One summer day in 1979, James Dallas Egbert III, a gifted 16-year-old college sophomore, vanished from the campus of Michigan State University.

William Dear, a flamboyant Texas detective, was hired to track him down. Eventually he did. No one ever really knew for certain what happened, says Dear, because the boy, known as Dallas, told few people about it. And a year after Dallas was found, he killed himself.

Now Dear is telling his version of Dallas Egbert's odyssey. In his recent book, "The Dungeon Master," Dear paints Dallas as a troubled boy with a man's genius at computers, maneuvering his way with more sophisticated college peers, assuaging his alienation with marathon sessions of the fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons. His mother, in Dear's book, is a domineering figure. His father, an optometrist, is a quiet, shy man who suffers stoically through the disappearance.

Egbert and his fellow players, like many other college students, indulged their passion for fantasy games to the point where they were acting them out in real life.

Dear, who has been involved in such cases as the exhumation of Lee Harvey Oswald, has his fantasies, too. The former Florida highway patrolman, who became a private eye 21 years ago, has guns and electronic surveillance equipment, a private plane and three smooth-talking associates.

In England, he says, "They call me the real James Bond." Ask if he likes that and he's all understatement and Texas twang. But the bedroom of his suburban Dallas house is a replica of 007's bedroom in the movie "Diamonds Are Forever." And the trappings of his life speak for him: "I open this glass door and I step down and I dive underneath the house and down through a cave and through a waterfall."

There are the rings on his fingers: Great, globby hunks of gold, one of which -- the one resembling a small meteorite -- he takes off and lets clunk on the table to show you how heavy it is. Inside his tooled, black cowboy boots is a strap constructed to secure a knife.

On his cases he sometimes sports a Walther PPK or a .357 Magnum, he says. On the back cover of his book, he's brandishing a .45-caliber submachine gun. "It certainly wasn't my idea," he says.

It was Dallas Egbert's uncle, a Texas urologist named Melvin Gross, who called Bill Dear eight days after the boy's disappearance. The Egberts were unhappy about police handling of the case in East Lansing, Gross told the detective. Dear thought it sounded routine: boy gets depressed over grades; runs away.

But Dallas wasn't a routine student: He graduated from high school at 13 and entered college at 14. Dear called the Egberts for more information and what he got was a portrait of an physically fragile boy with an extraordinary mind: He had been toying with calculators and computers since he was 10. At 12, he programmed a computer to play games with him. He was obsessed with science fiction and games.

Dear was hooked.

When Dear got to Michigan State, he learned some things that Dallas Egbert's parents had not mentioned. Egbert was a member of the gay student organization on campus. He also used drugs: Marijuana, cocaine -- and PCP that he cooked up himself.

But what occupied much of Dallas' time was Dungeons and Dragons. If he wasn't talking about it, he was playing it out in three dimensions, turning the dark, hot steam tunnels underneath the university into a maze of dungeons. One friend remembered him coming back late one night, dazed and dirt-stained.

The object of the game is to slay enemies, particularly dragons, and stay alive. Players are assigned characters with different skills, strengths and weaknesses. When more than two players are involved, a "dungeon master" presides, laying a terrain -- studded with obstacles and monsters -- over which the game is conducted. A dungeon master has authority to resolve all disputes.

Dallas' favorite character was the magic-user who, in the rules of Dungeons and Dragons, possesses high intelligence and the ability to cast spells, but lacks physical strength and armor. The magic-user is warned never to enter a dungeon alone.

Had Dallas done that, against the wisdom of the Game?

In his dormitory room, Egbert had left behind a cryptic note:




Egbert also left a corkboard with pushpins stuck in it: Did the pattern spell out a map of the tunnels-turned-dungeons underneath the school? Or was it a crude diagram of a gun? Egbert had few friends -- or at least few who would come forward with information. Maybe, Dear wrote, if he thought like Dallas, he could find him. Dear rounded up some local Dungeons and Dragons mavens and played all afternoon in his motel room.

Dear's entourage, he reports, included the three detectives he employs and a trail of reporters who camped on Dear's motel doorstep and even followed his car. The publicity, he writes, was a vehicle for pressuring the university administration for access. Dear wanted to search the steam tunnels; he wondered if Dallas had gone down there and gotten lost or injured, perhaps fatally.

Eventually he and a team of Michigan State police officers and maintenance staffers searched the tunnels, to no avail. The search did reveal a room off the tunnels, where Dear says he found crackers and old milk and a blanket, evidence that Dallas might have been there.

But the case was "broken" by Dallas himself. After Dear had returned to his Texas home, he got a 1:30 a.m. telephone call -- it was Dallas, sounding frightened and hesitant. When the boy revealed his location -- Morgan City, La. -- the detective and associates immediately set out by private plane for a street address Dallas had given them.

Dear describes the town as a "redneck heaven" (so read a bumper sticker on a pickup truck). He says he found Dallas -- a forlorn figure, tired, with scratches on his forehead and crying -- on a cot in a small room in an old building between two storefronts.

It was Sept. 13, 1979. Dallas had been missing for a month.

Two days later, over hamburgers in a restaurant, Dallas told the detective his story, Dear writes. In fact, Dallas had been utterly despondent -- but not over grades. Depressed over family pressure and lonely at college, Dallas had gone down to the tunnels to think about what to do with himself, Dear reports. These were the tunnels he knew well enough to feel he could have been a dungeon master.

" 'I'd been planning to disappear for a long time . . . I planned just to go somewhere and kill myself,' " Dear quotes Dallas. " 'A place where no one would find me. I didn't think anyone cared, and I didn't want anyone to have to bother with burying me.' "

By the time he called Dear -- after brief stays with friends, two suicide attempts (once with cyanide and root beer), and a trek that took him from East Lansing to Chicago to New Orleans to Morgan City -- he was simply a depressed boy; and he was a magic-user who started out in the tunnel-dungeons of MSU, using his sorcery not to slay his enemies but simply to elude his friends. Ultimately, he was a dungeon master, laying out a game for those who sought to find him.

In the fall of 1980, after a month in Texas with his aunt and uncle, Dallas moved back to his family's home in suburban Dayton, Ohio, and transferred to Wright State University. He quit in April 1980 and moved into an apartment with a friend. On Aug. 11, 1980, in his apartment, he shot himself in the head. He died five days later.

In the aftermath, there is, of course, Dear's book, and there is the Egberts' reaction. When pressed, Anna Egbert speaks, resignedly, but abruptly.

"Most of the things in the book are inaccurate," says Dallas' mother, speaking by telephone from one of her husband's three optometric shops. "I just don't want to comment. It's all his [Dear's] word against mine." Dallas' father, Dr. James Egbert, would not talk on the phone. He had someone at his office tell a reporter to call his wife.

"I think it's a big bluff to make [Dear] look good," says Betty Gross, Dallas' aunt, about the book. "It's all a publicity stunt to make him a star and get him public attention. I think he went way overboard with all his quotation marks. After all these years, I don't know how he could remember all those conversations."

Though she and her husband called Dear into the case, "Really, nothing he did brought the boy back," she says, adding that Dear was not the first person Dallas contacted. "He called my sister first," Gross says, referring to Dallas' mother, "and she talked [Dallas] into calling Mr. Dear . . . He hadn't really made up his mind to come home."

In the year between Dallas Egbert's reappearance and death, Dear says he spent a lot of time with the boy, inviting him to his home and talking on the telephone with him a couple of times a month.

Dear says he will turn over 5 percent of the profits of the book to a trust for gifted children in Dallas Egbert's name. "Everybody's got their hands in it," Dear says of the book money, "so there's not a whole lot."

Lt. Bill Wardwell of the Michigan State University campus police also questions parts of the book. "Bits and pieces of it sounded familiar," says Wardwell, a sergeant when he was assigned to Egbert's disappearance case. "But a lot of it has been sliced up." Wardwell says Dear exaggerated the danger of the steam tunnels. ("Crawling through filth, conscious that we might get wedged in the tube, my partner and I went through one of these holes in the tunnel, breathing air that would have gagged a goat . . ." Dear writes.)

"They're hot and dirty," says Wardwell, "but not as bad as he portrays them." Nor did Wardwell recall that any food was found in the room off the tunnel by those who went on the search.

Wardwell says he doesn't know what really happened to Dallas. "I do believe that he went to various houses in East Lansing and that people in the community helped him out," Wardwell says.

As for Dear, "I think he was sincere in his efforts," Wardwell says. "He's a different personality from me. Very showy, likes to flaunt what he has -- his gold rings and his watches . . . I have a class ring. I remember him saying, 'That's a nice class ring. Is it real gold?' "

Bill Dear today seems open and affable. He likes telling a tale. He is prone to dramatizing his stories, as when he writes of a confrontation (unrelated to the Egbert case)with four "big, husky" men on the street after finding Dallas in Louisiana: "I reached inside my suit jacket, removed my Walther PPK .380 (I have an easy-draw holster), and held it pointed sideways against my chest . . . Time froze."

Dear also says he's a millionaire with an income fueled from his investigation business, as well as a veterinary product he invented and a restaurant he owns. "I think I'm worth about $3 million."

His fee varies from $500 a day on up. "Normally around $50 to $65 an hour," he says. "Not as much as attorneys cost." He estimates that the Egberts paid $26,000 for his work on the case.

When he talks to high school students he tells them about his cases and then makes sure they catch the moral: a sort of Crime Doesn't Pay theme. He tells of a case he had, a "lawyer who went 11 years through school to end up a bum." Dear says he asks the students, "Is that the way you want to end up your life?"

In the realm of intrigue, no case compares with the Egbert case. "I took such an interest in the boy and spent a year with him and became so wrapped up, tried to help him, tried to get his life straightened out. It was a very tragic time for me when he died . . . I still have a very soft spot for him."

Dear knows the Egberts are not pleased with the book, but he says, "If Dallas had been here, I know Dallas well enough to know he would have said, 'Print it. That's the truth.' "