Tears ran without end yesterday afternoon inside the new St. John's Baptist Church in Southeast Atlanta. A dozen nurses in white moved silently about the aisles, fanning and comforting the family of Curtis Walker. He was found floating face down in the South River last Friday, No. 20 on the swelling list of black children found murdered here in the last 20 months. The silver-blue casket was closed; his body was in no condition to be presented, said the funeral home.

"Oh, Jesus!" sobbed Catherine Leach, his mother, veiled in black. She limped to the front pew, supported by family, one hand on the casket. "My baby. My baby."

"Here we go again, Lord," said Rev. J. L. Henderson, who preached a message of faith and redemption over a sea of carnations and daisies. He urged the 500 mourners not to "take up .38s," but to let God and the law catch the killer.

A children's choir sang "Yes, Jesus loves me": a reassurance. A seventh-grade classmate of Curtis Walker's read a poem: "We're glad you didn't die without a friend to love and trust." City councilman Rob Pitts eulogized the child: "He was a good kid, he worked hard, he loved his mother."

The mayor said the city would "leave no stone unturned in pursuing the investigation." Two aunts of Curtis Walker fainted and had to be carried out. Then the black hearse rode to Southview Cemetery, where Curtis Walker was buried under a sunny, blue sky. He was 13.

The Spectacular:

He pranced out on stage, his voice as smooth and creamy as the sherry he once touted on TV as "Mr. Man-O-Manischewitz," Sammy Davis Jr., a.k.a. "Mr Entertainment," Frank Sinatra's pal, Broadway's golden boy; a small black man dripping gold bracelets and good will.

He earns $200,000 a week in Las Vegas, and, said his PR man, Billy Roe, "He gave up quite a bit to be here, but he was able to put a few goodies into his bank of emotion."

He'd read about the tragedy and volunteered to do this benefit Tuesday night at the Atlanta Civic Center. Frank Sinatra read about his offer, said Roe, and phoned Davis and asked, "When do you want to be there?"

Fear and Revelry -- Side by Side:

"I'm very scared," said Tammie Jones, a volunteer pinning green ribbons to the lapels of concertgoers. She was 13 and caught between the spectacle and the reality -- a black child trying to cope in the wake of paranoia trailing the phantom killer who preys on poor black children. "I'm afraid someone's always watching me, that someone's going to get me. My mother tells me to keep the doors locked and don't let anybody in unless I know them."

The Showmen:

Burt Reynolds, in town to film a murder-thriller about a cop named Sharkey and a high-class hooker, introduced his friends to the 4,600 people who has shelled out $25 and $100 a head to attend. "How 'bout them Dawgs?" he said, referring to the No. 1-ranked University of Georgia Bulldogs University of Georgia Bulldogs football team, a question that elicited the usual Pavlovian yelps of delight.

Davis sang the first song, "Sing a Song," a "Sesame Street" favorite in which make-believe ghetto children sing along in a mock urban tenement setting, learning about real-life words and numbers. Then came Sinatra, who cooed and tough-guyed his way through a 30-minute set: "The Best Is Yet to Come"; "The Lady Is a Tramp"; "New York, New York"; "Fly Me to the Moon," and others. "Hold my hand," he sang.

"Ooooh! Ooooh!" shouted a middle-aged woman who stood in the balcony and waved clenched fists in ecstasy.

"Do it my way!" shouted another woman, requesting her favorite.

City in Trouble:

Davis insisted earlier at a press conference that it wasn't supposed to be "party-time," but they clapped and partied anyway, while some suggested that it seemed inappropriate. "An entertainer must use humor to fight evil," said Davis. "That's why this kind of evening can be put together."

Still, how else could the city, running in the red to the tune of $150,000 a month in police overtime, raise money for its investigation after the Reagan administration failed to produce emergency funds requested for the 35-member special task force, asked others. Indeed, the president recently announced almost $1 million for use, protection and mental health programs to help Atlanta cope, but not a penny of that money can be used to hunt the killer.

"This concert shouldn't be necessary," said Mayor Maynard Jackson, sipping a drink. He said he hoped that $1.5 million in emergency relief legislation would get off the ground in Congress and the city wouldn't have to rely on such charity benefits to save its children.

"If a volcano had erupted in Atlanta, there would be no doubt of federal disaster assistance," said Southern Christian Leadership Conference president Joseph Lowery, pausing beneath the civic center's crystal chandeliers with his wife to fume before TV cameras. "What I'm saying is that a sick human volcano has erupted here, and its lava has consumed our children." here, and its lava has consumed our children."

The Family:

Across town, off Bankhead Highway, beyond Wyatt's mobile-home park, Ann's Beauty Hut, the K-Mart and the junkyard, Curtis Walker's mother was having a party, too. A wake.

Inside her small, $21-a-month subsidized three-bedroom apartment in Bowen Homes Housing Project, family and friends laughed and went and joked. They came through the door with the "Jesus Said Be Perfect" sticker and into the stuffy living room.

They arrived bearing wrinkled paper sacks of chicken and drinks. The mood had the fierce festivity of the bereaved, laughing mostly to keep from crying. "I don't mind being fat," cackled one woman. "There's just more to me to look good."

It was in this dingy yellow brick housing project that Curtis scrapped to make it, surrounded by his mother and three brothers: William, 14, Antonio, 10, and Eric, 3. Many single mothers eke out a living on welfare here, while trying to protect their children from the neighborhood's hard side. It is a world removed from the furs and limousines of uptown, the solid black upper-middle class of Atlanta.

Curtis Walker worked hard as a seventh grader at A. D. Williams elementary school, say his teachers, a quiet child quick to smile. He often doodled at his desk; he wanted to be an artist, he told friends. He was even making progress bringing up his reading level in Shirly Fannin's remedial reading class, having just mastered the rudiments of rhyme.

"There was a king/He was so clean/That he sing/In the spring," he scribbled in his last English class before disappearing Feb. 19. "I saw a pet/in a net/get wet," he scrawled on the back of a spelling test. And there was a darker side: "I sleep like a creep and sometimes it makes me weep." On another paper, he wrote about a dream in which "a bad boy named Sam" shot a man in cold blood, only to be haunted by ghosts and demons.

"This year he bloomed," said Andrea Paterson, his homeroom teacher.

And, like other poor kids, he hustled to make a buck, traipsing every day after school to the car wash with his little brother Antonio, to scrub whitewalls for one dollar. He carried groceries for spare change at the Big Star. He always gave his mother half of what he made. "Curtis was a good boy," said Catherine Leach, the day after he disappeared. "I never had any problem with him."

She'd warned him about the danger. Nightly, he watched news about other missing and murdered children. He was not allowed outside very long, even before the city passed a 7 p.m. curfew for children under 15. "I kept him close because it's a tough neighborhood and because I love him."

The last day his mother saw him alive, three weeks ago, she ordered him upstairs while she cooked dinner. But, he slipped out the door "as if someone had hypnotized him," she later recalled, and walked up the road, past McDonald's, Ida's red brick diner, Dudley's Coiffure ("problem hair is our business"), and into Byron's Gun Shop. He often dropped by Byron's with his brother to sweep up the empty pistol range and empty garage for two follars.He was within shouting distance of the billboard touting the $100,000 reward for the killer that goes begging. "The Child You Save May be Your Own," it proclaims.

Archie Byron Jr., 34, is a private detective turned gunshop entrepreneur, a Vietnam veteran who always went out of his way to offer neighborhood kids a job. He didn't have any work for Curtis that day, so Curtis left. It was 3:45 p.m. About dinner time his mother asked Antonio to call around and find him. He found Byron, who said he saw him last at 7 p.m., but later he realized that he had mistaken another child for Curtis. Fifteen days later, Curtis Walker's body was discovered in the river.

The Crowd:

The Candy Man and Ol' Blue Eyes drew the glitterati out in droves, eventually raising $200,000. At the door to the gala benefit, four teen-age girls, saucy enough in pink tights and rhinestone-studed fishnet stockings (courtesy of Mr. V's Figure 8 Club), giggled nervously as they pinned green bows to tuxedo lapels -- battle ribbons of concern for the city's 21 missing and murdered children. Many $100 donors arrived in limousines, pulled their minks tight and sashayed into the Civic Center past the marquee -- "Do you know where your children are right now ?"

The Victims:

All the victims have been black children, all boys except two, ranging in age from 7 to 16. Curtis fit their profile of vulnerability. He stood five feet tall, weighed 75 pounds and liked to hang out. He was streetwise, and his confidence and trusting nature, some believe, made him a high-risk child on the streets of this tormented city.

Medical examiners ruled that he was strangled or asphxiated, like eight other children. In six cases, the cause of death is unknown; others have been shot, stabbed or bludgeoned to death.

Police believe that three sets of killers may have had a hand in the tragedies: a primary killer who has murdered most of the children, a copy-cat driven by the publcity, and others -- possibly family or friends. Fulton County District Attorney Lewis Slaton said yesterday that police are now speculating that the last six or seven killings could be connected and that at least 10 different people could have played a part in all the murders. In each case, police have found the bodies miles away in the woods and neatly laid out, other times hidden from view deep in the leaves and underbrush.

In each case, some piece of clothing has been missing: a shoe on one, a sock on another. Some investigators believe the killer keeps a scrapbook of souvenirs. Some of the boys have been dressed in the clothes they were abducted in, but with their underwear missing. There are no signs of sexual molestation, say police, but they admit that if there were any, they would quickly deny it. Still, a sexual motive has not been ruled out. "We might be dealing with a foot smeller," says Fulton County Medical Examiner, R. E. Stivers. The mystery remains.

The Mother:

"I know we live in a poor neighborhood, but he had plenty to eat," said Catherine Leach, 32, the day after Curtis disappeared. She has seen hard times before. The oldest of 10 children born to a disabled nurseryman and his wife, a retired cafeteria worker, she dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, pregnant with her first child. After four months she left her first husband. Soon afterward, she met Curtis' father, a garbage man who earned a steady living. The union lasted 10 years and bore two children, Curtis and Antonio.

Leach sprawled on a brown plaid couch, groggy from a tranquilizer and lack of sleep, a red bandanna around her head. She was trying to cope with a missing son and explained her circumstances to a stranger: a distraught mother in a city where many black children wet their beds in fear, carry knives and guns to school as a precaution, travel in packs to the corner and see "The Man," the ghetto nickname for the killer, behind every door.

"He was aware of the killings," said James Godfrey, 24, Leach's husband, an unemployed scrap-metal worker recently laid off a $4.50 an hour job at London Steel. "We told him to run into the middle of the street if anyone tried to get him. Whoever grabbed him had to blindside him." Then, like everyone in Atlanta, rich and poor, black and white, he offered his theory: "It had to be someone dressed like a policeman because he respected policemen. It had to be someone with authority over him."

Godrey exuded a frustration and anger many black inner-city residents share, a perception that "if the children were white, the National Guard would have been brought out." Many inner-city residents say they are caught in a double bind: They've got to work to support families, but they don't make enough to hire baby sitters, and must trust their children in the streets.

The Celebrity Auction:

Early Wednesday morning, the $100 ticket holders at pate, sipped champagne and bid against each other at an auction inside the Peachtree Plaza Hotel ballroom. The prizes: five hours of tax planning by Price-Waterhouse; an architect's "dream kitchen"; a deluxe trip for two to Cancun; a VIP health club membership. Sherry Kant, marketing director for a Chicago-based condominium developer, bought the tax advice for $400 and outbid a hamburger chain tycoon for the cooking lessons.

"I'll use my tax refund to pay for my $2,000 cooking lessions," she laughed, confessing the contents of her icebox -- champagne, popcorn and Coca-Cola. "Men tremble when I threaten to cook dinner."

Mother With a Mission:

Camille Bell, founder of the Committee to Stop Children's Murdered children, nursed a ginger ale and eyed the wealthy crowd. The killings had come a long way in evoking public sympathy since she pushed to force Atlanta officials to recognize a tragedy in the making. Did the celebrity auction seem a bizarre, new twist to the tragedy? she was asked.

"After you live in a city with 21 kids dead or missing, nothing seems bizarre anymore," she said. "If this benefit was for leukemia, it would be festive. That's raising money to save lives; we're missing money to find a killer before he strikes again. Look into the faces here. There's an undercurrent of desperation in the frivolity. We're just trying to do the best we can."

The Chairman of the Board:

Frank Sinatra, fresh from his successful encounter with Nevada State Gaming Commission officials, let the bittersweet lyrics of "Angel Eyes" drift away. He read from a prepared statement: "I will never waiver in my conviction that justice will prevail against dishonorable deeds . . . I love you and grieve for you and pray that . . . all of you will live in the sunshine of an eternity of peaceful tomorrows."

Then, his voice cracking, he sang, "I've got you under my skin . . . deep in the heart of me . . ."

The Detective:

Backstage, the homicide detective lurked in the shadows, fidgeting. Police dogs sniffed out the area before the concert for any bombs; triple the number of police cars normally on patrol at night cruised the streets. A helicopter hovered overhead.

A letter writer claiming to be the killer had threatened to murder a child while the band played Tuesday night. A local newspaper columnist received the letter. It warned: "Consider . . . while everybody's watching Sammy and Frank, who'll be watching the children?"

Police weren't taking any chances, even as they debated the letter's authenticity, and continue to study videotapes of funerals and public demonstrations about the children. Many are convinced the killer thrives on publicity, relishes taunting authorities; soon, he must make a mistake.

The detective scanned the crowd, "He might be here tonight," he said. "I don't know what I'm looking for, but I hope I'll know it when I see it."