THE SAMPLING: DEADHEAD
Glenn Wood's new young adult read brings to life some classic horror fiction with brains, a guts full of humour, gory detail and graphic replays, or should that be reanimations, at the end of each chapter. Read on, if you dare.
It was a good night for grave-robbing. A full moon shone brightly in the cloud-free sky on a Tuesday evening, in the small town of Pegler which lay about fifty kilometres west of Stamport, and the roads were, excuse the pun, dead.
It was a good night for grave-robbing.
This was fortunate for Spencer Langley as he was driving a stolen car and didn’t have a driver’s licence. Being only thirteen, he wasn’t old enough to drive legally but he’d always treated the law as more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule. Spencer would argue that the car wasn’t actually stolen but borrowed. It was an old, battered Honda Civic which belonged to his mother. Just because she hadn’t given him permission to take the car didn’t mean she wouldn’t have. Okay, she wouldn’t have but, technically, he hadn’t asked, so she hadn’t said no. Spencer flicked a glance at Regan, the short, blonde girl who sat next to him. She was dressed in an eclectic mix of op shop clothing that shouldn’t have worked together and didn’t. They had been friends since they were kids and she regularly displayed poor enough judgement to accompany him on outings such as this.
They had been friends since they were kids and she regularly displayed poor enough judgement to accompany him on outings such as this.
Regan was chewing on a pink strand of hair. The ends had been dyed about ten centimetres from the tip. She took the hair out of her mouth then drew her feet up so they pushed against the glove box.
“You know, there’s some pretty poor parenting going on here,” she muttered.
Spencer’s brow furrowed. “How so?”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? We’re two thirteen-year-old kids, out robbing graves, miles from home and not an adult in sight.”
She paused for effect. “I’m sure you won’t find that in the positive parenting handbook.”
Spencer smiled. “You’re only twelve-and-a-half.”
Regan considered the ‘Blueberry Blast’ nail varnish on her left hand. The green colour on her right-hand nails was called ‘Bugs Blood’.
“That makes it worse!” she wailed.
“You know, there’s some pretty poor parenting going on here,”
Spencer tapped the steering wheel with his finger then flicked his hazel eyes to the rear vision mirror and briefly studied his reflection. He supposed he was quite good-looking, not handsome but certainly not grotesque. He was of average size for his age though a bit on the skinny side. His sandy-coloured hair was shaved short at the sides but had a bit more length on top. He had an annoying curl at the front of his hair which sat up like a curling wave. Everyone thought he was using hair gel to get this effect but he wasn’t. His hair just did it and he’d stopped trying to tamp it down years ago. Other outstanding features included thin lips, a sprinkling of freckles and teeth that were even and white. This gave him a nice smile which he didn’t use as much as his mother would have liked.
Spencer’s dress style wasn’t as unconventional as Regan’s. He didn’t really care about fashion, although he did have a ‘thing’. Jeans and Teeshirts were his uniform but not just any Teeshirts. He almost always wore one featuring an obscure band, reflecting his unconventional musical tastes. Today’s attire featured a faded photo of a mole rat with the band name ‘Skunk Mud’ above it.
Spencer answered Regan. “My mum thinks I’m safely tucked up in bed at home so she can’t really be blamed.”
Regan considered this. “Yes, but it’s her job to know her son well enough to expect this sort of behaviour. I mean, she didn’t even lock the car.”
Spencer swung the Civic off the main road and onto an unsealed side road. Gravel crunched under the tyres and the rear of the car began to fishtail.
Regan braced one hand against the passenger window and pulled tightly on her seatbelt with her other hand. She carried on talking. “Not that it would have done any good. You’d have just picked the lock and hotwired it.”
Spencer turned the steering wheel against the direction of the skid and the car snapped back into line. He was getting annoyed. “You know full well that I wouldn’t have taken the car unless it was an emergency. And what about your parents? I bet they don’t know where you are tonight.”
Regan snorted. “They never know where I am and they don’t care anyway.” She dropped her head and stared hard at her nails.
Spencer noticed the change in Regan’s body language. He calmed down; his voice softened. “Sorry about that, Regs. I’m sure they do.”
The girl shrugged. “Nah, they don’t but it’s all right. Doesn’t matter.”
Spencer couldn’t think of anything to say to make his friend feel better so he kept quiet. Even a slightly uncomfortable silence was better than comparing his mother with hers.
The car bumped down the side road for several more kilometres, its wheels crashing in and out of potholes. Spencer finally pulled onto a grass verge beside the rear of a large cemetery. The boy had avoided the main entrance on purpose, choosing a less frequented path into the graveyard.
The gates to this part of the cemetery were old and ornate, with thin steel bars curled into the shape of spirals and spearheads. Two large, fat bodied spiders were sculpted into the top of each gate, their spindly steel legs splayed out from their bodies as if they’d been squashed.
The gates had been pushed aside some years ago and left open until they had rusted in place. Pale green lichen spread in patches over the black metal. It looked as if someone with a bad cold had sneezed on them. Scattered stands of ancient trees pressed against the cemetery walls, bare branches clawing at the sky.
Spencer and Regan left the car. The boy popped the boot and removed a large black bag and two shovels. He handed one to Regan, slung the other over his shoulder, picked up the bag then walked confidently into the cemetery.
The boy popped the boot and removed a large black bag and two shovels. He handed one to Regan, slung the other over his shoulder, picked up the bag then walked confidently into the cemetery.
Regan hesitated then broke into a trot to catch up with her friend.
They strode purposefully past rows of tombs and gravestones that were deteriorating with age and neglect. A plump blackbird watched them from the top of a marble cross, its yellow eyes glinting in the moonlight. Spencer paused at an old granite statue of a winged angel whose beautifully carved face had cracked and slipped.
Spencer nudged Regan and pointed to the decaying visage.
“Nothing a bit of Botox wouldn’t fix.”
“Show some respect!” hissed the girl. The sombre air of the cemetery was getting to her.
Spencer shrugged. “Just trying to lighten the mood. I doubt anyone here’ll complain.” He shifted his shovel from one shoulder to the other. “When did you get all spiritual?”
“I have hidden depths.” “Really well-hidden,” muttered Spencer.
Regan ignored him. “How much further?”
Spencer ran his fingers over a nearby gravestone; the rock crumbled. “A little way yet, we’re still in the old part of the cemetery. The grave we want is in the new bit.”
After ten minutes of solid walking the appearance of the cemetery began to change. The gravestones were less damaged and had been maintained with more care. Floral displays appeared at the foot of some of the graves and the grass between the plots was recently mown.
Spencer grabbed Regan’s arm and pointed to a bright yellow mechanical digger that lay sleeping by a mound of freshly dug dirt. “Let’s try over there.”
He hurried to the digger, waited for Regan to catch up, then cast his eyes over a line of new plots. He moved closer to the graves and walked slowly down the rows carefully examining the engravings on the headstones.
Spencer suddenly stopped. He stood in front of a freshly dug mound of dirt. The headstone at the end of the grave was made from a slab of black marble. The stone was so dark it seemed to absorb the moonlight and, unlike most of the other curved gravestones, it was rectangular in shape. Its thick black edges were sharp and precise and in the half-light it looked like a large bible that had been rammed into the ground.
Spencer waved Regan over. She approached with caution.
“This is it,” he said, his eyes gleaming with excitement. “Come and meet my new bodyguard.”
Regan crept closer to the headstone. The first thing she noticed was a silver emblem centred near the top of the stone. The design consisted of three entangled letters - SPD (Stamport Police Department). Engraved in large gold type beneath the insignia was a name - Garret Hunter.
“This is it,” he said, his eyes gleaming with excitement. “Come and meet my new bodyguard.”
Two weeks earlier digging up a potential bodyguard was the last thing on Spencer’s mind. He was simply trying to survive another school day.
Spencer fell between the cracks when it came to high school cliques. He didn’t have the money or the right family name to be popular. He wasn’t big enough to be a jock, wasn’t stupid enough to be a stoner, wasn’t depressed enough to be an emo and wasn’t socially awkward enough to be a nerd. Although with an IQ in excess of 145 he was definitely smart enough. Not that his schoolmates knew how intelligent he was. Spencer hid his superior intellect as much as possible. He’d learned early in life that it made him a target for stronger but less gifted kids.
What Spencer was, however, was a survivor. His dad had left when Spencer was five. He walked out the door one day and never came back. There were rumours that he deserted them for another woman but Spencer didn’t know if that was true. All he knew was that his dad was a loser who had dumped his family when they needed him the most. His mum, Tessa Langley, took it hard, blaming herself for her husband’s departure. She became depressed and could barely get out of bed some days. Spencer had stepped up and made sure things got done and, even though his mum was much better, he was still stepping up. He realised long ago that his job was to do whatever it took to get what he and his mum needed.
He applied the same logic to his situation at school. He’d added up his assets; brains, quick wits, charm (when required) and a healthy disregard for rules. Bearing this in mind, he’d carved out a niche as a fixer. If you wanted anything, anything at all, Spencer would organise it. For a fee.
Want a girl to like you? Spencer would get you a date.
Need to ace the upcoming chemistry exam? Spencer would supply you with enough answers for a credible pass.
Spencer had initially hoped to get a scholarship for college. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to study yet, it would be either medicine or robotics, both were subjects that fascinated him and he’d spent years researching how the human body worked and applying those learnings to robotics. He knew that the first person to effectively replicate a human in mechanical form would make a killing.
And while Spencer was certainly smart enough to get a scholarship he’d recently organised a spectacularly bad date for the daughter of the head of the advisory committee. After that he was pretty sure his chances had dropped to nil. Due to this unfortunate turn of events he was actively looking for work.
Spencer was in the boy’s bathroom when it began. He had just finished conducting a very successful match fixing negotiation with the captain of the school hockey team when Carl ‘Psycho’ Barrington walked in. Carl lived up to his nickname; he was as unpredictable as a wild dog and just as dangerous. The best thing to do when Carl turned up was to get the hell out of there, 20 21 which was exactly what Spencer was attempting when his arm was taken in a steely grip.
“Where’re you going Langley?”
Spencer turned to face the boy trying to get a measure on Carl’s mood. He appeared relatively calm but with Carl it was hard to tell. Spencer decided on a strategy of complete compliance.
“Nowhere if you need me Carl. How can I help?”
The larger boy indicated that Spencer follow him to the urinal. He bent down and checked under the bathroom stalls as they walked. Once Carl was satisfied that they were alone he lowered his voice to a whisper.
“I’m starting a Burdale chapter of the Yakuza.”
Of all the things Spencer had expected Carl to say this was near the bottom of the list.
“I’m starting a Burdale chapter of the Yakuza.” Of all the things Spencer had expected Carl to say this was near the bottom of the list.
Firstly, Spencer wasn’t aware that the Japanese organised crime syndicate known as the Yakuza was active in Stamport. Secondly, he didn’t think they’d choose the exclusive and upmarket suburb of Burdale as a base if they were. Finally and most surprisingly, Carl wasn’t Asian. In fact, he was about as European as you could get. He had wavy, shoulder length blond hair, cold blue eyes and pale skin. He was built more like a rugby player than an oriental assassin.
However, if Carl wanted to be a Yakuza, Spencer wasn’t about to argue. He answered, barely missing a beat.
“Great idea. I’m in.”
Carl grabbed Spencer by the shirt collar and pushed him against the bathroom wall. “Don’t be stupid. I wasn’t asking you to join the gang. As if! We are gonna be an elite group of feared warriors...” Carl poked a solid digit into Spencer’s skinny chest. “...not scrawny ummm, chicken chested girls.”
As insults go Spencer had heard worse but he knew Carl was better with his fists then he was with his mouth.
“OK,” Spencer replied in his most soothing tone. “What do you want then?”
Carl released his shirt collar and stepped back. “I need a samurai sword.”
“Of course,” said Spencer as if it was the most natural request in the world. “You can’t be a leader of the Yakuza without a sword?”
“Can you get me one?” said Carl with a nod of his head. Spencer sucked air through his teeth. “It won’t be cheap.”
“At least four hundred.”
Carl took out his wallet and handed Spencer two one hundred dollar bills. “Half now, half when I get the sword.”
“You’ll have it by the end of the week,” said Spencer, now feeling quite positive about the meeting.
Later that afternoon Spencer visited one of his many business contacts, Jimmy Lee. Jimmy was the manager of The Two Dollar Shop in one of Stamport’s less salubrious suburbs. After some intense negotiation Spencer was able to secure a ‘semi genuine’ samurai sword, which Jimmy had hidden out the back of the store. It cost Spencer twenty five dollars and fifty cents.
Spencer took the sword home, gave it a polish to remove some of the rust from the blade, then repaired and redecorated its sheath, which had definitely see better days.
He presented the hastily renovated weapon to Carl the following afternoon.
“It’s not as fancy as I thought it’d be,” muttered Carl as he examined the tatty black sheath that protected the sword.
Spencer nodded. “Yeah, I thought the same thing but the sensei master I bought it off said ‘the plainer the sheath, the more powerful the sword’.”
Carl pulled at a rotting piece of string that hung from the scabbard. It broke off in his hand. He whistled. “Wow, this must be really powerful then.”
“Yeah,” said Spencer, warming to the task. “It’s called ‘Gut Spiller’ and it was owned by this, like, super ninja dude. He had to rescue this hot princess from an entire army of triads. He wiped em all out using just this sword.” Spencer patted the scabbard respectfully. “Plus a tiger, two dragons and a yeti.”
“Gut Spiller,” murmured Carl in awe. He passed Spencer the rest of the money then grasped the handle of the sword and began to withdraw the blade.
Spencer grabbed his arm. “Don’t do that.”
Carl stopped. His eyes narrowed and a vein pulsed in his neck. Spencer carried swiftly on. “I heard a Yakuza never removes his sword unless he intends to draw blood.”
Carl held Spencer’s gaze for several, very disconcerting seconds then finally spoke. “Yeah, that’s right.” He pushed the blade back into its sheath, suddenly stopping before it was fully home. He pointed to several rust spots on the steel.
“What’s that?” “Dried blood,” lied Spencer.
Carl gave a satisfied nod and fully sheathed the sword. “I’ll be drawing it tomorrow night anyway at the first meeting of the gang. We’re swearing allegiance so we’ll need to do some finger cutting. You better be there in case anyone has any questions about the sword.”
“Great,” said Spencer, not because he wanted to go but because it was unwise to disappoint Carl, especially when he was holding a sword.
The first meeting of the Burdale Yakuza gang was held in Carl’s parent’s basement. Spencer had never been to Carl’s house before and was surprised to discover he lived in an outrageously expensive home.
The first meeting of the Burdale Yakuza gang was held in Carl’s parent’s basement.
Spencer’s own living conditions were, of course, far less salubrious. His mum’s small but heavily mortgaged house was in the suburb of Lorrigan, which was one of Stamport’s poorer suburbs.
The fact that Carl came from a rich family made Spencer feel better about the outrageous profit he had made on the sword transaction. Not that he was feeling particularly guilty. His mark-up was more than fair when you considered the dangers of having to deal with such a psychotic client.
Spencer was wearing a T shirt featuring an alternative Japanese punk band called ‘Hot Chopped Sushi’ in honour of the occasion but he doubted Carl would notice. He thought the whole Yakuza thing was odd but then he suspected that Carl’s mental stability wasn’t the greatest. These reservations were confirmed the moment he walked into the basement. Carl stood on a raised platform at one end of the room. He was dressed in what were supposed to be oriental robes but looked suspiciously like women’s pyjamas. Behind him were several large red banners that had been splashed with black paint in pitiful attempt at Japanese calligraphy. Oriental lanterns hung from the ceiling and, to add to the cultural confusion, Carl had bluetacked several Chuck Norris posters to the walls. Gut Spiller sat on a table beside the boy. A large gong had been placed beside it.
Spencer slipped into the rear of the basement and, after having waved an ignored greeting to Carl, made himself as inconspicuous as possible. While waiting for the ceremony to begin Spencer checked out the rest of the members of the Burdale Yakuza gang. Several of Carl’s meathead school friends were there plus a few other equally dim looking associates. The only person of Asian descent present was Kim Namgung. He ran the school film club. Spencer was sure he was Korean but had been born in Stamport. The boy looked confused.
Once everyone was assembled Carl picked up a drum-stick and hit the gong. A metallic clang drew everyone’s attention to the stage.
Carl stepped forward, bowed and addressed the crowd. “Welcome prospective members of the Burdale Yakuza gang. What you are about to see may shock you and if you’re easily scared you can leave now.” He paused for effect. A couple of people shuffled but no-one left. “By being here you are sworn to secrecy and can’t tell anyone what happens tonight, on pain of death.” Another weighty pause, then he continued. “First things first. You must all swear blood allegiance to me, as your Yakuza leader.”
Spencer saw a hand raised near the front of the room. It belonged to Malcolm Ward, a large, slow witted boy.
Carl gave an impatient snort. “What do you want Malcolm?”
“Umm I didn’t bring any blood with me to swear on. I didn’t know we had to.”
“You didn’t need to bring blood you idiot. I’ll just prick you with the sword.”
Malcolm nodded. “Oh yeah, course.”
“Right,” continued Carl. “Get ready to bow down before the awesome power of my samurai sword, Gut Spiller.”
With a single fluid motion Carl grabbed the sword from the table, raised it above his head and drew the sword dramatically from its sheath. The blade broke away from the handle, plummeted towards the ground and sliced straight through the middle of Carl’s left foot. Spencer decided this would be a good time to leave and raced for home with Carl’s piercing scream still ringing in his ears.
Extracted with permission from Deadhead by Glenn Wood, published by One Tree House NZ. Text © Glenn Wood, 2020.
by Glenn Wood Published by One Tree House Ltd