Persona Non Grata - Part Sixteen

The light of the fires of hell burned his eyes--just like the fire burned his mouth and his throat. The burning light was too bright. He couldn't see.

If he were in hell, why would he be trembling with cold?

If he were dead, would he hurt so much?

If he were alive . . . . that would be the worst of all.

If he were alive, they could come back . . .

And hurt him all over again.


Ezra looked at himself in the squatty mirror of the train's lavatory. In this disguise, he reminded himself of someone--some actor. A dead one. Not that Ezra looked dead. He looked like the actor when the actor was alive.

Damn, his train of thought was chugging down a strange track. What was wrong with him? Maybe whatever he'd been drugged with was still in his system. He was so tired.

He wanted to tell the others what he was doing. And he wanted to check on JD. He wanted to clear his name--JD's, that is. Well, his own also. Maude shouldn't be having to go through this. Not that she was an award-winning mother, but she didn't need this.

More than anything, he wanted to nail those ATF turncoats that had renounced JD. He'd get to the bottom of this and then, God help the bastards, he'd put them away forever.

He sniffed and put a bit more spirit gum under the mesh of his moustache. He paused for one last glance in the mirror.

William Conrad.

That's the actor he resembled. The "fatman". The man who used to read a poem at the end of the Thanksgiving Day parade every year.

Ezra sighed and squeezed his considerable girth out of the undersized lavatory. He probably wasn't going to fit on the bed very well. It was going to be a long night.


A voice.

Oh God, please no. No more. JD felt his heart hammering in his chest. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't move.

And still . . . a voice . . .

Please God, help me . . .

Please . . .

That voice . . . somewhere deep down he knew that voice. He knew it. And he wasn't afraid of it. A friend's voice?

Why couldn't he place it? Why couldn't he tell what it was saying? At least it was a voice he could trust.

He felt a gentle--a strong and gentle hand on his arm. Someone was trying to comfort him. Someone was trying to reach him.

JD wanted to talk. He tried but but he couldn't.

The voice again. " . . . breathing tube in your throat . . ."

JD could feel it, and he wanted it out. He needed to talk, but the fire in his throat was scalding and the tube seemed to interfere with his breathing. He began to panic.

"Don't fight it. You're all right, son."

Buck!! It was Buck. Thank God. JD felt the hand on his arm give a squeeze . . . then it released him.

No! Come back. JD wanted to reach for his friend. Maybe he had just dreamed him.

But the hand returned, and the voice did, too. "Easy, kid. I ain't leaving you, son."

Gently, a hand touched his forehead and familiar fingers slid back into his hair.

Like his mama used to.

The easy stroking of his hair helped him focus on something other than his pain. The bright light wasn't so bright and he could see the ceiling.

Not a hospital ceiling . . . not the ceiling in the apartment . . . he didn't know this ceiling. Where was he? He let his eyes wander until they found . . .


Buck would help him. Buck would keep those men from getting to him.

Or he'd die trying.

Don't die, Buck.

JD's eyes met his partner's. He wanted to warn him. What if those men came back for the rest of them. Oh, watch your back, Buck.

"Hang on, JD. You gotta trust me. I know you want to talk."

Buck looked so tired.

"I know . . . I know you're scared."

You don't know what they did, Buck.

"I know you hurt, boy."

Mm, he did hurt. Every part hurt. And he was so tired. Did Buck even know what happened?

"I know those bastards hurt you."

Oh, God. What if they'd hurt the others? JD struggled to ask.

"No, son. You need to settle down now."

Damn it. JD had to ask . . . but his throat . . . wouldn't make sound . . . It . . . scraped.

"You can't talk yet. Don't try to talk." Buck's voice was gentle, but he meant business.

It was no use. He couldn't make Buck understand. He closed his eyes. Even that hurt.

"Let me go get the doctor, JD. He needs to know you're awake."

No! How could JD make his friend know what he meant? Ever so slightly, he shook his head.

"You gotta let me help you. Please."

No . . . Even though it hurt, he shook his head again. It was hard to stay awake . . . to stay focussed . . . he felt . . . dizzy . . .


Buck could be damn pig-headed.

And now, JD would die without knowing what happened to his friends. The salty tears burned like fire when they reached his blistered chin. He tried to look away from his friend, but Buck just pulled closer.

"JD, look at me, boy."

For a moment, JD felt like he was slipping away, but he fought to stay conscious, and he looked back at Buck.

"Do you trust me?"

Of course, I trust you. JD wanted to cry out to him, but he sobbed instead.

And nodded.

"I'm gonna take care of you. Those bastards can't hurt you now."

No, JD shook his head. Please, don't you get it?

"What is it?" Buck was almost whispering.

Oh . . . thank God . . . a connection . . .

Deliberately, and with all of the strength he had left, he nodded toward Buck.

And it dawned on his friend. Buck smiled, "I'm alright, JD."

And JD looked at the door . . .

"Everybody's gonna be ok. Chris, Vin, Josiah, Nathan--they're all here. Nathan took a hit, but he's all right."

For a minute JD had to think . . . who was missing? He looked at Buck. Where was Ezra?

Buck knew. "Ezra's ok. He took off to follow a lead."

No, JD needed to warn them. They needed to find Ezra before he got himself killed.

"I know . . . a damn fool stunt, but he must have a great lead."

No . . . didn't they get it? These guys were f***ing crazy. They didn't just hurt him. They tortured him. They were killing him as slowly and painfully as they could. He could still feel what they did to him. He could feel his face breaking, his arm breaking, the fire in his throat, the ribs . . .

"You said you trusted me." Buck's voice cut through his haze. "Then you've gotta believe me now, son. It's gonna be all right. We're all gonna be all right."

There was something in Buck's eyes that spoke the truth. Maybe it was Buck's steady faith that had saved him so far. Maybe it would save them all.


Chris had been sitting with Nathan for a long time. Josiah knew that their leader was bound to be on a short fuse. Chris could always handle catastrophe when he knew what he was fighting, but when things whirled out of his control, he became more volatile and sometimes less rational.

Josiah knew about that. He himself had a threshold beyond which he could become . . . well . . . unpleasant. He knew what it was like to have folks avoid him because of it. With Chris Larabee, it was bound to get worse before it got better.

Josiah stepped in Nathan's room. Chris never looked up.

Nathan was struggling, and Chris had to be wondering if he had just killed Nathan by taking him out of the hospital. Nathan had seemed like he was doing so well this morning. How could he have developed such a bad infection so quickly?

Josiah could offer one perspective. "You know they could've gotten to him in the hospital and he'd be dead already."

"We don't know that."

"We don't know that he wouldn't have developed this infection in the hospital either."

Chris' voice was laced with sarcasm. "We're always blessed with the wisdom of Solomon, aren't we?"

Josiah let that one go. He even preferred Chris drunk to cynical. There was no reasoning with Chris at times like this. Josiah could live with that. He'd just sit there for a while.


Waiting was the worst, even though Vin had to admit that this waiting wasn't as bad as last week when they were waiting to find out where JD was--or even if he was alive.

He glanced over at Travis, who was asleep in the barcalounger. Vin envied him that sleep.

The doctor was sitting at the kitchen table, poring over notes, and pausing at times to pull his glasses off and knead the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. He sure had his hands full, Vin thought. JD needed to be in ICU--well, so did Nathan for that matter. Surely they needed heart monitors and crash carts and that kind of thing. What if JD's heart stopped again? What if they couldn't get Nathan's fever down?

Vin's foot tapped nervously. He hated this. He felt so useless.

Who could be doing this? Why? Who would stand to gain by smearing JD's name? No. Correct that. Who in the ATF would stand to gain?

Well, Vin wasn't just gonna sit there and wait while his friends suffered. It was time to get ahead of the game. It was time to get inside these guys' heads and find out what the hell was going on.


The door creaked and Vin looked up. Buck was standing in the doorway, tears in his eyes, yet looking . . . so haggard.

"He woke up," Buck said softly. Vin and the doctor jumped up and went over to him. The doctor brushed by him and went in to check on JD. Vin put his hand on his friend's back and guided him to the sofa.

"You all right?" Vin asked. Buck started to answer, but no words came. He shook his head, no.

"Can I get you something?"

Again, Buck shook his head, no.

Vin waited.

Buck rubbed his face in his hands. "He hurts so much."

"I know."

"But he wanted to be sure that everyone else was all right."

Vin smiled. "Sounds like him."

"God, Vin, there's no telling what they did to him."

"We might not ever know," Vin said simply. "We'll just have to help him through it any way we can."

They both heard the car door slam, and by the time they were on their feet, Josiah and Chris came into the living room with guns drawn.

"What the hell was that?" Chris asked.

"Let's hope it's Ezra," Vin commented, but Buck was peering out the window.

"No such luck," he hissed. "Boys, looks like the ATF is here."