Investigators have been combing some of America's humblest, homeliest places, pursuing the terrifying possibility that there was an evil mastermind behind the Oklahoma City bombing. Now, there's a new terrifying possibility: That there wasn't.

The Dreamland Motel is on the outskirts of town, $24 a night plus tax. Recently the letter C fell off the big sign facing the highway, so it now says LEAN, QUIET, REASONABLE.

This is a key stop on the terrorist tour. The FBI came here many times after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. The motel charges reporters the nightly rate to peek into the room and see where Tim McVeigh slept -- where he dreamed! -- in the days before he allegedly blew up all those people.

He arrived in a junk heap, a '77 Mercury Marquis. The Dreamland owner, Lea McGown, noticed the car. You can judge a man by his car, she thinks. But McVeigh seemed nice enough, polite, and they bantered as he signed in. He asked if she could knock something off the regular rate. He was staying more than a night, after all. She decided to let him have a room for $20 a night. He paid cash upfront. For that he got a small room, No. 25, right near the office.

"He was quiet. He was neat," says McGown. "There were no upheavals. He was a good motel guest."

The mattress in No. 25 sags in the middle, leaving feet higher than torso. The bedspread has a print of pink and blue flowers. The walls are standard wood paneling, bare but for a smoke detector. The ceiling is an aggressive stucco, a choppy sea of plaster. A printed notice on the door warns guests not to steal towels or washcloths. Everything is unremarkable about this room -- the shag rug, the Gideon Bible, the polystyrene cups and tiny bars of soap in the bathroom, the shower stall with the high-up window granting a view of a clothesline.

So it's kind of disappointing. Just a motel room. No mementos of evil, no hidden anti-government graffiti, nothing creepy carved by knife into a nightstand. At worst there is only the depressing quality of smallness. That's the way it has been for the FBI as its agents have scoured the country: They have found budget motel rooms, low-rent storage sheds, people who are borderline drifters.

The FBI has turned America upside down and shaken. Not much has fallen out. Trash, mostly.

The investigation is code-named OKbomb, pronounced "oakbomb." It may be the broadest, most sophisticated FBI case in history. It spans the country. More than 1,000 agents have gotten involved.

From the beginning the FBI searched for the mastermind. The Control, as some news reports put it. The World Trade Center bombing seemed the right precedent: The soldiers in the terror organization answered to a criminal genius behind the scenes. Likewise, in Japan, the investigation of the nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway led to a doomsday cult and its messianic leader.

But OKbomb has turned up no mastermind. After nearly two months, the nation's biggest terrorism investigation has lacked only one thing: terrorists. Only two people have been charged in the crime so far, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who, even with a couple of radical relatives and pals thrown in, would amount to a rather underwhelming terrorist cell. They seem like stumblebums.

Immediately after the April 19 tragedy in Oklahoma City the popular assumption was that a couple of losers couldn't have killed 168 people. Investigators searched for the mysterious lantern-jawed John Doe No. 2 and issued dire warnings that he might strike again. Pennsylvania Avenue was closed in front of the White House.

But the search for conspirators has been full of wrong turns, dead ends, worthless leads. Now investigators are beginning to face the possibility that John

Doe No. 2 is no one significant. That there may be no Control at all. That the case may be virtually solved, the vast net having pulled in some puny fish. If so, it would be good news in the sense that there is no Moriarty out there, no diabolical figure still eluding capture and bent on further mayhem. But in another sense it would be unnerving: Mass murder shouldn't be so easy. Terrorism is supposed to be exotically evil, not primitive, banal, something cooked up by the fellow next door.

What no one realized until the investigators drove the roads and knocked on the doors was just how simple, and how thoroughly American this crime was, with the alleged bad guys being veterans of a fabled infantry division, worshiping a radical interpretation of constitutional freedom, riding historic highways, using as their weapon the stuff that greens the heartland. It was terrifying. It was as though someone gathered various vintage elements of Americana together, mixed it up in strange proportions, condensed it, boiled it and produced a poison. The Fishing Lake

Federal investigators are combing central Kansas, hunting for a secret bomb factory. -- The New York Times, April 30

Geary State Fishing Lake isn't much bigger than a par 5 on a golf course. It's in the Flint Hills region of Kansas. In a state that's flat and open, this is a stretch of rolling country, the farmland rising and falling in gentle swells, the pastures creased with gullies. Slow-motion cattle are sprinkled in corners of vast ranches. The basic unit of real estate is a thousand acres. Towns are a half-hour apart by car.

The fishing lake is just off Route 77 between Junction City and Herington, a depression in the land, not much more than a puddling of rain and spring water that had no place else to go. The lake is good fishing for black bass.

On a recent Sunday there were a half-dozen people fishing as the sun went down. They were pulled up to the edge of the lake in their vans and pickups.

An old man named Howard Mullins was fishing with his wife and stepson. He was somewhere beyond relaxed, in a mood of complete fisherman bliss.

"If I reel in any fertilizer or blasting caps, I'll holler," he told a reporter.

This little lake is the place where the bomb was made. That's what the FBI now thinks. The bomb "factory" is a patch of grass and mud on a little peninsula poking into the north end of the lake. It's right in the open, and in mid-April the trees weren't leafed out.

The bomb wasn't a bomb the way people think of such objects. People think of a bomb as a single, self-contained device, something you could write graffiti on, something that could have a nickname, like "Fat Man." At the least a bomb could be a tightly wrapped bale of dynamite with a clock attached. But this bomb was a bunch of big blue covered plastic tubs. They contained a mixture of fertilizer and diesel fuel, plus cylinders of hydrogen or acetylene to boost the explosion. The fertilizer, ammonium nitrate, is sold throughout farm country. A shipload blew up the harbor town of Texas City in 1947, killing 468 people. A 50-pound bag costs less than $5. You can put it on a field of corn or soybeans, or spread it on a lawn.

The government says Terry Nichols, using an alias, bought the bomb materials and kept them in rented storage sheds. One of the sheds is about 20 minutes south of the fishing lake, on Route 77 in Herington, next to a cow pasture. Weeks after the bombing there were still tread marks faintly visible in the mud, sunken tracks, from a big vehicle with four wheels on the back axle. The sunken tracks just a few feet from the shed door indicate that someone backed up and loaded or unloaded something heavy.

A man in jeans walked out from the electrician's shop next door. He said his name was Jim Jones, and he was apologetic, in a quiet Midwestern way, about intruding upon a reporter's scrutiny of the crime scene, but he just wanted to make sure the reporter saw the tracks. He works maybe 40 feet from where the explosives were kept.

"At first we thought Oklahoma City was pretty close," he said. "Then we heard Junction City, we thought, man, that's close. Then we found out it was next door."

Out here by the cow pasture on the east side of Route 77 in Herington, one doesn't expect to make the national news. And one guesses it won't happen again.

The other storage shed is 25 miles to the east, in Council Grove. The road connecting Council Grove and Herington follows the path of the old Santa Fe Trail. Nichols hauled his materials where wagon teams once rolled west. Council Grove was at one time the last outpost of Western civilization. The old supply depot is still standing downtown. A couple of miles north are the storage sheds of Boots U-Store-It.

Vernon "Boots" Hager can often be found on his back patio in the shade with his sunglasses and sneakers and suspenders, talking on his cell phone. He's 71, comfortably rotund. He's something of a local business magnate -- he used to own the propane gas company, and now owns the storage sheds and a convenience store.

He says: "Everybody's due his day in court. But sometimes I think it should be a short court. It shouldn't be no O.J. Simpson court. That's the laugh of the nation."

He doesn't remember Nichols. Nichols is bland-looking, someone you couldn't pick out of a crowd, and he used aliases. No one ever asks anyone for identification, Hager says. This is rural Kansas, after all. Since the bombing, he says, they've decided to start asking for a driver's license.

This spring Nichols arrived in Herington and called a real estate agent, Georgia Rucker, saying he was looking to buy a house. Three times they drove around in Rucker's Chevrolet Celebrity, looking at properties. He finally closed on a small blue house on South Second Street.

"I feel like we have been used," Rucker said. "He picked our town, and our county is not full of people like this. They used us to hide in."

Herington is where three rail lines meet. The Union Pacific joins with the St. Louis Southwestern and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. If you take a left at the Santa Fe Trail Motel and Diner ("American Owned . . . Home Made Pies") you will be driving down Terry Nichols's street.

His house could not be more unremarkable. There is an iron railing around what passes for a front porch. There's a bushy maple tree in front, but no other landscaping to speak of, except for a large rock, a boulder, that seems to have been planted in the ground. The house is vacant, though someone has mowed the yard. The bed is made. Crime scene tape is bunched in a trash can in back. Through a window of the detached garage one can see dozens of metal ammunition boxes -- empty, according to the police. The boxes have information stenciled on them:

100 Cartridges

Cal-50

Linked M9

1 Tracer M17-4Ball-M33

LC87D61-TLZ0Z

The cook at the diner down the street, Robert Quist, 27, makes a logical point: It shouldn't be surprising to anyone that a little town like Herington might be mixed up in a tragic bombing. Little towns like this are near every military base in America, he says. Military people learn to blow things up. "It doesn't strike me as being odd," he says.

The police chief, Dale Kuhn, is also the fire chief. He's friendly and talkative, a former Wichita cop who retired to a town where there hasn't been a murder since anyone can remember.

Kuhn says he also thinks it's normal for a suspected bomber to have been in a place like this. Because it's nowhere. "Do you not find that criminals hide out? Where did Jesse James live? Where would you go to be not noticed?"

He could argue that he's the man who captured Nichols. The facts of the story are a little less dramatic, though; you'd have to fabricate some details to turn Kuhn into Wyatt Earp and Herington into Dodge City. What happened was that FBI agents showed up at the police station the Friday morning after the bombing. They said they were looking for a certain Terry Lynn Nichols. Nichols wasn't at home. Kuhn says that a few hours later, after the FBI had gone away, a bespectacled man walked in and said, "My name is Terry Nichols. I see my name on TV."

Kuhn led him to an office and told him to pull up a chair. Kuhn explained that Nichols could leave if he wanted. The chief suggested, however, that he wait around because some folks wanted to talk to him.

"He seemed scared," Kuhn says. "He had a frantic, frightened look."

Nichols stammered a bit as he talked. The FBI came and grilled him for hours and then finally took him into custody as a witness.

Like everyone else, Kuhn wonders exactly what role Nichols had in the case. Mastermind? The bombmaker? The government has already weighed in, formally charging Nichols with blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, using an anti-terrorism statute that carries the death penalty.

In any case, says the police chief, the crime took no special genius.

"It just takes a hare-brain." On the Road

McVeigh was a driver. In the week before the bombing he crossed the desert, the Rocky Mountains and the high plains.

There is much time when driving those open highways for a person to think. On a straight stretch of pavement a driver enters an almost meditative state. What does a bomber think while driving toward his target? Can he enjoy the scenery? Does the open land and big horizon fill him with a sense of freedom, or just emptiness? Does the bomber imagine the explosion? Does he picture the shock wave and smoke and the rag-doll hurtling of bodies? Is it exciting?

Perhaps a bomber is more impersonal than that. Maybe he envisions the building, not the bodies. The bomb had something like a four-minute fuse, enough time for the bomber to get away, jump in a car, wait through a stoplight and find one of the entrance ramps to the interstate. He might have been within a mile of the blast, close enough to see and hear and feel it, but not close enough to witness directly the people affected.

McVeigh's division buried Iraqi soldiers alive in trenches in one of the most gruesome tactics of the Persian Gulf War. He was an ace gunner on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. He blew up an enemy vehicle at 500 yards. Another time, he nailed a distant Iraqi soldier, hit him right in the head with an explosive shell. He had been trained by his government to kill at a distance, and came back from the war with a pile of medals.

The FBI agents followed his trail backward. They descended on Kingman, Ariz., a high-desert town where Interstate 40 meets an old stretch of Route 66, once the main road from Chicago to Los Angeles. It's a city of mobile homes and motels. McVeigh stayed here in a motel just before driving to Kansas and the Dreamland.

At the Nighthawk Saloon, in an old hotel across from the train station, a notice on the wall says: When I die, I want to go peacefully, like my Grandfather did. In his sleep. Not yelling and screaming like the passengers in his car.

Dora Simpson, a bartender at the Nighthawk, says: "I was born and raised here. When I was little, you couldn't ask for a better town to grow up in. But lately there's a lot of transients. And there are some that are scary." She says a guy came in recently with a duffel bag, spouting gibberish. He kept shouting, "When you have to die, you have to die! . . . You know what I mean?"

The FBI went to the Nighthawk and everywhere else. In a way the OKbomb case is like the investigation of Pan Am Flight 103, which blew up in 1989 over Lockerbie, Scotland, spreading debris -- evidence -- over hundreds of square miles. There was no alternative but to look at every square inch. The break in the case, the thing that led investigators to the terrorists responsible, was the discovery of a microchip that fell to earth.

So the agents went to all the motels on Route 66, motels that still have their 1950s-vintage signs. They went to Dambar's Steakhouse, where McVeigh may have eaten, and to the Hastings video rental store, where McVeigh in March rented "Blown Away," about a psychotic bomber. (Rental copies of the video include, at the beginning, advertisements for an interactive CD-ROM version of the movie. "He's got bombs . . . he's got hostages . . . and you've got to stop him!")

The FBI went again and again to the Imperial Motel, where McVeigh checked in March 31, flashing his military ID to get a discounted rate of $19.95 a night. He stayed for seven nights and then went back to the motel office and paid for five more. The owner, Helmut Hofer, said McVeigh hardly went anywhere the entire time. He just stayed in his room. He had no visitors and made no long-distance calls. But Hofer didn't think that strange.

"Don't forget, this town is made up of people who are traveling through or are looking for work and have nothing to do," Hofer says. "Staying in the room all day long is not an unusual thing to do. You have 29 channels so you can watch a lot of TV."

Hofer figures the FBI has visited him 20 times. Different agents come by, wondering if anything somehow was overlooked.

At first the FBI didn't know what they were getting into in Kingman. Bob Ragin, owner of the Canyon West mobile home and RV park southwest of town, was coming back from feeding his horses when six or eight unmarked cars and trucks roared up and FBI agents jumped out with bulletproof vests. McVeigh hadn't lived there for almost two years. Ragin remembers a polite, silent young man. He finds it hard to believe that McVeigh could have become a bomber. Maybe he's a dupe, Ragin says. Maybe he thought he'd just blow out some windows. "He was just a simple kid," he says.

At the peak of the investigation there may have been more than 100 agents in Kingman. It's hard to find a place they haven't been.

One day two FBI agents walked into Chester's Tire and Auto Repair, a dusty little place on the side of the road going to Bullhead City. A sign outside says you can get tattoos. The tattoo artist works in a room at the front of the shop, but he's not always around.

Chester's is just half a mile from a small yellow house that sits on a knoll in the desert, surrounded by sagebrush, patrolled by the occasional jack rabbit. McVeigh lived there last year for a couple of months.

Chester Burton is 57, thin, with a hard face and moist eyes. He's not much of a talker. His eyes wander. He lives in the shop with his new bride, Loise. They just got married two or three weeks ago, he says. Loise puts it at three weeks. They say they can't afford a honeymoon. A reporter asks where he and his wife would want to go if they had the money. They look at each other. "The Caribbean?" the mechanic says. He busts up laughing. So absurd it's funny.

Anyway, he had nothing to tell the agents. They showed him some pictures, got nowhere, and left.

"There's a lot of characters out here I wish they could pin it on," Burton says. "There's some scumbags. There's scumbags all out here. There's a bunch in the mountains up there, talk like communists."

The FBI did go into the mountains, on old Route 66, to the gold-mining ghost town of Oatman. It's a place where actors dress up like desperadoes for tourists. The tourists thought it was an act when federal marshals pounced on a suspected John Doe 2 right there in front of the Oatman Hotel.

It turned out to be another dead end, but four FBI agents did get a chance to talk to Ted "Tony" Tonioli, the hotel's owner, who carries a loaded .357 magnum in his hip holster and is feuding with the county sheriff for shutting down Oatman's annual biker rally. Suffice it to say that Tonioli has anti-government passions. "If that guy had blown up the building at midnight, he'd probably be a goddamn hero," Tonioli says. He said he's planning to move to Fiji, because it's pro-business.

The FBI at one point became interested in Gary Land and Robert Jacks, who had recently moved out of the El Trovatore Motel on old Route 66, across from motels where McVeigh had stayed. The two men were living off a small pension of Jacks's. They were good, quiet -- if somewhat shiftless -- guests. The motel apartment cost $500 a month.

"They liked their beer," recalls the owner, Bill Terranova.

The FBI traced them to Missouri and busted them in a highly publicized episode that ended with Jacks on "Nightline" saying he was a drunk. Jacks recently called Bill and June Terranova at the El Trovatore.

He said he wanted to write a book. The Brainwasher

The FBI talked to Mac McCarty four times, twice at his home in town, twice at his place out in the desert. The agents always came in pairs. To find him in the desert they drove 20 minutes out of Kingman on the highway that goes to Las Vegas, then left down a dirt road, until they came to the fenced-off compound with the Do Not Enter and Visitors Honk Horn signs. McCarty lives in a one-room house that he built himself, his gravel lot surrounded by barbed wire, with two dogs kenneled in back.

McCarty is the local gun radical and always has a pistol poking out of his jeans pocket, loaded. He's 72 years old, and fit, and likes to backpack in the Grand Canyon. He says he is always prepared to make a citizen's arrest of any wrongdoer.

The FBI wanted to talk to McCarty because he knew McVeigh. The two had talked several times about politics. They sat in McCarty's truck in a public park in Kingman and discussed such things as Waco, gun control and the excessive power of the federal government.

McCarty also knew Mike Fortier. Fortier was McVeigh's best friend in town, an Army buddy. He hasn't been charged with a crime, but he reportedly testified that he went with McVeigh to Oklahoma City and cased the federal building about a week before the bombing.

McVeigh and Fortier took a handgun self-defense class from McCarty last summer. McCarty says he's talked to Fortier several times since the bombing.

"He was nervous as a whore in church," McCarty says. "He's paranoid. He doesn't look like the same person I knew back in June 1994. He's skinny, hollow-eyed. He's a basket case."

McCarty says Fortier's father wouldn't shake his hand. He figures the father blames him for leading his son astray. But, he says, "I didn't teach Mike how to make bombs."

McCarty is not the Control. But you can imagine the FBI would expect someone like McCarty to be the Control. His passion is not undermined by stupidity -- he's a smart radical, accomplished, a mentor to younger people, drill-sergeant tough.

McCarty has an idea that the bombers were brainwashed. He says they fell in with the wrong crowd, read too many conspiracy pamphlets, talked to too many white supremacists or crazy militia people who crawl around on their bellies and pretend to be soldiers on the weekend as though they might someday prevail in a revolutionary war. McCarty laughs at that. Preposterous, he says. He says if these weekend soldiers think they can someday defeat the U.S. military -- the mightiest armed force on the planet -- he's got some waterfront property to sell them.

"I'm an expert in brainwashing, because I brainwashed people for 21 years. I was a drill instructor, I trained people to go to a foreign country and kill people they had never met -- if that's not brainwashing, I don't know what is." Thick Plotters

There will always be those who think they know who the Control is. Already there are conspiracy theories saying that it was the government itself that set the bomb. There were two explosions. It's an excuse to crack down on freedom-loving patriots at war with government domination.

But in the real world of hard evidence the Control remains elusive, for the likely reason that the men who bombed the federal building had no Control at all.

The FBI and the Justice Department haven't said this directly, but they have come close in recent days. At a news conference recently a reporter asked Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick if the investigation was stalled. No, she said, "the investigation is taking it where the facts lead."

Gorelick went on: "I think that the expectations for, you know, the production of many, many defendants in a short period of time were fueled by lots of speculation that didn't have a great deal of basis in fact at the outset of the investigation and, frankly, by the magnitude of the offense."

Oliver "Buck" Revell, the former No. 3 official at the FBI, has followed the case closely and visited his former colleagues in Oklahoma City. He says, "At the outset I thought we were looking at a cellular structure of five or six people and maybe a dozen or so who would be aware of what would happen.

"But as you start looking at the bits and pieces, you see the same people involved in every action. And from the physical requirements of actually placing and detonating the bomb, those people already identified could have done it."

He says the American people always expect to find a Watergate-type conspiracy, with evidence leading to ever more powerful conspirators. Big crimes ought to have big perpetrators. We expect a certain balance in history. But often history is totally unbalanced. The evil that had seemed broad and powerful turns small and mean upon closer scrutiny.

"I spent 32 years on the John F. Kennedy case and everyone wants that to be a conspiracy because they just can't accept the fact that one nut could go out and kill the president," says Revell. "Every FBI agent who worked on that case would have loved to have found a conspiracy. But the evidence never took us there."

The OKbomb case may yet net a larger conspiracy. Investigations typically last many months if not years. One former top-ranking federal investigator said this past week: "I think when this is over we'll have at least six or eight guys indicted and in custody. It's just too big for two guys to pull off."

What is certain is that the government now takes anti-government radicalism seriously, and has promised a massive federal crackdown. The FBI plans to be more aggressive in infiltrating potential terrorist organizations. The president pledged $71 million to investigate the case and establish a new FBI counterterrorism center. The government wants to hire 1,000 new anti-terrorist agents. One proposal would add 25 intelligence analysts, 190 surveillance specialists with 143 support personnel, 31 engineers and mathematicians for intercepting digital communications, and various other experts and analysts and inspectors.

But all that money and all those people might not have stopped what happened in Oklahoma City. OKbomb might end up proving something rather peculiar: The perfect terrorist act is not one that is highly organized and carefully planned by powerful and brilliant criminal geniuses. It's one that has no organization at all. It's the one that has almost nothing to infiltrate. The one that's small, simple, random, cheap.

A conspiracy of dunces. The Bible in 119

The FBI will never stop, of course. The bureau has followed up on more than 16,000 tips phoned in to an 800 number. A case of this magnitude is never completely closed.

At first the FBI missed a potential clue in Room 119 of the Hill Top Motel. The Hill Top has the best view in Kingman, a vista across the ancient sea floor to the Hualapai Mountains to the south. Several weeks after the bombing, after the FBI had unsealed the room where McVeigh had stayed earlier in the year, one of the owners, Dennis Schroeder, was talking to an Oklahoma newspaper reporter while thumbing through the room's Gideon Bible.

Something caught his eye. Two passages were marked in ink. Someone had drawn boxes around John 3:16 and John 3:36.

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

"He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him."

Did McVeigh mark the passages? He might have. It was a fairly new Bible, placed in December. Others stayed in the room but not that many. If McVeigh marked it, what might that signify? Something? Nothing?

"We held it as minimally as possible and tried to avoid contaminating those pages," says Schroeder.

He called the FBI. An agent came right away. He looked at the book, raised his eyebrows. He seemed impressed, and put the Gideon Bible in a black garbage bag and took it away, because it might possibly be something important. Or possibly just a Bible in a garbage bag. CAPTION: Above left, the Dreamland Motel, just off I-70 on the outskirts of Junction City, Kan. Timothy McVeigh rented Room 25 for $20. Above right, Jim Donahue hired Terry Nichols to work on his farm: "Terry could take that planter apart, fix it and put it back together and have it up and ready to go." Left, in Kingman, Ariz., Dennis Schroeder, Fred Paulson and their watchdog Bob. McVeigh stayed at their Hill Top Motel. Did he leave any clues? CAPTION: The FBI talked to Mac McCarty twice at his desert home surrounded by barbed wire. He says he is always prepared to make a citizen's arrest of any wrongdoer. Left, Timothy McVeigh's trailer near Kingman, Ariz. CAPTION: "Boots" Hager rented storage space last October to a man who called himself Joe Kyle. Hager says: "Everybody's due his day in court. But sometimes I think it should be a short court." CAPTION: Herrington, Kan., Police Chief Dale Kuhn: "Where would you go to be not noticed?" CAPTION: U.S. 56 near Council Grove, Kan., where Terry Nichols rented a storage shed.