The nightmare goes like this.

You walk out of your hotel (any pricey one will do) on the night of the inauguration. Your candidate has won and been sworn in, your designer outfit is as perfect as they come, your date is glittering at your side, you're on your way to watch Sinatra and Wayne Newton sing their songs for you at the inauguration gala.

And then you try to hail a cab. The humiliation, the frustration, the ruined inaugural weekend begins.

"A limousine is almost a necessity for something like this," says Jon Goldberg, general manager of Dav-El Livery Inc., a Washington limousine rental company.

"Where are you going to park when you go to the Convention Center and 18,000 other people are there to see the Beach Boys? With a limousine, you don't have to worry if you're a man of 200 pounds -- with that weight four beers classifies you as drunk -- and you get drunk. Now you don't have to drive. If it's inclement weather, your wife's fur coat -- you can leave it in the car and know it won't be ripped off."

Peace of mind, that's all an inauguration fan wants, and peace of mind is as close as your nearest limousine service. One limo expert estimates that the 1,200-strong Washington fleet of chauffeured cars for hire will expand to more than 3,000 during the third weekend in January. Companies are hiring out-of-town drivers, renting minibuses ("they're comfortable and plush -- they're not just a van," says one owner) and subcontracting orders. They're even leasing extra sedans, though it's illegal to rent out an unlicensed car for paid chauffeur driving.

It's illegal, but they'll be doing it anyway.

"It's unenforceable," says Robert O.D. Thompson, administrator for Transportation Systems in the D.C. Department of Public Works, about the requirement that limousines have special license plates.

And during what Goldberg calls "the Super Bowl of limousines," if a law can't be enforced, it will be ignored.

Some companies have been fully booked for months. Those experienced in the rites of inaugurations started reserving their limos (prepaid, of course) last summer, several months before the election decided just whose inaugural they would be celebrating.

"Both parties," explains Goldberg. "The Democrats were very optimistic. They canceled. When I took a booking in August, I asked, 'Is this regardless of who wins?' "

Of course, peace of mind doesn't come cheap.

"It's not really as high a price thing as people think," says Eugene Kane, chairman of International Limousine Service Inc., who will almost double his fleet of 27 cars for the weekend, but the four-day minimum limo rentals that many companies demand on inauguration weekend can cost $500 or more a day.

But for that price, you get the car waiting patient and warm outside the Convention Center, the optional back-seat bars, cellular phones and video recorders, the white gloves and calming voice of a trained chauffeur. But, according to some limo experts, it's the convenience, not the toys or the supposed clout of that expanse of shiny black metal, that makes the cars so appealing to Washingtonians and inauguration visitors.

"In New York, you must have 1,500, 2,000 stretches," says George Coupe, owner of Admiral Limousine Service, referring to limousines that have been lengthened to accommodate the truly long legged and large egoed. "They add the power. They put in the bar, the TV. But here, people don't want that. They want the reliability. You won't find 1 percent who want the power and the class."

So the other 99 percent will be, if they're lucky, savoring the reliability come the 18th. Of course, there are those, as there always are, who didn't plan ahead.

"We have some big-time corporate CEOs, their assistants are calling, 'Jon, can you get me into the Ritz? He didn't decide to go until yesterday,' " says Goldberg, who will expand his fleet from 15 cars to 62 for the weekend. "Most of these hotels have kept a few rooms in their back pockets, just as I have kept a few limousines in my back pocket for my special customers. But now I only have sedans, not limousines, left."

Coupe, who ran 400 cars during the 1980 inaugural and expects to rent more this year, is still taking orders but can't offer anything better than a chauffeur-driven Lincoln sedan at $30 an hour.

"If you want a limousine, the only thing I can do is get you a driver from out of town," says Coupe.

And having an out-of-town driver, in the limo business, is the equivalent of wearing that practical, but boring, old black dress to an inaugural ball. Those who know just don't do it.