Sneak peek: The Riders’ War

The Riders’ War
By M. A. Clarke

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BOOK ONE: BATTLE FOR TODAY

Prologue

coverposterriders - Copy.jpgA child psychiatrist for fifteen years, Arturo Garcia-Arroyo had seen just about every type of child come through his office. It had become a sort of game to him to single out their dominant personality traits within the first five minutes of a session – usually before he had even said a word. Eleven-year-old Julian was different. He seemed completely unconcerned by being forced to see a psychiatrist.

‘Hello Julian, my name is Arturo. I’m going to be talking with you for a while. How are you today?’

‘Bored.’

‘Bored? I’m sorry to hear that. I hope our talks won’t be too boring for you. Now, do you know why you’re here?’

‘Because I killed the neighbour’s dog.’

‘And?’

‘Because I mailed the head to her daughter for her birthday.’

All this was said without a trace of emotion. That just wasn’t normal – and Arturo had a pretty wide definition of normal. At the very least, Julian should have showed some concern that he had been caught.

Arturo settled the cloak of his professional manner about him, hiding how unsettled Julian had made him.

‘Do you mind telling me why you did that?’

‘Practice.’

‘What sort of practice?’

‘For when I kill my mother.’

This wasn’t the first time that Arturo had heard a patient threaten to kill a parent. It was quite common for children to blame their parents for hardships and to believe that removing the parents would remove the hardship. What wasn’t common was Julian’s cool disinterest. Like an anatomy instructor over a cadaver taunting first-year med students. Julian was unnerving.

‘Why do you want to kill your mother?’

‘Because I can.’ No explanations and no justifications, what on Earth was he dealing with?

‘Now come on Julian. I’m here to help you. I need you to be honest with me. What has your mother done that’s so terrible that you feel you want to kill her?’

‘She breathes. Don’t bother saying it.’

‘Don’t bother saying what?’

‘What you’re going to say. Don’t bother. You’re wasting your time.’

‘Why would I be wasting my time?’

‘Do you really think I would be telling you all this if I thought there was anything you could do about it?’ Something in the way Julian said it had Arturo thoroughly convinced that he was right. There would be nothing he could do about it. Suddenly, Arturo had no desire to know what he was dealing with.

‘Good – I can see that you’re beginning to understand. However, I think I’ll continue the lesson for a little bit longer. I am a God amongst mortals, you see. I can do things you couldn’t possibly imagine. No man can catch me, no prison can hold me. I can see in your eyes that you know I’m not idly boasting. Good. So when they ask you if I’m cured, you will tell them yes, because if you don’t, you know that your six-year-old daughter Mia will be posted back to you in small pieces from a distant part of the globe.

‘But why?’

‘Because I can,’ the boy answered again, an unholy grin on his face.

Arturo felt physically sick with fear. More because he felt he had to say something than because of any particular bravado he felt, he made an attempt to crack Julian’s eerie calm. ‘One day, someone will come along who’s stronger than you are.’

‘I doubt it,’ the boy replied with all the disdain that those three syllables could contain. ‘No, I’m going to kill my mother. Then I’m going to track down the son-of-a-bitch that knocked her up and kill him. Then I’ll disappear. If, as you say, someone comes for me – I’ll kill him too.’

 

Chapter 1: A Difficult Child

‘Happy birthday, boys!’ Quentin bellowed cheerfully into the early morning.

Joshua rolled over and looked at the alarm clock – a quarter to five. His Dad must have come straight from the night shift.

‘Morning, Dad,’ he replied coming awake quickly. Both boys had always been early risers, but Josh was especially so.

Joe was a little slower, but he roused enough to greet his father as well. ‘Hi, Dad.’

‘I’ll never understand why you insist on sharing, when you both have your own rooms.’

‘It’s just enough to know we have our own space if we need it.’

‘What do you expect? We’re twins after all,’ added Joe.

‘And for sixteen years, I haven’t been allowed to forget it!’

And he hadn’t either. Josh and Joe Williams were a renowned double act, practically famous. The most polite word people tended to use was ‘difficult’. In fact, it was fair to say they had a talent for trouble, although it was as much for getting out of trouble as into it.

‘Now how about a quick bout in the yard before school? It has to be early, because as your mother so kindly reminded me – about eighty times – you, Joshua, have an appointment with your principal this morning, and it wouldn’t look any good if we turned up late, would it?’

Joshua refrained from rolling his eyes. ‘No Dad.’

In the cool fresh morning air, they set up quickly. Josh went straight to setting up the floodlights. May twenty-first was late autumn in Brisbane, and they wouldn’t get enough natural light until about half-past six. Joe’s job was to roll out the heavy mat they used, since he tended to have less trouble with it than the others. Quentin just started warming up. He was not as young as he used to be and sparring with the twins was always a challenging experience.

All-in-all, they had a pretty effective little dojo. It could be set up in the garage if it was raining, but most of the time they preferred the outdoors.

It had all started when the twins were little. One of the things that had made them particularly difficult was their tendency to squabble with each other, which could get pretty violent. People who tried to break them up usually ended up in worse shape than the brawlers. Quentin had gotten so sick of it, that he decided to take radical action. He began teaching them martial arts.

He had only ever meant to teach them the basics – lessons from barely remembered boxing classes he had taken as a boy – but as with everything, the twins outgrew that quickly. They didn’t learn, so much as suck information out of him. When they had absorbed the boxing and basic self-defence Quentin had learned in the police force, he was pushed to take more drastic measures and enrol the three of them in a Judo class at the local community centre. He wouldn’t have done it except that the structured fighting meant that he could impose rules on the boys’ fights and by including himself, had a better chance of breaking up any fights that still got out of hand. It also gave him dedicated time with his sons.

Ten years, and several disciplines later, they still enjoyed their sparring practice and the regular fitness regime that kept them in shape to do it.

Joshua and Joey were, as a result, both lean and clearly defined. Due to early growth spurts, at about five foot ten, they were quite tall for their age, managing to match their father in height. All three were dark haired, though Quentin’s was growing grey at the sides but the boys had their mother’s warm brown eyes. More than anything it was their bearing that gave them a look in common. They were people who were ready for anything.

Preparation and warm-ups over, they began to spar; first one-on-one, then two-on-one, then a free for all to finish. By the time Alicia Williams called them in, they were damp with sweat.

‘Make your showers quick, you two,’ she ordered her husband and youngest son. ‘You’re going to be late for your meeting. God knows what trouble you’ve been in this time Joshua. Joe, love, you’re going to have to make your own way to school today. I’ll be able to pick you up this afternoon, though.’

‘That’s okay Mum,’ he replied through a mouthful of toast and orange juice. ‘Walking’s quicker anyway.’

‘I still feel bad making you walk on your birthday. Joshua, I thought I told you to get in the shower?’

‘You did, but Dad got in first. He sweats more than me. Bit of deodorant will do if he takes too long.’

‘You will not be seeing the principal all hot and sweaty, if I have to wash you with the hose.’

‘Don’t worry. I’ll be in and out like lightning. Trust me.’

Alicia made a noise of disapproval before heading down the hall to wake her two-year-old daughter so she could get her ready for daycare.

‘Mr. and Mrs. Williams, I am Dean Carpenter, the principal of this high school. Thank you for coming. I wish to apologise for the necessity of this meeting,’ he announced briskly.

Josh sat calmly in his chair. Many boys his age might be daunted by a parent interview, but Josh wasn’t like other boys, and he had known that this meeting was coming for some time.

‘I trust there’s nothing wrong, is there?’ Alicia Williams asked, knowing that this wouldn’t be the case. It would have been nice, however, if just once she knew what it actually was.

The principal paused just a moment before delivering the bad news.

‘Are you aware that, of the last ten school weeks, Joshua has only been present for about five? I’m sorry Mrs Williams, but a fifty percent attendance rate is completely unacceptable.’

‘What?’ Mrs Williams exclaimed, nearly toppling her chair over as she leapt to her feet in surprise. This was worse than anything she had imagined.

‘I know he doesn’t always go to school,’ Quentin replied carefully.

And so he should know, thought Josh. Not only had he called the school to ‘explain’ many of them, but he had often had him at work with him.

‘Although I didn’t know it was so often,’ he continued with a look at his son.

‘Well it’s news to me, Quentin!’ Alicia exclaimed, her eyes beginning to smoulder with the blaze of anger that Joshua knew so well.

Neither Josh nor his father had told Alicia. As a teacher, she held particular views on children and education.

‘He learns more at home than at school – I don’t see what the problem is,’ Quentin replied in what he thought was a placatory manner.

‘You mean to say, Mr Williams, that you were aware of this problem?’

Josh fought back a snort. Mr Carpenter was not known among the students for being particularly on the ball.

‘I hardly think it a problem for a child to exercise their right to decide what education suits their needs.’

‘And you are aware that it is a condition of attending senior high school that he actually attends every day unless some serious illness is involved?’

‘Perfectly.’

‘And as a police officer,’ he said, consulting the notes on his desk, ‘you are comfortable with this?’

This time, Josh couldn’t help but smile. He knew what was coming and Mr Carpenter was about to get a lot more answer than he had bargained for.

‘As a police officer, I understand that rules are in place for a reason. I also understand that people must come to decide for themselves why the rules are in place. If the rules are unjust, then perhaps they are not worth following. Running red lights and speeding are illegal. They are illegal because they have the potential to cause severe injury or death. On the other hand, policemen do both as a part of their job because the potential dangers of speeding have been weighed up against the potential dangers of police not getting to their calls on time and the risk is considered acceptable. Or how about if you had to get an ill person to hospital in a hurry?’

‘But if you are caught, you will be fined.’

‘Very true, Mr Carpenter. The consequences have to be considered as well. This is what I’ve been trying to teach my boys. They must choose their actions, and live with their consequences.’

‘Yes, that’s what he told us. Isn’t it, Joshua?’ Mr. Carpenter said, more to silence Quentin than from any desire to consult Joshua.

‘Yes, Mr. Carpenter,’ Joshua replied, quietly. In this case, the consequence was to be dragged into the office on his birthday. It was the only reason he had bothered coming.

‘Normally, in a gross case of truancy such as your son’s, we would suggest the student choose, to use your own words, not to return. However, your son’s school reports show that he has the ability to do very well at school. In fact, I have a petition from some of his teachers asking me not to remove him,’ the principal exclaimed, as if the very idea were disgusting. ‘So, we have a problem here. Joshua, what do you suggest we do?’ he asked, not actually looking at Josh. ‘Do you want more work to do? We could move you up a grade like your brother. Do you think that would help?’

Life as an identical twin was interesting. Mostly people treated you as if you were carbon copies of each other rather than two people who just happen to look alike. School, on the other hand, had shown the differences in Josh and his brother very early on. Because Joey had always shown more interest in school, he had been skipped ahead to grade three at the end of grade one, despite Joshua actually being the more intelligent of the two. Apparently, the adults involved were only now realising that school was just a game to the twins. Neither had required the training of formal schooling in a long time.

‘Mr Carpenter, I only continue to come to school because it suits me. I am biding my time until I can go into the police force. I already know everything you have to teach me here. I have done since I was nine. I hand all my assignments in on time and they are all of a high standard. It is not as if I waste my time, Sir.’

‘How long have you felt this way?’ Joshua could see his mother struggling to suddenly see her family as it really was. He couldn’t blame her for being confused. He had put a lot of effort into keeping her in the dark.

‘A long time, dear. He came to me after his first day at preschool.’

‘Preschool? What?’

That would be a shock for her, as much as she had tried to control her sons’ lives. Josh wondered when she would realise that much of the trouble he had been in over the years had been to keep her attention away from other aspects of his life.

The habit of hiding things from his mother was so strong that he let his dad explain.

‘You remember how he went missing and they found him in that grade three class?’

‘Ye-es.’

‘He told me that he ran away because he was bored just playing with blocks and toys. He wanted to read and do maths.’

‘And why didn’t you come to me?’ she rounded on Josh, shocked and hurt. ‘If you were that bright, we could have had your IQ tested and you could have gone into a more suitable class. We could have found tutors. We would have paid for them somehow.’

‘You couldn’t have afforded them and you know it. And I don’t want my IQ tested. I don’t need a number to tell me I’m different. I already know.’

‘You’re not different, Darling. You might be gifted, but that doesn’t mean –’ she trailed off as Josh’s anger boiled over.

‘You don’t know! You’ve only ever seen what we wanted you to see.’ The frustration Josh felt was almost enough to make him forget himself and lift the principal’s desk – piles of paperwork and all – over his head as a means of demonstrating just some of his difference. It might not have been an impossible feat, but there weren’t many people who could do it without straining themselves. Josh knew just by looking at it that he could raise it over his head without difficulty. He also knew that, given the right incentive, Joey could do it with just one hand. He held on to years of restraint with difficulty.

‘Only Joey and I know what we can really do, even if we have no idea why. How smart we are is just the tip of the iceberg. I spend my time outside of school trying to make sense of it.’

Josh hoped the conversation would turn soon. He avoided publicising that he could do or understand things that other people couldn’t, even from his mother, because he didn’t want someone else deciding what he should use his talents for. He already knew. And if things kept going the way the way they were, then someone would start trying to make an academic out of him.

He couldn’t have that.

‘Look, place me in grade twelve. One way or another, we’ll be out of each others’ hair sooner.’

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