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No Way Out
Author: Fern Michaels

Chapter One

Ellie Bowman knew that there were murmurs from the neighbors and cruel jokes from the kids on the next block, but it didn’t matter. It had been two years since the thirty-four-year-old had moved into the cottage at the end of Birchwood Lane. She was happy that it was located where it was—as far away from the rest of the houses on the block as possible. With each house sitting on a full acre, there was a comfortable distance between them. The homes were modest ranch-style houses built in the fifties.

Thank goodness for Hector, her gardener, assistant, and friend. Without him, she would not have been able to look outside her window and see beautiful flowers. Without him, she wouldn’t have groceries, either. He knew the rules and respected her wishes. The only access he had to the house was to the rear porch, where he would deliver her packages and pick up her trash.

The other thing she was grateful for was his willingness to clean up after Buddy, the black Labrador retriever she had rescued from the local shelter when she had moved to Hibbing.

The fenced-in yard made it easy for Ellie to let him go out through his doggie doors to do his business and chase the squirrels around. Percy, her cat, couldn’t care less about going outdoors, which was a good thing. Ellie wouldn’t have let him out even if he wanted to go. Her seclusion was a comfort. It was better than the alternative.

* * *

Colleen Haywood lived down the street from Ellie with her eight-year-old son, Jackson. She was excited when she learned another woman was moving onto their street but was disappointed never to have met her. It had been two years, and the woman appeared to be a hermit. A total recluse.

She had tried numerous times to get Ellie to come over for tea. She didn’t have Ellie’s phone number, so she would leave notes in her mailbox. In turn, Colleen would get a note back in her mailbox politely declining, saying she had a headache or was on a deadline.

One afternoon, Colleen thought a personal invitation might do the trick, so she walked over to Ellie’s and rang the doorbell. Colleen was about to leave when she caught a glimpse of Ellie’s face as she moved across the living room. From the brief peek, Colleen saw that Ellie was pretty, with big eyes and blond hair in a short, blunt cut. She couldn’t tell how tall the woman was, but she looked like she was in pretty good shape for someone who never left the house. At least, no one had ever seen her leave the house.

Colleen was about to give up. Obviously, the woman didn’t want to be bothered. Then Colleen jumped as Ellie’s disembodied voice came through the speaker on the intercom. They had a brief exchange, but Ellie once again politely declined Colleen’s invitation.

Colleen made another attempt, but when Ellie had made another excuse, Colleen gave up trying to be sociable. It was too bad. They were around the same age, and Colleen could use a friend.

Colleen finally accepted the idea that Ellie was very shy and probably a shut-in. It was odd for someone so young to have agoraphobia, but she could not think of any other reason for her behavior. But if she really was agoraphobic, then how did Ellie’s notes of regret get into her mailbox? Maybe she’s a vampire and only comes out at night. Colleen laughed to herself. Even in witness protection, people who assume new identities live a somewhat normal life.

The only interaction between Colleen’s household and Ellie’s was that Colleen’s eight-year-old son, Jackson, would visit Buddy, Ellie’s Lab, every afternoon while the dog was in the yard.

Ellie didn’t mind Jackson’s leaning against the fence across the front yard and talking to Buddy. Jackson was just tall enough that his head was barely above the top of the fence. As long as she didn’t have to go outside, it was all right; she figured Buddy could use the company.

Ellie had a job that preserved her anonymity. She was a tech geek in the world of IT. She worked from home, answering questions from frustrated people who could not set up their computers or whose computers had crashed. She also worked with a number of tech companies, testing new software programs. Being a techno whiz, she had no problem hiding her real identity from others, including those who were as savvy as she was with technology. That was the reason she was able to live a quiet, solitary life. It also enabled her to communicate with her mother and best friend, Kara.

Before moving to the small town of Hibbing, Ellie had purchased dozens of burner phones to use to make calls. She also changed her Internet service provider address every couple of days. She didn’t want anyone to be able to trace her location. If anyone asked, which was usually only her mother and her friend Kara, she would tell them she was working on a government contract and being sent to various parts of the world and would not be able to return until all the aspects of the project were complete. It was all “very top secret.” So far, she had been able to pull off the deception for two years. As much as she missed the two of them, she had no other option.

Ellie also didn’t use any of the video-calling technology. No FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, or anything where they could see she had cut her bangs, chopped off her hair, and bleached it blond. That was another thing Ellie missed: going to a salon and getting her hair and nails done professionally. She had learned how to do both by watching YouTube videos. She remained isolated from any direct human contact. For the moment, there was no way out.



Chapter Two

Colleen was a second-grade schoolteacher at the local grammar school. Colleen had recently separated from her abusive husband, Mitchel. She and Jackson spent their weekdays at the same school. They would walk to school together until the last few blocks. Jackson didn’t want the kids to make fun of him for “walking with his mommy.” The routine reversed going home. They would meet up at the same corner every day. Once they got home, Jackson would do his homework, then go outside to play. He was particularly interested in the dog down the street, the one who lived with the strange lady who never went outside. Colleen tried to explain to Jackson that the lady was nice, but she wasn’t well. She didn’t go into any detail about what the word “well” meant because she didn’t really know, but it seemed to satisfy her son’s curiosity. And Colleen was grateful that Jackson had a new way of spending his time, playing fetch with Buddy. That was, at least, one thing she got out of her brief conversation with Ellie through the intercom. Colleen recalled the encounter.

“Hello, Ellie. How are you today?”

“I’m OK. How are you?”

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