The safecracker instructed reporter Michael Drosnin to go to a certain massage parlor and ask for "Honey." When Drosnin arrived, Honey led him through a beaded curtain to a back room and told him to strip. She searched his clothing for weapons and wiretaps and then allowed him to dress. She took him to an unoccupied apartment and left him alone there. A hour went by and nobody appeared. Stretching out on a couch, Drosnin discovered a gun wedged between the cushions. More time went by. Finally the safecracker arrived. He drove Drosnin to one motel room, then to another. Finally, he produced what Drosnin was seeking—three steamer trunks containing secret papers of legendary billionaire Howard Hughes. "He just opened the trunks like it was nothing," Drosnin recalls. "Two were crammed with white typewritten papers that were messages sent to Hughes. The third was [full of] these yellow legal pad pages, virtually everything Howard Hughes ever risked putting down in writing. It was his 'in' box and his 'out' box, a complete documentary record of his dealings with the world."

The safecracker, employed by others he won't name and whose motives remain layered in mystery, had stolen those papers from Hughes' Hollywood headquarters on June 5, 1974. He gave key documents to Drosnin in 1977 and allowed him to copy the remaining papers. Since then Drosnin has been hiding under an assumed name in a Manhattan loft, researching and writing a book based on the documents—Citizen Hughes, which will be published this week by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. The book gives added credence to earlier reports of the gothic eccentricities of Hughes' Las Vegas years, from 1966 to 1970, including stories that he lived in squalid darkness as a mad, drug-addicted Croesus in the penthouse of the Desert Inn. But it also alleges that Hughes attempted to control the political environment of the U.S. through a massive campaign of governmental corruption that Drosnin believes ultimately led to Watergate. Among the politicians the book claims Hughes tried to influence were Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, former Democratic Party Chairman Lawrence O'Brien and Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, a close friend of President Reagan. "It is the story," says Drosnin, "of how one of the richest and most powerful men in history locked himself into a little room in absolute seclusion and tried to buy the government of the United States—and instead helped bring it down."

Hold it. Wait a minute. After Clifford Irving's faked Hughes autobiography, after the Hitler diaries hoax, will anybody believe that these documents are real? Ordway Hilton believes it. Hilton, the expert hired by the Hughes organization to prove Clifford Irving wrong, examined 12 different samples of Drosnin's documents in 1977. "There is absolutely no question that Howard Hughes wrote them," he says. Another expert, John J. Harris, the man who debunked Melvin Dummar's faked Howard Hughes will, also examined about 100 of the papers in 1984. "In my opinion, all of the documents I examined were written by Howard Hughes," he says. Furthermore, Robert Maheu—the powerful former Hughes aide who received most of these memos back in the late 1960s—also vouches for their authenticity. "They appear to be real to me," he says.

Sprawled across a mattress on the bare floor of the spartan SoHo loft where he wrote the book, Michael Drosnin removes two pages of yellow legal paper from a manila envelope. "These two pieces of paper started Watergate," he says. On the paper is a memo scrawled by Hughes in June 1968, only minutes after watching a televised announcement that Bobby Kennedy had just died. Hughes wasted no time mourning; he immediately began scheming. "I hate to be quick on the draw, but I see here an opportunity that may not happen again in a life-time," he wrote to Maheu. "I don't aspire to be President, but I do want political strength...." Hughes ordered Maheu to hire the skilled Kennedy political staff. He coveted their political clout. It would, he believed, not only end his antitrust problems with the federal government but it might also be "the kind of a set up that, if we wanted to, could put Gov. Laxalt in the White House in 1972 or 76."

Howard Hughes liked Paul Laxalt. According to Drosnin, Hughes had never met him, but in 1970 had paid Laxalt's family law firm at least $180,000 (a $10,000 monthly retainer and at least $60,000 in fees) while Laxalt was Nevada's governor (1967-1970). Later, in 1971, when Laxalt left the statehouse, Hughes would pay Laxalt himself another $72,000 in legal fees, claims Drosnin. According to the book, Laxalt had been helpful to Hughes in gaining control of seven major casinos and in 1968 had tried to persuade U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark to drop a federal antitrust probe of Hughes' gambling empire. The Hughes documents also suggest that Laxalt helped kill a state civil rights bill at the urging of Hughes, who was a blatant racist, says Drosnin. In a written statement about the charges, Sen. Laxalt says, "We cooperated fully—and within the law—in allowing the Hughes organization into the gaming business. If we had to do it all over again, under the same circumstances, the same policies toward him would be followed. In my book Howard Hughes was a fine person for Nevada."

But Hughes had another phobia that even the Governor of Nevada could not alleviate: He was absolutely terrified by the nuclear weapons tests that took place only 100 miles from his penthouse hideaway. In 1968 Hughes had written to President Johnson, asking him to halt the tests, but Johnson had refused.

Hughes vowed that he would pick a pliable President. "I am determined to elect a President of our choosing this year," he wrote in one 1968 memo, "and one who will be deeply indebted and who will recognize his indebtedness." To that end Hughes donated $100,000 to Hubert Humphrey's campaign and promised (and later delivered) $100,000 to Richard Nixon, which, Drosnin says, eventually found its way to Bebe Rebozo's safe deposit box. He also gave $25,000 to Robert Kennedy. After Kennedy's assassination, Hughes wrote the memo ordering Maheu to hire Kennedy's staff. Maheu tried to hire campaign manager Larry O'Brien as a Hughes employee. O'Brien declined but later agreed to become a consultant to Hughes Enterprises at $15,000 per month.

Nixon was elected in 1968, and Drosnin claims his Administration allowed Hughes to continue to expand his Las Vegas holdings without fear of antitrust problems. Nixon, however, did not stop nuclear bomb testing in Nevada, which angered Hughes so much that he left the U.S. for the Bahamas in 1970 and, except for one brief visit, stayed away until the day he died, April 5, 1976. But the legacy of Hughes' manipulation, Drosnin contends, remained to haunt Nixon. The central thesis of Drosnin's book is that Nixon feared what Larry O'Brien might know about the $100,000 payment from Hughes and that he wanted countervailing evidence of O'Brien's own indebtedness to the billionaire. Drosnin believes Nixon's need for such information led to the 1972 burglary of O'Brien's office at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate.

Needless to say, not everyone involved in these matters agrees with Drosnin's thesis. Larry O'Brien says, "My association with Hughes Enterprises extended over a 15-month period from November 1969 to February 1971. [That] association was publicly announced. At no time did I, nor was I asked to, do anything on behalf of Hughes Enterprises that I considered to be improper or unethical. It is my sincere belief that there is absolutely no connection between my work for Hughes Enterprises and the Watergate break-in." Repeated telephone requests to former President Nixon for comment went unanswered. Robert Maheu, now a Las Vegas business consultant, claims that while Drosnin's documents are authentic, they are not necessarily true. "Large portions of the documents were never acted upon," he says. "I'd simply ignore them. I'd give him the impression that I was carrying out his orders, but I was not."

Drosnin is quick to claim that "Maheu has himself said, both in interviews with me and in sworn testimony, that he did in fact do many of the things he told Hughes he did." He immediately rattles off citations of documents from the Atomic Energy Commission and the Justice Department. For seven years Drosnin, now 37, has stuffed himself with information about Howard Hughes and now, as he defends his book, his knowledge tends to tumble out in a cascade of words.

When he started this investigation, back in 1976, Drosnin didn't know what he was getting into. A former reporter for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, Drosnin thought he was just writing a free-lance article on the still-unsolved Hughes' headquarters break-in for the now defunct New Times magazine. While researching the piece, Drosnin tracked down the safecracker and won his confidence. The safecracker wanted the documents made public, and Drosnin says he convinced him that they should be used as the basis for a book. The safecracker's agreement changed Drosnin's life. Seeking to avoid other people (the FBI, the CIA, Hughes operatives) who might want the documents, Drosnin went into hiding, living under the pseudonym Michael Howard. "It was a combination of my name and his name," he says. "There's also another reason: Mr. Howard is the alias that Jesse James used when he was on the lam. I like that," he says with a grin. "There are dozens of people who know me only as Michael Howard. I've dated women who know me only as Michael Howard."

As he worked with the Hughes material, Drosnin lived in the vast loft that is furnished only with a desk, one chair, a bed, a Ping-Pong table and a mattress on the bare floor. "For quite a long time, I didn't allow people up here," he says. "And it wasn't just a security thing anymore. It had gone beyond that. The place had become charged in some sense—my penthouse...."

Living under an assumed name, harboring stolen documents and working on a secret project, Drosnin became almost as reclusive as his subject. "I intentionally drew myself into Howard Hughes," he says. "I wanted to get inside him. There was really no choice about it: I wanted to understand him."

As Drosnin speaks, he is in Hughes' favorite position—supine. He is lying across that mattress on the floor of his loft with his head propped against the wall. His body is motionless but his dark eyes blaze. In his right hand is a cigarette and a book of matches. He is so intent on talking about Hughes that he has forgotten to light the cigarette. "I hope it comes across in my book that I like Hughes on a certain level," he says. "Remember the last scene in King Kong, when he's on top of the Empire State Building? You feel sorry for him at that moment. It's almost the same with Hughes. Despite the way he corrupted this country, despite his bigotry and everything else, you've got to feel sorry for the guy. He didn't understand what he was doing, like King Kong, and you can't hold it against him. There's a childlike quality about this horrible old man...."

A half hour later Drosnin is still lying down, still talking about Howard Hughes. And the cigarette in his right hand is still not lit.