“A curse?” Kitty asked in disbelief. “You seriously want me to ask the district attorney if ‘a curse’ is a possible reason for the death of Jeffrey Chen?” She tried hard to keep the condescension from her voice.
“If you are going to ask if there is a possibility ‘the Chinese mafia,’ as you style it, could be responsible, I don’t see why a curse is anymore far-fetched,” her editor replied. “We have a responsibility to explore, and whenever necessary, debunk, all theories. ‘The Curse Theory’ is getting thrown around a lot in relation to his father’s death, and now his.”
Rick Dawes took a last drag on his cigarette and stubbed it out. “So, yes, I expect you to do your job.”
“You seriously want me to ask Tom Hogg if he has considered ‘a curse’ as a cause of the death—not murder, but ‘a curse,’ causing a prop gun to fire and kill Jeffrey Chen on set, in what should have been a routine night of filming? And not get laughed out of the press conference?”
“I think we all agree there was nothing routine about this film—and, yes, I want you to debunk any theory possible until we can report the definitive truth on this story—or as close as we can get—even if we only get there by process of elimination.”
Dawes gave her the penetrating stare—his way of telling his reporters to do their jobs and not talk back.
Kitty returned to her desk in the newsroom and pulled out the folder on the alleged curse suffered by the Chen family. It was true Jeffrey’s father, Lee Chen, died under mysterious circumstances no one ever solved positively. One theory was a curse; another was the Chinese mafia had him killed for either: A.) divulging the secrets of martial arts to white westerners; or B.) refusing to appear in films they backed. His star status could have made them a lot of money, so the story went. His refusal was not something they were used to hearing or tolerating. It cost him his life—or so they claimed. She wouldn’t have believed it, if it weren’t for guys in suits showing up at the set and the impact that seemed to have on Jeffrey.
It started with an interview with Elaine Heart, the 12-year-old original who broke molds and surprised everywhere she went. First, she was cast in a principal part the first time she landed a film role. Second, she was one of two actresses tested for the role.
“She was it, the moment we saw her,” Frank, the director, had commented to Kitty in a brief moment of interview she had been able to snatch with him on set. As one of the main characters, Elaine was part of the inner circle. Since she was still considered a child by everyone except her, she existed in her own sphere on set.
“Do you have any reason to believe Jeffrey might have been intentionally shot?”
Kitty hated asking the question. The poor girl looked so miserable.
“No, I mean yeah, maybe … it was just … It was so weird the way he had been behaving lately, like he was super agitated about something, like he totally couldn’t make up his mind. And he hadn’t started off that way at all. At all.” She shook her head emphatically, causing her wavy hair to close in on her face; she brushed it away with impatience.
“When did his behavior change? Like when did he become agitated?” Kitty followed up.
“It started slowly…” Elaine looked down, clearly giving Kitty’s question serious consideration. “He got visited by some guys at dinner one evening. We were in the tent—everyone was there—and they just walked in and walked up to the table, and Jeffrey got up and asked them to not disturb him at dinner and to, please, leave—there were ladies present. I guess he meant me and mom and Ashley. And they were all, like, not going anywhere, and he like said, ‘Excuse me,’ and hustled them outside … yeah. I think after that, he was pretty weird.”
“What?” Kitty’s jaw dropped in disbelief. Was this some tale Elaine was making up to impress her or take her on a wild goose chase?”
“Yeah, we were all at dinner, and they came up to him in and started talking Chinese. He got up from the table and excused himself and hustled all of them outside. When he came back he was really, really quiet. But he … it seemed like controlled anger, like he wouldn’t eat anything, even though we had a long night ahead of us and he needed to eat. That’s what mom said to him.”
“What did they look like? These men?” Kitty asked.
“Like gangsters.” Elaine responded emphatically.
“Like gangsters, you know: nice, black suits, hair slicked back—like the guys in our movie. Black on black suits. Yeah, they were Asian, so I guess I just assumed they were friends of Jeff’s from when he was living in Asia with his dad. They looked Chinese.”
Now did not seem the time to give her a lecture about how different Asian cultures appear around the world, and how not to make assumptions about people’s nationality based upon appearance. Instead, Kitty asked her to be more specific.
“Yeah—they spoke in Chinese. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but I think the change in him started then.”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“He didn’t talk to me as much after that. A lot of the excitement seemed gone. I don’t know, we used to laugh and joke around a lot but after that not so much.”
So Jeffrey was worried about something from a visit from what Elaine described as “gangsters.” Who would he have confided in about that? His friends? Ashley? Would she talk to me? Kitty wondered. How does an action star handle threats? Well, why does Arnold Schwarzenegger have body guards? Surely, if anyone doesn’t need someone else to protect him, it is Mr. Universe himself? But he does. He has security. So what does an individual martial arts fighter do? Especially when he thinks you might have killed his father?
That caught in Kitty’s throat. If she was confronted with the person who killed her mother—well, she would like to think she would kill them. But in honesty she didn’t know. Freeze in shock. I would probably freeze in shock, she told herself, and disappointment.
She sighed and looked at her notes.
But I’m not a martial artist, trained to fight, trained to channel and focus my energy and aggression. I don’t know nine ways to kill a man with my hands. How does that feel? How do you respond when that is what is in your muscle memory and years of training?
Actually, she knew part of the answer; she had seen Jeffrey relate the same story on multiple talk shows. He even told her when she first asked him about his martial arts training. Apparently, some poor shmo made the mistake of picking Jeffrey Chen’s house to burgle a few years back. Jeffrey arrived home and caught the guy carrying out the VCR. A chase ensued through the downstairs.
“I have, like, life-size pictures of my dad and me together hanging up in the living room. He is one of the most famous men in the world. I have to think, at some point, the guy saw them and went, ‘Oh, shit—I picked the wrong house.’ Maybe that’s what made him decide to grab the knife from the kitchen, I don’t know.”
Each time he told the story, he shrugged palms upward and flashed his gorgeous smile. The story ends with Jeffrey disarming the burglar, breaking one of the guy’s legs and an arm, and calling the police to have him hauled to jail. “He was very, very grateful to be arrested.”
Jeffrey laughed in each interview when he got to that point in the story.
So how does that guy react to a threat to his safety—or maybe the safety of his loved ones? Kitty wondered. And how did these “gangsters” even get on the film studio lot?
For crying out loud, security wouldn’t let an ambulance on the lot when Jeffrey was shot—how the hell did some creepy guys get there? Someone had to vouch for them, but who? Did Jeffrey do it himself?
It seemed like everywhere Kitty turned there were more questions.
When was someone going to start answering?
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.