I don’t know if I ever spelled this out about Will Diaz enough, but the man is a runner.  He’s run countless marathons, and in one of the future novels he’ll do something I’ve already done, and that’s carry the Torch for Special Olympics. I talked about that experience here on my blog.

What I’m establishing early is one of the many themes for this story. Some people call it “mental toughness.” Others simply “self awareness.” Christians like me call it the “Armor of God.”

Here’s the conversation:

I was coming up on mile number three when I saw another runner running towards me. Odd, I thought. I’m the only idiot I know of out doing road work at this hour of the morning. As we closed, I could see it was my pastor.

    “Good morning, Navy,” I said. As he came up to me, I turned and ran with him.

     “Army, how you doing?” Pastor Morgan replied, and then added, “Six miles.”

     “Well, you’ve got a lot of running to make up after being cooped up on those rowboats all those years,” I teased.

     “Well, they taught you army boys to run away from danger. They taught us SEALs to run into it,” he said. 

     “Ouch!”

     He chuckled. “Heard you had some fun yesterday.”

     I had actually to stop and think about it. “Oh, the armed robbery?”

     He nodded. “Is that what it was? I don’t think that boy has the stones to do that.”

     “How did you find out?” I knew the paper wasn’t out yet, and the radio news station hadn’t turned on for the day.

     “I got a police scanner for Christmas, remember?” 

     “Oh, I didn’t know that,” I said. “Not to mention a knot on the head.”

      He ran a few more steps.  “That too.  Good thing Max was too angry to punch properly. I almost went down as it was.”

     “Thank God he hit you in the head. You might have gotten hurt otherwise,” I replied, and then turned serious. “I didn’t know you almost went down.”

     “Yeah, if he’d connected properly, I’d have been on the canvas.”

     We ran a few more steps, each remembering that Christmas Day meal that went to heck in a hand basket with just a few words.

     “Do you see him much anymore?” he asked.

     I nodded, an almost invisible gesture in the dark. “Yeah, we were doing some DST stuff together again. Not exactly like old times.”

     “DST? Heard you use that term before. What is it?”

     “Drug Suppression Team.”

     “You guys need a better name for it. Sounds like some kind of bug spray.”

     “We told them the same thing,” I said.

     “Anyway.”

     “Well, you remember last year you said you’d seen where we took down local pushers. Well, some of those guys we’ve flipped. That’s how you work this stuff. You take one down, and then you take down the guy above them, and so on. With luck, you’ll get into the labs.”

     “Like that guy making acid in Alamosa?”

     “Like him,” I replied.

     “I thought that operation had your fingerprints all over it.”

    “He was easy,” I explained. “El Perrito was right. Just show up with money and he’d sell to you.”

     “And Max is your point man?’

     “He is.” It was a good thing Pastor Morgan knew how to keep his mouth shut.

     “Yes, I remember you told me you guys were working together.”

     “Been putting some of George’s money to work,” I explained. “I can’t hire him as a deputy, but I can hire him as a consultant. Besides, he needs the money.”

      He was quiet for a few minutes. “Mighty decent of you, Will. Helping him out that way.”

      “It’s just to help him through a bad time.” 

       “Him and Eva back together?”

     “No, and I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon,” I told him.

      We ran a little further. “Too bad. I like them both,” Pastor Morgan said.

     “Yeah.”

     Max was one of my closest friends. He was one of six people who showed up for Basic Training and Military Police School almost nine years before. We all had one thing in common. We were all cowboys.

     Or more specifically, five cowboys and one cowgirl. Our little group consisted of Max Laurie, Michael Jones, Greg Fiegal, Eric McArtor, Terri Rice and me. We went through Basic and AIT together. From there we all went to Ft. Riley Kansas, home of the Big Red One. We all worked DST there, MPI (Military Police Investigations) and then we all went to a line MP unit. It was at Ft. Riley that we got our name. Someone dubbed us “The Regulators,” a name stolen straight from the movie “Young Guns.”

     It was meant as a joke. 

     We wore it with pride.

    And we all went to Germany, to the same unit, and ended up in the same platoon. And we all went to the Gulf War together. It was only after the war that our little group broke up. An incident in the war pretty much finished Terri’s and my military careers.  Disenchanted, Jonesy decided not to re-up and went to LAPD. Eric left to go to the Texas Rangers, leaving Greg to go CID and the only one left in the Army.

    Of course, I left and came back to a department and a Sheriff I never expected to work for again. I’d been home less than a week when Sheriff Tony Madril offered me a position. I figured it would be the lowest rung in the pecking order of things. I’d either be a dispatcher or a jailer. I didn’t expect him to hand me a detective badge, making me the first full-time detective the department had ever had.

     I was now almost a year and a half into the job.

     “So tell me about the robbery,” Pastor Morgan said.

     Still runnning, I chuckled. “Stupidest criminal of the year award goes to this guy. Cop car sitting outside. Two cops inside. Guy walks in, pulls a gun.  A fake gun at that.”

     “So, it wasn’t really an armed robbery.”

      I shook my head. “More like Felony Menacing. He never pointed it at anyone, or demanded anything. Just scared us and the store clerks to death.”

      The world was starting to get a little brighter. I could actually see him smile, thinking about it. But what he said was different from what his smile indicated. “That makes sense.”  For an instant I was going to ask him what made sense, but then realized the comment wasn’t directed to me. Finally, he asked, “Have you talked to Zorro?”

    OK, I wondered, where you headed with this, Pastor Morgan?

    “Don’t have to,” I said. “We’ve got four eyewitnesses to the event, and the deed is on videotape.”

     He nodded. “That I understand. But I’m not talking about criminal prosecution. What I’m asking is have you asked why he did it?”

    I shrugged as I ran. “Zorro is just a criminal. That’s what criminals do. And we catch them because they get stupid out of season.”

    “Maybe.”

    “Maybe, Pastor?” 

    “Will, I wish you’d call me by my name. Robert. Remember? We went to school together. You took my sis to the prom.”

     “And like I told you, I knew Captain Price as Scott when I was a civilian cop.  But when I enlisted and got assigned to his unit, he became Captain Price, despite our being good friends. You worked hard for your title. As long as you’re my Pastor, then you’re over me, and I have to respect that.”

     I could almost hear him sigh with frustration.

     “Anyway, why should I talk to him?” 

    “There’s more going on here, than you know, Will. A man doesn’t just walk into a place where there are a couple of cops and try a robbery. I mean, what is it you say?  Parker’s First Law.”

    “Yeah.  Parker’s First Law. We catch criminals because they didn’t plan on getting caught.”

    We were coming up on the church, and I knew he’d be stopping there.

     “So the objective here wasn’t crime. You’re saying he wanted to get caught?”  I asked.

    “I am,” he answered. “What did he go up for the first time?” 

    “Pushing dope. Did some time for selling weed.”

    “And how old?” he asked.

    “Barely twenty.” 

     “Family?” 

     “Just his mom.  Lives with her there in Antonito.”

     We ran a little further. Pastor Morgan said, “Maybe he was desperate.”

     That never even entered into the equation with me. “That doesn’t make sense.”

     “Maybe he was desperate there also.”

     “Not sure I follow you.”

     “Will, let me ask you a question. If you’ve had enough, what might you do?”

     “I see what you mean. But that isn’t an option.”

     “True, but not everyone is Will Diaz either,” he said.

     He let me chew on that for a bit. “Will, you were always blessed with a little intelligence, the willingness to get your hands dirty, and the tenacity to know you can tough your way through it all. After all, isn’t that why you went into the Army?”

     “You know that’s why I went into the Army. I didn’t have a lot of choices on making a living. When they laid all the city employees off, I knew it was just a matter of time before I found another department. The problem was every other department was laying off, or they just weren’t hiring. That’s why Scott went back to active duty.  He needed a job, too.”

     “And you did it at the ripe old age of twenty-nine if I recall.”

     “You do. The only man in the company older than me was the First Shirt, and that was only by a few months.”

     “Well, keep this in the back of your head. You made options for yourself. Not everyone else is so fortunate.”

     “I don’t know what you’re getting at.” 

     “Let me put it to you this way. You’re familar with Ephesians six, verse 10.”

    “Of course, you preached on it for a month.”

    “Good. Always wonder if folks are awake when I’m preaching. Anyway, you read comics.”

   “Yeah, doesn’t everyone?”

   “You read Iron Man?” 

    “I’m more a DC guy.” I  noticed the frown. I wasn’t playing along “But, yes, I have read Iron Man.”

    “Well you know Tony Stark wears the armor, but sometimes, Tony’s armor get’s trashed.”

    I nodded, I’d read a few of those.

   “What happens to Tony when his armor is destroyed?”

    I laughed. “Stan Lee usually saves the day for him somehow.”

   “No, seriously. If Stan didn’t write a happy ending, the bad guys are coming after Tony. What’s going to happen to Tony?”

    “That’s easy. There won’t be a next issue of Iron Man.”

    He nodded. “Exactly, Tony is relying on himself and his resources. He has his armor on, but it’s a finite resource. Enough damage and it’s junk and is useless to him.”

    “Hmmm, the Epistle of Tony Stark. That one must have not made it into the Bible.”

     “But Ephesians did.”

     “Okay, I can see the comparison between the scripture and Iron Man, but what does that have to do with Zorro?”

    “He’s a man who lost his armor. Just like Tony, suddenly he was vulnerable. Putting on that armor isn’t a one time thing. It’s something you have to do constantly,”  he said. “You see, life wears us down. And if we let our armor get worn down, we’re toast. Remember the Devil is always on the lookout for someone he can destroy. No armor makes for an easy kill.”

    We ran a little further.

How?” I asked.

    “Top of the list. Take away our hope. You were in the military. What’s top of the list on a young man’s mind?”

    “Same thing we did. Drink up your paycheck and chase every girl you see.”

     He shook his head. “Not exactly the answer I was looking for. Everything else becomes more important. Too many people get into bad situations in war and we look for escape. A lot of folks turn to booze and drugs to do that. They miss the one place they can find hope, and that’s God.”

    “And?”

    “And lose that hope in Christ, and you’ve lost your armor. What Zorro did was a cry for help.”

     “So, you’re saying robbing the store wasn’t his objective,” I said after thinking about it.

     “I think you should talk to him.”

     We ran a little further, then he asked, “You’re not making it to church today?”

    “No, not today. Fourth of July weekend. It’s all hands on deck.”

     “Good, you heard my sermon anyway. You be careful out there.”

     “Always,” I assured him. “I haven’t forgotten about our little chat in the meadow. I don’t care to put your question to the test.”

     “Which question was that?”

     “If I could actually kill someone again if I had to.”

     “And did you get an answer?” 

    I’d drawn on Zorro, but hadn’t had to shoot him. The question was still unanswered. 

    “Let’s just say, I don’t want to find out.”

     He didn’t say anything in response, but I knew what he was thinking. He’d told me that I was in a very odd job if I couldn’t use deadly force. While we’d have been justified to use it yesterday, the guy had surrendered without any show of violence. He just wanted money and to get of there. 

     The fact he missed a cop car, and two cops could only be attributed to his lack of a seeing-eye dog. Or as Pastor Morgan was saying, getting busted was his objective after all. That still didn’t make sense.

     I slowed as he came up to the church. Pastor Morgan looked over at me. “Will, do me a favor.”

    “Chocolate or vanilla?” I tried to dodge whatever he was going to throw out.

    He chuckled, then turned serious. “Learn a little compassion for your fellow human beings. Some of them are screw-ups because they don’t know any better or are fresh out of options.”

     I wondered why he was saying that, then decided maybe he saw something I wasn’t.

    “Same time tomorrow morning?” I asked.

     “You are going to talk to him?” he asked.  “I think it’s important.”

    “Why?”

     “I’ll explain after you do it for me.”

     I sighed, feeling more like a little boy being told that he had to go wash up before bedtime. “I’ll talk to him,” I promised.

     “Good. Five AM. Bring your game. We’re doing seven miles tomorrow morning.”

Still a little rough, but you start getting a feel for what Will is going to face in this one.