Northwest of Normal
Blue Jones © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Ben woke up facedown in the backseat of his car, one cheek pressed hard against the warm leather seat and a hand hanging down to the bristled mat on the floor. He yawned into his sleeve. He’d driven for hours yesterday and was still exhausted. The last thing he remembered was parking up at the roadside late last night and pulling a blanket and coat over himself for warmth. He’d only intended to take a quick nap, but judging from the bright light, he must have slept until late morning. His groggy mind started to clear, and he turned over onto his back, pushed his coat away from his face, and stretched out.
He gazed up lazily at the roof of the car as a shadow passed over it. Then another. He pushed the coat down farther and squinted at the opposite window. Trees rushed by. It was only then that he noticed the steady purr of the engine and the vibration of the car beneath him. The car was moving. Someone had stolen his Jeep. With him in it.
He was suddenly very awake. He smelled cigarette smoke and stale beer and heard someone breathing in the driver’s seat by his head. As he edged slightly to his right, he saw a stocky man with short hair and a dirty, green shirt sitting on the passenger’s side. Ben slowly lay back down and kept his breathing quiet, even though he felt like his heart was beating out of his chest. For one surreal moment, he wasn’t quite sure what to do. They were the ones who had stolen his car, but it felt somehow impolite to interrupt them.
What was he supposed to say? Should he shout at them to get the hell out? Or should he tell them they could keep the car and politely ask them to let him go? He breathed in through his nose and out through his mouth and listened as the man in the passenger seat spoke.
“You chose a decent car, kid. Full tank of gas.”
Ben jolted. For a second, Ben thought the man was talking to him. The guy looked about forty and had a southern accent, local to where they were in Georgia. He leaned forward in his seat as he spoke, like he had a surfeit of energy coiled up.
Ben only had that one word to go on, but the man driving sounded younger and calmer, with a softer voice.
There was a long moment of silence before the younger man driving spoke again. “Why’d you have to do it?”
“I did it for you, and you know it,” said the older man sharply.
“Don’t give me that,” said the driver, sounding defensive.
“I told you one day I’d end up killin’ him. Just a matter of time.”
“Never thought you meant it.”
Jesus Christ. Forget confronting them. Ben would curl back up under the blanket and hide. Perhaps he could slip out unseen next time they stopped for gas or food or to kill their next victim. He was about to duck down under his coat when the passenger looked in the rearview mirror—his shocked gaze meeting Ben’s.
“What the hell?”
The driver followed his partner’s gaze and whipped around, shouting in surprise. The passenger reached out one meaty hand to grab the blanket off Ben and grip his wrist tight. His ruddy cheeks contrasted sharply with his pale, wrinkled forehead and the puffy bags under his eyes.
“Nice work, little brother,” the older one mocked loudly. “The one time I let you drive, you pick an occupied car.”
“Shut up, Randall,” said the younger guy.
“If this isn’t the dumbest shit you’ve ever pulled.” Randall threw his hands up in exasperation.
“I said shut up. You didn’t notice him either.”
“Weren’t my job to look.”
The car slowed and pulled to the right.
“What’re you doing?” Randall let go of Ben and reached out, jerking the steering wheel back toward his brother so the car stayed on course.
“Pullin’ over to get rid of this guy.”
“No way, Murphy. I’m not havin’ him run off to the cops. He’s seen my face. Anyway”—Randall turned in his seat and winked at Ben but continued to talk about him as though he weren’t there—“never look a gift horse in the mouth. We can use him.”
“What the hell for?” Murphy gave Ben a worried glance in the mirror before turning his attention back to the road.
“I’ll think of somethin’.”
“Why do I always go along with your stupid, dumbass plans?” Murphy muttered.
“Because you love me.” Randall stared at Ben. “What’s your name, kid?”
Ben licked his lips and sat up, pushing the coat off himself and freeing his legs from the blanket. “Benedict…Ben.” He tried hard not to let his voice tremble.
“Why’d you leave your car unlocked, Benedict Ben?” Randall asked.
“I didn’t know I had.”
Had he really done that? If the man was lying and they’d broken into the car, he surely would have been woken by the noise. Maybe he was just that stupid and had left the car unlocked all night. Ben slid to the middle of the backseat where he could see them both—the driver in profile and Randall, who was still staring at Ben. A male voice with an English accent spoke, and all three men jumped.
“Make a left turn at your earliest convenience.”
“Shit, sorry. That’s my GPS. It’s sort of temperamental. Never makes any sense. I don’t even use it,” Ben rambled.
“Switch the fucker off, brother.”
Murphy scrabbled with the buttons with one hand, and it spoke again.
“Please make a U-turn.”
Murphy gave up on the buttons and yanked out a wire. The device bleeped, and its red light went out.
Randall turned sideways in his seat and stared at Ben once more, a smile transforming half his face into deep crow’s feet. He scratched at the light gray stubble covering his chin and jaw.
“Gimme your phone.”
Ben pulled it from his jeans pocket and handed it over.
“Where’s your money at?”
“Uh.” Ben couldn’t think straight. He patted all his pockets and then remembered. “Oh, my wallet’s in the glove compartment.”
Randall yanked it open and went through everything. He rifled through Ben’s collection of napkins and ketchup packets from fast-food restaurants, his bug spray, and mini bottles of hand sanitizer and finally found Ben’s black leather wallet. Ben sighed as he remembered he’d taken out five hundred dollars in cash before he’d set off. More than enough for food, gas, and motel rooms all along his route.
Randall opened the wallet and whistled. “We hit the payload.”
Murphy let out an uninterested grunt. He hadn’t said a word since they’d found Ben in the back of the car. Randall pulled out the wad of bills, then slipped out Ben’s debit card and tucked them into his pocket along with Ben’s phone. He threw the wallet carelessly out the open window.
Great. Ben said a silent good-bye to his driver’s license, the untouched condom he’d been carrying for three months, and damn it, the free pizza he was due after one more stamp on his Papa Luigi reward card. Ben’s gaze flicked back and forth between the two brothers. He’d been right about the driver. Murphy was definitely younger than Randall. His face was clean-shaven, and his dark-blond hair was long, the ends brushing his lips. He wore a black T-shirt, the short sleeves folded up a couple of times, like a redneck James Dean. His arm was slim but sinewy and toned, flexing slightly as he gripped the steering wheel. The muscles chased one another up and down his tanned arm every time he pulled the wheel to round a corner.
“You know what, maybe we should pull over,” said Randall.
Ben felt hopeful. Now that Randall had taken the money, maybe he’d let Ben go. But Murphy’s nervous glance at Randall prevented Ben from celebrating just yet. Somehow that look didn’t suggest his release was imminent. Murphy pulled into a rest stop. The long, curved stretch of road for picnickers was hidden from the main road by leafy trees. The car came to a stop right next to a wooden table with two benches. There was no one else in sight.
“Stay there,” Randall ordered as he opened his passenger door.
They listened to a series of soft electronic beeps until Murphy turned off the ignition. For a moment they were alone in the silence, and Murphy turned around in his seat properly for the first time. He pushed dirty-blond hair out of his face to reveal dark, nervous eyes that looked Ben over. But before they could lock gazes, the door opened, and Randall dragged Ben away from Murphy and out of the car. Randall pushed Ben against the wooden table, and Ben’s hands scrabbled against its thick layer of leaves until they found purchase on the splintered surface.
Randall hit Ben across the back of the head. “Stop squirmin’.”
It was probably only meant as a warning tap. But the bastard was strong, and the blow made Ben’s ears ring. Randall patted him down like a cop, his massive hands roughly checking Ben’s chest and sides. Ben gasped in surprise when Randall ran his fingers quickly over Ben’s ass and down his inner thighs.
Randall rolled his eyes. “Don’t get excited, kid. I’m not gonna ask you to prom.” He finished his search at Ben’s ankles. “You’re not armed.”
“Of course not.”
“Well, we are.” Randall reached back to the belt of his jeans and yanked out a big black revolver. Ben’s eyes widened, and Randall chuckled. “Seen one of these before?”
“Not in person.”
“Didn’t think so. I call her Cruella.” Randall pulled Ben roughly back to the car and pushed him into the front passenger seat. The leather was still warm. “I’ll take the back, since you made it look so comfy. Murphy, pop the hatch.” Randall slammed the door in Ben’s face, and Murphy flinched at the loud noise. Randall pulled the hatch up and rooted around in the back. “Bingo.”
He slammed the hatch shut and returned to Ben’s door. He’d found the blue nylon rope Ben had stowed in the back with his camping gear in case he couldn’t find a motel. Randall yanked the door open again and pushed Ben back farther against the leather, wrapping the rope several times around both him and the back of the seat. Then Randall bound it firmly around Ben’s chest and upper arms, securing him tightly down. Randall leaned over to tie a complicated knot by his waist.
“You got mighty clean hands for a man, Benedict Ben. You a homosexual?”
Ben frowned. That didn’t even make sense. He didn’t know how to respond, so he kept his mouth shut. He leaned away from Randall as best he could as the man straightened up. Ben couldn’t tell from one minute to the next if Randall was going to laugh in his face or punch him in it.
“Relax. But you’d better not be. I don’t allow ’em in my car.”
His car? Randall patted his handiwork. “There. A pretty neat job, if I say so myself. Now, Murphy, I want you to walk back to that gas station we passed and get me a pack of cigarettes.”
“Why don’t we just drive there?”
“Me and the Chinese kid are gonna get to know each other a little bit while you’re gone.” Randall sneered at Ben.
Ben’s heart sank, and Murphy hesitated.
“Go on now, boy. Do as I say. We’ll be fine.”
Ben tried not to look scared as Murphy backed away. Ben stared after him as he set off toward the gas station. As Ben’s gaze flickered from Murphy to Randall, he found that Randall was watching him. Ben’s cheeks flushed.
“I’m Korean, by the way. Not Chinese.” Ben thought he heard Murphy snort as he walked away.
“Whatever,” Randall muttered.
Randall sank onto the picnic table by the car and stared wordlessly at Ben, lighting a cigarette. If he had cigarettes, why had he sent Murphy to get more?
“What are we gonna do with you?” Randall said slowly.
His words sent a chill through Ben, and he turned away from the man’s pale eyes. He stared at the trees in the distance and concentrated on not shaking. Randall finished his cigarette, and from the corner of his eye, Ben saw him tap the ash off the end. Then in one quick movement he flicked the lit cigarette at him. It bounced off Ben’s bare arm twice before falling to the ground. Ben flinched and tried hard not to react further, but it hurt. Randall lit another one and only took a few drags before flicking it again. This time it missed and fell to the floor of the car. Ben shifted his foot and stamped it out.
“Nice shot,” Ben muttered under his breath.
It was a mistake. Randall crouched forward into the car and smacked Ben in the face. His head bounced off the headrest.
“You don’t know what a good shot I can be, boy. You don’t know nothin’ about me,” Randall snarled.
“I know you killed someone,” Ben blurted out and darted his tongue over his lip to check for blood. He regretted saying it before the last word left his mouth.
“Oh yeah?” Randall replied, dangerously quiet.
Ben blinked, his vision a little hazy. While he was in this mess, he might as well continue. “Why’d you do it?”
“They pissed me off.”
“Is that all it takes?”
“Randall?” Murphy hovered behind him, holding out a blue-and-white pack of cigarettes.
Randall’s huge frame finally moved out of Ben’s personal space, and he settled back on the table. He lit up a new cigarette and smoked half of it this time before tossing it at Ben. This one hit more accurately, and the pain in his arm burned brighter. Any hope Ben had of Murphy stopping his brother died as Murphy winced but said nothing, only gazing sadly as the cigarette fell to the ground to join the first. He might have looked like an angel, but he was just as much of a dick as his big brother.
Randall stalked off to relieve himself behind the trees. As soon as he was out of sight, Murphy pulled a blue bandanna from his back pocket and took Ben’s jaw gently in one hand. Ben flinched back, but Murphy simply leaned in closer and wiped the blood from the corner of Ben’s mouth. Up close, he looked almost as angry as his brother, so Ben avoided eye contact and stared at the faint freckles on Murphy’s nose.
He shouldn’t have talked back to Randall. He was used to his smart mouth getting him in trouble, but never trouble like this. He resolved to keep his mouth shut from now on.
While Murphy was concentrating on his lip, Ben dared to look a little longer. Murphy’s long eyelashes framed dark-blue eyes that were almond-shaped, giving him the look of a cat. This close, Ben could feel the boy’s body heat and Murphy’s warm breath on his face. Murphy caught him looking and glared back, neither of them saying a word.
Once Randall returned, Murphy pulled the car out of the rest stop, and they continued on down the almost empty highway.
“Put the radio on. Local station,” said Randall.
Murphy pressed a few buttons on Ben’s radio and tuned it in to something called WCON-FM. Ben tried not to snort at the backwoods country music that immediately filled the car. He could have guessed the redneck would be into this stuff. They listened in silence to three songs, all country, and then the local news. After that, Randall told Murphy to switch it off, and he lay down, echoing Ben’s original position. He balled up Ben’s blankets and used them as a pillow, pushing Ben’s coat away with his dirty boots. It was quiet without the radio and Randall’s loud voice. Normally, Ben would have filled the silence with chatter; he liked talking to people. But this was hardly a normal situation, and he’d vowed to keep his mouth shut.
After ten minutes of silence had passed, Ben couldn’t take it anymore. He bit at his lip and then cleared his throat, speaking hesitantly. “You kidnap people a lot?”
Murphy didn’t answer, but a frown passed over the man’s forehead. A snore came from the backseat, and Ben twisted his head around awkwardly, unable to move anything below his neck. He watched for a second as Randall drooled on his blanket.
Great. Which detergent was recommended for getting redneck drool out of cotton-polyester blend?
He glanced over at Murphy’s profile as he drove. The man appeared a year or two older than Ben but definitely way younger than Randall. He had sharply defined cheekbones that tapered down diagonally to his mouth. His body was all lean, hard muscle. Murphy lifted his thumb to his mouth, and his narrow, pink lips parted to let him chew on the edge of his nail. Ben turned resolutely back to the road just as Murphy glanced around at Randall in the backseat. Maybe to check that he was still asleep.
“Sorry ’bout my brother.”
“What about him?”
Murphy took a deep breath. “Everything. Talking to you like that. I’m really sorry. He don’t mean it.”
“Oh.” It seemed like being an ignorant homophobe didn’t run in the family.
“It don’t hurt, does it? The rope?”
“No, no. It’s fine.” I get tied to the passenger seat all the time. No problem. He didn’t know why he was compelled to be so polite to this guy. But on reflection, it was probably his best move. Maybe if Ben kept Murphy happy, he wouldn’t end up dead.
“How’s your face?”
Murphy reached out to the middle of the dashboard, and Ben flinched away.
“Relax. I’m just…” Murphy gestured at the cigarette lighter and pressed it in to heat up.
Relieved, Ben let out a breath and fidgeted in his seat, trying to get more comfortable. The truth was, Randall had tied him way too tight. The nylon rope was digging painfully into his arms. Murphy lit a cigarette and then returned the lighter to its holder. Ben hoped only one brother was into flicking cigarettes.
“Where were you headed before?” Murphy asked.
“Before you…borrowed my car?”
“Florida.” Ben paused. “You ever been?”
“Never been out of Georgia in my life,” Murphy drawled.
His voice was so deep and gravelly Ben felt the vibrations of it rumble through his bones. The discomforting thing was, the rumble seemed to connect right to Ben’s groin. He rambled to distract himself from what he was feeling.
“I drove for six hours straight last night. I was starving. I planned to stop and eat, then rent a room somewhere. But I nearly fell asleep at the wheel, so I stopped at the side of the road and crashed in the backseat. And that’s where you found me.”
“You didn’t eat?”
Ben shook his head and cursed his decision not to grab something out of the cooler in his trunk when he’d had the chance.
“Yeah, I guess I am.”
“Here.” Murphy checked behind him and then, after digging into the pocket of his jacket, brought out a slightly melted chocolate bar. He threw it onto Ben’s lap, where it hit his thigh and came to a stop over his crotch. Ben smiled weakly and glanced at his tied arms. “Oh yeah, right.”
Murphy steered with his left hand and grabbed the chocolate bar with his right. His warm hand crept over Ben’s thigh as he watched the road, and then his long fingers skimmed accidentally over Ben’s cock as he reached the chocolate bar. Ben inhaled sharply and tensed his whole body. His stomach flipped as Murphy brought the chocolate bar up to his pink lips, ripped open the packaging with his teeth, and squeezed the bar halfway out of the wrapper. He held it up to Ben’s mouth, completely unaware of the effect he’d just had. Ben hesitantly took a bite, his eyes on Murphy’s face.
Murphy continued to drive with one hand, the other resolutely holding up the chocolate bar for Ben, until it was all gone. Murphy shoved the empty wrapper in the ashtray. “Better?”
“Yeah.” Ben swallowed. “Thanks, man.”
Murphy shrugged and checked the rearview mirror. He angled it more toward the backseat, presumably so he could keep an easier eye on his brother.
Ben licked the chocolate off his lips and wondered if Murphy could tell he’d been lying about Florida.
“He still asleep?” Ben whispered.
“He’s your older brother?”
“He’s kind of scary.”
“Randall’s all right.”
“Your name’s Murphy, right?” Didn’t they always say you should connect with your kidnapper? Make them see you as human?
“My cousin’s called Murphy.” Another lie. But Murphy didn’t look all that impressed. “Where are we going?”
Murphy hesitated. “Not Florida. Sorry.”
Ben wondered how sorry he was. “You could let me go while he’s asleep.”
Murphy shook his head. “No, I couldn’t.”
Ben nodded. He hadn’t expected him to say any different. “Murphy…” He didn’t really want to hear the answer to his next question. “What are you going to do to me?” Ben’s self-control wavered, and he let himself look as scared as he felt.