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Jack Yates, the proprietor of Captain John's Crab House on Neale Sound, says hardly anybody knew the gray-haired gentleman in the house at the end of Hill Road used to be a spy - the head of the CIA, no less.

Now the disappearance of William E. Colby in the murky waters at the confluence of the Potomac and Wicomico Rivers has people talking of little else, says Yates, who was Colby's neighbor and one of the last people to see him alive on Saturday, April 27. He sold him what may have been his last meal, a mess of clams.People from the elegant Georgetown neighborhood in Washington where Colby mainly lived, on down to Rock Point, a tiny town of crabbers, oystermen, clammers and a few well-heeled weekenders, say it's the stuff of spy novels. It could be, if Colby's real life were not far more interesting than anything writers could invent.

While there is no hint of foul play in Colby's disappearance, there was a time, back in the mid-1970s, when lots of people, from spit-and-polish CIA men to shaggy-haired radicals, wanted to see Bill Colby disappear.

He was the man who, in the name of saving the CIA from itself, spilled more secrets than anyone else in the agency's history. He was also the man who, in the same cause, fired the agency's most famous counterspy, the legendary James Jesus Angleton.

The feelings against him ran so deep inside the agency that a few otherwise sane and sober people accused him of being a Soviet agent. Those on the left vilified him for running the deadly Phoenix program during the Vietnam War, an operation that rooted out suspected Vietcong agents in South Vietnam and killed more than 20,000 of them.

Time passed - nearly a quarter-century - and passions cooled. Colby in retirement was a man of mainstream views, mildly expressed, a healthy 76-year-old man happily married to an accomplished 51-year-old former ambassador.

Yet it is a hard fact that some of the old Cold Warriors from the CIA are very, very bitter about Bill Colby. One went so far as to say his disappearance came 35 years too late. There are equally hard feelings about him among certain governing circles in Vietnam.

So Colby's neighbors and even some of those who knew him say they have to wonder, if fleetingly, if any of those old enemies wanted to do him harm.

Among them is his wife of 12 years, Sally Shelton-Colby, a top administrator at the Agency for International Development, who has kept a vigil at Rock Point.

She is sure he has survived, using the skills and the toughness he learned parachuting behind German lines as a spy and saboteur in World War II, trekking for six days though blinding blizzards on cross-country skis, lugging a 50-pound pack and a 60-pound toboggan filled with explosives to blow up bridges.