As a new employee for the Sanibel Island Environmental Conservancy in Florida, Lizzie Grant thinks she has it made. She is helping to preserve wildlife and working on a Florida beach. Life is ﬁnally good-but it won't stay that way for long.
One night while researching sea turtles on the beach, Lizzie sees illegal aliens being brought ashore by a smuggler. Her accidental observation leads to her being threatened and stalked by the smuggler until he suddenly shows up dead in her apartment, and Lizzie is wanted for his murder. With the help of a semi-retired Maﬁa don named Joey, Lizzie tries to uncover evidence to clear her name. What she discovers is chilling: the illegal aliens are being used as slave labor on a farm next to her friend's wildlife refuge. In spite of Joey's help, Lizzie becomes a prisoner on the slave labor farm, where a forced marriage is planned.
Pursued by the police and men that want to kill her, Lizzie is running out of time. Will Lizzie ﬁnd the strength and courage to ﬁght her way free and prove her innocence?
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.55(d)|
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P.S.: I'm Innocent
By Steve Ruediger
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Steve Ruediger
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEggs and Guns
A sudden splash followed by crunching noises startled Lizzie Grant. Her breath caught in her throat. Lizzie loved the beach at night but felt vulnerable alone on the long, empty stretch of sand. She stopped dead in her tracks, trembling from head to toe. She wanted to run but her feet would not move. Instead, she forced herself to slowly turn, afraid of who might be approaching behind her.
Lizzie gasped relief as she saw an enormous reddish-brown loggerhead sea turtle emerge from the Gulf of Mexico. She couldn't believe she was about to see a real loggerhead dig a nest and lay eggs.
Lizzie regained self-control and ran to find cover. In her haste, she almost dropped the bag full of posts, ropes, signs, and the infrared video camcorder she carried. Not wanting to alarm the turtle, she settled behind a clump of sea oats to watch the creature struggle up the gently sloping beach, carving a trail like a tank track.
As the turtle moved closer, the faint roar of distant engines disturbed the peacefulness of Lizzie's observations. She glanced up. Far out in the Gulf, a boat with no running lights sped along the coast, the distant roar of its engines echoed in the otherwise still night. Its shadowy outline was only faintly visible in the dim moonlight. Lizzie returned her attention to the turtle. A mysterious boat was a distraction when a real living loggerhead was only a few feet away.
She felt lucky to have sighted the large sea creature. Her new job included marking turtle nests for the Sanibel Island Environmental Conservancy (SIEC). Before escaping to Florida six months ago, it would have amazed Lizzie to be paid to save wildlife and protect nature.
But, even in her new job, seeing an actual turtle was rare. The mother turtles usually completed nests and returned to the ocean depths unobserved. Daytime beachgoers to Bowman's Beach Park would trample the turtle tracks, making nests hard to find. So Lizzie searched for them at night.
Raising her camera, Lizzie began shooting video as the turtle examined the sand, moving its large head from side to side and prodding with its flippers for a site which met its nesting criteria. Scientists weren't sure what those criteria were, but the turtle knew. Using her rear flippers she began strewing sand in all directions, digging a hole for the approximately one hundred rubbery, ping-pong ball sized eggs she would lay.
In spite of her concentration on the sea turtle's efforts, Lizzie could not help noticing the approaching long, low boat. It turned, heading to shore directly in front of the sea oats Lizzie crouched behind. After the turtle started laying its eggs, nothing could distract it from its biologically-dictated task. But Lizzie didn't want it spooked before the eggs started dropping. She also was afraid the boat might spook her. She felt very alone.
As engine sounds faded, sputtered, and died, a man leaped from the boat into the water a few feet from shore and pulled the sleek craft closer to the beach. People began disembarking, struggling over the sides and then wading through the shallow Gulf water as the man held the boat.
The people were black, all except the man holding the boat steady. The men passed suitcases and duffle bags to the beach. Both men and women flopped down on the sand beside their bags looking exhausted. They sat on the trail left by the loggerhead without noticing it. Children scattered among the boat people were nervously quiet, hugging close to their parents and looking around wide-eyed.
Lizzie became so curious about the people she ignored the turtle for a few minutes. But her job involved researching wildlife, not watching human beings on the beach no matter how unusual they were. The people hadn't seen her and didn't seem to be going anywhere right away. She told herself she must not fail in her job. Both her fear and her curiosity were less important than this golden opportunity to study sea turtle behavior. The loggerhead had already begun laying eggs. Lizzie could stand and approach without scaring the turtle away. She walked around to the beach side and shot video of eggs spewing out of the turtle into the hole in the sand.
After getting several minutes of excellent egg laying video, Lizzie turned her camera onto the people near the water. Her curiosity overcame both her fear and her work ethic. She stepped forward down the sloping beach to get a closer view of the approximately twenty black people sitting on the Sanibel Island beach at three in the morning; certainly not a normal event.
"Hey you, what're you doing with that camera?" The white man holding the mooring rope yelled at her, his voice angry. He wore a black t-shirt and blue jeans, wet from standing in the water.
Lizzie backed up. If she reached her bag behind the sea oats, she could grab it and run.
The man called for someone else to hold the boat. Then he leaned in to get something.
As Lizzie ran up to the sea oats, she looked around to see the man stomping up the beach toward her, waving what looked like a gun.
Gasping with fear, Lizzie abandoned her bag and ran through clumps of bushes into the woods behind the beach. Burrs and thorns stabbed her bare feet. Grasshoppers whirred up striking her face. Round Australian pine nutlets pushed their tiny ridges into her skin. She ignored the pain. Her heart raced. She had to get through the thick beachfront line of bushes and out of sight, had to lose the man from the boat, the man with the gun. She headed toward the dirt road which wound through the woods behind the beach.
"Hey, stop!" the man yelled.
Lizzie stumbled forward. She found the rutted dirt road and ran down it. She remembered seeing an isolated stilt house back in the woods. Probably nobody would be there off season. She had nowhere else to run.
Painfully gasping for breath, she stumbled up to the frame house with gray siding. Deserted. No lights on. No sign of life. No car was in the parking area beneath the house. The only sounds were the whirring of insects. She darted toward the tool shed under the house.
She was too late to get away. He was right behind her. She was out of breath. She turned to face him.
The short haired, muscular man dashed to within a few feet of her. He stopped and stood looking up and down Lizzie's slender body. She felt as though he was looking right through her thin cotton shirt and tight, well-worn jeans. He chuckled and walked up to her. He held a pistol in one hand while he motioned with the other for Lizzie to relax. "Calm down, young lady, just calm down. I don't want to hurt you. I only want your camera."
Lizzie backed slowly until she was against the rough wood wall of the tool shed. She trembled, too afraid to say anything. The air seemed thick and unbreathable. Maybe she could dart around into the blackness behind the tool shed before the man actually grabbed her, and then lose herself in the woods.
The man had a glint in his eyes and a sardonic smile. "If you're not going to hand it over, I'll have to take it from you." He looked like he was enjoying himself. He held the gun up. It looked huge.
Lizzie expected to be assaulted, raped. She felt terribly alone. Even if she called out, nobody could hear her and running again didn't seem possible. She started to cry.
The man stepped forward and viciously ripped the video camcorder from Lizzie's hand. She stifled a scream. Her hand hurt. He was so close she could smell the odor of boat fuel on him.
"Please don't hurt me," Lizzie sobbed. "Please – please – don't ..."
Her words caught in her throat as a man suddenly sprang from the shadows beside her. This second man came from behind the tool shed. He pointed something at the man from the boat. "Move back, asshole; return the lady's camera," growled the newcomer.
Lizzie wiped tears from her eyes and looked at her rescuer. She was amazed to see an elderly, white-haired gentleman dressed in a neatly pressed sports shirt, shorts, and white socks. He looked like he belonged on a golf course, not in the woods holding a machine gun. Lizzie realized that's what he held, a machine gun.
The man from the boat dropped the camcorder.
"Beat it," the old man grunted. Barrel-chested and of medium height, he had a hooked, Roman nose; a lantern jaw; and a bronze tint to his weathered skin. His nose was slightly bent like it had been on the receiving end of a few punches.
The boat man hesitated.
The old man waved his machine gun. "When I say beat it, I mean beat it. I can get off ten shots before you fire one. Beat it, asswipe. You don't want me upset."
The man from the boat hesitated for another second then turned and silently walked away. He disappeared down the dirt road.
The old man laughed. "That jerk almost shit his pants when he saw my Uzi. You see the macho way he walked off? Inside he wanted to run like hell. Hi, I'm Joe Caunteloupo. That's spelled different from the fruit. Don't call me no cantaloupe, I ain't no fruit." The old man reached out to shake Lizzie's hand, fumbling his machine gun out of the way.
"Uh, hi, I'm Elizabeth Grant." She shook his hand. "My friends call me Lizzie."
"They call me Joey C. I noticed you earlier doin' somethin' on the beach.
"I didn't see you on the beach."
"People usually don't."
"You have a phone? That man really scared me. We should call the police." Lizzie waved a couple of mosquitoes away from her face. She was finally catching her breath. She picked up her camcorder and backed several steps toward the road, out of the shadow of the house. Lizzie was relieved to be rescued but, still, she was alone with this old man and he was holding a machine gun and he looked like a tough old guy.
"No need for police, I called Homeland Security. I expect the Coast Guard'll be here soon." Joey slapped at his legs. "Fuckin' bugs."
"Homeland Security? Not the Sanibel Police?" Lizzie's trembling hand wiped moisture from her face.
"I got a friend at Homeland Security. Don't mention that to nobody. He ain't supposed to know me."
"It was lucky you saw what was happening," said Lizzie, as she slapped herself on the cheek.
"I don't sleep too good no more."
"That's a shame."
"Yeah, I guess it's 'cause I was always a night person up north. A lotta my business took place at night. And I was always around people. It's kinda lonely here, except for the damn blood suckers." Joey waved his Uzi around his legs to drive off mosquitoes.
"What did you do?"
"I was a consultant."
Lizzie looked at the strange weapon Joey held pointed at the ground. She gestured toward the contraption. "I was in South America once, Peru. That looks like the machine guns the soldiers carried."
"Yeah, it's an Uzi. It's sometimes handy to have a machine gun around."
"Aren't they illegal?"
"Hey, I'm on my own property. What were you doin' down there on the beach at three in the morning? Not the best time to get a tan."
Lizzie held up her camcorder. "I was shooting video of a mama sea turtle laying her eggs."
"Really? Man, that'd be somethin' to see. I'm from New York where we got just about everything. But we don't got no sea turtles layin' eggs in the Big Apple."
"Come with me and take a look. She's probably still laying unless the people scared her off. Sea turtles need to be undisturbed and there are more and more people everywhere."
"Yeah, too many. I've always said there's a lot of 'em the world'd be better off without." Joey shook his large head in disgust and glanced at his machine gun. He had a scar over his right eye.
"Come on then, come with me – please – I'm really nervous about that man."
"No, I better not. Too much law enforcement makes me nervous. I expect they'll be showin' up soon."
"Okay, well thanks." Lizzie shook his hand again. She started onto the dirt road but then turned back to the old man. "I owe you my life. If there's ever anything I can do."
"Hey, don't worry about it." He smiled at her. He certainly had a lot of wrinkles. "Go protect those turtle eggs."
"Okay – I wish you'd come with me. I'm afraid that man might still be there."
"That shit ass? He's a hundred miles away by now. The young punks don't got the piss and vinegar we had in my day. Don't worry your pretty little head none. You're now officially a friend of Joey C. My friends don't get hurt."
"I'll still be careful to make sure that man's gone. Thanks again."
Lizzie turned to go.
"Oh, hey," called Joey, "I'd just as soon you not mention seein' me."
"Okay, sure." Lizzie walked back onto the winding dirt roadway which ran behind the beach. She was still trembling from everything that had happened. As she went over it all in her mind, she puzzled over the guy from the boat calling her "young lady." At 32 she didn't hear that very often. She thought maybe the moonlight made her look younger.
Lizzie crept low behind bushes bordering the beach. She was afraid to return but had to retrieve her bag containing her car keys. It was much too far to walk home. She pushed a branch aside and looked up and down the moonlit shoreline. She saw no sign of the muscular man or his boat. Lizzie took a deep calming breath and stepped through a gap between bushes onto the beach.
The black families were still huddled together near the loggerhead turtle track. A Sanibel Island police officer was with them. His small, green, beach patrol vehicle sat on the sand a short distance away. Lizzie was relieved to see the policeman. She was not afraid of the families on the beach. Nevertheless, Lizzie felt tension leave her when she saw the representative of the law. She hurried toward him.
The policeman had his back to Lizzie. He was telling the families gathered in front of him: "Go about a mile down the beach that way." One of the men translated into French as the officer pointed toward the south. Lizzie had taken French in high school, but this French sounded strange.
"You'll see wooden posts with ropes marking the park exit," the officer said. "Walk up that trail to a bus. Everything will be all right. People will meet ..." The policeman turned slightly and noticed Lizzie. "What are you doing here?"
"I was photographing that sea turtle over there." She gestured with her video camera toward the turtle, which was now flippering sand to cover its eggs. Lizzie shifted the camera from one hand to the other and then reached out to shake the policeman's hand. "We haven't met before. I'm with the Island Conservancy, Lizzie Grant."
The policeman ignored her hand. He had bushy black eyebrows and a thin white scar on his left cheek. The officer looked over Lizzie and her camera with an expression of uneasy hostility. "You shouldn't be here. This is police business." He towered over her. At five-foot-two Lizzie was used to that.
She looked down at the empty hand she had extended. She dropped it to her side and spoke quietly as she looked up into his shadowy eyes, "Did Homeland Security notify you about these people?"
"What about Homeland Security?" The policeman had an edge to his voice. He glared at her; like that policeman had glared several years ago when Lizzie accidentally went through a red light.
Lizzie tried to keep the tremble out of her voice. "Homeland Security was called. So I guess the Border Patrol or the Coast Guard or whoever should be here soon to help you."
"Who the hell called them?"
"Well, uh ...
"Who else knows about these Haitians? Who else was here?" demanded the officer. He had a metal name tag on his shirt reading "Sgt. Malflic." It was at Lizzie's eye level.
"Nobody," Lizzie lied. "My cell phone is over in my bag behind the sea oats."
A disgusted look spread across Malflic's tanned face. His hand went slowly to the pistol on his hip. "Are you alone out here?"
"Yes ... I always ..."
Some of the black men began speaking rapidly in French, seemingly all talking at once.
"You people move back over there," ordered Malflic, waving an arm toward the south end of the beach. His other hand stayed on the pistol. He turned his attention back to Lizzie. "Why don't we take a little walk up to where your phone is."
"I don't need my phone."
The policeman growled, "Up to the woods, now." He reached out toward Lizzie but froze as fast approaching sounds filled the night. A helicopter, its blades thumping, swept up along the coast. The copter's spotlight played along the beach. It paused as it lit up Lizzie and Malflic. The policeman moved his hand away from his pistol and backed away from Lizzie.
The spotlight continued along the beach until it illuminated the crowd of Haitians. It stayed focused on them.
"Shit," exclaimed Malflic. He turned from Lizzie and ran over to the Haitians. Lizzie could see the words "U.S. Coast Guard" on the side of the helicopter.
Excerpted from P.S.: I'm Innocent by Steve Ruediger Copyright © 2011 by Steve Ruediger. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
P.S.: I’m Innocent, by Steve Ruediger, is a romp through Florida with the feel of “The Perils of Pauline.” The heroin, Lizzy, is a somewhat naïve, sexy, young woman who keeps ‘getting caught with her pants down,’ literally. She has a romantic interlude with the villain before she realizes he is a villain. She stumbles over illegal aliens who are being shipped into Florida. She finds they are treated like slaves by a farmer who believes he is doing the work of God. She is shot at, kidnapped (twice), rescued by an old mafia don, later by her hero, and even once by a Florida panther. Although, she is pretty adept at rescuing herself. It is fast paced and an easy read. There is plenty of violence and some romance. A little taste of everything for everyone.
I am the author. PS: I'm Innocent was written in hopes it would be an entertaining read. It is not literary. It is a combination of thriller, mystery, and romance set in south Florida. A recent reader wrote to me that "the best word I can think of to describe P.S. I'm Innocent is outrageous. No, it's entertaining. OK. It's outrageously entertaining."