Under Cover of the Night: Chapter 1

Typically, Marcy Shepherd took two weeks off around Christmas to spend time with her children and finish up her holiday preparations.  2007 was no exception.  She went shopping with her friend and co-worker Jocelyn Earnest on Sunday, December 16, but since Marcy was on vacation, they knew they would not see each other during the day.  They made plans to get together at some point on the evening of Wednesday, December 19.

Text messages bounced between Marcy and Jocelyn throughout the day as Marcy ran errands that included a stop at the Genworth offices to deliver the popcorn that co-workers had purchased from her son’s Cub Scout troop.

At home, that evening, Marcy sat down with her 8-year-old son Wesley to watch one of his favorite shows, Sponge Bob Square Pants.  Just before 7:30, she received a text from Jocelyn asking if she was there.  Marcy responded, “Y.”  Jocelyn, however, did not follow up.

Marcy sent another message spelling out her answer clearly, “Yes, I’m here.”  Jocelyn had answered every other text that day promptly but not this time.  Marcy knew a momentary pause could have a lot of innocent explanations: another phone call, time for a shower, a temporary separation from her cell phone, whatever.  At first, it was not cause for alarm.

When the television show ended, Marcy went upstairs with Wesley, made sure he brushed his teeth, read a story to him and tucked him in for the night at 8:30.  She sent out an email asking Jocelyn if her text messaging was not working.  Jocelyn still remained silent.

Ten minutes later, Marcy left her home and drove to CVS, still waiting to hear from Jocelyn—still expecting they would meet up that night.  At the store, she picked up a few items including the lactose intolerance medicine that was the main purpose of her trip.  She sent another message to Jocelyn while she was in there.  She went through the check-out, completing her purchases at 9:08 p.m.

Marcy was beginning to think that she might not see Jocelyn that evening, after all.  She had Jocelyn’s Christmas present in her car, an enormous box of festive outdoor holiday lights wrapped in gold Santa Claus paper.  She didn’t want to take the package home fearing it would stir up her children’s heightened state of holiday excitability.  Instead she drove to the downtown Genworth Financial offices.

She parked in the garage near the entrance that allowed her to use a key card to gain access to the building after hours.  The security system recorded her walking through that door at 9:24 pm and took the elevator to the first floor to her office in the human resources department.  She placed Jocelyn’s gift on her desk and then returned to her car, checking out at 9:28.

She realized that she could be indulging a senseless agitation, but she could not quiet her escalating fears that something might be wrong.  She drove out to her friend’s Forest, Virginia, house in a quiet, serene neighborhood on Pine Bluff Drive, in scenic Bedford County, nestled up against the Blue Ridge Mountains.

She had planned to just drive by the house and keep going.  She saw Jocelyn’s green Honda parked in the driveway.  The outside light was lit but only a single low-wattage light burned inside the white-clapboard bungalow with silver metal roof.  Had Jocelyn gone out in someone else’s vehicle?  If so, why hadn’t she called or texted about her change of plans?  Had she accidentally left her phone behind?

Marcy turned around in the next driveway and drove back to her friend’s home.  She parked and walked up the curved sidewalk to the quiet house and knocked on the front door.  No sound seeped through the entrance.  Maybe she was asleep.  Maybe she’d turned off her cell.

Marcy, still unsettled, returned home at a little before 10 p.m.  She sent Jocelyn a message telling her that she was worried and asked her to call.  She had difficulty getting to sleep but finally soothed her thoughts with the reassurance that she’d get a simple explanation the next morning.  Jocelyn would explain what happened and they’d laugh about Marcy’s unwarranted concern.


Marcy rose the next morning a little bit after 7.  At quarter past the hour, she sent Jocelyn a text message.  When she didn’t get a response, she set her phone to send her an alert when Jocelyn logged into the instant messaging system at Genworth.  That way, she would know right away that her friend was safely at work.

When 10 a.m. arrived and she had not received any indication that Jocelyn had arrived, she called someone who worked for Jocelyn.  He said, “We’re expecting her but we haven’t seen her.”

As long as Marcy had known her, Jocelyn was always one of the first at her desk.  Something was wrong.  At 11:30, Marcy made the ten minute drive to Jocelyn’s home.  Turning off the main highways onto more bucolic state routes, she drove two more miles, in escalating anxiety, before arriving at her destination.

Jocelyn’s car was still parked in the same spot.  Just as the night before, only one weak light glowed beyond the windows.  The temperature had risen a bit from the morning’s low of 24 degrees but with the light breeze, it was still cool enough to make Marcy shiver on the way up the sidewalk.

Once again, she knocked on the front door.  When she got no answer, she balled up her fists and pounded on it as hard as she could, desperate to capture her friend’s attention.  The possibility of calamity roared in Marcy’s ears.  Was Jocelyn sick?  Injured?  Maybe she went to bed early, turned off her phone and overslept.

Marcy moved around the exterior of the home knocking on windows.  Still no sound from inside.  She called Maysa Munsey, a mutual friend, hoping she had answers.  But Maysa did not know where Jocelyn was either—and she, too, was worried.

Maysa knew the code to the alarm system on the house and Marcy knew where to find the keypad—if only she could get inside.  Then, Marcy remembered Jocelyn telling her about a spare key she kept in the shed, inside the six foot fence that surrounded the swimming pool area.  She expected, however, that the gate would be locked.  She was surprised that it opened when she tugged on the handle.

Inside the outbuilding, she located the key and ran back to the front door.  She tried again and again to get the key to work in the lock.  At first, she was certain that it was just her anxiety making the simple task difficult.  Finally, she gave up and dashed around the house, went up the steps to the deck and slid the key into the door that opened to the kitchen.

When it swung open, a blast of heat blew into Marcy’s face, fogging up her eyeglasses.  She called out, “Jocelyn!  Jocelyn, where are you?”  Then, she tilted her head back to peer under her lenses and gasped at the sight of Jocelyn’s legs.  “Maysa, call 9-1-1 right now!”

Marcy disconnected from Maysa and befuddled by shock, she punched 9-1-1 into her cell phone.  They asked her to check for a pulse and try CPR, Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation.

Marcy felt the tremble of panic in her hands as she walked across the living room.  As the fog faded, her vision improved, allowing her to see her friend clearly.  Her fears morphed into visceral horror.  Jocelyn was dressed as if she just walked in the door in a pair of jeans, a sweater and her winter coat, but she was laying flat on her back on the floor.  Her legs stuck straight out.  She appeared stiff and unnatural.

Marcy didn’t want to believe the truth being processed in her brain.  Maybe she just bumped her head, her heart insisted.  Logic kicked back into gear when she saw the pool of dark red surrounding Jocelyn’s head, mottling the blue carpet with dark, streaky stains trailing across the floor.

The blood puddle was predominately to Jocelyn’s right so Marcy stepped to the left of the body and kneeled down.  That was when she saw the firearm.  “There’s a gun,” she said.  She moved away from it, kneeling again on the other side.  She placed her fingers on Jocelyn’s throat.   It was stiff.  It was cold.  And nothing beat beneath her skin.

Marcy got a close look at her friend.  Her lips were blue.  Her fingernails were blue.  Blood stains ran in multiple directions on her face, forming a strange hatch pattern.  At the operator’s request, she reached down and touched Jocelyn’s left wrist.  Nothing.

9-1-1 told Marcy to see if Jocelyn was breathing by placing her hand on the stomach area.  Marcy slipped her hand in between the sweater and the shirt beneath, desperate to feel the up and down movement of respiration, but it wasn’t there. Marcy’s heart pounded, her mouth dried.  She tried to think of a reasonable explanation but all the possibilities that came to mind shattered against the wall of reality.

Marcy wanted to breathe life back into her friend but she knew it was far too late.  While she stood there shaking with grief and horror, she thought about the times that Jocelyn had expressed fears of a violent end to her life—the moments she had expressed her paranoid-sounding thoughts about her ex-husband—the many times, they maneuvered the last turn in the road and Jocelyn gripped the armrest in anxiety.

She knew Maysa was on her way to the house and that she would have her children with her.  She did not want them to arrive and walk right inside.  She opened the front door and stood there watching and waiting.  She worried about Jocelyn’s pets—her black lab, Rufus and her two cats.

Marcy left the doorway and went down the hall far enough to look into the master bedroom and see Rufus safely in his kennel, the cats would have to wait.

She hurried back to stand guard on the front door, the phone still connected to 9-1-1.  When Maysa pulled up, Marcy shouted out, “Leave the kids in the car.”

The operator said, “Don’t let them in the house.  Don’t let them in the house.”

Marcy blocked the front door as Marcy joined her on the front porch.  Maysa Munsey arrived before any of the first responders, wrapping her arms around Marcy, Maysa asked, “Are you certain, she’s gone?”

Marcy nodded.  The two women hugged and sobbed as they watched the cars pull up.  Deputy Jason Jones was the first to arrive at the home in the Pine Bluff subdivision.  Speaking to Marcy and Maysa, he said, “Please remain here at the house until investigators arrive and talk to you.”

The two women left the porch and waited in the driveway.  They felt helpless and out of place.  Less than a week until Christmas, they should be making holiday preparations.  They should be wishing “Happy Holidays” to friends, family and co-workers.  Instead, they stood together in the cold without a merry thought.  The idea of Christmas spirit felt obscene on this dark winter’s day.