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Cocaine Cowboy
About the Author: Michael Bracken ( is an Edgar Award and Shamus Award nominee whose crime fiction has appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best Mystery Stories of the Year, and many other publications. Additionally, Bracken is the editor of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and several anthologies, including the Anthony Award-nominated The Eyes of Texas. In 2024, he was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters for his contribution to Texas literature.

“Cash.” I held out my hand. “In advance.”

Cater Reese, owner of the Dew Drop Inn, a honky-tonk on the outskirts of Chicken Junction, Texas, glared at me from behind his cluttered desk. He overfilled his chair, and his eyes narrowed to the point of disappearing. “I’ll pay you after the last set.”

I still had my hand out. “Pay now or there won’t be any sets.

“We got a full house out there. You don’t want to disappoint your fans, do you?”

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” I said, though it would be the first time since release from court-mandated rehab two years earlier. When the record company dropped me after my sophomore album tanked and I couldn’t even get gigs as the opening act for other one-hit wonders, I fell into a cliché: booze, coke, and meaningless relationships. Then a paparazzo photographed me passed out on a hotel-room floor wearing nothing but tighty-whities and a bruise on the side of my face where I’d smashed against a glass-topped coffee table on the way down, a white dusting on my nostrils, and a line of coke still gracing the table.

After a moment, Reese opened the small safe behind his desk and counted forty one-hundred-dollar bills into my hand. I folded thirty-five of them in half, stuffed them into my front pocket, and made my way to the dressing room.

The Dew Drop Inn had started life as a Hudson dealership. Several years after it went bust, a new owner repurposed it, put a stage in what had been the service bay, and added a bar and a small dance floor. Over the years, subsequent owners had expanded the building and enlarged the dancefloor, but the decor lining the walls was much the same as it had been when it first opened as a bar—metal signs, dead animals, and autographed photographs of touring acts that had passed through, few of them famous then or now. Reese, the current owner, couldn’t afford top acts, only those on the way up or the way down, and those like me: one-hit wonders stuck somewhere between fame and failure. To keep riffraff at a minimum, he employed a pair of bouncers who made feral hogs look like sex goddesses.

My back-up band that night was a group of local never-gonna-bes who worked low-paying day jobs and dreamed of being music stars. We had rehearsed several of my songs but hadn’t bothered rehearsing the classics we all knew.

“We’re good,” I told them when I pushed open the dressing room door. I handed their lead guitarist five hundred to split with the three other musicians. “Let’s go.”

As we made our way to the stage, I stopped at the back bar and caught the attention of a stocky dishwater-blonde bartender near my age. She had shoulder-length hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, wore a sleeveless black Dew Drop Inn T-shirt stretched across her breasts, and had tattoo sleeves from her wrists to her shoulders. I raised my voice over the sound of the recorded music pounding through the sound system and ordered a Jack and Coke, no ice.

The place still reeked of cigarette smoke years after indoor smoking was prohibited, but as she leaned over the bar to talk after pushing my drink to me, I caught the strong and musky aroma of Dior Poison. She said, “I was a big fan, back in the day.”

“Yeah? And now?”

“Hell,” she said with a laugh, “I thought you were dead.”

“Some nights I feel like I should be.” I downed my drink and returned the empty tumbler to the bar top. I tapped the rim of the glass and said, “Keep these coming, will you?”

“Sure thing, Cowboy.”

After climbing onstage with the pickup band, I plugged in my Fender Telecaster and introduced myself as Jerry Lee Cash. I played a Telecaster because the sound was brighter, edgier, and more treble-oriented than other guitars, and the metal bridge gave it a resonance and twang perfect for finger-picking country riffs.

This story appears in our JUL 2024 Issue
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