Title: The Loyal Minister
Synopsis: After a mysterious confession is given at a Colonial Boston church, it’s hard to say what the patriots have planned next. Can the minister do what it takes to change the course of history?
“Yes?” I straightened the papers from my morning sermon as I turned to face the young man behind me.
“Is it viable to ask forgiveness before implementing sin?” Henry asked.
“Hmm. That’s a troublesome inquiry.” I chuckled, “What are you seeking forgiveness for?”
“Well, I can’t disclose that information…'' He scratched the back of his head. “Let’s just say, the men are getting apprehensive about this ‘taxation without representation’ absurdity.”
“Ah.” I nodded, “And what are the men devising?”
“I can’t disclose that, either!” He laughed.
“Henry, I’m a minister. I will take your secrets to the grave.” I reminded him.
“I suppose that’s true.” There was a pause. “Anyway, I hope the Lord our God will absolve us. Thanks for lending an ear.” He gave me a quick wave and headed to the door, letting me know our conversation was over. I waved back, wishing I could have gotten more information without prying too much.
Henry was an influential part of the community, as he was the heir to the largest pig farm in the Boston area. He and his friends were parishioners at my church. I wondered what they were planning. And when.
The conversation kept nagging at me as I walked to my office. It was a small and meager chamber behind the altar, with little decoration aside from the painting of our church on the far wall. I crossed the room and ran my hand along the edge of its wooden frame, until my fingertips found a latch. The painting swung forward to reveal a hole in the wall where I kept important documents hidden.
I rummaged around until I found a thick envelope. It made a crinkling sound as I reached inside, carefully extracting my life insurance policy. I folded it neatly and placed it in my chest pocket, replacing the envelope and closing the secret door.
I performed this same practice any time I was unsure of what my fate may be. I wasn’t really a man of the cloth. I did preach every Sunday, but I spent the rest of the week spying and gathering information for the loyalist movement. It could be quite dangerous at times.
When I first became a spy in 1759, I was living in Philadelphia, and needed a proper alias. The idea of teaching the gospel never would have occurred to me. However, that same year, Presbyterian ministers were given life insurance plans to protect their widowed wives if something were to happen to them. In a way, my disguise was chosen for me, knowing that I could die any day as a secret agent.
I spent years passing ciphered messages back and forth to my handler, but no amount of sneaking around could have prepared me for the American Revolution. When it began, I was restationed in Boston to be closer to the action. As far as my wife knew, the lovely people of Boston had requested my services in starting a new church there. She was a patriot, and could never know of my transgressions.
Being a minister came with a level of trust from the community. No one suspected I did anything other than write sermons and visit sick people. Thinking that my service put me closer to God, soldiers and colonists would tell me every secret they knew on their deathbeds. Most of it was chicken feed, but every once in a while, I could elicit important information to send to my superiors.
The morality of what I was doing weighed on me more as the years passed. I had preached my way through The Bible several times, and knew its teachings by heart, but I was dedicated to my undercover work. Guilt was just a side effect of the job. An emotion that had to be pushed away again and again for the greater good of the colonies.
I couldn’t sit and wait around knowing that the patriots could strike at any moment. I patted the pocket over my heart to confirm my insurance was there, and headed out the door.
It was a good walk to Henry’s father’s farm without the use of a carriage-especially in a wintery New England. I mostly stuck to the back roads, knowing my black Geneva gown would show clearly against the white snow.
When I reached the farm, I waited near the edge of his property, well hidden by several bushes. A few men came and went, then I saw Henry and a couple other gentlemen leave the house. Henry had a long rifle under his arm, and they looked like they were heading to the pigpen. He’d slaughtered many pigs before, so I figured this wasn’t the forgiveness he’d been searching for.
I took their absence as my opportunity, and dashed across the field to the back door. Luckily, the latchstring was out. I gave it a tug, and slipped inside, moving my way quickly toward Henry’s home office. I’d been there before, so that part was easy enough. My main hope was that his family was out enjoying a Sunday visit in town.
I held my breath as I crept through the house, then headed straight for the old wooden desk near the window. Dozens of papers were scattered across it as if Henry had been pouring over the documents.
The first was a list of shipments coming to the Boston Harbor, but the ships “Eleanor”, “Beaver”, and “Dartmouth” were circled. I cross-referenced the ledger next to it and saw that all three boats were carrying huge amounts of tea from the British East India Company. I knew the patriots were upset about taxes on tea, but what were they planning?
I rifled through the other papers, trying not to disturb them too much. My foot was tapping lightly with anxiety. I needed to get out of there before Henry returned to the house.
There was only one piece of parchment left on the table. I quickly scanned it, but it was only a personal letter that didn’t seem useful. Just musings from a friend about their recent trip to New York.
I glanced around once more, feeling defeated, before I noticed a suspicious ink bottle that did not look like normal black ink. I reached out for the quill, and was happily surprised to pull out a paintbrush with clear liquid dripping from its tip.
Since the letter was the only thing on the table that didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the puzzle, I ran the bristles across its surface. Suddenly, hidden sentences began revealing themselves between each line. Invisible ink.
“Yes!” I whispered under my breath, discovering the fate of the many crates of tea aboard those ships.
I froze as Henry’s voice caught me off guard, followed by the distinctive sound of someone cocking a rifle.
“Henry!” I set things down gently, “I wanted to see how you were feeling after our exchange earlier… Is everything agreeable?” I walked towards him slowly, trying to remain calm enough to convince him I wasn’t snooping.
“I’m well enough.” He looked confused, “Just speculating why you’re reading my confidential documents.”
“I was looking for you! I anticipated you’d be here, so I was tidying up until you returned!”
He looked like he wasn’t sure what to believe.
“I can double back later if it’s an objectionable time…” I moved closer to the door, but he was blocking the way with his gun.
“Perhaps I’ll see what Patrick surmises about this…” Henry turned to call for his friend, and I had to move without hesitation.
I put one hand over his mouth, and my other arm around his neck. He dropped the gun in surprise and stepped back awkwardly. He attempted to call out again, so I tightened my grip on his neck. I hated doing it, but I couldn’t have the patriot leaders discovering my alias.
“Argh!” I groaned as his elbow caught me in the eye, but it wasn’t enough for me to let go.
I jumped up on his back, letting my full weight come down on him. His knees buckled and I winced at the sound of our bodies hitting the hardwood floor, hoping his friends wouldn’t come running. Henry tapped my forearm in an attempt to surrender, but he knew too much.
I felt the guilt building as I looked down at his face. A face I preached to every Sunday. I whispered a quick prayer into his ear, and gave one last squeeze, feeling the life slip out of him.
As I laid his head on the ground, I could hear my heart beating out of my chest. I hoped the men in the other room couldn’t hear it as loudly as I could. My adrenaline was pumping, and all I could think was run.
I slipped down the hallway and heard Henry’s friends laughing in the front room, completely unaware that their friend was just murdered.
By the time I reached my office, I was drenched in my own sweat, despite the cold weather. I peeled my robe off and hung it on a hook, but there was no time to waste changing.
I ran to my desk and pulled out two pieces of parchment, and two separate envelopes. With the first sheet of paper, I took a small knife, and carefully carved the angular shape of a tea bag, creating a mask. I layered the mask over my second sheet of paper, and quickly jotted down what I could remember from Henry’s office: The patriots were hoping to dump barrels of tea into the harbor. I had all of the information, save for a date.
I removed the mask, and my words were clearly written in the shape of a tea bag.
Next, I had to fill the sheet with random sentences going across, so if anyone were to intercept my letter, they could not read it without the mask.
When I finished, I put both sheets in their separate envelopes, and shoved them into two different pockets. I threw my coat on, ready to run them to the closest loyalist courier.
“Minister!” Someone yelled from the sanctuary, running through the door of my office shortly after. “Come quick! It’s Henry! He’s dead, and there are signs of a struggle!”
“Oh my!” I acted surprised, “We must pray for him at once!”
“What’s happened to your head?” Patrick stopped in his tracks, “That wasn’t present when you were reading this morning's sermon…”
I reached up and touched my head where he was pointing. I winced as I remembered Henry’s elbow hitting me in the face. My finger came back with a drop of blood. “Oh, that’s not mine. I was just at the hospital praying over the victim of a carriage accident. The roads are slick with snow.” Sometimes I surprised myself with how well I could lie under pressure.
Patrick looked uncertain, but seemed too worried about Henry to interrogate me further.
“Let’s go.” Patrick ushered me out the door where his friends were waiting. “Jeremiah!” He called to a young man that was with them. I couldn’t hear what he whispered to the boy, but Jeremiah darted down the street in the wrong direction.
The rest of the men and I started the long walk back to the farm.
“William is beside himself. He thought he was leaving the whole farm to Henry in a year’s time. Now he has no heir until Henry’s boy comes of age.” Patrick shook his head. “Terrible loss.”
“Terrible loss indeed…” I shook my head with him.
We were walking very slowly, even for slippery conditions. I found it odd that they seemed to be stalling in their moment of crisis. We had barely gone anywhere by the time Jeremiah caught back up to us from wherever he’d run off to. He made eye contact with Patrick and gave a quick shake of his head.
I felt strong palms close around my biceps before I processed what Patrick had said. I tried to wriggle free, “What are you doing?!”
“Search him.” Patrick had turned from concern for Henry, to a straight faced gang leader. “Jeremiah checked with the doctor. No carriage accidents at the hospital today.”
The men reached in my pockets and pulled out both envelopes and my insurance. I tried to fight them off, but I was simply overpowered.
“Let’s see.” Patrick opened the first letter. The scrambled sentences clearly made no sense to him. Aggravated, he nearly ripped the mask as he pulled it out of the second envelope. Holding it up for a better look, he chuckled. “Very clever.”
He placed the mask on top of my letter, and had all the proof he needed. My cover was blown.
“He’s a loyalist spy. You know what to do.” Patrick tore the envelopes and their contents in half, then half again, letting the debris float away.
A man I didn’t recognize stepped forward and reached into his pocket, a wicked grin spreading across his face.
“What are you doing?” I asked, but I already knew the answer. I pushed and pulled as hard as I could, but couldn’t get out of their grasp.
In one swooping motion, the stranger pulled a shining object from his pocket, and buried it deep into my belly. I yelled out in pain, as I felt it rip through my organs. My knees buckled below me, and I was sure he likely hit my spinal cord. The men holding my arms let me drop to the ground.
Patrick wadded up my insurance document, and tossed it at me. It bounced off my cheek and into the snow. I stared at him, unable to move my lower half.
“May the Lord bless you.” Patrick said in a mocking tone.
The other men laughed, and they all walked away, leaving me to die.
It took everything in me, but I rolled over to grab my life insurance paper. I uncrumpled it as best I could, and tried to lay it flat on my chest above where the blood was now pooling into the snow beneath me. I clutched it desperately, hoping whoever found my body would honor the words written upon it. I couldn’t stop the events that were about to transpire, so I could only hope that my wife would still benefit from my final acts on earth.
As I laid there, my eyelids fluttered and my breath became more shallow. I thought of the turns my life had taken. It crossed my mind that I would be taking Henry’s secret to the grave after all.
I wondered if God would find me worthy enough for Heaven. But how could he fault me? Was he not a spy himself, collecting intel on our multitude of sins? I let my eyes fall shut, and clasped my hands in prayer. Although I had lived my life as a spy, I chose to die as a minister.
WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT THE STORY:
Judge #1: You have a talent for pulling the reader in and keeping them engaged. It's an intriguing choice to have a narrator who has already died. I liked your choice to take on historical fiction (it's difficult genre), and to commit to it so thoroughly. The death scene was marvelous.
Judge #2: The setting is interesting, it's a great strategy to set a piece in the context of a well-known historical event and explore what might have been and how people lived and worked around the political tensions of the period. The spy/minister is a great character and it's a brilliant cover for his work.
Judge #3: The Loyal Minister quickly establishes a strong sense of tension that's heightened with the reveal that the narrator is a Loyalist spy. The unique premise is compelling and the tight pacing propels the story forward. The minister is an engaging narrator despite his Loyalist ties and the plot is cleverly woven together.
WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK:
Judge #1: I would choose an era in your voice and stick to it. I see some archaic stylistic choices, and some modernity. It becomes a third voice that is caught between two, and it can be hard to suspend one's disbelief in a narrative that carries dissonance. Some additional advice I have is to take more risks with your protagonist: make them more dimensional, and engage us with personalization. We should be attached enough to this person that their death really hurts us. Some useful ideas for this include:
- Giving them a relatable cause to fight for - Revealing their weaknesses / loved ones / past - Showing idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities Etc.
Thank you for letting me read this!
Judge #2: It's not clear how the protagonist comes to working as a spy - consider exploring that backstory a little so that we know more of his political convictions and why he persists in both the espionage and the cover. You might cut the initial conversation that Henry has with him a little shorter for this purpose.
Judge #3: You might consider clarifying what the spy told his wife when he went undercover as a minister. Since she's a patriot, he clearly keeps his mission secret from her, so didn't she wonder why he suddenly became a minister? Since one of his primary reasons to do so was the life insurance policy for widows, it seems that they were already married at the time. Wouldn't she have questions about why he wanted to change his career and their lifestyle? If they were extremely young at the time and he had no career yet, clarify that. It's a minor detail but one that can be distracting from this otherwise taut narrative. Also note that tea bags weren't invented until the 20th century.
[I'm so mad at myself about the last comment. Haha I did so much research for this piece on terminology for revolutionary espionage, colonial practices, etc. But I forgot to research tea bags! Oh well!]