A Crime Of Secrets by Ann Aptaker

A picture of author Ann Aptaker next to the cover of her novel A Crime of Secrets

Available now at Bywater Books, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble


New York City, 1899 

Fin Donner, née Finola, well-tailored androgyne of rough and iniquitous history but who now resides in contentment, was nostalgic for gaslight. True, the recently installed electric wall- sconce she switched on in the parlor to counter the fading afternoon sunlight was silent and odorless, unlike gaslight which hissed and gave off an eggy aroma. Still, despite the warm tone of the amber lampshade, Fin missed the seductive flicker of the old golden light. This modern electric illumination didn’t shimmer as softly along Fin’s brocade waistcoat or the sleeves of her bright white shirt. It didn’t slide as sinuously along the room’s polished mahogany furnishings, or down the carvings on the marble fireplace, a dark red which the old flicker imbued with whimsically devilish life. It didn’t enrich the deep green moiré silk-covered walls with quite the same sinewy sheen. But the electric bulb gave a steadier light, which made reading easier on the eyes. And Fin had to admit that the amber shade with its silken fringe had its own charm, its own serene radiance, creating a light companionably falling on the sticklike contours of that other newfangled object recently installed on the little table beside one of the room’s pair of overstuffed leather armchairs: a home telephone. Next to the telephone was its companion, the printed directory.  

She sat down again in the comfort of the armchair, where she’d been reading the latest issue of the Police Gazette while she waited for her beloved Devorah to return from her afternoon at the Astor Library. With a sigh of yearning for her lover to hurry home, Fin took up the newspaper once again and continued reading the rollicking account of a bloody brawl at the Thumb In The Eye Saloon, a head-cracking brouhaha that spilled into the streets of the dockside neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. Fin knew well the saloon and its neighborhood. Indeed, she was born in its crowded tenements, strutted its brutal sidewalks. Hell’s Kitchen was even now a rough and heartless part of town where human life was chopped up as savagely as the overworked dray horses who dropped dead on the cobblestones and were carted off to the neighborhood’s slaughterhouses, their body parts sold off by the piece to tanneries and glue factories. It was on Hell’s Kitchen’s streets, in its alleys, and along its docks where Fin learned to survive. As a child, she learned to be more cunning than the sneering so-called do-gooders who snatched the city’s street urchins and put them into hellish workhouses. Eventually she, too, fell prey to the child snatchers, hauled off to an institution of cruelty where a day’s punishment resulted in a broken arm or a bloodied face, but Fin refused to let it break her spirit. Later, as a young, strutting soldier of the streets, she survived by her fists and her courage. She needed both to fend off the thugs who didn’t like the idea that Fin preferred men’s clothes to women’s and women’s love to men’s.  

Finishing the story of the Thumb In The Eye brawl, Fin began an article recounting the latest activities of one Mr. Alistair P. Flugg, an annoying but politically well-connected prig who went around the city with a band of followers, accompanied by a detail of police, raiding brothels, smashing saloons, and terrorizing those who plied their outlaw trades in the streets and alleys. His work, he insisted, was done in the name of God and the purity of American womanhood, by which he meant white Protestant womanhood.  

Fin barely skimmed the article. Her distaste for Flugg and his ilk cancelled any interest in the man’s doings.  

Her attention was further distracted by her eagerness for the arrival of her treasured Devorah. Fin’s beautiful and cherished companion had lately been spending time reading the latest studies on patterns of crime. This pursuit of Dev’s amused Fin—in Fin’s hard experience, any pattern of crime was quite simple: someone possessed something; someone stronger, or needier, or greedier wanted it; hence, crime—but she would never belittle any of Devorah’s endeavors. She loved Devorah from the depths of her soul and the heat of her flesh, and considered these past six years together an earthly paradise.  

Frankly, it still amazed Fin that society belle Devorah Longstreet, daughter of the Fifth Avenue Longstreets, a woman of refined manners and elegant speech, would even look at rough trade like Fin Donner. Though Fin took pride in her grooming—she kept her wavy black hair oiled and combed neat; her trousers, jackets and waistcoats custom tailored to her female physique and of the finest quality—she was nevertheless thickly built, sturdy as a brickbat, and spoke with the remains of a dockside accent through a craggy, broken voice, the result of a teenage street brawl that bloodied her face and smashed her throat. 

But Devorah had indeed looked at Fin with a curiosity that soon roused passion and deepened into love, an outlaw love that exacted a terrible price. It cost Dev her family’s affection and protection. She was snubbed and disinherited, never allowed through the door of the Longstreets’ Fifth Avenue mansion again. 

That blow, especially the loss of her mother’s affection, was as painful to Devorah as a physical attack, as if she had been knifed in the heart, draining her spirit. But Fin’s patience and ardent attentions helped heal Dev’s injured soul. Dev’s natural vigor eventually revived, and she assured Fin that she did not regret her choice to follow her heart and pursue with her lover a life of crime; or rather the pursuit of criminals. Their Donner & Longstreet Inquiries enterprise gave outlet to Dev’s lifelong curiosity—her family had considered it unacceptable nosiness—about people and their habits, and it netted Fin and Devorah sufficient income to maintain these cozy rooms on Irving Place near Gramercy Park. Their successful detective business further provided the funds which enabled them to attend the operas, ballets, and other theatricals that Dev so enjoyed, and for Fin’s occasional nights at the prize fights and other sporting houses she still patronized, though she’d sworn off many of the vices which had filled her life before she met Devorah, lest the sordidness of her old ways soil the ecstasy she’d found with her beloved. 

Around five o’clock, unable to maintain interest in the newspaper, and yawning from a slight boredom with the quietness of the approaching evening, Fin rose from the chair to pour a glass of brandy from the cabinet opposite the fireplace. As she poured the liquor, its woody fragrance floated up to her nostrils, affording her the pleasure of anticipating that first, warming sip. And it was warming indeed, a slowly expanding heat that rolled through her. Even more pleasurable, though, was the heat that rose like a caress along Fin’s loins when she heard the front door open and Devorah’s cheerful, “Lovey? I’m home.” 

From “A Crime of Secrets”  Copyright Ann Aptaker, 2023   Bywater Books 

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