Ella and the Ball

 

Inspired by Cinderella

 

Kaye George

 

When she heard the faint whir, Ella stopped sobbing to look at the window. It was spotless, of course, since she cleaned it every day. A drone hovered outside, almost knocking against the glass. Ella drew in her breath, jumped up from the hearth, and hurried to the front door.

 

Her stepmother and stepsisters had left ten minutes ago for the ball at the palace, taunting Ella for not having anything to wear and not being able to go with them.

 

“Poor Cindy, stuck in the cinders,” Ugg had said, twisting her scrawny face into an ugly leer. Lee, her twin sister giggled behind her pudgy hand.

 

Ella hated it when they called her Cindy, short for Cinder Ella.

 

“Come, girls, we mustn’t be late,” Harrid Anne, Ella’s stepmother, croaked.

 

“Aw geez,” Ugg whined. “We’re going to be way early if we leave now.”

 

“Come, come, early is better than late,” Harrid Anne insisted. They had swept out then, throwing smirks at Ella as they were handed into the rented carriage.

 

The drone was at the front door when Ella threw it open. It lowered to the porch floor and opened its clamps to set down a large package with her name on it. Her real name, Ella Bellisimo. Amazing! It was for her!

 

Her stepmother and sisters had taken the same last name, and had kept it even after her poor, overworked father died. She’d been surprised to learn that he had taken out a huge life insurance policy benefitting them, but not her, shortly before his death.

 

 

 

The drone buzzed away, into the deepening dusk, and Ella lugged the box inside. Eager to see what it held, she ripped it open to find a gorgeous blue satin ball gown, complete with gloves, tiara, diamond necklace, and a jeweled reticule.

 

An hour later, she was on her way to the ball, giddy with excitement.

 

Self-driving carriages were still new enough to delight her. Smoothing her new dress on the leather seat beside her, she stared out the front window. Her view was unimpeded by a chauffeur's capped head, since there was no chauffeur. Her phone vibrated on her wrist. The display said it was Dustanna, the maid who lived across the street from her. She shook her hand to answer it.

 

“Elly,” Dustanna cried. “Where are you? I just ran over to your place and no one is home.”

 

“Hi, Dusty. My stepsisters and stepmother left for the ball an hour ago and I left just now.”

 

Dustanna squealed. “You’re going to the ball? How did you manage that? I thought you didn’t have a dress.”

 

“I didn’t! A drone came by and dropped the most gorgeous gown you’ve ever seen. Then a man named Pierre came to the door and said he was supposed to do my hair, makeup, and nails. Another drone dropped a pair of … kind of weird shoes. Then, just now, a self-driving carriage shaped like a giant pumpkin stopped in front of the house.”

 

The shoes were transparent and seemed to be made of glass. She had slipped a pair of flats into her reticule in case they became too uncomfortable.

 

* * * *

 

Mace, an ace hacker, sat on his bed in his apartment. His pocket screen twitched and he fished it from his tunic. Ah, the big orange carriage was on the move. He watched the progress of the pumpkin-hued self-driver on his pocket screen. Tapped his fingers on it to access the wrist-phone conversation. Listened in on the two women. For the hell of it. It wasn’t yet time to make his move. The carriage approached the royal palace. Must summon patience for a few more hours. His job would start later.

 

* * * *

 

“Gotta go,” Ella said to her friend. “I’ll tell you all about it later.”

 

The carriage stopped, her door opening automatically. She gaped at the castle and wondered if her transportation would return to take her home. Or maybe it would wait here until the ball was over? Or until midnight, when—the message on the leather seat had been clear—she had to leave. Dire things were promised if she failed to follow the instructions. She would worry about that later. Right now she intended to go inside and have a good time.

 

She’d been studying videos of royal dances to learn the steps, on the off chance she would be able to attend.

 

How her stepsisters had laughed at her, even though she thought her movements were more graceful than the ones she saw them practicing when they came home from their dance lessons. No matter how much she begged, she wasn’t allowed to go along for the lessons. Harrid Anne always found one more chore for her to do when it was time to go.

 

How she’d wept beside the immaculate hearth after Ugg and Lee had left for dance lessons, deportment lessons, elocution, and many others. Harrid Anne was determined to somehow transform them into elegant ladies who would catch the attention of Prince Char Ming.

 

 

 

How she grinned now, feeling as elegant as a woman could feel, stepping out of the coach with her small feet, clad in glittering glass shoes, and her body arrayed in billowing clouds of pale blue satin, fitted over her alluring bosom, cinched at her tiny waist, and flowing behind with a lovely rustling sound. She knew she looked good.

 

The smell of lilacs floated past her as she ascended the grand staircase to the front door. A footman awaited her, gave her a deep bow, and opened the double doors to admit her. She was a little surprised he hadn’t asked who she was and if she was on the guest list.

 

She scanned the vast ballroom, hung with shimmering chandeliers, the floor-to-ceiling windows hung with azure velvet drapes, and the gleaming tile floor crowded with all the important townspeople.

 

There he was! Prince Char. At that moment he was chatting with Harrid Anne, as Ugg and Lee simpered beside her. Rather, Harrid Anne was talking at him. He stifled a yawn and looked around. When he spotted Ella descending the staircase, a smile lit his handsome face and he hurried over to her.

 

* * * *

 

Mace muttered under his breath. He’d tried to hack into the basic routing code, but new safeguards and firewalls had been installed since his last job. That was crazy! How could anyone have figured out how he got in the last time? He had wiped out his tracks completely. But there it was. The backdoor he’d used at the embassy was closed. No, not closed. It was gone, wiped out.

 

He took a calming breath. He would just have to find a new way in. There always was another way. Meanwhile, he listened in at the ball through Ella’s wrist-phone. His heart stilled when he listened to her sweet voice.

 

* * * *

 

The prince whirled Ella so expertly, she wouldn’t have needed to learn the dances. It was annoying that her stepsisters’ angry eyes never left her and Prince Char.

 

After Ella had finished three dances in a row with the prince, she begged off, saying she needed to sit. The music was irritating and those glass shoes were killing her. She found a chair with a red velvet cushion against the wall in a corner and pulled the shoes off, then put on the plain black flats. No one could see her feet anyway with the floor-length dress. Her wrist-phone felt hot. That was odd, since she hadn’t used it since the call in the carriage on the way to the palace. She took it off and stuck it in her reticule, then snapped it shut.

 

* * * *

 

Mace swore aloud. The sounds from Ella’s phone had become garbled and muffled. He couldn’t make out anything. Oh well, he could still work on hacking that carriage. That was his main goal. He’d been surprised when Benny, his long-time mentor, had contacted him for what sounded like a shady job. Benny was the one who had helped him go straight.

 

“Mace? This is Benny. You’re working for the company that installed the whole-house electronics for the Bellisimo place, right?”

 

“Yeah, I am. I installed their system.”

 

“I’d like to ask you to do something slightly unethical, but it has to be kept secret.”

 

“Sure, no problem.” After that one stay in juvie, Mace had learned how to hack without getting caught. A lot of his business came from people wanting him to use his house electronics skills for theft. But he was confident he could hack other things, too. “I know how to keep my mouth shut.”

 

“I need you to intercept a self-driver coming away from the palace shortly after midnight.” Benny gave him the coordinates to use on the carriage after overriding the pre-set route.

 

“Piece of cake.” After they discussed the details, Mace looked up the plans for that model vehicle. It was a little tricky, but he’d thought he could do it. Now, he wasn’t so sure.

 

* * * *

 

Ella stuck one of the awful glass slippers behind a large vase of palm fronds and rose, sticking the other in her reticule for a souvenir. After three more dances with the prince, all with Ugg, Lee, and Harrid Anne looking daggers at them, she was getting a headache from the screeching music. “What are those songs from?” she asked.

 

Prince Char beamed. “That’s my album. My own one-man band, Castle Rock. I laid all the tracks myself. Do you like it?”

 

She hated it, but didn’t say so. “It’s impressive.” She was thirsty from the dancing, and getting hungry. A buffet table was set up in the next room and she told Prince Char she wanted to get something to eat.

 

His eyes sparkled and a strange expression came over his face. “Come with me. I’ll show you a private place we can get something.”

 

Maybe it would be some place where she couldn’t hear the electronic squeaks of Castle Rock. She followed him down one hallway, then another, then another, until they came to a door that led to a boudoir. It looked like the anteroom to a bedroom. She glimpsed a four-poster draped in dark purple through the partly open door.

 

The prince turned to her, an ugly sneer on his handsome face. “Now then, let’s see how easy it is to get you out of this thing.”

 

Ella pushed him away and swung her reticule at his head. After she made sure he wouldn’t follow her, she ran down hallway after hallway, eventually arriving, by luck, at the front of the palace. She ran down the long flight of stairs and looked around frantically.

 

There it was! Her pumpkin-colored coach. She ran to it and climbed in, wondering how to make it start.

 

* * * *

 

Mace grinned and pumped his fist in the air. He had it! He had control of the coach. So he was to make it go off course in … he checked the time … in another forty-five minutes. Then he checked the tiny spy-camera in the interior of the carriage. There sat Ella! She looked distressed. She was searching the seat pockets for something. She must want to leave early. Mace whipped into action and the coach sped off. Ella’s face showed her relief as she sank back on the cushions.

 

* * * *

 

The vehicle lurched forward and left just before Ella was ready to burst into tears. What a nasty prince! Why would anyone want to marry him? If one of her stepsisters had won him, she wouldn’t have been a bit jealous.

 

She took a few deep breaths and looked out the window. Wait. Where was she going? This wasn’t the way home. The carriage was headed out of town. She pushed and pulled on the door handle, but it was locked. She was trapped and the carriage was careening into the night, into the unknown countryside, rife with witches and wolves and who knows what else. She fumbled with her phone to try to send a distress signal, but couldn’t make her trembling fingers cooperate. Panting, frantic, starting to sweat, Ella passed out on the soft leather seat.

 

She awoke to the lovely male scent of the leather her cheek was pressed into. The light coming through the open door made her blink.

 

“Turn off that flashlight,” she mumbled.

 

“Oh, sorry.” It was switched off and a friendly-looking man, a little older than Ella, held out his hand to assist her.

 

She was wobbly, but managed to stand up on the cement garage floor.

 

“Where are we? Who are you?” She took off one glove and patted her cheeks to wake herself up, in case she was still asleep. When she took a good look at the man, she stepped back.

 

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

 

Her heart stopped. Was this her dead father? This man had the same strong build, the same dark blue eyes, the same crinkly yellow hair. Ella had the eyes and the hair too. “Who … who are you?”

 

He looked sad. “I’m your older brother. When Dad married the harridan, right after mom died having you, I was shipped out to foster care.”

 

“No one told me I had a brother.” She was disinclined to believe him, except that he looked a lot like her and exactly like their father.

 

“I found you through a DNA site, GeneMatch.com.”

 

 “I’ve never heard of it,” Ella said. “Why did you bring me here?”

 

“To meet you, and to get you away from that house and those people. My name is Benny and I’m going to change my last name back to Bellisimo soon. I’m the one who sent the drones and the carriage tonight.”

 

“You did?” Her jaw dropped. This man did that? For her? “Are you going to be in trouble for kidnapping?”

 

His smile creased the skin around his eyes attractively and she couldn’t help but smile with him.

 

“Naw, they won’t get him for that.” She noticed a slimmer, younger man standing slightly behind her brother. He gave her an intense look with his dark eyes. A shiver ran through her. “I’m Mace, the hacker who brought you here for Benny.” He stepped forward and stuck out his hand. It was warm and strong.

 

He turned to Benny. “Have you heard the latest report from the ball?”

 

Benny frowned. “They’re still harping on the missing mystery princess. My sister, I assume.” He turned to Ella. “You didn’t give them your name, did you?”

 

“No. The note said not to, so I didn’t.”

 

“That’s not the latest news. It’s the prince,” Mace said. “He’s dead.”

 

A stunned silence settled over all three of them.

 

Mace fiddled with his wrist-phone, which reminded Ella that hers was still in her bag. He set the volume up and they listened to the report.

 

“… fatally stabbed less than an hour ago with a piece of glass which appears to have been part of a shoe. Anyone having knowledge of—” Mace looked at Benny.

 

 “It sounds like the shoes I asked you to find for Ella,” Benny said. “What are you wearing?” he asked Ella.

 

“I … they … I took them off. I’m wearing these.” She lifted her skirts and showed them the black cloth flats.

 

The broadcast was continuing. “A blonde in a blue satin dress is being sought. She was seen fleeing the scene moments before his body was discovered.”

 

“Turn if off,” Benny said. “We have to get you some different clothes. And dye your hair.”

 

“I’m on it.” Mace pulled his screen out of his pocket and started tapping.

 

“You want to know my size?” Ella asked.

 

“No, I know that.”

 

That was puzzling. But, if he’d been the one to procure this gown, it was obvious he did know what fit her.

 

A squawk and some static came from the shadows at the other side of the garage.

 

“Excuse me.” Benny dashed over and opened a car door.

 

With the light of the open door, Ella saw that it was a police hover cruiser. She stared at Mace. “Did you steal a police car?”

 

He laughed. It was a warm, lovely sound. “No, that belongs to Benny. He’s a cop.”

 

She turned to stare at Benny. “He is?”

 

“He just made detective. Homicide detective. He turns in the car tomorrow and rides plain after this.”

 

Benny returned from the car, carrying the radio with him. “Guess which case I just caught? Now we really have to hide you. Mace?”

 

“Sure.” He led Ella into the house while Benny started up the hover car and whooshed out of the garage. The siren echoed after him, disappearing into the night.

 

Soon, a drone dropped a bundle of clothing at Benny’s front door. There was also a box of hair dye. Mace helped her to turn her crinkly yellow hair a deep brown while she wore Benny’s bathrobe. Afterward she changed into the jeans, tee-shirt, and tennies that had been dropped.

 

“Do you recognize me?” she asked Mace, twirling like a model before him.

 

He quirked up a corner of his mouth for a half-smile. “I do, but maybe no one else would.”

 

Mace and Ella glued themselves to Benny’s wall screen while they worked their way through his cupboard and refrigerator. Ella didn’t think she’d ever been that hungry. The reports showed distraught ball-goers giving quotes.

 

“I found him in a pool of blood in his room.”

 

“Who went into his room, I wonder,” Ella said, pouring a bag of chips into a bowl and flopping beside Mace on the couch.

 

“He danced with her most of the night, then she disappeared.”

 

“I think he must have known her.”

 

“I never saw her before in my life.”

 

“No, I never saw anyone wearing shoes like that.”

 

“The missing princess had them on, I’m pretty sure.”

 

The announcer said that a search was underway for the missing princess. She was wanted for questioning in connection with the death.

 

Mace frowned. “Some of this is damning. Benny is going to be in a lot of trouble for hiding you.” He turned to Ella. “Did you stab him? Did you break the shoe and stab him with a piece of it?”

 

“No, of course not. But someone did.”

 

“We’ll have to figure out who, quick, so they’ll quit hunting for you and Benny won’t lose his job. It won’t be long before the DNA trackers follow you here. What do you know about this?”

 

Ella scrunched her face in concentration. “I took the shoes off and stuck one behind a planter.”

 

“Who saw you do that?”

 

“I’m not sure. But I know my stepsisters were keeping their eyes on me while I danced with that pig, the prince.”

 

“Don’t say that. You can’t give them any reason for thinking you didn’t like him.”

 

She jumped up. “Of course I didn’t like him! He was forcing himself on me.”

 

Mace reached up and took her hand. “I know. That’s understandable. Just don’t say things like that to anyone else, okay?” He pulled her down beside him.

 

“Sure. I’ll watch it.” But now she was watching those deep, dark eyes. They made her feel melty and soft and warm.

 

“I’d feel better if we were somewhere else,” Mace said. “I hate to endanger Benny.” After they cleaned up from their snacking, he led her to the garage where they each strapped on jet packs, then took off from the back yard.

 

Ella knew the DNA trackers had a hard time tracking airborne particles. It was easier to trace a path that lay on a surface. She followed Mace through the cool night air, their packs humming quietly while they circled the village, looking for a hideout. And hoping DNA trackers hadn’t been improved greatly without the general public knowing about it.

 

Mace led them to a rooftop where they switched off the jetpacks. Ella was going to ditch hers there, but Mace said he didn’t want to leave them behind to be found and possibly lead the authorities to them.

 

“Do you know this place?” Ella asked.

 

Mace grinned. “I live here. I don’t think anyone will look here for you. There’s nothing to connect us.”

 

They walked down two floors to his apartment and switched on his wall screen, still anxious for the news.

 

“Fingerprint and DNA analysis from the glass shard are inconclusive,” the news announcer was saying.

 

Ella snickered. “All the women wore gloves. What do they expect?”

 

Mace let Ella use his bed and he took the couch, but when she awoke sobbing in the early morning, he came to her and comforted her.

 

“Can I ever go home again?”

 

“Do you want to? To those awful stepsisters?”

 

She sighed deeply. “I can’t stand them. But it’s the only home I’ve ever known.” He brushed the tears on her cheeks. “You know, on the way to the ball, I was happier than I’ve been since Daddy died. I was picturing me and the prince in a starter castle, having little princes and princesses. And having someone else do all the cooking and cleaning. Now what?”

 

“I can’t give you a starter castle, but I have this apartment.”

 

She looked around in the dark. “It’s nice. I like it.” They snuggled together and she fell asleep in his arms.

 

When Mace’s wrist phone buzzed, she woke up.

 

“It’s Benny,” he said. “They found a drop of the prince’s blood on Ugg’s gown and she’s been arrested.”

 

Ella let out a whoosh of air. Fleeing, she’d met Ugg near the bathroom and managed to let some blood drip from the piece of jagged glass onto her dress before she discarded the shard. It had worked. She was free.

 

Benny came over in the afternoon after doing all the cyber work required for the arrest. He and Ella and Mace talked eagerly about plans for the future. Benny wanted Ella to come live with him and his wife and kids until she got on her feet. It was wonderful having a real family again.

 

“I also think there’s something I need to look into,” Benny said. “I’ve always wondered if our dad was murdered. We need to look at Harrid Anne, Ugg, and Lee more closely for that.”

 

Ella wondered if she could have just let one of the stepsisters do in the prince. Maybe they had experience at that sort of thing?

 

 

 

Kaye George: national-bestselling, multiple-award-winning author of historical, traditional, and cozy mysteries (upcoming: Vintage Sweets series). Her short stories are in anthologies, magazines, her own collection, and her recent anthology of eclipse stories, Day of the Dark, by Wildside Press. She reviews for Suspense Magazine and lives in Knoxville, TN.

 

She’s lived in several states, many of which, oddly enough, begin with the letter M. She’s been honored with three Agatha Award nominations and one Silver Falchion. Her blogs are TravelsWithKaye.blogspot.com and KillerCharacters.com. Her webpage is KayeGeorge.com.

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