy see if he is playing the same game.”

Hetty came up behind Tori and put her arms around her. “It’s Saturday afternoon, don’t you two ever stop?”

“Do you stop dancing?”

“Sure, I stand still every once in a while.”

“Ray hiding?”

“He gets jealous when I dance with other boys. Locks himself up in his room, probably playing a computer game.”

“How’s this group?” I asked.

“I got the worst of it, three football players. I mean isn’t that a sport? I can’t get them balanced on their own feet, they lean on their partner and I can’t break them of it.”

“In football, your balance is created by leaning on your opponent, it’s a contact sport. It’s their natural reaction to contact. Susan used to tell me to lean back, eventually it forced me to center myself on my feet not on my partner.”

“I’ll try it. Aunt Tori, you up for a sale at Century 21 tomorrow? The Raiders are on T.V. if we stay home we’ll just get ignored.”

“There are charms to being ignored, but both of us could use the shopping. What’d you take out the tofu or the chicken breasts?”

“Tofu, put it in a marinade of lime, ginger, sweet soy and garlic. I even got ambitious before the crew showed up and chunked the broccoli and carrots. I figured we could just steam them over the rice in the bamboo cooker.”

“So, let me make my call and I’ll start dinner,” said Tori getting up.

Ray peeked out of his room about then and noticed the class had left so he came in to join us.

“So, conquer a significant portion of the universe?” I said.

“No actually I was reading the book Kat sent me.”

“The wine book?”


“Kat was about your age when she decided to be a winemaker, you headed there?”


“C’mon Baby Bear,” said Hetty, “Dance with me, I’m tired of getting my toes stepped on.”

At dinner, I brought up a subject that we discussed and I started to handle from the office.

“Jeff Browne called the office today. I told him that I wasn’t going to renew his lease. I also said that I’d give him his key money at what he paid plus a hundred for the new refrigerator. So, come the first of the month if you and your friends want it, it’s open.”

“We can have it?” said Hetty, “Really?”

“Seven fifty a month, but you have to redo it yourselves. If you want the four bedrooms and the studio you should figure about ten to twelve thousand.”

“We figured we have fifteen, which wouldn’t do the key money and the remodel, so we were going to give up.”

“I’ll own the fixtures, it’s my loft after all.”

“And we can turn it into a big rehearsal space?”

“The object is that you can turn it into anything you want.”

“And it wouldn’t bother you? I mean the noise and stuff.”

“No more than you bother us now, which isn’t much.”

“And you wouldn’t be losing money? I mean we looked, and there is nothing half that size at that price.”

“Hetty, the grocery store on the first floor pays all the bills. I’m making seven fifty a month.”

“I hate losing kids,” said Tori as she backed into me in bed that evening. “Even if they aren’t mine.”

“She’s only going down a floor.”

“Who’s going to make sure she eats right, exercises. You read Gelsey Kirkland’s book. I don’t want her going through those things.”

“She read the book too. She knows what to do.”

I could feel her start to cry. I did all I could, kissed her cheek and held her.

I think the thing I missed most about Kat having left was the fact that I was alone from five to about seven in the morning. Tori woke at five, she had never lost the morning shift at Rosie’s Diner in Annandale, but almost as a protest she resolutely forced herself back to sleep. Hetty and Ray didn’t appear until seven. Kat was usually up with me at five. It left me to drink coffee and reflect. The problem was that Kat had always acted as a sounding board. Empty air didn’t work as well.

I had a feature in my head and I could have used the feedback.

It involved Hetty and Angie Aronelli. About four years earlier, when Hetty came to New York and Angie went to San Francisco’s Contemporary Dance Company, I predicted that both would become principal dancers in a major company. Now that both were it was time for the feature that had been percolating that long. I wanted to make a point about how we treat art and artists in our society. Both Hetty and Angie were talents that dwarfed that of most of high school quarterbacks who got free rides in advanced education. If the magazine and I hadn’t stepped in with some support for them they’d have had to live in single occupancy room hotels and flip burgers to even start.

I had already started with Hetty, but was unsure how to go with Angie. Angie still lived in the duplex studio of Other Worlds, Ted and Donna’s computer company. We remodeled it for her to share a practice space with Hetty in the garage. When Hetty moved she kept it. I knew the story had to go to Joey, the West Coast editor, but I was considering asking Ted to do the story.

Ted wrote scenarios for computer games and he was much better than he thought he was. His wife Donna was a talented artist. They understood the dancer, as an artist, Joey might, but most trained journalists wouldn’t. To make it work the audience had to understand the artistic compulsion and people without it never explained it well. Kat would have understood better than Tori, she had a similar compulsion to make wine. Ted was Tori’s brother and oddly her son as well, she had adopted him to keep him out of foster care when their parents died in a car accident. Legally he was my son and Kat grew up as his ‘little sister,’ from the time we adopted her at thirteen. She’d have some insight for me.

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