On the afternoon of July 20, at the end of his life, deputy White House counsel Vincent Walker Foster Jr. steered his gray-brown sedan along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, up a bluff just beyond the Key Bridge.

To his right, away and below, the Potomac glistened. Fast after two scenic overlooks came the turn for Fort Marcy Park, where a Civil War battery once stood. The narrow road dodged into a thick stand of trees.

About the route to his suicide, there is no doubt. By car, this is the only way.

The other road to Fort Marcy, the psychic road, is vague, mysterious and poorly marked. The map is lost forever; it existed only in Vince Foster's mind. Some path took him -- this trusted intimate of Bill and Hillary Clinton, their "great protector," in the president's own funereal words -- to the cloistered park where, beside a cannon, he killed himself with a gunshot.

Since Foster's death, the rumor mill has ground through countless variations on the same idea: that there was some scandal, personal or professional, about to be unmasked. But after nearly a month of examination, no rumor has panned out, no unmasking has occurred.

We are left to piece together fragments of the map: a strange and troubled note Foster wrote to himself; a doctor's prescription; a commencement speech; the memories of friends and associates; the public record of his Washington experience.

Foster was handsome, smart, healthy, devoted to family. And at 48, he abruptly ended his life, an event that stunned his closest friends. One who knew him best had to be told over and over, Vince has killed himself, Vince has killed himself, seven times before it registered.

In America, suicide is most common among white males, with the incidence rising by age, more sharply after 45. Most suicides leave no note. Physicians and lawyers have unusually high suicide rates. Such professions attract "workaholics, overly conscientious people who take failure poorly, and idealists, who are frequently disappointed," psychologist Robert Litman has said.

Experts estimate that 70 percent or more of suicides are associated with depression, which has has been linked to low levels of a brain chemical called serotonin. Depression, apparently, is brought on sometimes by stressful change.

Litman has said, "I believe that suicide has a lot to do with the ideal -- often unconscious -- that one has of oneself. . . . Suicidal people tend to believe that if they do not live up to it, their lives must be a total failure."

Suicide has to do with "the loss of a sense of self," and "the loss of a way of life," writes George Howe Colt in "The Enigma of Suicide." People "whose sense of self-esteem is based on what others think of them" may be higher risks. But ultimately, Colt writes, "No one knows why people kill themselves. . . . There is no single answer."

Said A. Alvarez, who attempted suicide and wrote about it in "The Savage God," "Once a man decides to take his own life, he enters a shut-off, impregnable, but wholly convincing world where every detail fits and each incident reinforces his decision."

In Hope, Ark., Bill Clinton, his chief of staff, Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, and his personal lawyer, Vince Foster, had played together as children. It took some drive to be president of the Hope High School student council, as Foster was, when someone like McLarty was vice president.

After high school, McLarty and Foster went separate ways, and when they met again some years later McLarty saw a man who had found his identity.

"He had become a lawyer," McLarty recalls. "People paid him for his counsel, and that changed him a little. . . . Even in a social setting, he was aware of his role, and he was thoughtful in his presentation."

Foster was first in his law school class and earned the best score on the Arkansas bar exam. These distinctions meant a lot to him. Years later, in letters of introduction to new clients, he still began by mentioning them, and the fact that he joined the Rose Law Firm on graduation.

He kept the announcement of his partnership framed on a wall of his house. Rose quintupled in size during Foster's two decades there. He was "the soul of the firm," the American Lawyer magazine reported.

As head of the litigation section, Foster attracted smart, serious attorneys. "Down here, it is very popular to take on the air of a country lawyer . . . like you can talk your way out of anything," said one partner, who spurned a big New York law firm to work with Foster. "Vince was the exact opposite. He researched each case extensively before he filed it, figured his options, ran decision-trees."

The partner continued: "In the courtroom, he was extremely eloquent, the best I've ever seen. He was a great writer: He'd go through 20 drafts if he had to. He could be demanding; some associates didn't want to work with him. . . .

"In meetings of the partners, he didn't often take a vocal stand. . . . But when he did, it almost always swayed the firm. When he left for Washington, people here spoke openly about the emotional vacuum."

Bill Burton, a former Rose lawyer, now McLarty's assistant at the White House, said: "Young litigators at Rose Law Firm all wanted to be like Vince Foster when they grew up."

He was a pillar, no other way to say it. A sure thing to head the state bar association. Chair of the Arkansas Repertory Theater board, one of Little Rock's posh charities. Member of the Country Club of Little Rock, spine of his city's high society.

In the book, "Best Lawyers in America," Foster was listed, along with his partners, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Webster L. Hubbell, now associate attorney general.

That was Foster's image when he came to Washington.

Of all the Clinton friends who moved east from Little Rock, Vince Foster was the least political. He never stood for popular election, never worked day to day in a campaign. While his crowd battled last year to elect Bill Clinton, Foster battled in court for TCBY, the frozen yogurt giant.

But he was almost uniquely close to the Clintons, linked to each independently: Bill Clinton's boyhood pal, Hillary Clinton's law partner and nearest friend. Each trusted Foster and sought his advice. When the Clintons went out socially, often as not they went with Vince and Lisa Foster.

So of course Clinton asked Foster to join the administration. The surprise, among some of his intimates, was that Foster accepted. He seemed so settled. "Some would ask what motivates one with a comfortable practice in a prominent law firm to dislodge his family for a new job with longer hours, with half the pay, in a city that costs twice as much to live," Foster said last spring.

His answer, given at various times to various people, always came down to the excitement, the challenge, and the chance to do public service. Foster tingled, one friend recalled, each time he passed the starched Marine sentry at the West Wing door.

Foster was a critical player in the transition, screening most potential top-level appointees.

"I wondered why I was being interviewed by the guy who would be deputy counsel," one such official said. "Seemed his job was to find out how honest I was, and what level of ego I was bringing. It's a measure of how much the Clintons trusted him."

And he became the Clintons' integrity cop, overseeing the drafting of strengthened ethics rules, and supervising much of the vetting of job candidates. He was proud of the scrutiny he enforced.

"You can't have anything to hide in Washington," he told a Rose firm colleague. "If there's anything in your personal or business life that can't bear scrutiny, you shouldn't be up here."

The White House counsel's office has "the final say-so on whether a candidate's nomination should go forward," Foster told one interviewer. And Foster was "co-senior partner" of the office, according to the other co-partner, counsel Bernard Nussbaum.

Foster worked ferociously, but the vetting process was never perfect in the customary Foster sense.

He concurred in the decision to press ahead with Zoe E. Baird's nomination to be attorney general. According to sources familiar with the selection process, Foster examined Baird's explanation of why she had failed to pay Social Security taxes on household help, and he concluded that she merely followed her lawyer's advice.

The political side of it -- the image of appointing someone to enforce the law who had not followed it, of a yuppie-coddling president -- was not adequately considered, by Foster or by others. When Baird's withdrawal marred Clinton's first week, Foster was shaken by his failure to see it coming, according to friends.

But there was scant time for brooding. The work of the counsel's office was stunning in its range, weight and fever pitch. Searching for an attorney general (Foster was the first to screen Janet Reno) was only a small piece.

At Nussbaum & Foster, the president's little law firm, they prepared executive orders on abortion; analyzed legal policy on Haitian refugees; examined impacts of a new health care system on malpractice law; scrutinized international treaties; staked out the president's authority to lead military strikes; formulated a deficit trust fund; authorized committees on White House redecoration; litigated the right of the president's health care task force to meet in private; established blind trusts for the First Family; sifted candidates for federal judgeships (including a new Supreme Court justice); advised wives of high officials on which charities they could serve.

"It is a tremendous array of issues," said a member of a former White House counsel's office. "No matter who you are, the president of the United States is a unique client, and the issues that arise are not anything that private practice can prepare you for."

In April, Foster sat in his office -- its walls bare but for a few treasured photographs of family and friends -- and reflected on his new job with a reporter from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

"I did not have a full appreciation of the variety of issues that the office would face, nor the time demands," Foster said. Accustomed in Little Rock to hard, but predictable, hours -- with time for his wife, children and books -- Foster now found himself at the office at least 12 hours, six or seven days a week. "I've had meetings with the president that did not start until 10:30 p.m.," he said.

"A normal day is not normal," said the lawyer. "There are day-to-day policy decisions that have to be made . . . that affect millions of Americans and sometimes billions of dollars," he said. "That's pretty heady stuff."

The worst thing about the move, Foster told the interviewer, was the stress on his family. His youngest son, Brugh, wanted to finish his school days at home. "It's a pretty tough thing to ask your child to forgo his senior year in high school," Foster said. Friends say the move was a tough thing for his wife too. She remained with Brugh in Little Rock until the end of the school year.

After a visit to her husband, Lisa shared her dim view of Washington with a friend: "Don't go up there."

But on balance, Foster seemed pleased with his new life. "It is more challenging and more exciting than I anticipated," he said.

Foster somehow found time for one large nonpresidential task, addressing the graduating class of the University of Arkansas Law School, his alma mater. It was his first commencement address, and he agonized over it, according to colleagues. The speech was entirely his own, and in the wake of Foster's death friends have combed it for clues. The address is probably the best surviving record of the things Vince Foster prized.

He prized nothing more than reputation.

"This invitation has caused me to stop from this hectic and challenging adventure I am on in Washington to think about the roads I have traveled to get there and the roads I wish I had traveled," he said.

Nothing they had done to date, Foster told his audience, would count for much with future clients. Instead: "The reputation you develop for intellectual and ethical integrity will be your greatest asset or your worst enemy. . . . Treat every pleading, every brief, every contract, every letter, every daily task as if your career will be judged on it."

What a hard standard! Yet Foster pressed it further.

"I cannot make this point to you too strongly. There is no victory, no advantage, no fee, no favor which is worth even a blemish on your reputation for intellect and integrity," he said. ". . . Dents to the reputation in the legal profession are irreparable."

The words reverberate in the minds of his friends. Said one: "Look, it's just crazy, right? You get one dent and it can never be fixed? In Washington, you get them all the time. You get 20 dents and you go to the body shop. Vince couldn't see that, apparently."

The clear sense of the speech is that one can control one's own reputation, and one must. The possibility of undeserved dents is never mentioned. For Foster, one's public image, the mirror held up by colleagues, clients, passing friends -- even adversaries -- was the reflection of one's true self.

Four days after the speech, Foster was drawn into a reputation-denting chain of events now known as "Travelgate." According to an administration investigation of the affair and interviews with officials close to that investigation:

Foster was visited May 12 by David Watkins, head of White House administration, Hollywood producer Harry Thomason, and Catherine A. Cornelius, a distant cousin of the president who handled travel arrangements for the campaign.

They explained that Cornelius suspected mismanagement and corruption in the White House travel office. She had discovered at least one check, made out to cash, signed and endorsed by the head of the office, but she could find no sign of the money in the petty cash log. Thomason, a friend of the Clintons and part owner of a travel consulting business, added his concern that press travel arranged by the office was not put out to bid.

Foster called in associate counsel William Kennedy III, another alumnus of the Rose firm, who was in charge of internal security at the White House. The lawyers concluded that an audit was in order. Because the White House had no auditing capacity, Kennedy was assigned to come up with a plan.

Kennedy called James A. Bourke, chief of the FBI's Special Inquiry Unit, and asked for "guidance." Bourke said he would get back to him.

The next morning, Foster asked Kennedy about his progress. Foster urged speed; he was worried about preserving evidence. So Kennedy again called Bourke.

Now the story gets contentious. According to interviews with more than a half-dozen people who later discussed the matter with him, what Foster believed happened was this:

Kennedy, after Foster's urging, told Bourke he needed an answer, fast. He may have said "15 minutes." He asked, if the FBI can't give guidance, what other agency, with the capacity to do an audit, could he call? IRS?

The FBI sent two section chiefs to the White House. To them, Kennedy said something about his bosses watching this closely, and perhaps he mentioned the IRS again.

These exchanges are important, because later FBI agents would suggest that they were intimidated into investigating, that Kennedy had said: Get over here in 15 minutes or I'm calling the IRS! That he said the "highest levels" of the White House were interested.

And others would suggest that the entire investigation was merely a fig leaf for a craven, and perhaps corrupt, power play, a chance to funnel work, and perhaps money, to friends of the president.

On the basis of an interview with Cornelius, the FBI chiefs "determined there were grounds for further investigation," according to the report. Watkins, however, had decided on a private auditor, KPMG Peat Marwick. According to the report, the FBI agents wanted to accompany the private auditors, but Foster and Kennedy persuaded them to wait.

Many top people were briefed at the Justice Department and in the White House, and no one raised any objection to the way things were proceeding, according to the report.

The jumbled, incomplete records proved impossible to audit, but there was enough for the auditors to conclude that the financial management of the travel office was "abysmal." Unaccounted-for checks, made out to cash and totaling $18,000, were found.

On May 19, Watkins fired the seven members of the travel office staff, though only two had responsibility for handling money. (The five others are now being found jobs elsewhere in government.)

Watkins outlined an explanation of the firings for use by White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers. There were sure to be questions; after all, the job of the travel staff, essentially, was to ease the lives of traveling reporters. Myers was told to say that the FBI had been asked to investigate.

Foster saw the explanation at 9 a.m., and immediately ordered that the inflammatory reference to the FBI be cut. But Myers was out of the building and did not get the word in time.

The entire episode, from Foster's perspective, was a case of people who heard allegations of mismanagement and tried to take action, according to friends who discussed the matter with him. He felt he and Kennedy moved quickly but cautiously, that they slowed the FBI, rather than egged it on, and that they tried to keep the FBI angle out of the press.

A far different picture emerged in the news media: White House cronies sacking longtime employees, grabbing for lucrative business and misusing the FBI to mask their deed.

It was an enormous story, helping to drive Clinton's approval ratings to a record low for a new president. And it roiled again when, on July 2, the administration published its own investigation.

Kennedy was publicly reprimanded for making potentially intimidating statements to the FBI, though the Justice Department had concluded that no "undue pressure" had been exerted. Foster was mentioned in the coverage of the report.

According to colleagues, Foster felt he had failed to protect the president by keeping the process under control -- he, the "great protector," who once said his job was to deal with tough issues so that they do not make headlines.

"He felt Kennedy got a bum rap and he felt he had lit the fuse," said a White House official. In fact, "if anybody in this matter did the right things, it was Vince," according to John Podesta, White House staff secretary, who worked on the internal investigation.

Foster felt that, while the report of the investigation "was fundamentally accurate, the White House itself bent over backwards, in any case where our version was disputed, to find against ourselves," White House counsel Nussbaum said. "He felt people acted in good faith for the right reasons, though some of them may have acted too quickly."

In his last days, according to colleagues, Foster appeared fixated on the seemingly endless series of inquiries ahead: The Justice Department was looking into the matter, congressional Republicans were baying for blood, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) was asking whether reprimands were sufficient punishment.

He began looking for a lawyer, which his friends say was simple prudence, given the climate. Foster's view of Travelgate -- good faith, right reasons -- was not widely shared in the press. Public interpretation makes, or blemishes, a reputation.

The same week in May came another issue: the Country Club of Little Rock.

For decades, prosperous white Christians had gathered at the quiet club for golf and tennis, lunches and cocktails. The children of Little Rock's powerful families splashed in the pool, browned in summer, fell in love. The best bridal suppers were held in the dining room. Like the top clubs in any American city, it was important to its members but little noticed by the outside world.

That happy privacy was punctured in March 1992, when Bill Clinton, a nonmember, was photographed playing golf there with his friend Webster Hubbell. A do-or-die Democratic presidential primary was raging in New York; Clinton golfing at an all-white club caused a sensation. But it passed. The candidate apologized. And Hubbell led the search for an African American who would pay the $25,000 fee to join.

This troubled May, however, Hubbell faced a Senate confirmation hearing on his nomination as associate attorney general. Thanks to a string of critical editorials in the Wall Street Journal, he had become a high-profile nominee. The editorials suggested that, during the long struggle to find an attorney general, Hubbell had been secretly running the Justice Department -- and grinding political axes along the way.

For some time, the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would quiz Hubbell, had agreed that mere membership in an all-white club would not be grounds for disqualification, provided the nominee could show past efforts toward integration. But now that changed, as freshman Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.), the first African-American woman in the Senate, objected. In Hubbell's camp, there were concerns that the issue, if raised, might spread to questions about the Rose firm's mediocre record on hiring and keeping minority lawyers, according to a Hubbell confidant.

Though Hubbell had a raft of testimonials from African Americans, the politics were clear. He resigned from the club.

At the White House, his decision left Foster, McLarty and Kennedy no choice but to quit the club too, immediately, to avoid criticism about lower standards for White House officials.

But what was obvious politically was personal agony. According to one person involved in the arrangements, Foster had to telephone his wife to tell her to cancel a tennis match that afternoon. Kennedy's teenage daughter had to be told that her plans for a summer by the pool were scrapped.

Furthermore, in Little Rock society, many people were offended, according to one leading citizen, by the suggestion that they were racists with whom it was damaging to associate. Though the issue passed in a blink on the public stage, privately it deepened the sense, for some Arkansans in Washington, of cutting ties to a life they loved.

"It really upset Vince," one White House aide said. "On the one hand, he couldn't understand why they, who had tried to integrate the club for the first time, had to give it up.

"On the other hand, he blamed himself for not seeing it coming. They could have resigned quietly in December, explained that they were moving away, and it would never have been a story and no one's feelings would be hurt."

To Foster, friends said, May was a month of wounds that a wise counselor could have prevented.

The Wall Street Journal is one of America's most influential newspapers, known for its fiercely incandescent editorial page, where the battle on behalf of "movement conservatives" is waged with no quarter. Its huge subscription list includes the elites of commerce, finance and the law in just about every American city, Little Rock included.

On June 17, the Journal's lead editorial asked, "Who Is Vincent Foster?" a continuation of a line of attack that had begun with Hubbell. About half the essay was devoted to the Journal's complaint that it could not get a photograph of Foster. But woven into this puckish tale were barbs at Foster's integrity as a lawyer.

Plaintiffs suing Hillary Rodham Clinton's task force on health care reform had complained that the administration was ignoring a court order. The Journal suggested that Foster, the lead attorney on the case, might be in contempt of court, or at least guilty of "carelessness about following the law." It accused him of "lack of seriousness" and asked: "Who ensures that this administration follows the law, or explains why not? . . . {I}t seems to us that a good man for the job would be deputy counsel Foster."

Political hands in the White House figured that the Journal editors, after defending Ronald Reagan conservatives for years, were simply enjoying the chance to play offense. A few recall trying to explain this to Foster, without much success.

A week later came another editorial, headlined, "Vincent Foster's Victory." Though this one began with praise of Foster's win in the health care task force suit, it proceeded to draw an analogy many might consider hurtful.

"With one mighty sweep {Foster} has struck a blow for separation of powers, executive authority, critics of the litigation explosion, and we dare say, even for the formulators of the Reagan White House's off-the-books Iran-contra operation. . . . Alas, the Clintonites, as is their wont, again allowed hubris to smother mere principle. . . . Even defenders of executive authority would blanch at such imperial overstretch. . . . As for Iran-contra, we suspect that Vincent Foster and Ollie North might hit it off. . . . "

The next was published July 7, after the report of the travel office investigation, and took on "the Rose clique," the four former partners now in government: Kennedy, Foster, Hubbell and Hillary Clinton.

Of Foster it said: "His defense of Mrs. Rodham Clinton's health care task force . . . cut some legal corners." And of the firm he helped to build, it concluded that "the early indications of the Rose view of the law are certainly disconcerting, displaying a lot of corner-cutting and casual abuse of power."

A week later, that attack essentially was repeated, along with dot drawings of the four. The headline was, "FBI Director Rose?"

Another editorial appeared on July 19, the day before Foster died. Kennedy "misus{ed} the FBI's investigative powers," the editors wrote, and they concluded: "The mores on display from the Rose alumni are far from confidence-building."

To Foster, whose whole career was spent in the courtroom, the lack of evidence supporting the Journal's attacks was scandalous. Several friends who ventured jokes about them got a cold stare, or humorless snort, in response.

"At one point, I said, 'So, who is Vince Foster?' and he just rolled his eyes," said one friend. "These pieces cut a little close. He spent his whole career building the Rose firm, and now this paper -- which his former clients and fellow lawyers were reading back home -- was saying that not only are these guys from Little Rock a bunch of clowns, but there's some conspiracy going on to subvert the law."

Nussbaum remembers Foster in the last couple of weeks of his life as "blue," while others close to him prefer "down," "frustrated," "out of sorts." He worried repeatedly, in conversations with friends, about the endless saga of the travel office.

"It became a metaphor to him for what a snake pit this is," one top White House official said. "Yesterday's conduct judged by tomorrow's standards, with the goal being to see how many ribs you can pull out while a body's still alive."

"There was a clear sense of 'How could I let this happen? How did I let it get out of hand?' " a close Foster friend recalled. "He wasn't blaming others, at least to me. It was more introspective, along the lines of: 'Who am I? I am an honest lawyer, wise counsel, valued for brain and integrity.' And suddenly, that was undermined. There was a clear sense of things going wrong, and him at the middle of it."

They hasten to add, those who worked daily with Foster, that their impressions are informed by hindsight. At the time, he seemed no worse than many others in an embattled White House. Foster was always reserved, and rarely vented his feelings.

He took a brief holiday his final weekend. Michael and Harolyn Cardozo -- he a former deputy White House counsel, she a member of the White House social office -- said they invited Hubbell and his wife for the weekend at their family's vacation house in Maryland. On the drive, said Michael Cardozo, they learned that Vince and Lisa Foster were staying the weekend at a rented place nearby. They phoned, and the Fosters wound up spending most of Saturday and Sunday with the Cardozos and Hubbells.

Lisa played tennis. Hubbell drove golf balls. Vince jogged, learned to crack crabs, and talked sports, the Cardozos recalled.

On Monday, the night before Foster's last day, President Clinton, Bruce Lindsey, the White House personnel director, Hubbell, and other Arkansas pals convened at the president's residence to watch the new Clint Eastwood movie, "In the Line of Fire." Clinton telephoned Foster to invite him, but Foster said he had too much work. They chatted for about 20 minutes about this and that, aides said.

The day Foster died, Lisa Foster had lunch with McLarty's wife, Donna, at the Four Seasons Hotel. She and Brugh were now moved into the little Georgetown house Foster had rented. They talked, according to Donna McLarty, about how restorative a couple of days away could be.

Lisa Foster knew her husband was upset, and counseled him to write out his complaints, according to police who investigated his death. At some point -- perhaps seven to 10 days before his suicide, and certainly in the aftermath of the travel office report -- he did.

"I made mistakes from ignorance, inexperience and overwork," Foster wrote in a lawyerly tone on a small legal pad. "I did not knowingly violate any law or standard of conduct. No one in the White House, to my knowledge, violated any law or standard of conduct, including any action in the travel office. There was not any intention to benefit any individual or specific group."

His tone then shifted, from the voice of a lawyer to the voice of an embattled person. "The FBI lied. . . . The press is covering up. . . . The GOP has lied and misrepresented. . . . "

Then, it appears, his mind began shifting from point to point. First: "The Ushers Office plotted to have excessive costs incurred," a reference to what now appears to be a fairly minor disagreement between Hillary Rodham Clinton's interior decorator and the White House usher.

Next: "The public will never believe the innocence of the Clintons and their loyal staff."

And: "The WSJ editors lie without consequence."

Foster stopped listing and concluded. "I was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington. Here ruining people is considered sport."

Investigators believe he then ripped up the paper and dumped it in his briefcase.

The question that haunts his friends is this: If he was so unhappy, why didn't he quit? It is clear to them now that Foster felt powerless to turn things around in the White House. "He felt like he was running through Jell-O," one said.

But how could he go home? Picture it: Rejoin the Rose firm after its "mores," its "view of the law" had been attacked repeatedly (in part because of him) by one of the most important newspapers in America. Walk into the country club after abandoning members as racists. Approach new clients, having failed, in his view, to protect the most important client a lawyer could ever have.

And how would he live? He was, in the words of his friends, the "tower of strength," the "rock," of the Arkansans. How could he leave Washington -- with the inevitable headlines: White House Aide Resigns in Wake of Travelgate -- and sit in Little Rock while his friends struggled on?

"I believe he felt that way," a close friend said. "But you go all the way around it, and it still doesn't get to the point that you pull the trigger."

Yet after many hours of rumination, one White House aide thought she was beginning to understand. "It's really easy to see how, if you got in the tunnel, it could suck you in."

Maybe the rest of the road runs through the tunnel.

According to investigators: On Monday, July 19, back from his weekend in Maryland, Foster telephoned Larry S. Watkins, his family physician in Little Rock.

They spoke again the next day, according to a White House source. The details of their conversations are not known; Watkins was unavailable for comment. Whatever was said that Monday moved Watkins to telephone a prescription for an antidepressant medication called Desyrel to a Washington pharmacy, where Foster picked it up.

According to the Physician's Desk Reference, Desyrel is the brand name for the chemical compound trazodone hydrochloride. How it works in humans "is not fully understood," but in laboratory animals it produces higher levels of the brain chemical serotonin. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression and to suicide.

The drug is appropriate if four of the following eight symptoms are found: "change in appetite; change in sleep; psychomotor agitation or retardation; loss of interest in usual activities or decrease in sex drive; increased fatigability; feeling of guilt or worthlessness; slowed thinking or impaired concentration; suicidal ideation or attempts."

Foster suffered from at least four, according to friends, associates and investigators. His appetite had been off; he lost 15 pounds in Washington. He had a difficult time sleeping. He felt guilt and worthlessness. His concentration at work was flagging, although it was so high to begin with, he still functioned well.

In "The Complete Guide to Prescription and Non-Prescription Drugs," this drug comes with a warning: "Do not take if you are thinking about suicide."

He apparently took one 50-mg dose of Desyrel, perhaps Monday night, July 19, police say. The drug typically needs a week or two to take full effect. On Tuesday, July 20, according to White House officials, Foster arrived at the office about 8:30 a.m. At 11 a.m., he spoke to a favorite Rose firm colleague, who said he "gave no clue."

Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court nominee Foster helped to choose, was off to a good start in her Senate confirmation hearings that morning. Louis J. Freeh's nomination to head the FBI was announced at the White House. "Two home runs," Nussbaum said to Foster. Foster said nothing.

Between 1 and 2 p.m, after eating lunch at his desk, Foster left work. A secretary offered him some candy. Foster said he'd get it later.

Perhaps he went home to fetch a handgun, or perhaps he had the gun with him. Perhaps he knew of Fort Marcy in advance. Perhaps he happened onto it. "If his intention was privacy . . . he picked an ideal spot for it," said Kevin B. Fornshill, the first police officer on the scene.

In Foster's possession when he died were the names of two psychiatrists. He never contacted them.

Time of death: uncertain. Mode: 1913 Colt Army service revolver. Source of weapon: apparently Foster's late father.

The gunshot, according to investigators, entered the mouth and severely damaged the brain stem, which controls heartbeat and breathing. The gun was found in Foster's hand. Residue from firing the gunshot was found on the skin of his hand.

Hubbell has told colleagues that he feels as if the man who died and his friend of 20 years are like two different people. Vince Foster had become someone else.

Only outwardly was he the same man. Officer Fornshill remembered his slacks were creased, his white shirt starched, and every hair in place. "I've seen his photograph in the paper," Fornshill said, "and it looked just like him."

Staff writers Peter E. Baker and Michael Isikoff contributed to this report.