The strange saga of what did or did not happen to L.J. Davis has become one of the mysterious undercurrents of Whitewater, another spicy ingredient in the elixir being stirred by conservative conspiracy theorists.

It's been two months since the freelance writer says he was rendered unconscious for four hours in a Little Rock hotel room while investigating the finances of Bill and Hillary Clinton. The clear implication was that he had been conked on the head, an impression fostered by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which trumpeted the incident, and picked up by conservative talkmeisters across America.

Except that Davis now says he has no idea whether he was attacked. And yes, he had downed several martinis just before the Alleged Incident. But no, he did not spend the evening on a barstool at the Legacy Hotel, as the bartender now insists.

"This has taken on a totally undeserved life of its own," says Davis, 53. "I've deliberately gone on a couple of far-right-wing radio programs to say that this thing was just absolutely out of hand, to contradict the notion that I had been mugged. ... My name is being blackened as my bar bill is closely scrutinized."

As the Whitewater media hounds have sniffed their way down increasingly strange trails, the Arkansas air has grown thick with rumors and innuendo. Odd events have been linked to Whitewater by the thinnest of evidentiary threads. The suicide of White House aide Vincent Foster brought forth a torrent of media speculation, including an uncorroborated newsletter report that Foster killed himself in a secret Virginia apartment owned by administration officials and that the body was moved to Fort Marcy Park.

In this supercharged atmosphere, L.J. Davis's story virtually guaranteed that he would become fodder for the Whitewater press pack.

Writing in the New York Post, media consultant Deroy Murdock said the Davis incident "seems to be part of an alarming, largely unexplored pattern of violence and intimidation that apparently has ensnared individuals associated with the Clintons, their former business partners and reporters covering these matters."

Talk show host Rush Limbaugh quickly picked up Murdock's theme, telling his radio audience that "journalists and others working on or involved in Whitewatergate have been mysteriously beaten and harassed in Little Rock; some have died."

Limbaugh recited the litany: The Feb. 14 Davis episode. Three break-ins at the American Spectator while the magazine was working on its "Troopergate" story. A fire on the 14th floor of Little Rock's Worthen Bank, which lent money to the Clinton presidential campaign. Vince Foster's "still-mysterious death." The shooting death of Luther Parks, whose Arkansas company provided security for the Clinton campaign. A plane crash that killed an Arkansas lawyer who was a member of Clinton's campaign finance committee. "All this adds up to, of course, is nothing concrete or substantive," Limbaugh allowed, but "there are all kinds of rumors that have popped up in association with some of these occurrences."

Davis, a contributing editor of Harper's magazine, went to Little Rock on assignment for the New Republic. He wrote a nine-page cover story, "The Poisoned Rose," spinning a tangled web of connections among the Rose Law Firm, the Clintons, Vince Foster, Webb Hubbell, financier Jack Stephens, convicted cocaine user Dan Lasater, BCCI, "sinister" Pakistanis, "shadowy" Indonesians, the Worthen Bank and the Arkansas Development Finance Authority.

Arkansas writers Gene Lyons and Ernest Dumas later denounced the piece as a "journalistic hoax" and "downright delusional in the psychiatric sense." Davis says his challenge was to write about incestuous Arkansas power brokers "without sounding like you went off the scanner."

"L.J. is undoubtedly a character," says New Republic Editor Andrew Sullivan. "He seems a journalist of the old school: He runs around, ferrets out business documents. He has a way of spinning a yarn."

But the New Republic piece said nothing about Davis's strange experience in Room 502 of the Legacy Hotel. "It's totally irrelevant," Davis says. "Even mentioning it would have sensationalized the story."

Davis discussed the incident with a couple of friends, including one at the New York Times, and word reached the conservative opinion factory at the Wall Street Journal. Editorial writer Paul Gigot, a regular commentator on "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," called Davis and interviewed him about the matter. Fellow editorial writer John Fund continued the interview in a second call.

On March 23, declaring that publications should be "willing to report what they learn even at the risk that now and then some of it may be overtaken by other facts," a Journal editorial disclosed what Davis had "modestly omitted" from his article.

Davis was returning to his hotel room about 6:30 p.m., "and the next thing he remembers is waking up face down on the floor, with his arm twisted under his body and a big lump on his head above his left ear. The room door was shut and locked. Nothing was missing except four 'significant' pages of his notebook that included a list of his sources in Little Rock. He didn't file a police report, saying he wanted to get out of town and wasn't sure what had happened to him."

Arkansas, the editorial observed, "seems to be a congenitally violent place."

Fund had called Davis's doctor, who said his patient had been struck with a blunt object and that the injury was inconsistent with a fall. A robbery attempt seemed unlikely, since Davis's watch and wallet were untouched.

Fund also checked out Davis's reputation. "He is considered eccentric, but not someone prone to a vivid imagination," Fund says. "Colorful, but careful and prudent."

Davis himself fueled the darker speculation with some comments to columnist Murdock. He spoke of being warned by someone in a high government office in Washington: "You've gotten into a red zone. ... Get out of there as fast as possible."

After sending part of his story to the New Republic by computer modem, Davis says, he received an anonymous call: "What you're doing makes Lawrence Walsh look like a rank amateur. Seems to me you've gotten your bell rung too many times." Davis wondered whether someone had been reading his computer transmission. A Twilight Zone plot was emerging.

He later recalled a weird elevator conversation with a cleaning woman at the hotel. "What do you think is happening if somebody is asking me to do something that is against hotel regulations?" she asked.

Before long, conflicting accounts surfaced. John Aulgur, manager of the Legacy Hotel, says: "We have records that he was down here {at the hotel bar} at 10:30 that night," or at the end of the four-hour period in which Davis says he was unconscious. "There is something odd about the story."

Van Alexander Jr., a bartender at the hotel, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that Davis was at the bar throughout the evening. He said Davis ordered a cheeseburger, french fries and four to six martinis made of straight gin. "If he had asked for another one, he wouldn't have gotten it, because I would have felt like he had too many," Alexander said.

Davis says he recalls having four martinis, "which is no more than I drank on any other night in Little Rock."

In recent interviews, Davis has tried to play down the episode, expressing puzzlement that anyone would think anything untoward happened. "I certainly wasn't about to conclude that somebody cracked me on the head. ... I simply do not know," he says. A moment later he says: "Now I'm beginning to doubt my own perceptions."

Davis says the Journal erred when it reported that four pages of his notebook were missing; they were only ripped. "I could have torn those pages myself when I stuck the notebook back in my shoulder bag," he says.

The writer says he asked Fund "to print a correction about the missing pages and being conked on the head." Fund says they only had an "offhand" conversation and Davis has made no formal request.

"I admit to being somewhat confused, but I do believe something happened to him," Fund says. "I have to tell you, strange things do happen down there."

Meanwhile, the Davis saga touched off a tiff at the generally pro-Clinton New Republic. Columnist Michael Kinsley chided his own magazine in print for publishing the Davis article and for not sharing the "bizarre" hotel episode with its readers.

"My feeling is, if it happened, it's very important, and if it didn't happen, it calls his whole credibility into question," Kinsley says.

But Sullivan says he didn't want to detract from Davis's provocative piece. "We never hyped this up at all," he says. "Our view is we don't know what this is, the important thing is the story. A lot of the crazies out there are more interested in this than anything else. It's a shame. ... We've had a deluge of calls about this bump on the head. It's as if we've entered the Whitewater loopiness."

After the New Republic took a poke at "right-wing journalists who have seized on the incident for their own political agenda," the Journal editorialists returned fire, dissing the magazine as "a place full of precocious talent badly in need of adult supervision."

One last mystery remains to be unraveled. On March 22, Fund, Robert Bartley and two other Journal editorialists appeared on "The Charlie Rose Show" to talk about Whitewater and L.J. Davis. But the public television station in Little Rock didn't air the program. A two-year-old "Frontline" episode on the Kennedy assassination somehow materialized in its 11 p.m. time slot.

Coincidence? Fund isn't so sure. But Alan Weatherly, deputy director of the Arkansas Educational Television Network, says with a chuckle that the decision to bump the Rose program had been made a month earlier because of a fund-raising drive.

"JFK assassination-type things are always interesting to people," Weatherly says. "We didn't know what was going to be on 'Charlie Rose.' There wasn't anything nefarious about it."

Staff writer Howard Schneider contributed to this report.