Matthew Licht

jh ghost6

A Big Star, Part 6

A gibbous moon silvered the waves off Redondo Beach. Ship lights flickered in the distance, blinked out over the horizon. I tried some Morse code semaphore with my car’s brights, but got no answers.

An arrow aimed at nothing in the dark had missed, or hit the wrong target.

A bonfire blazed further down the strand.

There was a luau in progress, a possible taste of the beach lifestyle Los Angeles advertises lavishly and doles out so sparingly.

Surfers are a friendly crowd. The kids who stared into the driftwood pyre called me dude when I showed them a paper bag with a bottle inside.

A surf-bunny in a sheepskin jacket and sheepskin boots noticed the John Holmes nametag and flicked at it with a chipped black fingernail. “Oh hey, my Mom goes to your meetings.”

“You mean, like AA?”

She shook her head. “It’s funny, because my Dad used to go to John Birch meetings. After they got divorced, Mom started going to John Holmes meetings with her friend Honey.”

Honey. Holmes’ co-stars in the Johnson film went by Sugar and Candy. “What’s your name, kitten?”

“It’s not Kitten, it’s Amy.”

“What’s your Mom’s name, Amy? When does she attend these meetings, and where are they held?”

“That’s too many questions. My mom is Sadie, but how come you don’t know where the meetings are if you’re wearing the badge? I don’t think I should talk to you any more, ‘cause you’re a stranger.”

A surfer with major muscles under his sheepskin detected alarm in Amy’s voice. He could’ve made me eat a surfboard in a fair fight.

To preserve the luau spirit, I said, “Mellow out, Amy. John Holmes is…was…he died, unfortunately…a movie star. Well, a kind of movie star, but a big one for sure. Your mother and her friend Honey must belong to his fan club. I’m in Redondo ‘cause they’re making a movie about him. We’re shooting not far from here. The nametag’s so they’ll let me on the set.”

Amy stared. “That’s cool,” she said, as though nothing could be less so.

Waves crashed and surf music oozed from a battery-operated beatbox.

These coastal kids were in diapers when the Reaper took John Holmes. Pre-video porn’s largest male star had become a brand name. Brands are imprinted, like the rule against talking to strangers, on infant American brains. The Girl Talk’s stag films were product for smut consumers of the near future. Mister Johnson wanted to make his presence legal in a potential mega-million licensing market. Genetic proof of his legitimacy meant he could have the Feds bust scams like Deek’s without messing a manicure.

“So Amy, when does your mom go to meetings with her friend, and where do they go? Maybe I could convince the producer to hire them as extras.”

There were no stars in Amy’s eyes. They were red, and her pupils were as wide as the moon seen from the Earth. She wouldn’t remember our conversation in the morning.

“Mom and Honey go to Huntington Beach on the last Sunday of every month.”

That was tomorrow, or later, since it was after midnight.

“They meet up at a motel called the Zag-Nut,” she went on. “I listen in on the phone in the den whenever Honey calls. Honey’s got tons of boyfriends and she and my mom talk dirty to each other.”


There was a lonely, lit-up phone booth just off Redondo Beach. An operator named Dolores said there was a motel called the Ziggurat on Grabber Blvd in Huntington Beach.

Grabber Boulevard runs along the coastline. There was no early morning traffic, and only waves and seagulls for a soundtrack. The Ziggurat Motel was a faded two-story longhouse. Mock balconies faced the parking lot, decorated with Babylonian motif glazed ceramic tiles stolen from the set of “Intolerance.” An Orange County Persepolis of men in pleated skirts and spit-curled beards, wingèd cows, lions with Shirley Temple manes. The entire cast looked to the west.

There was nothing going on at the Zig. Someone inside or an automatic timer turned off the neon sign framed by naked bulbs.

The dashboard clock said 10:08 when I awoke, but that’s what it always says. The clock in the Sea Gull Diner down the street said it was nearly noon. The redhead waitress’ nametag said Brenda.

Brenda hadn’t noticed anything unusual about the Ziggurat Motel. She couldn’t say whether Masons or Shriners or bored OC housewives gathered there on Sunday nights. She only worked breakfast and lunch, she said, but if I wanted to find out what happened at the Ziggurat after sunset, I could park on the stool, drink coffee and stare out the picture window till kingdom come.

The Sea Gull Diner looked even older than the Ziggurat Motel. There was a wooden phone booth in the back.

The client’s girl Friday said Mr Johnson was on a lunch date, he’d have to call me back. He needn’t bother, I said, but if someone could deliver emergency expenses cash, I’d be able to have a lunch date too, and continue surveillance of a possible lead. Mr Johnson had told her about the case. She asked where and how much. She laughed when I sheepishly asked for a hundred, so I said OK, make it two hundred.

Not much later, a brown Plymouth Valiant parked just outside the Sea Gull. A brown dude in a non-descript brown suit got out and stretched like he’d been driving around selling encyclopedias all morning. He entered the diner and sat two stools away. He spoke to waitress Brenda as though he’d known her for years, ordered a chicken sandwich, coffee and pie. He ate quickly. When he reached for his wallet to pay the check, he knocked his brown briefcase off the stool. When I bent over to pick it up, we koko-bonked each other. “Ouch, thanks,” he said, and reached into his breast pocket. “Just the kind of thing people need insurance for.” He gave me his card.

“Thanks,” I said. “Thanks a whole bunch.”

He left waitress Brenda a generous tip, and drove away.

His card was two cards, with a pair of folded mint-condition C-notes taped in-between. The cards weren’t from an insurance brokerage, but from Mr Johnson’s film production company. One of them had green ink scribble on the back: “Glad you’re on the case. I need to know.” The phone number was a direct line to the client, not the one he’d used to call Mrs John Holmes. Gladys.

Mr Johnson worked fast, and employed a far-reaching network of skilled professionals.

After sunset, the diner stakeout turned into a Ziggurat Motel hole-up.


A Big Star, Part 1
A Big Star, Part 2
A Big Star, Part 3
A Big Star, Part 4
A Big Star, Part 5

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