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The first time I heard about the smelly hotel room in Las Vegas I thought the story sounded highly suspicious. Now that I've collected varying versions from several states, I'm sure it's a legend.

Here's the story as I heard it recently from Trisha Topham, a teaching assistant in English at the University of Utah:"Last week at my book club meeting I was half listening while two women talked about a new story they'd heard. They were saying something about a decaying corpse in a Las Vegas hotel room, when suddenly another woman shrieked and said, `My sister-in-law told me that same story, and she said it happened to her best friend.'

"The three compared stories and agreed on most of the details.

"Seems that a couple checked into a hotel room in Las Vegas and immediately noticed a terrible smell in their room. They asked housekeeping to come up and check out the problem.

"A maid came, looked around, found nothing and sprayed the room with air freshener. But the smell continued, and they had the maid come back a couple more times, but with no improvement.

"Finally the couple looked in the bed, because the smell seemed to be coming from it. They found the body of a prostitute; in one version, the body was inside the mattress, and in the other, inside the wooden platform on which the mattress was supported.

"The woman who said she knew the source of the story rushed to the phone and called her sister-in-law, demanding to know if the story was true. Of course it was true, she learned, except that it had really happened to a friend of the sister-in-law's best friend."

Topham had taken a folklore course, and she knew a FOAF (friend of a friend) story when she heard one.

Another Utah student told me much the same story, except he had heard that it was the body of a mafia hit victim that was found in the mattress.

I had first received the story in early April from Professor James Hoy of Emporia State University in Kansas. He had heard it from one of his students, with the only variations being that the tourists were two local women, and that the decomposing body was found stuffed between the mattress and box spring.

Another Midwestern version came shortly afterward from Thelma Moore Johnson of Sioux City, Iowa. She had heard from a high school librarian that a couple from their own city were the discoverers of the smelly room in Vegas. Both Moore and Hoy, incidentally, mentioned that it was supposed to be an expensive hotel where the incident happened.

The Iowans, in Moore's version, spent one night in their room, despite the terrible odor. They complained to the desk clerk when they went to breakfast, and coming back to their room after a day on the town, they found the police investigating a body that the maid had discovered under the bed.

Just the other day I got a letter from Linda Crosser of Walnut, Calif., who had heard "The Body in the Bed" story from someone in her sewing class. It supposedly had happened to some close friends of the narrator.

The basic details of this version are familiar by now: fancy hotel, bad smell, attempts to remove the smell and discovery of the body. But a new twist is that the body of a teenage girl was supposedly found under the mattress and inside a hollow section that had been cut out of the box spring.

The expensive item (a posh hotel room) with the rotten smell in this legend reminds me of the old "Death Car" story. It describes an expensive automobile, such as a Corvette, that is on sale for $500 because its upholstery still reeks with the smell of death from a person who committed suicide in it.

"The Death Car" has been around since the 1940s, with only the make, model and price of the car changing from year to year. Whatever the details, the smelly car is always a bargain, though it's one that nobody has yet been able to actually locate.

Maybe the next step in the development of "The Body in the Bed" should be saying that the high-priced Las Vegas hotel room can now be rented at a bargain rate.

If that twist actually becomes part of the legend, remember that you heard it here first.

"Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available in paperback from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to Prof. Brunvand in care of this newspaper.