“It was a day like any other day for me.” Brayden poured cream into a cup of decaf coffee and looked at Kitty. “I showed up for work at the production office at 8 a.m. I had no idea what had happened.”
Kitty took in the well-dressed man of tidy proportions. She reflected he was probably the first person she had met in real life who could be described as “nattily dressed.” There was nothing extraneous about Brayden—not an extra ounce of fat, not an unnecessary fashion accessory. He was a perfect package—compelling and complete with an Irish accent that could charm your knickers off, if he wanted to.
“But I got there and I was told there had been an accident on set the night before, and we already had so many, it was like, ‘OK, one more.’ Then it was, ‘Jeffrey’s in surgery; there was an accident with a prop gun and he’s probably not going to be able to work for six weeks.’ So, in addition to paperwork for the accident, I needed to get started on putting the production on hold: filing production insurance, making arrangements with department heads for storing or sending equipment back, paying for plane tickets, talking with the studio about sound stages and office space.”
He took a sip of his coffee.
“I mean I wasn’t making the actual arrangements, you understand, I was doing the paper work for the arrangements.”
Kitty nodded, scribbling notes furiously.
“So did they tell you he was in surgery?”
“Yes,” Brayden nodded. “They did. But we didn’t know how bad it was, and we thought he was going to be fine. The producers really thought he was going to come back to work and finish the film in a month and a half or so.”
“You said there were a lot accidents on the set?”
“Yes, you’ve reported on many of them.”
Brayden gave her a knowing look.
“The burn unit at Chapel Hill?”
“Yes, I remember,” Kitty conceded, and tried to block the pictures she had seen of the injured man who accidentally ran into a high-tension power line in a man lift. “But you said accidents—that means plural?”
“The equipment truck catching on fire, that was another one.”
Brayden looked at her.
“People are starting to say the production is cursed,” Kitty offered.
“It’s not.” Brayden shook his head. “People like to say things like that, it’s appealing. But there’s no such thing as a curse.”
He knew because there was no box to check on an insurance claim form that offered “curse.” If a curse had been a possible reason to halt filming, there would be a box for it on the form, probably next to “act of God”.
“First Lee Chen dies filming a movie, and now his son dies filming a movie.”
Kitty looked down at her untouched drink. They were sitting in the curve of the bar at Caffe Phoenix. She couldn’t bring herself to order food; she just didn’t have an appetite. Though after the day she had, she probably should eat.
Somehow, when she tried to think of food, she thought of a knife cutting into Jeffrey Chen’s young, healthy flesh, peeling back his skin and exploring his body to find a cause of death. Pasta made her think of his intestines getting unwound from his body cavity and inspected. Red sauce was just … too much.
No, not tonight, I probably wouldn’t be able to eat anything tonight.
“That’s not why Jeffrey died.” Brayden shook his head.
“Why did Jeffrey die?” Kitty asked.
Brayden gave her a rueful smile. “You were at the press conference—you tell me.”
Kitty took a deep breath and tried to calm the butterflies dancing in her stomach. Recalling the announcement Jeffrey had not survived surgery was something she didn’t want to do. Holding out a tape recorder and walking up to Jeffrey’s mother and fiancé when they arrived at the hospital, having to ask them for comments on Jeffrey’s death made her feel like a monster. But it was her job. She did it. Jeffrey’s mother had been brushing reporters aside with “no comment” since before Kitty was born. Still, she felt like a heartless sociopath bothering them at a time like this. Ashley, Jeffrey’s fiancé, was wearing dark sunglasses, but her face was red and wet with silent tears. Her hands had clutched balled-up Kleenexes.
“So,” Kitty countered. “What happened? Who came into the office to tell you?”
“Actually, we heard it on the radio,” Brayden said quietly. “We were listening to music when the DJ came on with a breaking news announcement: ‘Actor Jeffrey Chen had died of wounds sustained while filming ‘Blackbird.’ No other information is available but stay tuned.’”
He took a gulp of his coffee.
“Then we kind of looked at each other in shocked silence, as you can imagine.”
“So when did you talk with the producers?” Kitty asked.
“Well, after what felt like eternity, I got up and walked down the hall to Ted’s office. He was holding his head in his hands and was completely still. I don’t know how much experience you have with movie producers, but they tend to be in constant motion. For the first time I could ever remember, here was one frozen in front of me. It was eerie.”
Brayden sighed. He fished in his pockets for a cigarette and lighter. This was no time to abstain.
“‘Ted?’ I asked him. ‘We, um, we just heard on the radio Jeffrey is dead. Is it true?’ He slowly turned to me and nodded. Then told me to send everyone home for the day—there would be a meeting tomorrow at 1 p.m. at the studio but for now we should all go home.”
“So what happens next?” Kitty asked.
“I don’t know. We go to a meeting tomorrow and find out. Presumably, by then, we might know what the autopsy says, though I doubt it. Those things tend to take time.”
Lots of boxes to fill in on those forms, Brayden thought.
“Did they say anything at the press conference about why his body was going to Onslow County for the autopsy? Surely they can do that here.”
Kitty shrugged her shoulders.
“Just that his mother wanted an autopsy—and who can blame her? And that they were moving his body to Onslow County for the autopsy. Presumably when the findings are available, we’ll know more.”
She watched the thin stream of smoke from Brayden’s cigarette. “Why aren’t you at Richard and Cynthia’s place with everyone else?” she asked.
A sort of informal wake had been going on there all day. Press had been strictly barred. It was made clear when the press showed up to try and interview people. They found the road into the neighborhood blocked by Richard’s Grip crew.
“Nah,” Brayden shook his head. “I don’t really want to be there—actors, you know, and lots of out-of-town people who have been working nights and haven been up all night at the hospital and I just … well. When you called, I thought I’d come talk to you, but I don’t want a big, emotional scene.”
In spite of his beautiful Irish accent, Brayden was a local in the sense he had come to Wilmington’s port city with Giovani in the early ‘80s as a production accountant. He owned a house here and hadn’t needed to work out of state in the last 10 years.
“Well, thanks for the drink,” Kitty said. “Have the police contacted you yet?”
“The police?” Brayden looked surprised. “No, why would the police contact me?”
“Well, now that Jeffrey is dead, and his body is having an autopsy and his mother is here, there is going to be an investigation.”
“But it was an accident.”
“Well, they have to investigate it and present it to the DA.”
“But, no one did this intentionally.” Brayden took a long drag on his cigarette. “Did they?”
“A man is shot to death in room with 40 witnesses; someone has to ask questions.”
Kitty looked down at her notebook.
And someone has to answer them, she thought.
Gwenyfar Rohler is the fact-or-fiction writer for 2018. Her serial story, “Singing in the Dead of Night,” follows the death of a young movie star and the emotional aftermath that follows, as local media try to uncover the events leading up to the high-profile “murder,” which takes place while filming in Wilmington, NC. You can read other chapters here.