It was a typical referral, two years ago, from a friend, the kind of call Downey Rice says you tend to get when you're in the business of tracking down spies, saboteurs, Mafia king, pins, labor racketeers and "every kind of cheap crook imaginable."

A friend of a friend's daughter was dead - a suicide, according to the county coroner. The family wasn't happy with the ruling, especially since they weren't all that enamored of the daughter's new husband of a few months. They had some suspicions . . . And so, would Downey Rice take on the case of Sasha Bruce?

After two years of investigating by lawyer Rice, a former FBI agent and one of Washington's most clever slueths, a Charlotte County, Va. grand jury in September indicted Bruce's widower, Marios Michaelides, on charges of murder, bigamy and embezzlement.

"I think I've just about got this one figured out," Rice says, like a character out of a Philip Marlowe saga. "I don't get into the courtroom much any more, but I guess I will if this case ever comes up. [It will only if Greek Michaelides returns to the U.S. voluntarily.] In all modesty, and I'm not a very modest person, I helped (Virginia Commonwealth's attorney for Charlotte County Edwin W.) Baker prepare the evidence. I never met Sasha - she had been dead a year when I got involved - but I'm convinced that girl did not commit suicide and . . . I shouldn't talk much about this."

At 65 - "the golden age," he calls it, "because I get to ride the subway for half price" - Downey Rice still seems the kind of two-sided character that Jimmy Cagney used to curse in old gangster films: a delightful person to chat with at lunch, talking like a genteel Southerner (fourth generation Washingtonian, "the only one left") slowly sipnning tales that make "The Untouchables" and old Howard Hawks gangster films seem like pale stuff. He's still a tough G-man, always referring to "Mr. Hoover," saying, "the guy who will answer questions who is a crook - he's my meat."

"When I got in this business," he says, "back in 1935, we were after gangsters and spies. All we wanted to do was find out who done it, and catch him and throw him in the slammer. We used to do all the things they think are evil today: following the guy round, listening on the phone, and if he left a note lying around, you'd be crazy not to read it. We invented the phrase 'black-bagging.' You'd get a camera and two gooseneck lamps and cat 'em in a black bag. I remember following one spy. He had a place on Prince Street in the Big Town where he rented some office space, and we'd go in there at about 4 in the morning and take pictures of everything in his desk."

Rice, whose father, sister, brother, son and son-in-law are all lawyers as well, says he never really intended to become a detective; it just happened.

"Mr. Hoover wanted me to play basketball," he explains."He and Mr. Tolson used to go around town and watch ball games. He was a real perfectionist. He wanted every job done right and he wanted it to stick. And back in the days when the Bureau had a basketball team, he wanted it to win.

"Well, one day I was playing on some court and I met this fella who used to play on the Bureau team. And he was telling me about his set shot. He said, 'I just find my place, and I get set, and then I look over at another player and throw the guard off and then I make my shot.

"A few weeks later my team is up against the Bureau's - and this guy with the great set shot keeps getting a basketball in his face. The next day I get a call from Mr. Tolson. I'm still in college - Catholic U. law school - and they want me to come work for them. I was only 21, and you had to be 23 to be an agent so I kept going to school and working there and on my 22nd birthday, I went to see Mr. Tolson about becoming an agent. And he said, 'The next class starts on Monday.' I was the youngest agent they had in those days."

For the next nine years Rice traveled around the country on cases - all the while raising two children in New York with his wife. "We still haven't told the kids they were born in Brooklyn," he says.

Rice's exploits at the Bureau are still apparently legend. One Washington lawyer - a well-known one who used to work at the FBI - says that if you're in Washington and you want something investigated, there are two people you can call: Bob Peloquin, head of the private intelligence network Intertel, and Downey Rice.

"This is one of my favorite stories," Rice says, sitting up in his chair, profferring a challenge in the best detective-in-trenchcoat meets journalist-with-fedora tradition.

"This is 1940, and it's a Sunday in Hungtington, Del., and we're following these two guys we know are spies. They've stopped in a little diner. We'd been chasing them, and saw them near the ferry in Newcastle taking movies.

"We're watching them from our car across the street, and see them get up and talk to a waitress and walk out. I go in and flash my badge, and she says they'd asked her where they could buy some paper, and she told them down at the drugstore. We follow them, and see the car parked in the woods and lay back for a while and after an hour my partner says, 'What the hell could they be doing in there?', so we go in." There he found a newspaper with evidence that someone had gone to the bathroom.

"We've already lost a lot of time, take off after them, get stopped by a cop who offers to help us after we show him our badges, and thinks we're completely nuts when we says we don't want to catch these guys, just follow them. We finally catch up with them in Salisbury Md., where they're mailing a letter. So we dump some newspaper in the mailbox and go find the postmaster - who turns out to be a postmistress.

"We tell her we're saving the country from everything that's illegal, and to get the letter in the box that's under the newspapers and use the old steam kettle.

"We finally pinched these guys. Now back then you didn't arraign people. You questioned them for 30 or 40 hours and then you 'arranged' them. There are two kinds of crooks in this business: the guys who try to deny everything and the ones who won't say anything.

"So I say to this guy - he was huge, tall, big chest - 'You were making films back at the bridge,' and he says, 'Hmm,' and I say, 'You ate at this diner' and he says 'Hmm.'"

Rice then confronted him with the piece of evidence he had found in the woods. "If you have that, I don't want to mess with you."

"He pleaded guilty. Didn't even have to try him. And the letter turned out to be addressed to a German agent in Santa Monica we'd been trying to find for years, and the film had shots of some english installations on Gibraltar."

Rice left the bureau in 1945.

"I got transferred here," he says, "and went from exciting cases like saboteurs and spies to exciting cases like who too ktires off the car at 7th and Florida Avenue and took them to Baltimore. And hell, there was no retirement in the Bureau unless you lived to 62 - and who lived that old under Mr. Hoover? I didn't know any."

So Rice went on to become counsel for the Kefauver crime commission - taking on mobsters like Frank Costello - and worked with the McLellan hearings on sports gambling. "You learned," he says, "to cross the lines between the FBI and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the bastards at the IRS."

And he opened his private practice ("an indescribable practice," he calls sit).

"Monday I went down to Florida to help a millionaire execute his will. You see, I can do Jack Leg legal work, but having tasted some of the excitement, that's not enough. There are 1001 private eyes in the Yellow Pages, but very few of them have real legal training. You go to some little town and a sheriff doesn't recognize evidence that you do. You understand hearsay, he doesn't. You hear someone talking about a package in the mail and realize mail fraud."

There are things you learn, he says.

"Now you take this Bruce case. I'll give you a lead . . ."