In this third mystery in the Quillen trilogy by J. E. Gentry, San Francisco PD detective Travis solicits the opinion of his friend Clara Quillen because she is a movie buff and might have some insight into a murder in a historic movie theater during a classic film. At the time, neither of them has any idea that it was only the first such murder, but it soon becomes clear that San Francisco is confronted with a serial killer. Attempting to enter the mind of the diabolical murderer, Quillen and Travis aim all their forces toward stopping the killing, which escalates on the road to mass murder. Meanwhile, she makes major decisions about her personal life, and finally everything comes together after she comes face to face with the most fiendish person she has ever encountered. The fiction of this story is uncomfortably close to the facts of what is happening virtually every day in America.


Commencement of a Killer

I’ll just ease out by the side door, and nobody will even notice. With my driving gloves on, there won’t be any fingerprints either. Only a minute ago, I was terrified that somebody might realize it was me and knock me down and grab my gun. But people are such fools. As soon as the shots rang out, they all started screaming and running every which way. They’ll all be focused on the guy I shot or trying to figure how to get out of the line of fire. Their panic is my protection.

Honestly, kids in those school shootings have more sense. At least they know to hunker down and be quiet. Maybe it’s because schools have drills, but still, screaming and running is a pretty stupid way to react to gunshots.

I was a little worried at first, though. The guy surprised me by getting up to leave before the movie was completely over. I was still looking at the final scene where the theme music is playing while the woman walks down the road between the trees. I really had planned to wait until the end and shoot a couple of people when the movie was over, but he made himself such a good target coming up the aisle. So, when I shot him he was moving, and he must’ve been pretty tough because he kept staggering toward the back of the theater. I don’t think he’ll survive, though, because I still got in three good shots and that should do it.

Now I’m in control. As soon as I fired, I calmly put the gun in my pocket. So even if somebody looked for a shooter, they wouldn’t even notice me. I know I don’t look like a killer, and now all I have to do is slip away. It hardly takes any time to get out the side door, and by the time the cops and medics get here, I’ll already be on my way home. I know I’ll be safe there.

This is only the first one, of course, and now I can make my plans for more. It was an even bigger thrill than I thought it would be. Killing bugs and birds and small animals gave me my first little thrills. People’s pets were a bigger kick. Then for a long time I had to satisfy myself by just thinking what it would be like to kill a human being.

But today I turned twenty-one. I used to think I’d start satisfying my passion when I turned eighteen, officially an adult, even though there was an advantage to start the killing while I was still a juvenile. A lot of kids literally get away with murder even if they’re caught. Then I decided it was better just to completely get away with murder. I spent a long time thinking about how to do the first one so I could keep on killing. Now that I’m twenty-one, I’ll be able get some big guns after I make the most of this little one. I’ll have a whole new freedom.

My first real taste of freedom came when I turned eighteen and got my first Beamer for my birthday. After that, I never had to borrow Mother’s clumsy Cadillac again. I’ve had a new Beamer every birthday since then, and now I’m totally bored with them, but this is the last time I’ll have to drive one. Mother will have my birthday dinner waiting for me. My favorite—lobster and champagne. It will be just the three of us, with our obsequious Grenville serving us the cook’s killer cuisine. After dinner I’ll get my big present, the keys to my beautiful black Porsche.

Now that I know how easy it is to do this, I can bide my time to plan the next ones, just the way I want them to be.

The Third Man

San Francisco fog does not come in on little cat feet. It comes in like a lumbering Galápagos tortoise, galumphing into the bay and forging its sluggish course onward through the city until the sun decides to make its tentative appearance. Like many in the City by the Bay, Clara Quillen loved the fog even at the same time she longed for a glimpse of the elusive sun.

The Anthony Benedetto (better known as Tony Bennett) rendition of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was not the specific source of Clara’s love for her favorite fog city—but it did not hurt. She had no idea when she had first heard the song, but ever since she had arrived in the Bay Area, she knew that her heart would always belong in San Francisco. After all, she had given it away three times, and maybe, if she was really lucky, this third time would be the charm.

It was the middle of March, 2018, it was a Tuesday morning, and it promised to be a splendid day. The weather forecast predicted that the fickle fog was expected to burn off by noon. Clara had awakened with her preferred alarm clock, the aroma of fresh coffee that she would drink even before she got out of bed. She habitually programmed her single cup coffee maker to brew a cup a little before seven. That way she could check the day’s headlines online, turn on one of the morning news television programs, and then peruse the San Francisco Chronicle with a strong jolt of caffeine.

She was not sure if it was the caffeine, the flavor, or the aroma of the coffee that was most enticing, but the combination made the all too often dismal news more palatable.

It was not that she really wanted to see all that much news, especially with the constant barrage of negative tweets and scandals that seemed to have become more and more prevalent every day. It was just that she felt obligated to know what was happening in the world. She had been at an impressionable age when her favorite teacher in the sixth grade had often posed the question, “How can you be a good citizen if you don’t know what’s going on in the world?”

So, she had begun her path toward becoming a news junkie. Maybe not quite an obsession, even though it felt that way at times.

The news that drew her in today was not international or even national, but local, on the first page of the Bay Area section of the Chronicle. She read about an apparent homicide that had occurred in a local art house movie theater yesterday afternoon. The article started off with “The strains of ‘The Third Man Theme’ could still be heard as a bloodied man staggered up the aisle of the Roxie Theater in the Mission District and collapsed. He was pronounced dead from three gunshot wounds to the chest shortly after being rushed to San Francisco General Hospital.”

The victim was identified as Kevin Sullivan, an otherwise unknown Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and the story went on with somewhat skimpy details about the shooting.

This time she was almost expecting a call from her now close friend SFPD Detective Roy Travis. She was not surprised when he said, “Hi, Clara. Want to go to a movie?”

“I wondered if you’d get this one, Travis. I haven’t talked with you much lately about what you’ve been working on. This one unfortunately has that all too familiar ring of a shooting in a public place.  At least it was only one guy who got shot this time.”

“Maybe so, these shootings are getting pretty predictable, but there doesn’t seem to be any way they would be preventable. At least not till they start putting metal detectors in movie theaters.”

“Is this another one with some kind of powerful automatic weapon?”

“No, surprisingly, this one is not typical at all. The weapon was a .22.”

“You know I don’t know much about guns, but isn’t that an unusual choice for a murder weapon?”

“Yeah, you’d think so. It’s generally considered a little gun without much fire power, used more for personal defense than for anything else, and it’s questionable even for that purpose. We don’t see it a lot as a murder weapon except once in a while in a domestic dispute. But in this case, there were three shots to the chest, which was lethal even for a small gun.”

“Were the news reports correct that the shots were fired as the victim was walking toward the exit?”

“It looks that way at this point. We don’t know exactly where the shooter was, but he had to be positioned to shoot at the man walking up the aisle at fairly close range.”

“Are you sure it was a man?”

“Well, it could just as easily have been a woman, but I usually say ‘he’ just for convenience. And of course, we know statistically there are way more male killers than female.”

“Didn’t anybody see the shooter?”

“Apparently not. Whoever it was must’ve gotten away clean, because we found no trace of the weapon on anybody, and no gun residue on the hands of anyone who was still in the theater when we questioned them.”

“Well, whoever it was, it certainly gives me the creeps. You know Greg and I went to see that same movie at the Roxie just a couple of days ago.”

“Of course, that’s actually the reason I wanted to pick your brain about it. Since you’re a classic movie buff, I thought maybe you could shed some light on this sort of artsy movie. It’s a long shot, but maybe there’s some connection between the movie and the shooting.”

“Sorry, Travis, but I don’t have any special insight. I can’t imagine how this film could have anything in particular to do with a homicide.”

“Well, I guess I was grasping at straws. I can’t say I exactly expected you to come up with an obvious perp out of pure celluloid.”

“Is that so different from coming up with something out of thin air, the way you wanted me to in the first two cases?”

“You got me there, kid. But we solved those, didn’t we?”

“More or less, I suppose, but it’s sort of questionable how much of it was actual detective work on my part.”

Clara had made her initial foray into crime solving when she first met Detective Travis only because she had been a lawyer who had worked for one of the victims and had access to confidential client information. In the second case, she had gone to the same law school as the victim. This time she was not aware of any connection at all, except for the apparently insignificant coincidence that she had seen the same movie.

“Yeah, I admit it’s not very likely the movie had anything to do with the murder, but I still plan to watch it in case that sheds any light on it.”

“You can watch my copy if you like. I happen to have it on Blu-ray Disc.”

“If you have it on Blu-ray, why did you go see the movie in the theater?”

“You’d probably have to be a classic movie fan to understand, Travis. It’s just different when you’re watching bigger than life characters on a screen in a landmark movie theater.”

“Okay, but I’d still like to borrow your disc. Can I come by and pick it up?”

“Better yet, why don’t you and Jo Anne come over tonight and watch it with Greg and me. We were planning to watch something else with popcorn, but I know he wouldn’t mind a seeing The Third Man again. And you can fill us in on whatever else you know about the Roxie shooting when you get here.”

“I’m sure Jo Anne would love that. What time should we come?”

“How about sevenish?”

“Sounds good, see you then.”

Clara spent the rest of the morning working on her class prep for the Juvenile Delinquency course she would teach that afternoon at Bay Area School of Law, a small but selective school in the Glen Park area of San Francisco. After lunch she dressed in a tailored brown pant suit with a sunny yellow print silk blouse and gathered up what she would need for her class. When she checked the mirror before heading out, she was reasonably satisfied with what she saw, a well-proportioned small framed woman with fair skin and wavy auburn hair.

She did not want to remind herself that she had only about six weeks to go before she would no longer be thirty-eight. Maybe she would have to be like Jack Benny and go into a holding pattern when she turned thirty-nine.

©2020 by G. E. Gentry