The time: shortly before midnight Thursday, a mild summer evening. The place: Elephas, a popular discotheque located less than a block from the scene of a double shooting attributed to the gunman known as Son of Sam.
"My mother doesn't know I'm here," Carol, an attractive 22-year-old brunette, confides in tones barely audible over the pounding beat of the Latin dance rhythm. "I'm supposed to be at a friend's house, not out where that 'crazy' might get me. If my mother knew I was here, she'd kill me."
Caril pauses and then laughs at her choice of words. It is a nervous laugh.
Two hours later, at Seconds, another discotheque miles away: "My mother got mad because I went out at all." Susan Douglas, 19, says with a sigh. "I'm scared, but if I get killed, it's fate, whether he shoots me or I get hit by a car."
Moments later, two New York City undercover detectives rush onto the dance floor and escort a shaken young man outside where he is spread-eagled, frisked and questioned.
"Someone called and said this guy looked like Sam," explains a uniformed officer who has pulled up in his patrol car. "We've had five million similar calls and there'll be that many more. If we don't check one out - and it is the maniac - we'll have to live with our consciences the rest of our lives."
In the month since the distorted, methodical pattern of the man police have dubbed "the 44 caliber killer" became frightening clear, the impact has extended beyond the night-marish tragedy that has befallen the victims and their families. It has spread as well beyond the frustrations of law-enforcement authorities who now seem no closer to a solution than they did following the first of eight attacks a year ago.
Because all but one of the victims of the brutal assaults have been under 21 years of age (Christine Freund, the second of six persons to succumb to wounds, was 26) the threat of deadly new campaigns has imposed a burden of fear on young men and women in their late teens, as well as on their alarmed parents.
Although a minority of the attacks have occurred following visits to discos, it is there that singles gather on hot summer nights for music, drink, dance and, most of all, companionship.
One disco exists within a sprawling shopping mall in New Rochelle, an urban-suburban community just north of the New York City border. Donna Lauria, the first to die one year ago, had danced there before leaving with her date on the night she was killed.
Inside, through a archway that leads to a plush, subdued lounge, a handful of customers sits at the bar or at small, candle-it tables that surround the dance floor. Only one couple is dancing. It is shortly after 9 p.m.
"This has killed the discotheque business all over most of the city and into Long Island." says the manager, a genial man in his mid-20s with the build of a weight lifter and the verbal reluctance of one not pleased to be interviewed.
"Sure, the girl was here before whe was killed, but she left and wasn't shot until hours later," he said.
People don't read. All they see are the words 'Son of Sam' 'dead' and 'disclotheque' and they assume they all are linked. Okay. Some of the victims were at discotheques. But so what?"
A few feet away a long-haired young woman in a black and white waitress uniform listens politely, then offers her appraisal. "I'm scared very scared" she admits. "I'm afraid to even stop at red lights and night because this man man likes to shoot girls in cars. I've already got two tickets for parking in illegal zones because I don't want to walk too far from my car to my house after work."
"This is a slow night for us," the manager reminds a visitor. "It'll get better later on. It's still early."
Now it is later on, but this time the music comes from the loud speakers at Elephas in the College Point section of Queens. A sign near the awning out front promises "valet parking Girls only." It is a new sign.
Inside, Sam is in people's thoughts and on their lips. Sam, Son of Sam, the 44-caliber killer - if the murderer wants attention, he is getting it here. His motive, his background, his style, his chances of being caught, all are grist for the singles' mill.
Sam Cestaro, the 40-year-old manager, leans on the silver vinyl padding surrounding the glass-top bar and toys absentmindedly with his slowly receding drink of scotch.
"On Friday nights, we usually have 500 kids in here," he says. "Last Friday, we had 60-and that was before the guy struck again. Now everybody is even more scared. Brooklyn used to be safe before this last attack; now there's no more sanctuary."
At a far side of the bar, her face flicked by the polka-dot pattern of the revolving disco lights, Susan, 20, a secretary, tugs at the top of her gingham dress which starts at floor level and stops well below the long locket hanging from her neck.
"I don't know whey I'm here," she says with a nervous glance around the room. "Last week, the night of the first anniversary. I held a '44-caliber killer party' at my house. My mother didn't like the idea but I guess she figured it was better than if I went out. I don't blame her, y'know."
Her friend, Donna 21, a dance instructor, bites on the nails of her left hand, then shudders with broad emphasis. "I hardly go out anymore," she remarks.I'd rather give up two years of dating than 40 years of my life. The only reason we're here tonight is because we were supposed to meet somebody."
Linda Sorrentino, 18, has arrived by car with five other young women and one young man. Her long, wavy brunette hair seems to fit the style worn by many of the victims.
"It used to worry me, and some of my friends had their hair cut short," she says. "It doesn't any more. Not after he killed that blonde laat weekend. Anyone is game, just anyone."
Rosie Preid, 18, has shoulder length blonde hair and some bad memories. "The other night," she recalls, "I was standing outside waiting to come in when a guy passes in a car and yells out, 'I'm going to get youse all' "The next night, a guy coming in here announces 'I' not rapping with any girls with long hair.' It all makes me sick to my stomach."
Sean Gallagher a 24-year-old welder, stands near one of two dance floors discussing the case with three male friends. "When I was in Peoria, III, a month ago". he tells them, "people there were scared too. They were afraid someone was going to pick up on this thing and do it out there, like what happened after Jack the Ripper.
"Ah, he's gotta be smart," responds George Blander, who stands a sturdy 6 feet 3 and weighs 205 pounds. "Still, I'd like to meet the s.o.b. in a sound-proof room with only our hands as weapons. Then we'd see what kind of a man he is. I tell you, he's a coward."
Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens sprawls over untold acres just off Queens Boulevard, the long, wide thoroughfare that cuts through the borough of the same name. Seconds, a lengthy, narrow disco with white-washed brickwalls adorned by modern art and faded posters from silent movie days adjoins the cemetery.
Here, too, only a modest walk from Forest Hills where two shootings took place, the killer is on the minds of the young people. He is also on the minds of the police, whose patrol cars pass and stop at the busy gathering pace with startling frequency. No one-except the young man brought out for questioning by the undercover officers - is bothered, including teenagers milling on the sidewalk and leaning against parked cars.
"My father refuses to let me go out," Laura Borger, 19, a secretary, says with a hesitant look at her steady boyfriend. "We're all scared.Tony here makes me lie down in the car when we're driving." Some friends standing nearby laugh at what would be humorous under other circumstances. This time, no joke i intended.
"I wouldn't come here with anybody and I wouldn't leave with anybody," comments Carl Dimario, 21, a chauffeur for a limousine service. "Why take chances of getting shot? Everybody is trying to be a wise guy, comes down to it, they'll all run. No one will stand up to him."
Or to his gun.
And finally, there is John Kahaly, 28, one of three partners of the club. He is busy - with the customers and with the police.
"Things are very tense, very tense", he says during one of the few moments when he can escape from the action. "We've lost business and girls don't want to talk to guys they don't know. Guys are afraid and everything's upside down.
"Until they catch or kill this crazy man, no one will fee secure. those kids can't think of anything else, and it's playing terrible games with their minds.
"I just hope." he tacks on as he is called back inside, "it ends quickly so the effect isn't lasting."