Reed studied his tired eyes in the taxi’s passenger rear-view mirror. Underneath the bloodshot orbs were heavy bags. He was always pretty good at sleeping on planes, but he’d known getting on the plane at LaGuardia that he wouldn’t be sleeping much on the flight. This supposition had proved correct. He’d grabbed some shuteye in the first half of the trip but as they’d drawn closer to the place that had given him an award-winning story four years earlier, a gnawing had started in his gut that shot any hope of further rest.
Heathrow. In late 2020, Reed spent three hellish weeks there, covering the anti-immigrant riots that had followed the UK’s exit from the EU. For nearly six months of that year, Heathrow had been an emergency prison, its huge aircraft hangars housing the tens of thousands of rioters that were shuttled there on the tube out of an imploding London. A day after his journalist credentials and ID were stolen, Reed was mistaken by the army as a rioter and was violently arrested and shipped out to the airport. There he was beaten a couple of times a week, alternately by jumpy army cadets who saw him as a “shithead rioter with a shit American accent” and by the rioters themselves, who saw him as “a job-stealing Yankee bastard.” Reed spent a significant amount of his three week Heathrow stint in and out of a Red Cross field hospital bed. But it was worth it.
The story he’d gleaned from that bruising chapter in his life had won him a Pulitzer Prize. Cornice, the small but well-respected commentary and criticism magazine he worked for, had been ecstatic, and gave him free rein after that to pick whatever stories he wanted to write. The only major prize-winning writer at the magazine, he was given license to more or less spend as much as he liked, in the hope that he’d bring more glory their way. And Reed did—two years after the Pulitzer, he won a George Polk award for an expose on market rigging that involved the share price of a major French biotech company. On the other side of the equation, he spent a hell of a lot of Cornice’s money jetting around the world in business class and staying in nice hotels. When global news media conglomerate Fullerton Regis bought Cornice only a few months before Reed’s current sojourn to the UK, the cost-cutting behemoth was quick to point out to the magazine’s leading star that he was “an expensive factor in the workings of the magazine.” They were willing to let Reed continue on his global travels in search of the perfect story—but no more business class, and Reed would have to come down a peg in his hotel selections.
Reed had been disappointed but not surprised. All gravy trains came to an end sometime. He’d lived it up for three and a half years. Good for him. Most journalists never got to live it up at all. His current journey, a two-legged overnight hop from LaGuardia to Heathrow followed by a short flight north to Inverness was his fifth economy flight since the Fullerton tightwads had taken over. He still wasn’t used to the crappy legroom and missed the beautiful flatbed seats terribly. He wondered if he would ever acclimatise to his change in circumstance.
He yawned. He looked to his left. They were crossing the Dornoch Firth bridge. The sky was clear, the sun shining down on the tranquil water. About half an hour earlier they’d crossed the Cromarthy Firth and Reed had seen dolphins leaping below him. The water beneath him now remained almost still, nothing appearing from beneath its surface.
Reed rubbed his eyes, focusing on what lay ahead to lift him from his tiredness. He was certainly excited by what awaited him—an interview with the reclusive Douglas Copeland, one of the richest men in Europe. For quite a while Reed had been pondering on doing a detailed interview piece for the magazine. He decided that he would select a member of the “super rich” community and focused on the more secretive. By far the most secretive member was Douglas Copeland. He never talked to the media at all. Copeland was chief executive of a giant global consumer products company called Calbony. No one really knew how much he was worth but all observers of the financial elite agreed that it was north of fifty billion dollars. Reed hadn’t held out much hope when he sent off the email requesting an interview, but was delighted when the response came back from Copeland’s personal assistant accepting the request.
Copeland suffered a terrible tragedy in his earlier life. His wife, son and two daughters were murdered when Copeland was in his thirties. They died in the very place that Reed was heading to now—Mordren Castle, where Copeland has lived since his dreadful loss. Reed found it hard to fathom living in a place where your entire family was violently taken from you. Rich people have their ways, he supposed. Copeland bought Mordren when he’d started to make money as a stockbroker in London. Back then, the Castle was small and run down. He restored it and added quite significantly to its size over the decades. By all accounts, it was now a spectacular building.
Reed looked about him as they drove through a small village called Golspie. It was like something from a postcard, rural and picturesque, its main street immaculately clean.
“We nearly there?” he asked the taxi driver.
“Yes. It’s just about ten minutes away” the driver said in a thick Scottish accent.
They were leaving the village when Reed saw a sign reading “Dunrobin Castle – 1 km,” with an arrow pointing to the right. Reed looked at his watch. It wasn’t yet one thirty and his appointment with Copeland was for two. He had a bit of time to kill.
“What’s that place like, Dunrobin Castle?” he asked the driver.
“It’s a beautiful building. One of Scotland’s finest castles. Dates all the way back to the Middle Ages. Would you like to see it?”
“Yeah, why not” Reed said. “We’ve time for a look.”
About a minute later they turned off onto a narrow road that they followed until the opulent, pale, well-maintained castle came into view, in front of which two buses were disgorging cargoes of Asian tourists.
“Wow” Reed remarked. “It’s quite impressive. How does Mordren compare with it?” The driver smiled. “It’s about four times bigger.”
A few minutes later they were back on the main road. Reed figured they’d only gone two miles when the taxi driver turned off to the left, and they began ascending a gently rising hill. This new road was forested on both sides. The climb went on for a while before the road eventually levelled out. The forest on the left disappeared, replaced by rock-encrusted bogland. Eventually the trees on the right gave way too, letting peat and stone reign supreme all around.
The road dipped, and Reed spotted it before the driver had a chance to speak.
“There she is,” the driver said. “Mordren Castle.”
Even from where he was, probably over a mile away, Reed could appreciate the size of the magnificent structure they were heading towards.
As they neared the spectacular edifice, Reed struggled to contain his rising amazement. He blinked, figuring that the mighty building before him wasn’t far off the size of Windsor Castle, the largest in Britain. The driver pulled up before the stone staircase that led to an enormous front door.
“Come back at four,” Reed said and got out.
The cab pulled away and Reed walked up to the door. He rang the bell at its side and while he waited for it to be answered, he turned to admire the beautiful, desolate landscape behind him. Two deer were studying him from the bogland in the distance. Hearing the door open, Reed turned to see a man in a sharply tailored butler’s suit before him.
“Hello. My name is Reed Bochner, from Cornice magazine. I’m here for an interview with Mr. Copeland.”
The butler nodded. “Yes, Sir, we’ve been expecting you.” He opened the door wider to let Reed pass. Reed stepped into a huge, wide hallway at the centre of which lay a massive, ornate staircase. A tall woman appeared from a doorway ahead and walked toward him, a faint business smile on her features.
“Mr. Bochner,” the woman said, proffering her hand.
“Yes,” Reed said, taking her hand and shaking it.
“I’m Margaret Christie, Mr. Copeland’s personal assistant.”
“Pleased to meet you.”
“I’ll take you to Mr. Copeland’s study,” Christie said, gesturing along the hallway, to the left of the staircase.
“How was your flight, Mr. Bochner?” Christie asked as they walked.
“It was fine.”
Christie gave her business smile again. “Good to have you with us safe and sound.”
They walked on with no more pleasantries until Christie eventually broke the silence with “and here we are.”
She opened a door and led Reed into a room that was larger than his duplex apartment.
“Mr. Copeland will be with you shortly” Christie said, and departed.
Reed looked at a massive fireplace to his left, in which a wood fire blazed. Two wingback chairs stood before the fire. Reed walked by them toward the head of the room. He stopped a few paces from an elegant writing desk upon which lay a large stand supporting four big trading monitors. Behind the desk was a decorative chair, matched by an identical one at Reed’s side. He looked to his right and studied a soaring bay window. It was a beautiful, multi-paned affair. As he walked toward it he heard the door open behind him. He turned to see Douglas Copeland walking toward him. A man of average height and build, he was respectably attired in a simple blazer, open-necked shirt and slacks.
Copeland extended his hand. Reed took it.
“Welcome to Mordren.”
“First time in the Highlands?”
“First time in Scotland.”
“So what do you think?”
“It’s beautiful. Therapeutic.”
Copeland made no response. He went to a cabinet at the side of the window and opened it.
“Brandy, if you have it.”
Reed watched as Copeland poured a brandy and then a whiskey for himself. He gave Reed his glass and gestured to the chairs by the fire.
“I agreed to your request for an interview because of that Heathrow piece you did a few years back,” Copeland said once they were seated. “It was very powerful.”
“We’re both men who have suffered, Mr. Bochner” Copeland said. “And have prospered because of what we have endured.”
Reed blinked, trying not to flinch. Copeland’s eyes were fixed firmly on his, as though he was trying to read his mind. So unyielding was Copeland’s gaze that Reed felt the man was actually succeeding. A torrent of hellish images and sounds from his airport detention flooded through: the fists, rifle stocks, boots and trainers crashing into his body… the time he and another man went to the aid of a woman being attacked… the savage beating both men took… Reed slipped into a coma… the images of what had followed upon his return to New York… the waking up shouting in the middle of the night… the repeated occasions when he hadn’t been able to respond to his girlfriend when they went to make love… the almost daily therapy sessions for nearly a month… the departure of his drained girlfriend after she simply couldn’t stand it anymore.
Copeland took a sip of his whiskey.
“Are you going to record this?” he asked.
Reed had forgotten about his voice recorder, so taken off-guard he was by Copeland’s directness.
“Yes, of course,” Reed said, taking the recorder from his breast pocket. He placed it on the table between them and activated it.
“I’m dying, Mr. Bochner” Copeland began. “An inoperable brain tumour. My doctors tell me that in a few weeks I’m going to start having speech and memory difficulties.” He paused. “I want to tell my story to someone, while I still can. Someone outside my business, who’s not bound to secrecy.” He paused again. “That someone is you.”
Reed remained silent.
Copeland took a deep breath.
“I’d had a few pretty good years working in London” he said. “My bonuses had been getting bigger with each year and I’d saved every penny of them. My wife Beatrice and I had gone holidaying with the kids every summer in the Highlands so we decided to buy this place, and make it into a luxury holiday home. Renovate it and maybe bring it up to country guest house standard so we’d have something to do in our retirement. The evening it happened, I’d been out shooting. I’d bagged two young grouse and had intended on cooking them for dinner. By the time I got back here it was almost dark. When I approached the door I noticed it was at an angle, and the hinges were loose. It had clearly been forced open. I checked that I had cartridges in my shotgun and went inside. A few steps beyond the door lay the body of my housekeeper, Greta. Her neck had been torn open—like a wolf had savaged her. A bit beyond her, by the door of the living room, lay the form of my daughter Agnes. She… had been mutilated in a similar fashion. The living room door was ajar and I pushed it gently inward.” Copeland paused. He blinked before resuming and Reed could sense enormous effort being deployed beneath the simple physical gesture. “The body of my wife lay face down behind the couch, and my daughter Isobel lay a few feet from the fireplace. At the far end of the room was a hunched figure, its back turned to me. I could hear it making wet, slopping sounds. The door squeaked as it reached the end of its rotation and the figure whirled around. Its speed was unnatural. I hardly saw it turn at all. Behind it, my son Jared slumped to the ground, his neck was… ruined. The thing facing me made a sound… like a rattlesnake. The best way I can describe its appearance would be a variation of a man. It had arms, legs and skin like a man, but its head, or rather, the features of its head… its maw stretched from ear to ear, while its eyes, ears and nose were much smaller than an average man’s. The mouth was full of huge sharp teeth, but they weren’t in neat rows like you might see in a… TV vampire’s mouth, they were more a haphazard collection of treacherous crags and stalactites. And they were drenched in my family’s blood.”
“I was just about to pull the trigger on my gun when the thing dropped to the ground and scampered behind the couch like some sort of animal. It reappeared again, launching itself through the air over the sofa in my direction. Its speed was incredible. Before I had a chance to aim at it, it batted the gun out of my grip. I stepped sideways and pulled out my hunting knife just as it propelled itself at me again. I brought the knife up and buried it to the hilt in its chest. It fell against me, and I pushed it to the ground where it lay moaning, its hands working weakly at the knife’s handle. I ran to Jared, in the hope that he might perhaps still be alive. But he was gone.” Copeland turned his eyes to the fire. “His eyes were open. There was a look of… terror and… loss in them.” He paused. “I’ll never forget it.”
Copeland went silent.
“You’re saying… a monster murdered your family and your housekeeper,” Reed said.
“What happened to it? Did it die?” Part of Reed scolded himself for entertaining the possibility that Copeland’s story might be true, but to his surprise, he found that in the main, he actually believed what he was hearing.
“No. And I didn’t finish it off, either. Something told me not to. I knew I had gotten the thing in the heart with my knife and yet it was still alive, running its fingers pitifully over the handle. The way it had moved… the way it lusted for human blood… and the fact that it was still alive with a knife in its heart… I knew it was something special.”
Copeland studied Reed’s eyes. Reed knew the man was looking for judgment there but Reed was determined to remain dispassionate, despite the small worm of horror twisting in his gut.
“I wrapped it in plastic and dragged it down to the basement where there was a small, secret room behind a false wall, and I got rid of the carpet from the living room that had its bloodstains on it. Then I called the police.”
Copeland sipped his whiskey.
“I told them that I hadn’t set eyes on the killer—that by the time I’d returned to the castle, he had come and gone. It didn’t take long for them to decide that the perpetrator had been some madman, high on some powerful drug that had driven him to cannibalism. I was never a suspect. There wasn’t a mark on me to indicate a struggle. I was known in the locality and nobody felt that I was the type to suddenly lose my mind and commit such an atrocity. People in the area knew I loved my family. And there was business to think of. Well-heeled tourists and hunters were basically the lifeblood of the area. It wouldn’t be good PR to lock up a London stockbroker for the gruesome murders of his family and housekeeper.”
“So…did the monster survive?”
“Yes. And it got me to where I am today.”
“What do you mean?”
“It made me a multibillionaire.”
Reed said nothing for a while.
“How?” he eventually asked.
“At the time, Gavin McKay was a scientist down in Inverness.” Gavin McKay was the President of Calbony, and had founded the corporation with Copeland. “I gave him a call. I’d worked on the IPO of his biotech company the previous year, and we’d kept in touch. He came up and I showed him the invalid in my basement. It took nearly half a bottle of gin to get him brave enough to examine the creature. It turned out that I’d damaged its heart with my knife, alright—not enough to kill it, but definitely enough to keep it on the flat of its back for as long as it was alive. Up to that point neither of us had ever believed in something as ridiculous as… vampires, but we had to concede that what we had before us was at least something of a similar nature. We carried out some tests on its blood, and…we set up Calbony.
“We focused on three main areas: cosmetics, energy drinks, and beef. In the cosmetics line we produced the same stuff that any cosmetics company would: mascara, lipstick, eyeshadow, moisturizer, cleanser, et cetera. ‘Try our stuff,’ we said to the world, ‘it’s got anti-ageing properties.’ Lots of other companies were claiming the same thing, but they were full of shit. Nothing could stop ageing. But our products did. Because they had a tiny percentage of the monster’s blood in them. That was one of its properties.
“We came up with two energy drinks: Cauldron and Warlord. They were almost identical to any other drink on the market. Except for one very special ingredient.”
“The blood,” Reed said.
Copeland nodded and took a sip of whiskey.
“Worked a lot better than the other stuff on the shelves.”
“Why did you invest in beef?”
“To capitalize on the side effects of the cosmetics and energy drinks.”
“We knew that if people were absorbing vampire blood on a regular basis, even in tiny concentrations, they would develop the appetite of one, to a certain extent. They wouldn’t have a need for pure human flesh, but…” Copeland trailed off.
It dawned on Reed. “They’d have an increased appetite for red meat in general.”
“Yes. Calbony now owns about fifteen percent of the beef cattle on the planet.”
Reed was stunned. The ingenuity of it was staggering.
“Later on, we made a lot of money in two other areas that we hadn’t initially thought of: headache medication and sleeping tablets. It turned out that the most frequent users of our products developed a moderate sensitivity to sunlight, which gave them headaches.”
“Sunlight being fatal to vampires” Reed said.
Copeland nodded. “And with vampires being nocturnal, customers had difficulty sleeping at night.”
“Yes. So we bought substantial shareholdings in companies that produced the most effective drugs in both areas.”
Reed dropped his eyes, trying to get his head around the sheer scale of Calbony’s money-making capabilities. A product that no one knew about, let alone had access to…with the population of the world rising and wealth increasing in developing countries and continents, the opportunities that lay in wait…
“Mr. Copeland,” Reed said. “Your cancer. Would…”
“Yes, the blood would kill it. But only at a very high concentration. And there’s a very steep trade-off. We tested it on a candidate—which she consented to, of course. Her tumour shrank away to nothing in less than twenty-four hours. Unfortunately, she wanted a lot more than beef when she woke up.”
“She became a vampire.”
“More or less. She slaughtered two nurses and a security guard before we managed to take her down.”
Reed remained silent.
“I don’t want to live forever, Mr. Bochner, drinking human blood to sustain me,” Copeland said. “I’m ready to die. I’m ready to go to my wife and children.”
The following day Reed sat in a bar at Heathrow, an untouched beer before him. The horrors of his detention there four years earlier hadn’t entered his mind once since his arrival at the airport. After he’d left Mordren the previous evening, nothing had occupied his thoughts outside of Copeland’s tale.
He couldn’t use it, of course. The story of the century, and he simply… had it. It would never be published. It was simply too deadly. Hundreds of millions of people finding out that they had traces of vampire blood in their system? It would be like the apocalypse.
Copeland had shown him hard evidence to back up his story. He’d brought Reed into a huge lab deep beneath the castle, where he’d shown him the monster lying on a bed in a glass-walled room. Its arms and legs had been amputated as a precaution. An IV line fed it with human blood that Copeland sourced from blood banks all over Europe, while another line withdrew the being’s own blood very slowly. The knife that Copeland had stabbed it with thirty-three years earlier was still buried in its chest. Even in its pitiful, dependent state, no one wanted to risk removing the blade, in case the beast’s heart healed.
A voice announced over the airport public address system that Reed’s flight was boarding. He rose and began walking toward the departure gate. As he walked he saw a woman sitting on a chair, a make-up mirror in one hand while she applied some lipstick with the other. The lipstick cap was resting on her leg. Reed saw the Calbony logo on it. A little while later, he saw two men talking. One of them was drinking from a can. As he walked by, Reed spotted the name of the drink. Cauldron.
In his mind’s eye Reed saw the little beads of blood making their way from the monster’s body along the IV line toward the bag at its end.
One of the most valuable fluids in the world.
Gold he thought. Red gold.
The perfect name for the story he would never write.