Prey for Night

Dying of thirst is the least of their worries...

The plane went down in less than a minute. One moment personal assistant Jane was staring out the window at the sprawling Mojave desert, the next she was squeezing her eyes shut and praying for a quick death.

Yet somehow Jane has miraculously survived the crash. Now, along with a nefarious Hollywood agent and a badly injured flight attendant, she must find her way out of the desert and back to safety before it’s too late.

With night falling fast, the trio stumble upon an abandoned ranch and are forced to take shelter. But Jane and the others are about to discover the ranch isn’t as abandoned as they think—and dehydration isn’t the only way to die in the desert…

A chilling short story thriller by award-nominated Malcolm Richards, Prey for Night will have you on the very edge of your seat.

Please note: Prey for Night is a 1-2 hour short read.

Chapter One

Jane pulled her thin jacket around her shoulders and stared at the ramshackle buildings: a windmill, the remnants of a barn, and a painted farmhouse with a porch that might have once looked homely and inviting to an approaching stranger. But now? Now, even at this distance, she could see the windows were cracked and cloudy, and the paintwork was peeling off like strips of dead skin. But it was shelter from the coming darkness and the falling temperature. The only place they might find safety in this barren desert wasteland.

Glancing at her shell-shocked companions, Jane saw the same change of expression in their eyes: hope of rescue turning quickly to trepidation.

She coughed suddenly. Her lungs smarted from smoke inhalation. The bitter taste of ash poisoned her tongue. And, even though her mind was still in denial, the fatty aroma of scorched meat made her at once nauseous and undeniably hungry.

The plane had gone down in less than a minute. One second, she had been sipping a pomegranate juice and staring out of the window of the private jet, watching the sprawling desert below, the next she had been consciously aware that she was pissing herself and praying to a higher power that she had never believed in, not even when her mother had been dying of cancer.

At first, the roar of the engines had been deafening. Then the plane lurched violently to the right and thick black smoke fell like a veil across the desert view. The flight attendant, who had been pouring a drink, was thrown into the seats and onto the floor, sending alcohol raining over the upholstery. The engines cut out. The ensuing silence was terrifying. Then the plane dipped sharply and the screaming began.

Oxygen masks dropped down from compartments above the passengers’ heads, but Jane was oblivious. Outside the window, the smoke had briefly parted and the desert was rushing up to meet them at breakneck speed. The smoke returned in thick blooms, covering the horrific view. Jane managed to turn her head to the left to see forty-two-year-old Kurt Mayfield, Hollywood agent extraordinaire and thorn in her side, crying like a baby in between shrieking, “Somebody do something! Somebody do something!” All of his cut-throat reputation and desperately fake machismo instantly obliterated

Across from him sat the star of the show, the sole reason they were in this godforsaken tin can with wings in the first place. Royston Starr, Hollywood legend, actor of his generation. But unlike Mayfield, Royston Starr was unfathomably still and collected, not even a bead of perspiration sullying his brow, as if he were starring in one of his smash hit action movies, and any moment now he would coolly rise from his seat and make his way towards the cockpit, open the door, gently pull the unconscious pilot from the driver’s seat, or whatever they called it on a plane, and effortlessly correct the plane’s trajectory to bring it safely back to ground. It would be a rough landing with much teeth gnashing on Royston’s part, but they would all live, and the credits would roll as the emergency services arrived.

Except that wasn’t how it had played out, Jane thought, as she staggered towards the buildings. This was real life, not one of Royston Starr’s box office successes, and not all of them had survived. Even now, there was no distant wail of a siren drawing ever closer, signifying that rescue was on the way. There was only Jane, reluctant personal assistant to the still alive Kurt Mayfield, and the flight attendant, whose name Jane shamefully didn’t know.

The pilot and co-pilot were dead, pulverised on impact. Royston Starr was still sitting in his plane seat, seatbelt strapped over his waist, hands resting on his lap. A picture of calm. Except half of his head was now splattered across the seats and aisle carpet. Jane wasn’t sure what had happened to him. At the time of his death, her face had been buried between her knees, bracing for impact. All she did know was the action hero had starred in his final picture and it hadn’t ended well.

Clearing her throat, Jane hawked and spat bitter bile onto the cracked earth. Her right ankle throbbed beneath her, twisted not in the crash but as she had freed herself from her plane seat and slipped in Royston Starr’s brain matter. She was sure some was still stuck to her heel. She glanced over her shoulder. The plane, or what was left of it, was still visible but now reduced to the size of a children’s toy, smoke and flames billowing from the wreckage. It was a miracle any of them had survived.

But for how much longer?

The flight attendant was in a bad way, walking with a limp and a glazed look in her eyes, blood caking her auburn hair and drying in streaks on her face. With every step, a small whimper escaped her lips. Despite her limp, she was ahead of Jane, every so often veering to the left before course-correcting. Mayfield, who had seemingly escaped unharmed except for a torn jacket sleeve and ruffled feathers, was several feet ahead of the two women. To Jane’s knowledge, he had been first off the plane, scrambling for safety without once looking back to check if his fellow passengers were even alive.

Which was typical Kurt, Jane supposed. He had always been a self-serving bastard, the type to happily throw his own mother under a bus if it meant more money, more fame, and more pretty young women to sexually harass. Thankfully, he had yet to try anything nefarious with Jane. The downside was that Mayfield had been treating her like shit on his shoe ever since she had accepted the personal assistant job, which had turned out to be a poorly paid gig to fetch coffee, stroke Mayfield’s ego, and feed bullshit to his Hollywood clients whenever he dragged his heels on sending them their hard-earned money. And he dragged his heels a lot.

Jane narrowed her eyes at her employer, who showed no signs of slowing down to help the injured flight attendant or check if Jane was hurt. He was almost at the ranch now, or farm, or whatever they called it in the United States of America.

States. Jane didn’t even know which one they were in. All she knew was that she missed her overcrowded, overpriced house share in rainy London. She had left it behind six months ago after a friend of a friend who worked in the movies had wrangled her an interview for a personal assistant job at one of the top talent agencies in Hollywood. Her family had thought relocating to America for such an average-salary job was borderline insane. But Jane had found herself floating through life, working behind the scenes in theatres and on the sets of occasional low budget films, taking on a range of poorly paid jobs, from costume assistant to set decorator to exploited runner. Why not float somewhere warmer and glitzier?

There had been a brief moment in time when she had aspired to become the next great screen acting legend, except she had failed to get into drama school or win an invitation to a single audition.

You’re too plain for Hollywood,” her mother once told her. “Too normal looking.”

Which had stung painfully, mostly because Jane suspected it was true. If she was honest, she had accepted the personal assistant job just to prove her mother wrong. Even if she still hadn’t made it as an actress, and was quietly giving up on what now seemed like a fruitless dream, she had made it to the City of Angels.

Which was where they had been just a few hours ago, Jane, her boss Kurt Mayfield, with his expensive suit and well spoken American accent, and adored-by-millions Royston Starr. They had arrived at Van Nuys airport and boarded the flying tin can, heading for . . .

She stopped walking. Heading where? She couldn’t remember.

Raising her right hand, she touched her temple and winced. In the low light, she saw dark wet spots on her fingertips. The vague recollection of her head slamming into the plane window returned to her.

Up ahead, the flight attendant stumbled, almost went down, then righted herself. She began to cry louder. Mayfield was heading straight for the house, fists pumping at his sides.

Selfish prick, Jane thought. She quickened her pace, ignoring the throb of her twisted ankle, until she had caught up with the flight attendant.

Hey,” she said, reaching for the woman, who was mid-twenties, around the same age as Jane, but at least three inches taller and who, until the crash, had been at least five times more glamorous.

Startled, the flight attendant flinched and her eyes flicked towards Jane, who gasped. The woman’s face was now covered in blood and dirt, giving her a savage, almost primal appearance.

How are you holding up?” Jane asked.

The flight attendant stared at her blankly.

I’m fine,” she said.

Jane frowned. “We need to do something about your bleeding.”

Her attention flicked back to Mayfield, who had reached the farmhouse and was mounting the steps to the porch.

The flight attendant shook her head. “It’s just a bump.”

Her gaze was flitting in and out of focus, her steps becoming unsteady. Jane linked her arm with the flight attendant’s.

Hopefully, whoever lives in that house will have a first aid kit and a landline.” She had lost her mobile phone in the crash. Not that she would find a phone signal out here. She wondered if you could even get a landline in the desert. “My name is Jane, by the way. What’s yours?”

The flight attendant opened her mouth then shut it again. Panic spread across her face.

Jane glanced down at the name tag still attached to the woman’s jacket.

Amberly,” she read aloud. “That’s so much more interesting than plain old Jane.”

Amberly said nothing as she turned her head away to stare at the house. Mayfield was hammering on the door now and shouting hello. The two women reached the dilapidated wooden fence that circled the ranch and stepped through a section that had collapsed.

The house stood thirty feet ahead of them, while the barn stood off to the left, its red slatted roof faded and rotting, a giant hole punched through one side, as if a meteor had fallen from space and crashed right through it. To the right of the house, the tall and crooked windmill creaked in the breeze, the blades of the turbine spinning. A rusty water tank sat next to it.

Jane saw no livestock or people, no crops, not that she knew what might grow in desert land like this.

Where is their truck?” she said quietly, unease coiling in her stomach. “They must have one.”

Beyond the ranch was an endless stretch of desert terrain that rose and fell over rocky outcrops. The ground was dry and cracked beneath Jane’s feet, a multitude of cacti and desert shrubbery sprouting from it like malignant growths.

Come on.” She squeezed Amberly’s arm and quickened their pace, heading for the house. By the time they reached the three short steps, Mayfield was hammering on the door again and yelling in exasperation.

Hello! For God’s sake, we need help here!”

He slammed his hand against the edge of the screen door, the netting of which was torn and gouged.

Leaving Amberly at the foot of the steps, Jane climbed onto the porch and placed a hand on Mayfield’s shoulder. Startled, he whirled around, hand clenched into a fist.

Jane stepped back and almost slipped from the top step.

Jesus, Jane! Don’t fucking creep up on me like that, ever. You’re lucky I didn’t take your head off.”

Sorry. There’s no one home?”

If there is, they’re playing hard to get. Why don’t you and —” he paused, staring at the bloodied flight attendant, “your friend take a walk around back, see if anyone is in the garden?”

Would they have a garden here? The ground looks too dry.”

Mayfield glared at her, like he always did when she questioned him. “Just fucking do it, Jane.”

A flash of anger burned her insides, but Jane turned her back on the man and returned to Amberly, who was still slowly bleeding and swaying on her feet.

Why don’t you wait here?” she said, helping the woman to sit on the bottom step. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

Amberly didn’t respond, only stared into the distance.

Jane was worried now. Maybe Amberly had some sort of internal bleeding. A head injury or an embolism. That wasn’t good, not out here in the middle of nowhere. All the more reason to find help.

Leaving the flight attendant on the step, Jane hurried around the side of the house as Mayfield continued to hammer on the door and yell at the top of his lungs. She glanced up at the side windows to see yellowed net curtains and cracked glass. They were too high up for her to peer through, and she heard no movement from inside. The only sound was the crunch of the desert under her shoes and the hiss of sand and grit aggravated by the breeze.

The smell of smoke grew stronger as the wind changed direction. Jane glanced over her shoulder. The burning wreckage was still visible in the distance. Intermingled with the acrid smoke was the stench of scorched meat. Or was it her imagination cruelly taunting her? All she knew was that she couldn’t rid herself of it.

Reaching the far corner of the house, she ran a hand against its wooden slats. Her eyes wandered over to the barn and the curious giant hole punched right through it. Then she was rounding the corner and sliding to a halt.

There was a garden here, just a small one, surrounded by an unpainted picket fence. Nothing grew in it now, and what had bloomed there before had withered and died a long time ago. A child’s plastic tricycle lay in the dirt on its side, wheels upturned. A clothesline hung from one end of the yard to the other, slack and empty. A wooden doghouse sat next to the rear porch steps, a few old bones scattered in its entrance.

Jane stood, staring at the house, then at the sloping hill that curled around the back and cradled large boulders and unseen wildlife. It was a far cry from the wet streets of London. In fact, having yet to venture beyond the outskirts of LA since she had arrived six months ago, the landscape seemed so alien to Jane that she may as well have been stranded on Mars.

Something feels wrong,” she whispered, then smirked. As if almost dying in a plane crash wasn’t wrong enough.

Climbing the steps, she stared at the rear entrance of the house. The outer screen door had been ripped off and was lying on the porch. Deep gouges were carved into the wood on both sides of the door frame. The inner door, although still attached, was lopsided and scratched. It was also open a few inches.

Her heart racing, Jane rapped on the door frame.

Hello? Is anyone home? We’ve been in an accident, a plane crash. One of us is badly hurt.” She listened, waiting for a response. But only silence seeped from the house. Silence and shadows. “Please, if there’s someone home, we could really do with your help.”

She slid a foot forward, then another, peering through the small gap in the doorway. In the weak daylight she could just make out dusty floorboards, but nothing beyond. There was a smell wafting from inside that made Jane wrinkle her nose. It was sickly sweet, putrid even.

Hello?” she called again.

She tried and failed to open the door wider, the wood grain rough against her palm. Glancing down, she saw sand had blown in from the desert to wedge the door in place. She brushed it away as best as she could with her foot, then pushed the door again, this time using her shoulder. The door gave way enough to allow her entry. Together with the fading daylight, she cautiously crept inside.

Copyright © 2023 Malcolm Richards

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