Writers learn to make sacrifices. Below is a minor sacrifice I made long ago – a section of HPM that I had to scrap for the greater good of the story. You see, in its earlier version, HPM was over 132K words long. This was before the e-book revolution, and every agent and editor I spoke with told me I had to get the book down to less than 100k words or no one would even consider it. The below section was part of a subplot that involved a spy hiding among the people of Rejas, and some altered versions of the characters that stayed in the book, though almost unrecognizable in much more than name. In cutting the word count, that entire subplot was ripped out (I was honestly having considerable trouble getting it to work in the book without making it sound too contrived anyway), and some of the characters were changed.
The below is an unedited piece from an early draft. While I don’t regret having gotten rid of the whole “spy” storyline, I did feel that the story lost some life when I took out this version of Amber’s death. As I said, it was a minor sacrifice that I made that eventually enabled the final version of the story to come to fruition. And while I am thrilled with the success of the final version of HPM, there has always been a part of me that regretted that people never got to see this glimpse of the fiercer side of Amber, and the lengths to which she would go to protect her own.
So I take this opportunity to share it with you. If you’ve read the book, you’ll recognize this as an alternate version of an existing scene – sort of like a deleted scene at the end of the latest DVD you bought.
There was plenty of work to do over the next several days, and it was eerily familiar. Once more, we gathered bodies and took them to communal graves. Once more, we inspected abandoned homes. This time, however, we were especially careful, looking for any booby traps that Larry’s men may have left behind.
I was on one of those salvage crews the next Saturday morning when Ken found me. He’d been running and was out of breath, but the look in his eyes told me there was trouble. “You’d better get home Lee.”
I dropped my shovel. “What’s wrong?”
I’d been riding the dirt bike around during the days, so I sprinted to where I’d left it and immediately tore cross-country toward home. I don’t remember the drive, but I remember seeing Debra sitting in the front yard when I got there, rocking and holding herself as if holding in a great wound.
The crowd gathered at the front door parted before me as I entered the house. Someone laid a hand on my shoulder in sympathy, saying things that were probably meant to be consoling.
Images. I have vague images, like the wisps of a dream you can barely recall an hour after awakening. Vestiges of sights that simply aren’t real for me.
Excepting one. One image is burned into my memory with the fiery brand of rage. It’s the recollection of the bloody horror that waited in our den.
There lay Amber, still and pale, a long knife through her back pinning her to the wooden floor in an inky pool of blood. Her own knife lay beside the second body, a man I didn’t recognize, whose esophagus and carotid she had neatly severed.
A third man lay behind Amber. His skull was oddly misshapen, partially caved in from behind.
I probably yelled something at that point. I think I remember yelling as I started toward Amber. Then someone tried to stop me. Jim.
Without thinking, I punched him and shoved him away, and then there were others on me, all of them yelling and trying to hold my arms and legs. I fought them for a few minutes, unable to do anything but strain against them as they held me. Finally, I found myself sitting on the floor fighting for breath that didn’t want to come.
“Leeland?” Kelland knelt before me, and I realized he had called my name more than a few times. Now though, he must have seen comprehension in my eyes, for he offered a full sentence. “You back with us, Lee?”
I nodded silent affirmation.
“Hell no!” I spat, my voice bitter and harsh.
He nodded. “Sorry, stupid question. Why don’t you go back outside and let us finish up in here?”
“Finish up? Finish up with what?” I looked around me at the other people in the room – people I knew. Some of my original students. Rejas police. Though few of them wore any portion of their old uniforms, their demeanor left no doubt that they were professionals – police officers investigating a crime scene.
“Come on, Lee. Let me take you outside and I’ll tell you what we know.”
I finally realized I was sitting in the middle of the floor and let Jim help me up and into the front yard. Debra waited out there for me. But where was Zach? Ken had mentioned Zachary. And for that matter, where was Ken?
I looked around, but couldn’t see either one of them. “Zach?” My call set Debra crying once more, which in turn sent a chill through my soul. “Where’s Zachary?” God, don’t let him be dead, too. Not my son, my baby!
I grabbed Jim in sudden panic. “Where’s Zachary?”
“We think he’s okay, Leeland. Now calm down. You ain’t doin’ nobody no good like this.”
First do what needs to be done. Time enough for emotion later. I took a few deep breaths and nodded. “Okay. Yeah, you’re right.” A couple more breaths. “Okay, what happened?”
Kelland looked at Debra for a second, as if trying to determine if he should speak in front of her. “Deb, you want to sit this one out? It ain’t a pretty story.”
“I’ll stay.” Her voice was strained, but her face was resolute.
He sighed. “All right. Here’s what it looks like. Three men busted in. Looks like they were after Zachary…”
“What would they want with…”
Kelland raised his hand before I could finish. “Let me tell it all the way through, an’ I think I’ll answer most of your questions as I go. All right?”
“Okay, from the looks of things, it all happened early this morning. Just after you and Debra went into town. They must have been watching you and came in when they saw you leave. Three men came in. They were after Zachary.
“We don’t know if they just didn’t realize Amber was home, or if maybe they thought they could run in and grab him before she knew they were there. However it happened, Amber surprised one of them. There was a struggle, and she managed to get one of them… cut his throat. The second one got her from behind when she did.” He paused and pursed his lips before continuing. “The third man killed the one who killed Amber, then took Zachary and got out before anyone knew there was anything going on.”
“But how…” I started, thinking he was finished.
Jim held his hand up again and started to say something before thinking about it for a second. “Aw, hell.” He reached into his back pocket and handed me a note scrawled on the back of one of Larry’s old “turn over the war criminal” fliers. “This was layin’ on top o’ the second man. It’s addressed to you.”
I’m truly sorry about this, Leeland. No one was supposed to get hurt. I’m taking Zachary to Larry. I made arrangements to meet with him in Bixby. I told him I’d be bringing your son to him to prove to him that I’ve turned against you. I guess in a way, I have.
The way I see it, there are only a few ways this can play out. Either I fool Larry enough to get close to him and kill him, or I don’t, he kills me, and you come after him to get Zachary.
Either way, I get to kill the motherfucker.
If you want Zachary back, you’ll have to come take him from Larry.
Consider this my veto of the council’s vote,
I read again before I turned to Charlie in disbelief. I couldn’t believe what I had read. “Eric? Eric did this?”
“Looks like it.”
I’m not sure how long I stood there before I became aware of Ken standing beside me. For the first time in months, I felt truly lost. “He took my boy, Ken. He got Zach.”
He nodded, then handed me the bundle he carried. I regarded the bundle dumbly for a moment before recognizing my machetes and knives, the same blades I’d been so eager to put away a few short days before.
Ken’s reply was simple. “Let’s go get him back.”