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PART FORTY-ONE

Despite herself, Stacie’s eyes roamed the width of the Walmart parking lot. The distance from the store entrance to her car was slightly less than a football field and Stacie scanned the lot like a wary tight-end searching the field for defensive linemen as she quick-stepped to her imaginary end zone. “You’re being silly,” she told herself. “You’re letting Karla’s fear infect you and there’s no reason to be afraid.” She told herself that, but she didn’t believe it.

Stacie held her Corolla key in her right hand, the metal “blade” poking outward between her middle and ring finger. Prior to freshman orientation, way back in two-thousand-seven at UNI, she hadn’t given much thought to self-defense.

As an inbound freshman she’d listened intently to lecturing resident assistants as they detailed campus violence and she’d done her best to remember the recommended ways to thwart would be attackers. She’d been in Florida less than a year when news of Stanford rapist Brock Turner’s attack against an intoxicated woman began to make national news.

It didn’t take long before her parents began inquiring if perhaps she should quit her teaching job in Pasco County and return to Iowa. Stacie had assured her folks that she was fine, but when her father had offered, insisted really, to pay for a self-defense refresher course she’d taken him up on the offer. She’d found and attended classes at the YMCA just north of John Chestnut Park in Palm Harbor, an action that did more to provide her with a good workout than the kind of street-fighting, kick ‘em in the groin and run drills she’d been envisioning.

Despite assurances to self that her fears were warrantless, she breathed a declarative sigh of relief as she entered her car. Starting her engine, she again scanned for Caleb Ezra Morse, aka Caleb Heald, and, seeing no one that reminded her of the man from the grainy CCTV images, relaxed in relief as she put her car in gear.

Stacie’s mind raced. Karla wanted to go home, but if Caleb was on his wife’s trail and meant her or their daughter harm did going home make any sense? The Pasco County Sheriff’s office was five miles away. All they had to do was travel due north on Little Road and they’d have all the protection they’d need. “Surely going to Karla’s makes no sense. God, I wish that Marti Kohnen was reasonable! I don’t even know if calling her makes any sense or not,” she told herself as she left her five-o’clock parking space on the parking lot’s perimeter and acted the part of a wall clock by driving clockwise to the High Noon loading dock at the back of the Walmart.

The loading dock’s metal awning provided shade to the waiting Suzann, but there was no sign of Karla. Pulling up to the dock she asked her friend and coworker, “Where’s Karla?”

“Inside,” Suzann declared, sweeping her hands outward in a palms up gesture of frustration. “She wants minimal exposure. She said that he could be lurking anywhere and that she should stay out of sight for her sake and ours. I don’t know if she’s overreacting or not, but I do know that the woman is scared silly. Does it make sense to you that we should take her home if a psychopath might be lurking there?”

“I was just asking myself the same thing,” Stacie answered.

At the sound of a text-book B-Movie hiss the women turned toward the dock. “Psst! Psst!” Karla hissed twice more from the doorway. “Are the backdoors unlocked? I’m gonna skedaddle into the back and duck down so he won’t see me; okay?”

Stacie and Suzann looked at one another and shrugged slightly before Stacie said, “Yeah, they’re unlocked. Come on down,” and repeated Suzann’s palm skyward gesture.

Karla crouched low and seemingly slithered down the steps, popping into the backseat and folding herself as flat as the space allowed. Suzann inhaled, flaring her nostrils and opened her eyes wide. “Alrighty then,” the woman said softly, following Karla down the steps and taking a seat up front.

“Okay! Drive!” Karla demanded, and after a quick look toward her fellow Interlachen workmate, Stacie did just that.