The hour approaches.

The nation's clogged, inefficient death penalty machinery grinds toward a rare resolution.

The only execution that matters in the minds of millions looms from the mists of delay.

Ted Bundy, an unforgettable killer amid the forgotten human wreckage of America's swollen Death Row, waits stoically on his petition to the Supreme Court of the United States. Word from the court should come early next year.

True, no death penalty appeal in today's America is final until the hooded executioner trips the switch. The fine points of the law of capital punishment are constantly shifting.

Now, though, legal experts are saying what they have never said before: that the time is close, the matter has matured.

This is Bundy's last stand.

At 4:48 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15 - 10 years and 280 days after Kimberly Diane Leach disappeared from school on a rainy morning in Lake City, Florida - an exhausted lawyer delivered the 62-page petition to the clerk of the court in the District of Columbia.

Musty with tradition, the pleading began: "Petitioner Theodore Robert Bundy respectfully prays that a writ of certiorari. . . ."

The nine esteemed justices are under no obligation to consider Bundy's pleas, which have already been denied by judges in Orlando and Tallahassee, Fla., and Atlanta.

Should the court respond in a single word - "Denied" - the governor of Florida will be free to sign a death warrant - Bundy's fourth, but the first that is likely to matter.

Then the convicted killer of three, suspected killer of 36, will be left with nothing but moves of desperation, playing chess with nothing but pawns.> Bundy's slow walk toward the electric chair began July 31, 1979, when he was sentenced to die for the murders of two Florida State University women, bludgeoned in their sleep at the Chi Omega sorority house.

On Feb. 12, 1980, the former University of Utah law school student was again sentenced to die, for a Lake City, Fla., kidnap-murder.

Appeals in the two cases have crisscrossed through the courts in alternating spurts. Now the Chi Omega case is stalled; the Lake City case is advancing.

In a last, bold attempt to save himself, Bundy permitted his lawyers to make the one argument he swore he would never allow: that he is not of sound mind, and that his mental illness should have rendered him incompetent to stand trial.

It wasn't an easy decision for the arrogant Bundy. "Ted would rather die than admit to any weakness of mind," says Ann Rule, an old friend.> Or as Bundy once put it: "It really tears me apart. I don't want to lay myself out for the whole world to see."> Convinced that it was his only hope, Bundy submitted to the psychiatric analysis of Dr. Dorothy Lewis, a professor at Yale and New York University. In the most extensive examination ever of Prisoner 069063, Lewis interviewed Bundy, his friends and his family.

She produced a psychological portrait largely unknown when Bundy, now 42, stood trial nine years ago. Lewis's diagnosis: Bundy has been severely mentally ill since 1967.

Even as a toddler, Lewis discovered, Bundy's behavior was bizarre. At 3, the future murderer carried butcher knives to his aunt's bedroom.

The impressionable boy, Lewis learned, watched his violent grandfather twirl cats by the tail. Grandpa kept a cache of pornography in the greenhouse, which little Ted pored over in secret.

The doctor found other bad genes. Ted's grandma required electroshock therapy.

Added up, Lewis concluded that Theodore Robert Bundy was too disturbed to meet the legal standard for trial. His manic-depressive mood swings left him out of touch with reality.

In the words of Mike Minerva, one of the 21 lawyers who tried and failed to save the life of Ted Bundy: "I don't think he understood the significance of the evidence against him."

If that opinion could be proved, Bundy should have been locked up in a mental hospital instead of standing trial. According to the laws of the United States, society may not execute crazy people.

In theory. In fact, the line between depravity and insanity is difficult to define.

Florida prosecutors insist that Bundy never crossed that line. They contend that Bundy is diabolically manipulative. Judges have been inclined to agree.

When a federal appellate court ordered U.S. District Judge G. Kendall Sharp to assess the findings of Dr. Lewis, he did so grudgingly. Entering a courtroom in Orlando, a television reporter asked the judge if the hearing would be a waste of time.

"Absolutely," the judge replied.

Says Florida's lead attorney on the case, Assistant Attorney General Mark Menser: "This thing has been a fraud from the beginning."

"The word is that Ted will go early next year - late winter or spring," says Michael Radelet, a University of Florida sociologist and an authority on capital punishment.

The common wisdom among death penalty experts is that the Supreme Court will deny Bundy's petition, and Bob Martinez, the signer of 61 death warrants in 24 months as Florida's governor, will promptly order Bundy's death.

At that point, chances are slim the courts would intercede. Bundy's lawyers acknowledge they've already made their best arguments.> From coast to coast, the name Ted Bundy is synonymous with ruthless, unapologetic evil, and the popular response is to demand the evil be purged.

Executions are as American as the Mayflower's Pilgrim Fathers, one of whom was hanged in 1630.

Through the centuries, the nation has clamored for executions and flocked to see them. More than 20,000 people crowded into Owensboro, Ky., to see the last public execution in 1936.

Only one thing has changed: Typical executions no longer draw much attention. They have slipped into the inside pages of America's consciousness.

Bundy is the exception. His infamy assures that his execution would be the most important event for capital punishment since Utah's Gary Gilmore demanded a speedy send-off in 1977. Gilmore died in a media circus and a hail of bullets, thus ending the nation's 10-year moratorium on official killings.

Bundy's 1979 trial for the sorority house murders of Lisa Levy and Margaret Bowman was the most publicized since Charles Manson's. Live cameras in the courtroom caught it all.

Trial Judge Edward Cowart noted that Bundy had "a mystique of sorts . . . a name identification in Florida at least equal to that of Florida's most notable personages." One poll ranked the law school dropout second to the governor for name recognition.

Since then, five books and uncounted articles have nurtured the legend. NBC's made-for-television movie ran two nights of prime time. Mark Harmon - at that time People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" - played the starring role.> "I still get calls and letters from young women who want to sell their possessions and move to Florida to be near Ted," says Bundy's friend Ann Rule, author of "The Stranger Beside Me."

"I have to tell them, `You're not in love with Ted Bundy; you're in love with Mark Harmon.' "

When the day comes, a pasture across the road from the death house at Florida State Prison will bloom with the satellite dishes of television stations from Miami, the site of Bundy's most-publicized trial, to Seattle, the city where his odyssey of death began.

Limousines will be dispatched to the homes of Bundy's friends and chroniclers to ferry them to the morning news shows.

"His celebrity status means this one is going to draw an awful lot of attention," says Richard Larsen, associate editor of The Seattle Times and author of "Bundy: The Deliberate Stranger."

He stalked attractive young women, using a badge or a fake cast or just a smile to appear harmless. He bludgeoned them senseless, raped and strangled them.> In all but a few cases, that was the Bundy modus operandi.

Circumstantial evidence too compelling to ignore linked him to unsolved murders in Washington, Oregon, Utah and Colorado. Bundy once hinted to police that his toll was more than 100, probably an exaggeration - but who notices when a runaway vanishes?

Prosecutors depicted him as a deceptive genius, but in hindsight there were ample reasons to suspect something was very wrong with Ted Bundy. His savage harvest is testimony to the susceptibility of the innocent to random, methodical serial killers.> Neighbors fail to notice. Friends don't want to suspect.> Bundy once spoke of his talent for apparent normalcy. "It didn't take much effort at all."

"Walking right up to the edge" is "a thrill," but "I can't do it. I haven't allowed myself to choke."

On "several occasions," said Bundy's Aunt Julia, 3-year-old Ted collected butcher knives from the kitchen, carried them to the bedroom, lifted the covers and put them next to her. Then he "stood there" with a "glint in his eye."

A cousin of Ted's said he used to sneak with Ted into the greenhouse. There Ted, still a preschooler, studied his grandfather's large collection of pornography.

At school, Ted was a good student, not brilliant. Boisterous and prone to fights on the playground, he was shy and awkward about reading in front of the class.

Signs of his fragmented personality emerged gradually. By high school he showed - to the perfect vision of hindsight - most of the pieces that would make up the infamous killer.

There was the outward face of normalcy: Boy Scout, vice president of the Methodist Youth Fellowship.

There was the veiled contempt for authority. He began stealing the things Johnnie Bundy was too poor to buy - ski equipment, ski passes. He was caught trying to steal a car but was released with a warning.

There was the violence. Once, he came up behind another boy and hit him over the head with a stick.> At college, it all got worse. Even as he earned A's in intensive Chinese, he rifled lockers and stole from inebriated customers on the job at the local yacht club. He shoplifted nice things for his apartment - even a five-foot potted tree. He wore wigs to change his appearance.

And at night, Ted Bundy donned dark clothes and crept around the neighborhood peeping through windows at women undressing. He devoured pornography.

"Pornography is one person's pleasure, another person's vice or downfall," he once told Pensacola police detective Norman Chapman.

"It was one thing that caused him a lot of trouble," Chapman says.

In several near-confessions, Bundy revealed to psychiatrists, investigators and biographers how his fantasies crept off the page and took the shape of women around him - rich, beautiful young women, the kind who were cheerleaders and majorettes. He wanted to possess them; only a few thin strands of guilt held him back.

And then:> "I made myself the way I was," he has said. "I mean bit by bit and step by step and day by day. I don't know why. I don't know what spurred me to do it.

"There was a time, way back, when I felt deep, deep guilt about even the very thought of harming someone. And yet for some reason I had a desire to condition that out of me. And I did, day by day by day. Conditioned it out on an abstract level.

"And when it got down to actual cases, I conditioned that out of myself, too."

"Ted Bundy seems to be a perfect example of the charming, intellectual, charismatic personality that epitomizes many serial killers," Ronald Holmes and James DeBurger write in their book "Serial Murder."

People praised and rewarded the "normal" Bundy who made a splash as a Republican Party worker, impressive enough to merit a glowing law school recommendation from Washington Gov. Dan Evans.

Somehow they glossed over the thieving, the skulking, the joy he took in wearing disguises and jumping out of bushes to frighten his girlfriends.> Ann Rule worked Tuesday and Sunday nights alongside Bundy answering a suicide hot line in Seattle. Late at night, after work, he would walk her to her car and warn, "Be sure your door is locked, so nothing bad happens."

Press and prosecutors perceived him as a brilliant criminal - even though his personal gasoline credit card charges put him at the scene of a number of murders.

Colorado prosecutors put together enough clues to indict Bundy for the murder of a nurse at a ski lodge, but Bundy broke out of jail. In Glenwood Springs, shortly before his escape, he asked a lawyer which state would be most likely to execute a killer.

"Florida," came the answer.

That is where Bundy went.> He believed that he had "cured himself" of his "problem." But within days of reaching Tallahassee, the state capitol, he compulsively began shoplifting again. "It was ludicrous to risk things for a backpack full of sardines," he admitted.

He began drinking - another aspect of his "problem." On Saturday, Jan. 14, 1978, Bundy drank bourbon at Sherrod's, a bar next to the drab brick rectangle of the Chi Omega house. Patrons noticed the "weird-looking" man.

Sometime before 3 a.m. Sunday, he crept into the sorority house carrying a heavy oak branch covered with bark. He went from room to room, bludgeoning, raping and strangling. Two women died; two women survived. A bite mark on one victim's buttocks later incriminated Bundy.

Several blocks away, another woman was attacked. She barely survived.

Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, authors of "The Only Living Witness," speculate that Bundy's insanity had finally consumed him wholly. Still, the killer held himself together for another month - long enough to rape, mutilate and strangle Kimberly Leach and dump her body in a hog shed.

He was captured by a Pensacola police officer who fired twice at the fleeing fugitive.

"I wish those policeman's bullets had hit their mark as I ran blindly down the street," he later said. "I didn't want any more chances. I can't play the part."

"I screwed my life over, but still I've always wanted to be an attorney," Bundy once said. "I want to show that a guy with a year and a half of law school can stand up there and let the air out of (the prosecutor's) tires. That I can run these people ragged. That I'm not a fiend, necessarily."

When the execution hour draws near, along with the flood of reporters and cameras and satellite dishes and foes and advocates of the death penalty and assorted curiosity seekers will come a few weary detectives from places like Seattle; Corvallis, Ore.; Salt Lake City; Aspen.

They want to tie up the loose ends. "To put the families at ease," says C. Garth Beckstead, a Utah homicide investigator.> It's doubtful they will get anything.

"Sitting there in a cell," Bundy once said, "I could convince myself that I was not guilty of anything."

He spoke of confession: "Walking right up to the edge" is "a thrill," but "I can't do it. I haven't allowed myself to choke."

To Richard Larsen, Bundy biographer, that would be the final tragedy - for Bundy to die in silence. "So much could be learned from Ted if he would open up and help us understand.

"We don't learn from these people. We simply get rid of them, dispose of them, then hunch our shoulders and wait for the next one."

But maybe Bundy already explained it all.> "You gotta understand," he once said. "I'm a cold-blooded son of a bitch."