People who meet him in darkened parking lots after work always want to touch his Tickle Me Elmo, but William is firm. He tells them, "You look; I hold. I'll let it giggle, then I'll put it back in the bag. You pay, then you get the bag."

When he makes his deals to sell one of the coveted Sesame Street monster dolls at 15 times its retail price, or more, William always takes along at least two friends for protection.

"These people are crazy," explained the Cumberland, Md., man who bought Elmos when you still could and has been selling them to pay overdue bills. "You figure if they want it that bad, they could shoot you for it."

Some people will do almost anything for this year's hot toy, which giggles and says, "That tickles," then begins shaking in a fit of laughter. At a Denver charity auction, an Elmo sold for $10,000 -- which made the one at this week's Goodwill Industries auction in Washington quite a bargain at $155. Elmo retails for $20 to $30, should a person actually find one on toy-store shelves.

Most people can't, of course. Well, John Gotti Jr., a reputed leader of the Gambino crime family, was photographed leaving a Toys R Us in Queens, N.Y., with an armful. But it was all on the level, according to store officials -- it had nothing to do with the $100 tips the New York Daily News reported seeing him giving clerks.

A survey yesterday of toy stores across the region turned up not a single Elmo.

A Toys R Us clerk in Virginia said that store did sell some a couple of weeks ago to rain-check holders -- a fact confirmed by Rob Smythe, who got two that way.

He offered in a classified ad to trade each one for two Redskins tickets -- and made an immediate deal.

Psychiatrists are having a field day with this obsession: It's about lost childhoods, or parental guilt, or the lemming effect or consumerism gone amok.

But there is lots in the Elmo story that speaks of human decency and kindness, of entrepreneurship, of familial love, of generosity.

Take William for example -- he bought the first Tickle Me Elmo for his nephew. Of course when someone offered him $150, he took it. But he used some of the proceeds for alternative nephew gifts. The rest went for more Elmos he scrounged from local stores.

"When I saw opportunity knocking, I ran for it," he said. William prefers not to have his full name used because he's worried about the IRS, and concerned that the store where he is a clerk may think, mistakenly, that he's reselling dolls from work.

His Elmo sales may look like drug deals going down, but it's helping him recover financially from a car accident. And he gives discounts to local folks, although people responding to his Washington Post ad are charged $450 and up. If they're willing to drive from Washington to Western Maryland, they must really want it, he figures.

A man who identifies himself only as "George" is advertising his Elmo for $900 -- but there's a humanitarian reason. "I wouldn't want to sell it for $150 to some poor person who had to scrape up the money," he explained. "I figure only a rich person would fork out $900."

And then there is the Virginia woman who sold her daughter's Elmo for $350 so the little girl could visit her sick father in California, the woman said in a telephone interview after asking that her name not be used.

And how about those charity auctions?

Thursday, two Elmos were auctioned at the Goodwill Thrift Store in Northeast Washington. A business that chooses to remain anonymous actually donated three, but one doesn't shake or giggle. He just shudders slightly and emits a high-pitched moan.

A perfect one does exactly as intended, but the third donated Elmo doesn't shake as hard as it probably should. "I think it's actually better," said Goodwill spokeswoman Donna Anderson. "The perfect one is a little bit scary."

Nurse Barbara Meadows brought $150 in cash, hoping to buy Elmo for a sick child at Children's Hospital. She got beat out by a D.C. police officer, who bid $5 more.

Officer Lonnie Millard hadn't even been looking for an Elmo, but he thought it was cute. His granddaughter never asked for one, Millard said, "but she's going to get it anyway."

Oh, the rage that must inspire parents who vainly have spent days seeking Elmo and are sick of even thinking about him. But there are charity auctions for Elmo-haters, too.

Thursday, in fact, WHFS radio was auctioning a Tickle Me Elmo with the understanding that the winner will run over it with a steamroller in the station parking lot Monday morning. Bidding was up to $750 within hours. And in Detroit last week, disc jockeys auctioned one Elmo for charity and rammed another through a wood chipper.

There have been more than 500 products based on the character Elmo (who is animated on television by Catonsville, Md., puppeteer Kevin Clash), but none of them took off until the tickle version appeared this year. Incidentally, the second Elmo at Goodwill went to Ruth Hamilton, of Crofton, a regular Goodwill shopper and postal clerk. She will give it to her 10-year-old granddaughter, Ashley. Her $140 bid is about a day's salary, she said.

To be truthful, she hadn't really wanted an Elmo doll before yesterday. "I did it for the thrill," she said. "To go home and look at their faces."

Whether for kicks or to please a child, William the entrepreneur just doesn't get it. But what if he had a child, and the child begged?

"I'd tell him, Look, Santa is exhausted and you're not getting one.' "

His friends, he said, accuse him of being mean, of stealing kids' Christmases by charging outrageous prices. He defends himself. "If people want to pay this kind of money for a $24 animal, I'm sorry, but they get what they deserve." CAPTION: These Tickle Me Elmos fetched $295 for Goodwill Industries.