A Plague of Grackles excerpt by Dharma Kelleher

Book cover for A Plague of Grackles by Dharma Kelleher

The 3rd book in the Avery Byrne Goth Vigilante Series. Publication date June 4, 2024 Available now to preorder.

Crime Thrillers Where Queer Women Kick Ass

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Sophia Bitsui gazed deeply into Étienne François’s dark eyes aglow with candlelight. The aroma of cologne with a hint of shea butter made her senses tingle. Étienne leaned closer and trailed a line of kisses down her throat.

Her body reacted as if awakening for the first time. A deep need grew in her core. She craved him in a way she’d never felt with anyone before. The kisses continued along her chest, teasing the buds of her nipples, making her gasp.

Dialogue from the half-watched movie murmured softly, its meaning drowned out by the thunder of their synchronized heartbeats. Wrapped in this magnificent man’s embrace, Sophia allowed herself to let down her shield and be in the moment—a respite from the hatred and vitriol of the white man’s world that preferred women like her to disappear without a trace.

Étienne’s touch was gentle, strong, and reassuring, pushing her ecstasy to heights she’d never thought possible. She moaned hungrily when at last he entered her. He was so big yet still a perfect fit. 

Faster and harder he thrust until, at last, pleasure overwhelmed the circuitry in her brain. The orgasm rippled through every cell of her body. She cried out and laughed, her heart fluttering.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…”

When the waves of rapture subsided, Sophia floated on a cloud of euphoria. “That was… better than I ever dreamed possible. I haven’t had an orgasm since…” 

He chuckled. “Well, it was about time, then.”

Étienne’s deep and resonant voice sent shivers through her body. His spellbinding accent danced around each syllable.

“You… you’re so amazing,” she said.

“As are you. For many years, I dreamed of meeting a woman as lovely and enchanting as you.”

Sophia flushed. “I don’t know why you say that. I’m nothing special.”

Okontrè, cheri mwen,” Étienne replied in Haitian Creole, his eyes sparkling. “You are a woman so rare.”

“I think the word you’re looking for is freak.”

“Non, non, non. Rare like yon bijou presye, a precious jewel.”

“Why? Because I’m trans? Or because I’m Navajo?”

“Both have shaped you into the woman you are—brilliant, beautiful, fearless, and strong. The struggles you’ve overcome to be your authentic self—they’ve amplified your radiance. Your vibrant, courageous soul enchants me like a siren’s song.”

“You’ve faced far worse struggles than I have.”

He nodded. “Wi, I have survived many tragedies. Hurricanes, earthquakes, disease, government corruption, loss of my family.”

“You did more than survive. You thrived. To become a doctor after all of that? You did your family proud, baby.”

“Wi, but my proudest moment was finding Mademoiselle Sophia Bitsui of Phoenix, Arizona.”

Étienne kissed her deeply again. She felt their souls intertwine. Bliss was the only word to describe it.

Without warning, he broke off the embrace, his eyes alert with alarm. “What was that sound?”

“What sound?” She’d noticed nothing over the thunder of their heartbeats. But when she concentrated, she heard it too—a muffled clomping of footsteps and tinny, distorted voices.

“It’s just the TV,” she assured him, not wanting to interrupt their second round of lovemaking.

Étienne sat up and snatched the remote from the coffee table then muted the television. The sounds were getting louder. The front door burst open, and a group of men dressed in combat gear stormed into the house, their assault weapons trained on Étienne.

“Police! Get on the floor! Do it now!”

Étienne sprang to his feet, his naked body shielding Sophia’s. “Who are you?” he demanded, brandishing the remote. “How dare you break into this house! Get out this instant!”

Terror coiled around Sophia’s heart as she sat up, her blood chilling to ice. She sensed the impending doom but was powerless to stop it. Time slowed, each second stretching into eternity.

In an instant, deafening gunfire filled the air. Bullets tore Étienne’s body apart in a grotesque tableau of death. His once sturdy frame collapsed to the floor.

“Nooo!” She reached for him, and searing pain bit into her own shoulder.

Her ears rang with an otherworldly silence. Her body felt detached from her spirit, even as her shoulder burned with hellfire. Consciousness faded as the hungry void pulled her into merciful oblivion.

* * *

Sweat beaded on my forehead as I stood in line outside Tempe’s Mill Avenue Theater for the midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Even at this late hour, the desert heat held steady at nearly ninety degrees, despite it being early October.

The growing crowd filled the air with excited conversation and snippets of songs from the movie. It had been more than a year since I’d last seen the cult classic, and I couldn’t wait.

My outfit, a slinky black negligee, showed off the tapestry of tattoos on my arms and chest, much of it my own work. The frizzy wig I wore to emulate Magenta felt like a fur coat fastened to my scalp and had me craving the cool air-conditioning that waited inside.

I yearned for autumn’s reprieve after yet another record-breaking summer. To step outside during the day without feeling as if my eyeballs were boiling in my skull would be an overdue change.

Roz Fein, my girlfriend, stood beside me, sparkling in her Columbia ensemble—sequined dress, bowler hat, and tap shoes clattering softly. “Wow, that’s exciting, Mom!” she exclaimed into the phone. “Sounds like an Israeli version of Coachella. Have fun, and give my love to Jude, Talia, and the kids.”

When she ended the call, I asked, “What was that about Coachella?”

“They’re going to the Supernova, a huge music festival celebrating the end of Sukkot. It’s near my brother’s kibbutz,” she explained. “I think my mom’s looking forward to reliving her riot grrrl days.”

“I hope they have a blast.”

A shout from a familiar voice interrupted our exchange. “Avery Byrne, you look hot as fuck!”

Kimiko Sato, my best friend, was dressed as the demure Janet Weiss. The white cardigan and knee-length pink dress with a Peter Pan collar were a stark departure from her usual sugar-skulled La Calavera Catrina stage persona as the front woman and upright bass player for the psychobilly band Damaged Souls.

“Slut!” I responded in true Rocky Horror tradition. 

“That’s me.”   

“You look great,” I told her. “Better than the original Janet.”

“Wow!” Chupa Melendez, Kimi’s hulk of a husband, looked as if he were about to drool over my revealing outfit. He wore a full-length trench coat and flip-flops.

“Eyes up here, big guy,” I teased, pointing to my face. “We’re both taken.”

“Sorry.” His tan face turned bright red.

“I figured you would dress as Frankie like you did in Las Cruces, Avery,” Kimi said.

“Magenta’s more my style,” I assured her. “Besides, we remember what happened in Las Cruces.”

Chupa winced and placed a hand on his belly. “Don’t remind me. I still have a scar from the gunshot wound.”

I gave him a sympathetic look. That bullet had been meant for me.

“Aren’t you hot in that trench coat, big guy?” Roz teased, tugging at Chupa’s sleeve.

He blushed. “It’s a little cold out.”

“Cold?” I asked, grateful for a change in subject. “It’s ninety fucking degrees.”

“He’s shy!” Kimi said. “He’s got a costume on under there.”

“Come on, Chup. Let’s see.” I had a good idea what he was wearing.

Chupa undid the tie and opened the coat to reveal a gold lamé bikini bottom and nothing else.

“Oh, Rocky!” Roz said. “Wow. If I didn’t play for the all-girls team, I’d be all over you.”

Kimi cleared her throat. “Back off, slut! He’s all mine.” She mimed protecting her husband.

“Here comes the rest of the crew.”

The arrival of Omar “Torch” Shaheen—dressed dramatically in corset, fishnets, and heels—and McCobb as a humpbacked Riff Raff added to our eclectic group. A tattoo of the sonogram of Torch’s son peeked out from above his corset.

“Nice legs, Frankie!” I said to Torch.

He strutted and twirled, showing off his muscular legs. “What can I say? If you got it, flaunt it!”

As we shared a laugh, Kimi revealed her stash of props for the night—water pistols, toast, rice, confetti, and noisemakers. “I was supposed to cook the rice, right?”

I looked at her incredulously. “Um, no?”

She burst out laughing. “Just kidding. By the way, we’ve got a virgin joining us tonight.”

“Who?” I asked.

Kimi pointed toward a middle-aged man in a tweed suit wheeling toward us in his electric wheelchair. Scott Murray, the band’s manager, had been struck this past summer by a wrong-way driver. The trauma to his back left him only able to walk short distances.

“Great Scott,” said Roz. “Is that…?”

“It is,” Kimi assured us.

“Evening, young people,” Scott said.

“Evening, Scott,” I said. “I never took you for a Rocky Horror fan.”

“Not my usual taste in cinema. But I figured it would be an opportunity to promote the band’s upcoming release of Graveyard Groove.” He held up a handful of postcards featuring the band’s new album cover on one side. “These rather… uh, colorful people are very much our demographic.”

“I think you’re right. And might I say, you look rather dapper as Dr. Scott.”

Just as the line began to move, my phone rang. The caller ID told me it was Theo Carter, a trans masculine member of the Phoenix Gender Alliance. Why the hell’s he calling so late?

“What’s up, Theo?”

“Avery, thank God you answered.” He sounded panicked. “Sophia’s been shot. Her boyfriend too.”

“By who?”

“The cops! They busted into our house and shot them.”

“Fuck! Are they okay? Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’m… I’m okay. I wasn’t there when it happened. But Sophia… she’s in surgery. And her boyfriend, Étienne… he’s dead.”

“Shit. Where are you?”

“The emergency room at Scottsdale Osborn.”

“I’m in Tempe. I can be there in twenty minutes.” I hung up. “Sorry, folks, but I gotta go. A friend’s been shot.”

Roz’s eyes widened. “Who?”

“Sophia Bitsui, the chair of Phoenix Gender Alliance. That was her housemate, Theo.”

Roz gave my hand a squeeze of support. “Let’s go.”

“You want us to come too?” Kimi offered.

I hugged her. “No, y’all have fun. Help Dr. Scott, here, promote your album release.”

“I’m sorry about your friend.”


“DM me and let me know how she’s doing.”

“Will do.”

We hurried to the parking lot, and I hopped behind the wheel of the Gothmobile, my restored 1957 Cadillac. Roz slid into the passenger seat, and we raced north to the hospital.

“Motherfuckers!” I growled, taking a corner faster than I meant to and clipped the curb.

“Easy, babe,” Roz replied. “Let’s try to get there in one piece.”

“It’s just that last year, the cops accused members of the Phoenix Gender Alliance of being members of a criminal gang. The year before that they tried to frame me for Sam’s murder. Now they’re busting into our homes and shooting us.”

The Phoenix Gender Alliance was a support group for the valley’s trans and gender-questioning community. Sophia was the chairperson; I was the vice chair. Before Roz and I started dating, the Desert Mafia had killed my girlfriend, Samantha Ferguson. The horror of discovering her brutalized body still haunted me.

“We don’t know what happened.”

“Yes, we do. The whole fucking world’s trying to wipe us out, including the cops. Between the rash of anti-trans laws and the increasing violence, they just may succeed.”

I cut in front of a slow-moving pickup truck, whose driver laid on the horn and flashed his high beams in retaliation.

“Ave, if you don’t slow down and take it easy, you just may wipe us out first.”

Goth, I hated when she was right. Which she was. A lot. I took a deep breath to calm myself. It didn’t help. 

I shivered when we stepped through the double set of automatic doors into the ER waiting room. The cold, sterile air smelled strongly of disinfectant. Just inside the entrance, a cluster of uniformed cops quietly chatted and joked. Their hushed laughter left me wondering if they had been the ones who shot Sophia and her boyfriend.

We found Theo asleep in the waiting room, hunched over in a chair, his muscular arms wrapped around his chest. His black curly hair was clipped short, accentuating his high cheekbones. He wore faded jeans and a tan shirt that complemented his dark-brown skin.

Gently waking him, I braced myself for the news that awaited.

Novel Description:

Amidst a violent storm of hate, she fights for justice and her community’s survival

A swatting attack on a fellow transgender woman ignites a fire within Avery Byrne. A goth tattoo artist by day and a fierce vigilante by night, Avery sees a sinister pattern linking this tragedy to escalating assaults on the trans community—a pattern the police refuse to acknowledge.

Fueled by a relentless need to protect her people, Avery, alongside her girlfriend Roz, vows to unravel the conspiracy that targets her community. But their pursuit of truth turns perilous, spiraling into a maelstrom of violence that strikes Avery at her core.

Surviving an attack meant to silence her, Avery emerges scarred but undaunted, diving deeper into the abyss to confront a nemesis entwined with her own dark past. With every revelation, the stakes skyrocket, pushing Avery to a precipice where a single misstep could devastate the trans community she fights to protect.

A Plague of Grackles, book three in the Avery Byrne Goth Vigilante series, weaves a tale of action, suspense, and profound courage. Dharma Kelleher delivers a heart-pounding thriller that not only entertains but also challenges the reader to confront the complexities of justice, trauma, and solidarity.

Dive into Avery Byrne’s world—where the fight for justice is personal, the risks are monumental, and the quest for truth knows no limits.

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