It appeared on the 15th of January, the headless torso of a female mannequin, lashed 20 feet up in the branches of a tree along a road that wound through a Gothic landscape of thorn bushes, towering oaks and mansions from another age.

There was red paint spattered on the navel, the nipples and around the neck of the white fleshtoned dummy, and there was a knfe buried in its chest.

A month later, a 70-year-old woman who lived just down the road, and who might have driven past the grisly apparition on her way into Baltimore where she taught remedial reading, was found dead by Howard County police with nine stab wounds in the neck.

In the weeks since the brutal and baffling death of Rebecca (Dolly) Davis, who was last seen alive on Feb.15, many of the 100 or so families settled in this once-fashionable summer haven 10 miles south of Baltimore have come to the appalling conclusion that the mutilated mannequin hanging in the trees along Lawyer's Hill Roadwas the macabre harbinger of a real-life murder.

"I'm a fairly rational person," said John Powers, a 29-year-old Elkridge resident who spotted the mannequin in the trees on his way to work on Jan. 15. "Tell me I'm crazy. Tell me I'm blowing it all out of proportion. I've seen it, and it was depicting somebody having been murdered."

A month and a half after what has come to be called "the mannequin murder" by many, fear and paranoia are nealrly palpable along Lawyer's Hill Road, where Rebecca Davis lived for 20 yearsin a white, four-bedroom house that her father built from field stone and wood in 1914.

Some residents greet detectives with a shotgun under their arm. Some do not even answer the door. Husbands phone home to check. Two reporters walking around were stopped by police after a resident saw their unfamiliar car parked along the road.

"Listen, chum, you better get out of here," snapped one Elkridge man. "This place is all twisted up like a bull's tail."

Police in Howard County, where homocides average one a year, have not been able to crack the case despite the efforts of 10 detectives. They have even considered bringing in a psychic for help. Equally baffling has been what connection, if any, the mannequin has to the slaying.

On March 15, after nearly a month ofscratching for clues, the legs of three more mannequins turned up in the woods less than a mile from the murder site. They were dusted for fingerprints and held as possible evidence, along with the upper torso that had been removed the same day it was seen in January, only to be spotted in a different place in a few days after Davis' body was found.

Last fall, Maryland marine police found a mannequin with a knife in the back about five miles down river from Elkridge at Bodkin Creek. The knife was tested then for fingerprints, but none was found.

"There's no proven correlation between the mannequins and the homicide," said Howard County police spokesman Randolph Roby. "You have a homicide which is bizarre. And the mannequins, which are bizarre. They're apples and oranges . . . but they're both fruit."

But in the minds of many Elkridge residents there is no doubt that the killing is somehow related to the mannequins.

"People are so paranoid around here that they think mannequins are falling out of the sky," Roby said.

"The police have been trying to eliminate the mannequins. They've been trying to say its a strange, freaky coincidence, but they can't," said Powers. t"If I came home and saw a mannequin on my front porch, I wouldn't go inside. I'd hightail it to the police.I've woken up in the middle of the night. You hear anything in this neighborhood, you wake up."

"It's strange," said Maureen O'Connell, who lives across the street from the Davis house on Lawyer's Hill Road. "They look so harmless in the store windows."

Rebecca Davis, who was called Dollyby her friends, was by many accounts a selfless, saintly woman had come back to take care for her mother at the family home at 6176 Lawyer's Hill Rd., a graceful old home with polished oak door knobs and high shelves of china.

She had been educated at Bryn Mawr and other schools. She was well read, played the piano, and loved to talk about art and literature. She had been a portrait painter in Baltimore but had given it up to pursue a religious education.

In Elkridge, the freckled, sprightly woman had been active in church affairs at Grace Episcopal Church, and she drove regularly to Baltimore in her green Vega to tutor children at P.S. 160 in Cherry Hill, Baltimore's violence-prone southside ghetto.

It was on her way back from Cherry Hill on the evening of Feb. 15 that she drove up Lawyer's Hill Road, swung into the circular gravel driveway and parked her car by a bed of daffodilss for the last time. She was never seen alive again.

Twenty-year-old Andy Libertine grewup next door to Dolly Davis. She was "like a mother" to him, sometimes reading to him and his brothers. The woman's kindness was known around the neighborhood. She had hosted parties for newcomers to get them aquainted withtheir neighbors.

On the morning of Feb. 22, the womanwho came to clean the Davis house called Libertine and said things didn'tlook right. Libertine sent his brother next door to have a look around.Dolly hadn't been seen in a few days. When his brother came back and said he'd found one of her shoes in the back yard, Libertine called the police.

They found the 70-year-old woman in her work dress, partially buried in the very back of her yard beside a chain-link fence covered with honey-suckle that walled off I-95. She had been lying for six days, 100 feet from the thousands of cars traveling the highway that many Lawyer's Hill Road residents hated for the change it had wreaked on their pastoral neighborhood.

The woman had been brutally stabbed with a short knife, like a pocket-knife, in the front and back of the neck. Small cuts on her hands showed she had made some attempt to defend herself. The medical examiners have not yet determined whether she was sexually assaulted.

Three days later police found the first mannequin.

As the case dragged on with no arrests, and more mannequin parts appeared -- apparently unconnected with the murders -- residents grew increasingly alarmed. Andy Libertine spent $30 on bullets, sharpening his marksmanship with his .38-caliber pistol.

More than 150 people turned out for ameeting at a local church to find out what police were doing. The victim's family posted a $5,000 reward for information leading to he arrest of the person who killed Dolly Davis.

County police set up a road block two weeks after the body was discovered, and according to one resident, netted "adrunk, a dope addict and a man without any pants on."

Speculation was rampant among the residents of the Lawyer's Hill Road area as the specter of the mannequins preyed on their minds.

"Everybody was talking about it," said one neighbor. "We noticed that something had happened on the 15th of every month.It's still tight around here. A lot of people would blow your head off if you were walking around, and it's a month and a half after the murder."

But deeper than the fear, for many, is the sadness for a good friend killed for no reason.

"Dolly wasn't ever scared," said Birgit Davis, wife of the slain woman's nephew, James B. Davis. "She trusted in good. She had some inner light."