Jar of Hearts: New Excerpt

Jar of Hearts

Jennifer Hillier

June 12, 2018

Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier is the story of three best friends—one who was murdered, one who went to prison, and one who’s been searching for the truth all these years.

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When she was sixteen years old, Angela Wong―one of the most popular girls in school―disappeared without a trace. Nobody ever suspected that her best friend, Georgina Shaw, now an executive and rising star at her Seattle pharmaceutical company, was involved in any way. Certainly not Kaiser Brody, who was close with both girls back in high school.

But fourteen years later, Angela Wong’s remains are discovered in the woods near Geo’s childhood home. And Kaiser―now a detective with Seattle PD―finally learns the truth: Angela was a victim of Calvin James. The same Calvin James who murdered at least three other women.

To the authorities, Calvin is a serial killer. But to Geo, he’s something else entirely. Back in high school, Calvin was Geo’s first love. Turbulent and often volatile, their relationship bordered on obsession from the moment they met right up until the night Angela was killed.

For fourteen years, Geo knew what happened to Angela and told no one. For fourteen years, she carried the secret of Angela’s death until Geo was arrested and sent to prison.

While everyone thinks they finally know the truth, there are dark secrets buried deep. And what happened that fateful night is more complex and more chilling than anyone really knows. Now the obsessive past catches up with the deadly present when new bodies begin to turn up, killed in the exact same manner as Angela Wong.

How far will someone go to bury her secrets and hide her grief? How long can you get away with a lie? How long can you live with it?

chapter one

The trial has barely made a dent in the national news. Which is good, because it means less publicity, fewer reporters. But it’s also bad, because just how depraved do crimes have to be nowadays to garner national headlines?

Pretty fucking bad, it seems.

There’s only a brief mention of Calvin James, a.k.a. the Sweetbay Strangler, in the New York Times and on CNN, and his crimes aren’t quite sensational enough to be featured in People magazine or be talked about on The View. But for Pacific Northwesters—people in Washington state, Idaho, and Oregon—the trial of the Sweetbay Strangler is a big deal. The disappearance of Angela Wong fourteen years ago caused a noticeable a ripple throughout the Seattle area, as Angela’s father is a bigwig at Microsoft and a friend of Bill Gates. There were search parties, interviews, a monetary reward that increased with each passing day she didn’t come home. The discovery of the sixteen-year-old’s remains all these years later—only a half mile away from her house—sent shockwaves through the community. The locals remember. #JusticeForAngela was trending on Twitter this morning. It was the ninth or tenth most popular hashtag for only about three hours, but still.

Angela’s parents are present in court. They divorced a year after their daughter was reported missing, her disappearance the last thread in a marriage that had been unraveling for a decade. They sit side by side now, a few rows back from the prosecutor’s table, with their current spouses, united in their grief and desire to see justice served.

Georgina Shaw can’t bring herself to make eye contact with them. Seeing their faces, etched with equal parts heartache and fury, is the worst part of this whole thing. She could have spared them fourteen years of sleepless nights. She could have told them what happened the night it actually happened.

Geo could have done a lot of things.

Angela’s mother was a shallow, materialistic woman fourteen years ago, more concerned with her country-club status than checking up on her teenage daughter. Her father wasn’t much better, a workaholic who preferred to play golf and poker on the weekends than spend time with his family. Until Angela went missing. Then they banded together, only to fall apart. They reacted to her disappearance the way any normal, loving parents would. They became vulnerable. Emotional. Geo almost doesn’t recognize Candace Wong, now Candace Platten. She’s gained twenty pounds on a frame that used to be impossibly thin, but the extra weight makes her look healthier. Victor Wong looks more or less the same, with a slightly larger paunch and a lot less hair.

Geo spent a good chunk of her childhood at Angela’s house, eating take-out pizza in their kitchen, sleeping over countless times when her father worked nights in the ER at the hospital. She embraced the Wongs during the days when their only child didn’t come home, offering them reassurances that their daughter would be found, giving them answers that made them feel better, but were far from truthful. The Wongs were invited to the St. Martin’s High School graduation, where they received a special award on behalf of Angela, who’d been captain of the cheerleading squad, a star volleyball player, and an honor student. And every year after high school, wherever she was in the world, Candace Wong Platten mailed Geo a Christmas card. A dozen cards, all signed the same way. Love, Angie’s mom.

They hate her now. Angela’s parents haven’t taken their eyes off Geo since she entered the courtroom. Neither has the jury, now that she’s seated in the witness box.

Geo is prepared for the questions, and she answers them as she’s practiced, keeping her eyes fixed on a random spot at the back of the courtroom as she testifies. The assistant district attorney has prepped her well for this day, and in a lot of ways it seems like she’s just here to shed light on the events of that night, to add drama and color to the trial. Otherwise, the ADA’s case seems like a slam dunk. They have more than enough evidence to convict Calvin James on three other murders that happened long after Angela’s, but Geo is only here to talk about the night her best friend died. It’s the only murder she’s been involved in, and once her testimony is given, she’ll be shipped to Hazelwood Correctional Institute to begin serving her five-year sentence.

Five years. It’s both a nightmare and a gift, the result of a savvy plea deal by her fancy high-priced lawyer and the pressure on the district attorney to get the Sweetbay Strangler put away. The public is screaming for the death penalty for the serial killer, but it won’t happen. Not in a city as defiantly liberal as Seattle. The ADA has a good shot at consecutive life sentences for Calvin James, so in contrast, Geo’s five-year sentence isn’t nearly long enough, according to some of the #JusticeForAngela comments on social media. Geo will still be young when she’s released, with plenty of time to start over. She can still get married, have children, have a life.

In theory, anyway.

She chances a glance over at Andrew, seated stoically beside her father in the third row from the back. He’s the reason she looks nice today; he had her favorite Dior dress and Louboutin pumps brought to her that morning. Their eyes meet. Andrew offers her a small smile of encouragement, and it warms her a little, but she knows it won’t last.

Her fiancé doesn’t know what she’s done. He’ll soon find out. Geo looks down at her hands, folded neatly in her lap. Her diamond engagement ring, a three-carat oval with an additional carat of smaller diamonds encircling the center stone, is still on her finger. For now. Andrew Shipp has impeccable taste. Of course he does; it comes from good breeding, an important family name, and a big bank account. After he ends it—which of course he will, because the only thing that matters more to him than Geo is his family’s company—she’ll give the ring back.

Of course she will. It’s the right thing to do.

A poster-size photo of Angela is mounted on an easel facing the jury. Geo remembers the day that photo was taken, a few weeks after their junior year started at St. Martin’s High School. Geo has the full version of the photo somewhere at home, where the two best friends are standing side-by-side at the Puyallup Fair (now renamed the Washington State Fair)—Geo with a cloud of blue cotton candy in her hand, and Angela with a rapidly melting ice cream cone. The photo, now enlarged with Geo cropped out of it, is a close-up of Angela laughing, the sun beaming down on her hair, her brown eyes sparkling. A beautiful girl on a beautiful day, with the world at her feet.

Beside that photo, on a separate easel, is another poster-size enlargement. It shows Angela’s remains, which were found in the woods behind Geo’s childhood home. Just a pile of bones in the dirt, and anyone would agree that you could see a lot worse on TV. The only difference is, the bones in this photo are real, belonging to a girl who died much too young and much too violently for anyone to comprehend.

The prosecutor continues to ask questions, painting a picture for the jury of Angela Wong through Geo’s eyes. She continues to answer them, not adding any more detail than is necessary. Her voice carries through the small courtroom speakers, and she sounds calmer than she feels. Her profound sadness—which she’s carried with her every day of her life since Angela’s murder—seems diluted in her quest to speak clearly and articulately.

Calvin watches her closely from the defendant’s table as she speaks, his gaze penetrating right through her. It’s like being violated all over again. Geo tells the court about their relationship back then, when they were boyfriend and girlfriend, when he was still Calvin and not yet the Sweetbay Strangler, when she was just sixteen and thought they were in love. She recounts the abuse, both verbal and physical, telling the enthralled courtroom spectators about Calvin’s obsessive and controlling nature. She describes her fear and confusion, things she’s never discussed with anyone before, not even Angela, and certainly not her father. Things that for years were packed away in a mental lockbox, stored in a corner of her mind that she never allowed herself to visit.

If they gave degrees for compartmentalizing, Geo would have a Ph.D.

“Years later, when you saw the news reports, did you put it together that Calvin James was the Sweetbay Strangler?” the ADA asks her.

Geo shakes her head. “I never watched the news. I’d heard a little something about it from my father, since he still lives in Sweetbay, but I never made the connection. I suppose I wasn’t paying attention.”

This part is true, and when she glances over at Calvin, the corners of his mouth are raised just a millimeter. A tiny smile. Her old boyfriend was handsome at twenty-one, nobody would disagree with that. But today, at thirty-five, he looks like a movie star. His face is fuller and more chiseled, his hair tousled in perfect McDreamy waves, the speck of gray in his sideburns and the lines around his eyes only adding to his appeal. He sits easily in his seat, dressed in a simple suit and tie, scribbling notes on a yellow pad of paper. The tiny smile hasn’t left his face since Geo entered the courtroom. She suspects she’s the only one who can see it. She suspects it’s meant for her.

When their eyes meet, a tingle goes through her. That goddamned tingle, even now, even after everything. From the first day they met to the last day she saw him, that tingle has never gone away. She’s never felt anything like it before, or since. Not even with Andrew. Especially not with Andrew. Her fiancé—assuming he could still be called that, since the wedding planned for next summer isn’t going to happen—never inspired that feeling.

Her hands remain in her lap, and she twists her ring around, feeling the weight of it, the security of it. It was symbolic when Andrew gave it to her, not just of her promise to marry him, but also of the life she’d built. Undergraduate degree at Puget Sound State University. MBA from the University of Washington. At thirty, the youngest vice president at Shipp Pharmaceuticals. So what if some of her career success is because she got engaged to Andrew Shipp, the CEO and heir to the throne? The rest of it is because she’s worked her goddamned ass off.

No matter. That life is gone now.

On the one hand, she knows she’s gotten off easy. Her fancy lawyer was worth every penny Andrew paid him. But on the other hand, five fucking years. In prison, nobody will care that she was educated or successful on the outside, that up till her arrest she was earning a mid-six-figure salary (including bonus), and that she was about to become part of one of Seattle’s oldest and most elite families. When she gets out—assuming she survives prison and doesn’t get shanked in the shower—she’ll have a criminal record. A felony. She’ll never be able to get a regular job. Anytime anyone googles her name, the Sweetbay Strangler case will come up, because nothing on the internet ever dies. She’ll have to start her life completely over again. But not from the bottom, lower than the bottom, clawing her way out of the hole she dug herself into.

She continues to speak clearly and succinctly, recounting the events of that terrible night. The jury and spectators listen with rapt attention. Keeping her gaze focused on that random spot at the back of the courtroom, she describes it all. The football after party at Chad Fenton’s house. The barrel of fruit punch, so spiked with vodka that spiked didn’t seem like the right word for it. She and Angela leaving the party early, the two of them giggling and stumbling over to Calvin’s place in their skimpy dresses, completely drunk. The pulsing music from Calvin’s stereo. Angela dancing. Angela flirting. Drinking some more, the world spinning, turning into a kaleidoscope of dizzying shapes and colors until Geo finally passed out.

Then, sometime later, the car ride back to Geo’s house, Calvin driving, Angela folded into the trunk of the car. The long trek into the woods, guided only by a dim miniflashlight attached to Calvin’s keychain. The cool night air. The smell of the trees. The thickness of the soil. The sound of crying. Geo’s dress, dirty, covered in earth and grass and blood.

“You didn’t actually see Calvin James cut up her body?” the prosecutor presses. Geo winces. He’s trying to put the spotlight on Angela’s dismemberment, trying to make it sound as horrific as possible, even though her best friend was already dead by then, which was horrific enough.

“I didn’t watch him do it, no,” she answers. She doesn’t look at Calvin when she says this. She can’t.

“What did he use?”

“A saw. From the shed in the backyard.”

“Your father’s saw?”

“Yes.” She closes her eyes. She can still see the flash of steel when Calvin holds it up in the moonlight. The wood handle, the jagged teeth. Later, it would be covered in blood, skin, and hair. “The ground was too . . . there were too many rocks. We couldn’t dig a large enough hole for . . . for . . . all of her.”

There’s a movement in the courtroom. A rustling, and then a low murmur. Andrew Shipp has stood up. He looks at Geo; their eyes meet. He nods to her, an apologetic tilt of his head, and then her fiancé makes his way out of the courtroom, disappearing behind the heavy doors at the back.

It’s possible she’ll never see him again. It hurts more than she thought it would. On her lap, she twists the ring furiously for a few seconds, then mentally tucks the pain away for another time.

Walter Shaw, now with an empty place beside him, doesn’t move. Geo’s father isn’t known for being an emotionally expressive man, and the only evidence of his true feelings is the lone tear running down his face. He’s never heard this story before, either, and she won’t blame him if he follows Andrew out the door. But her father doesn’t leave. Thank god.

“How long did it take? To cut her up?” the prosecutor is asking.

“A while,” Geo says softly. A sob emanates from the center of the room. Candace Wong Platten’s shoulders shake, and her ex-husband puts an arm around her, though it’s clear he’s about to lose it, too. Their current spouses sit in silent horror, unsure how to react, not knowing what to do. It’s not their daughter, not their loss, but they feel it all the same. “It felt like it took a long time.”

Everyone’s eyes are on her. Calvin’s eyes are on her. Slowly, Geo shifts her gaze until their eyes finally meet. For the first time since she’s arrived at the courtroom, she holds eye contact. Almost imperceptibly, in a tiny movement only she can pick up on because she’s watching for it, he nods. She averts her gaze and refocuses her attention on the prosecutor, who pauses to take a sip of water.

“So you left her there,” the assistant district attorney says, walking back toward the witness box. “And then you went on with your life like it never happened. You lied to the cops. You lied to her parents. You let them suffer for fourteen years, not knowing what happened to their only child.”

He stops. Makes a show of looking right at Geo, and then at Calvin, and then at the jurors. When he speaks again, his voice is a few decibels above a whisper, so that everyone in the courtroom has to strain to hear him. “You left your best friend buried in the woods, a mere hundred yards from the house you lived in, after your boyfriend cut her up into pieces.”

“Yes,” she says, closing her eyes again. She knows how terrible it sounds, because she knows how terrible it was. But the tears won’t come. She doesn’t have any left.

Someone in the courtroom is crying softly. More like a whimper, really. Angela’s mother’s chest is heaving, her face in her hands, her bright red nail polish visibly chipped even from where Geo is seated. Beside her, Victor Wong is not crying. But as he reaches into the breast pocket of his suit to pull out a handkerchief to give to his ex-wife, his hands tremble violently.

The prosecutor has no further questions. The judge calls a recess for lunch. The jurors file out, and the spectators in the courtroom stand up and stretch. Phone calls are made. Reporters type furiously into laptops. The bailiff helps Geo out of the witness box, and she walks slowly past the defense table where Calvin is seated. He rises and grabs her hand as she passes, stopping her momentarily.

“It’s good to see you,” he says. “Even under the circumstances.”

Their faces are inches away. His eyes are exactly as she remembers, vivid green, with the same touch of gold encircling the pupils. She sees those eyes in her dreams sometimes, hears his voice, feels his hands on her body, and she’s woken up more than a few times covered in her own sweat. But now here he is, real as ever.

She says nothing, because there’s nothing to say, not with everyone around watching them, listening. She extracts her hand. The bailiff nudges her forward.

She feels the piece of paper Calvin slipped into her palm and curls her hand over it as she slides it into the pocket of her dress. She stops to say good-bye to her father, twisting off her engagement ring to give to him, the only jewelry she’s wearing. Walter Shaw embraces her roughly. Then he lets her go, turning away so she won’t see his face crumple.

The trial isn’t over, but Geo’s part in it is. The next time she sees her father, it will be when he visits her in prison. The bailiff leads her back to the holding cell. She takes a seat on the bench in the back corner, and when the bailiff’s footsteps recede, she reaches into her pocket.

It’s a torn piece of yellow notepad paper. On it, Calvin has scrawled a note in his small, neat handwriting.

You’re welcome.

Beside the two words, he’s drawn a small heart.

She crumples it up into a tiny bead and swallows it. Because the only way to get rid of it is to consume it.

Geo sits alone in the cell, immersed in her thoughts. The past, present, and future all mingle together, the inner voices chattering alongside the actual voices of the police officers down the hallway. She can hear them discussing last night’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy, and wonders randomly if they’ll show Grey’s Anatomy in prison. She has no idea how much time has passed until a shadow appears on the other side of the cell bars.

She looks up to see Detective Kaiser Brody standing there. He’s holding a paper bag from a local burger joint, and a milkshake. Strawberry. The bag is covered in grease spots, and immediately her mouth waters. She hasn’t had anything to eat since breakfast, just a small bowl of cold oatmeal served on a dirty metal tray here in the holding cell.

“If that’s not for me, then you’re just cruel,” she says.

Kaiser holds up the bag. “It is for you. And you can have it . . . so long as you tell me what Calvin James slipped you in court.”

Geo stares at the bag. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“He took your hand, and he gave you something.”

She shakes her head. She can smell grilled beef. Fried onions. French fries. Her stomach growls audibly. “He didn’t give me anything, Kai, I swear. He grabbed my hand, said it was good to see me, and I yanked my hand away and didn’t say anything back. That’s it.”

The detective doesn’t believe her. He signals the guard, who unlocks the metal door. He checks her hands, then checks the floor. He motions for her to stand up, and she complies. He pats her down, checking her pockets. Resignedly, he hands her the bag. She tears it open.

“Easy.” He takes a seat beside her on the cold steel bench. “There’s two burgers in there. One’s for me.”

Geo already has hers unwrapped. She takes a giant bite, the grease from the ground beef dribbling onto the front of her designer dress. She doesn’t care. “Is this allowed?”

“What? The burger?” Kaiser removes the top of his burger bun and places fries on top of the patty. He replaces the bun and takes a large bite of his own. “You signed your plea agreement, nobody cares if I talk to you.”

“I can’t believe you still do that.” She looks at his burger in mock distaste. “Fries inside your burger. That’s so high school.”

“In some ways, I’ve changed,” he says. “In some ways, I haven’t. Bet you can say the same.”

“So what are you doing here?” she asks a few minutes later, when she’s eaten half her burger and her stomach has stopped hurting.

“I don’t know. I guess I just wanted you to know that I don’t hate you.”

“You’d have every reason to.”

“Not anymore,” Kaiser says, then sighs. “I finally have closure. I can now let it go. I’d advise you to do to the same. You kept that secret a long time. Fourteen years . . . I can’t imagine what that did to you. It’s a punishment all its own.”

“I don’t think Angela’s parents would agree with you.” But she’s glad he said it. It makes her feel like less of a monster. But only a little.

“But that’s why you’re going to prison. So you can do your time and then get out and start over, fresh. You’ll survive this. You always were strong.” Kaiser puts his burger down. “You know, it’s funny. When I found out what you’d done, I wanted to kill you. For what you did to Angela. For what you put everyone through. For what you put me through. But when I saw you again . . . “

“What?”

“I remembered how it used to be. We were all best friends, for fuck’s sake. That shit doesn’t go away.”

“I know.” Geo looks at him. Underneath the tough cop exterior, she sees kindness. There’s always been kindness at Kaiser’s core. “I wanted to tell you back then what happened, what I did, so many times. You would have known what to do. You were always my . . . “

“What?”

“Moral compass,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of shitty things, Kai. Pushing you away was one of them.”

“You were sixteen.” Kaiser heaves another long sigh. “Just a kid. Like I was. Like Angela was.”

“But old enough to know better.”

“Looking back, a lot of things make sense now. The way you were after that night. The way you pulled back from me. Dropping out of school for the rest of the year. Calvin really did a number on you. I didn’t realize how bad it was.” Kaiser touches her face. “But today you told the truth. It’s done now. Finally.”

“Finally,” she repeats, taking a big bite of her burger even though she’s no longer hungry.

It’s easier to lie when your mouth is full.

Copyright © 2018 Jennifer Hillier.

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