A story:

Once, when he was a mostly green assistant U.S. attorney, Paul Curran was assigned to a case with another mostly green and brilliant attorney. Both prosecutors prided themselves on their ability to quote six-digit citations from memory.

One day during the trial, a difficult legal question arose. Both men thought they had the citation. When court recessed, both went running to the library for their proof. The other lawyer emerged with "Proving Federal Crimes," the standard reference manual. Here, he said, I Told you I was right. Curran didn't say anything. He disappeared. Ten minutes later the came back lugging the official "Federal Reporter, Second Series," the unimpeachable source. He opened it, shoved it at the guy, and said, "Here, your goddam book is wrong."

It was.

The gray pants skim elegantly up the blue hose, there is a gleam on the brown oxfords. Everything about him seems rights, even the groomed lick of hair angling along his tanned forehead. He lives in Scarsdale, he has a beach house in Sea Girt, he has tennis time four out of every five Saturdays. It sounds like a Cheever novel.

This is Paul Jerome Curran, 46, Manhattan attorney at law.

Paul Curran is the "special counsel" investigating the "peanut loans" - the $6.5 million over three years loaned by the National Bank of Georgia, then headed by Bert Lance, to the Carter family warehouse. Paul Curran, as nearly everybody knows, isn't a "special prosecutor." He is a "special counsel." Even though he now has the full prosecuting authority Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski had during another nationally watched investigation.

His office is on the 18th floor of 425 Park Ave. Chocolate brown doors with identical name plates - Mr. Pepper, Mr. Yerman, Mr. Schwartz - march off down carpeted corridors. Secretaries with wires around their heads type endlessly. There is little noise.This is a monastery for minds. This is the firm of Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler; better than 170 lawyers toil here.

He has the kind of spacious, beigetoned, memento-strewn office you'd expect a Park Avenue lawyer to have. One the wall are framed letters from "Nelson" (Rockefeller) and Gerald Ford. Also on the wall are metal engravings from newspaper stories about him when he was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and putting in the slammer crooked Brooklyn politicians and Times Square porn lords and - not the least of his convictions - Carmine "Mr. Gribbs" Tramunti, Mafia don. Curran and his staff got him on a narcotics charge.

"Ah, Mr. Gribbs," he says, almost affectionately. "Well, I though that one would be fun. So I tried it myself."

March, 1974, Carmine Tramunti, 64, in a bulky gray suit and gold-rimmed glasses, sits stoically at an L-shaped table with 17 other defendants in one of New York City's largest-ever narcotics trials. The prosecution is led by an easygoing Irish Catholic father of seven. Paul Curran isn't flamboyant; he is tenacious.

Says Walter Phillips, now a Philadelphia lawyer, who helped try the case: "Only two witnesses took the stand. I direct-questioned one, Paul in other. The guy Paul questioned was a police officer. Curran had hired a private investigator to run checks on everything in the guy's life - when he bought cars, when he got mortgages, probably every time he went to the bathroom.

Every time the investigator wanted to quit, Curran sent him back to get more. Curran had that cop's life cold. During the questioning, Curran seemed like he was pussy-footing around. It was just part of the style."

The Curran style doesn't depend on histrionics. If he has ever raised his voice in a courtroom, no one remembers it. Curran's card is his preparation. His case is won in the office, in hours that melt into weeks of relentless research. Paul Curran is a fact sponge. In his youth, he absorbed sports trivia. It prefigured a life in law, a bloodless pursuit of data. That is the hallmark of Paul Curran. It may be just what the peanut probe requires.

Trial lawyers have widely divergent personal styles, of course. F. Lee Bailey can make a jury cry. Melvin Belli can storm and thunder. Think of special prosecutor Archibald Cox and you think of a Yankee scholar-aristocrat, a fussy, sometimes arrogant academician in half-glasses and a bow tie.

Think of Leon Jaworski and you think of a kind of silk-suited cowboy - a prideful, by turns self-assured, sometimes florid Texan who could go red-faced with anger during his Watergate tenure. Jaworski was never about to let the republicans or Richard Nixon get away with something.

Paul Curran is known for his wry sense of humor. Once, during hearings in Albany on police corruption, a witness faltered. Curran's eyebrows raised benignly and he said, "I suppose you got the money from a little tin box in the attic?"

The man whose photograph is suddenly making Times and Newsweek is fooling with a lighter. He is pushed back from his desk in a green chair, not quite slouched, legs crossed. He looks a bit like Bert Lance. He has been describing the sequence of events two weeks ago that led to his appointment as "special counsel." He sounds cautious as Solomon. The memory is meticulous.

"Flattered?" he says, almost rubbing the word between his fingers. "Yes, I guess you'd have to say I was flattered, though Barbara and the kids are probably getting the real kick out of it."

Curran was chosen for the job, says Assistant Attorney Philip Heymann of the Justice Department, from a original list of about 25 names. They were pared down to three. Curran was the first choice. On March 20, Attorney General Griffin Bell introduced Curran at a press conference in Washington, saying Curran would need Justice Department approval to seek indictments.

That set up a howl the rest of the week by GOP presidential hopefuls, and even by some Democrats. Columnist William Safire called Curran a "patsy prosecutor." On Friday, March 23, Bell relented and gave Curran full indendent status as an investigator. Even though he would keep the title "special counsel."

"I think," Paul Curran says, with the barest sliver of a smile, "that if you have the powers, the name is immaterial."

Paul Curran says he intends to keep out of Washington during the investigation as much as he possibly can. He has decided, in fact, to run the peanut probe from New York. Last week he occupied space in a government office building at 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan.His principal staff consists of three lawyers who have worked with him before, plus an accountant who has worked for the State Commission of Investigation in New York.

He says he has received dossiers and letters of inquiry from lawyers all over the country, wanting to work on the probe. "It was predictable." He shrugs.

Paul Curran says his only comment during all this is going to be "no coment." He says he doesn't intend to hold any Washington press conferences. He says it with a kind of small-smile, perceptibly nodding conviction you can believe.

Paul Curran is hardly a household name in American, even though in legal circles, especially in the New York legal community, his reputation is high. It is hard to find someone who will talk against him. People speak of a sense of right and wrong. "There is a moral resonance," says Robert Morgenthau, Manhattan district attorney, who was once Curran's boss in the U.S. attorney's office. "But he doesn't wear his courage on his shirtsleeves."

Says Sidney Silberman, a partner in Curran's law firm: "There is an instinct for the jugular in any trial lawyer. Paul has that.That's not to say he has an urge to destroy someone. He's a very humane man." Curran has said he will follow the warehouse investigation "wherever it deserves to be followed." The White House has predicted that Curran's investigation will clear the air of all nasty innuendo.

The FBI has reportedly already found what have been termed "technical" violations of federal banking laws in Billy Carter's day-to-day management of warehouse records. The key question Curran and his staff will be facing is whether any of the loans Bert Lance arranged for the Carter warehouse could have made their way illegally into Jimmy Carter's 1976 presidential campaign.

The phone is ringing. Curran bolts forward, getting it on the short ring. The voice is sure, quick. "Yeah, I'll get it for you in the morning, okay, uh-uh, bye." He replaces the receiver, not turning for a moment. Then he smiles: Containment.

Says attorney Jim Gill, Paul Curran's friend of 25 years: "It's not his style to be introspective. He just doesn't reveal himself."

Paul Curran usually gets to work a little after 8 o'clock every morning. He rides the 7:16 down from Scarsdale ("Uh, maybe it's the 7:18"). He doesn't leave the office till 6:30 or 7. He takes work home on weekends.It would bbe easy to see him as the essential man in the gray flannel suit, except that Paul Curran only moved to the suburbs 10 years ago. "I'm a city kid," he says. "For most of my life I never lived north of 21st Street."

Curran's father, deceased, was a lawyer and politican, a protege of Tom Dewey. In 1944, the elder Curran ran for the Senate, against the father of former New York Mayor Robert Wagner. He lost. "I remember growing up to lots of dinner talk about politics." says Curran. In the '60s, Curran was a three-term assemblyman in Albany.

On Curran's desk, in a small gold frame, is a picture of his father. The man in the photo looks ascetic. The hair is swept back, the glasses are wire and perfectly round. "He was an intellectual, Dad was," Curran says. "I guess he was the largest influence on me."

What Paul Curran cared about when he was growing up was sports. Even more than most kids. There was stickball in the streets and there was a trip to the old Garden on 8th Avenue with his father nearly every Saturday night for a track meet or a basketball game.

Curran went to Xavier High in Manhattan. It was then a military school. He was captain of the tennis team and sports editor of the school paper. He thought about journalism for a career. Law nudged in instead.

To this day sports are an odd fascination. He will talk about them with almost no prompting. It's as if he has never outgrown his first real success experience-as if law is money, but sports was and is his joy. He will startle you with the oddest trivia - the names of the starting five of the DePaul University basketfall team when they took the NIT in '45.

"Um, let's see. Mikan, Stump, Triptow...."

"We all play tennis at home, you better believe it," says Mrs. Curran on the phone, with only the slightest weariness.

Curran's first cousin, Bill Curran, an executive with the New York phone company, says he feels like boning up on sports trivia every time the two go out to a game. "He can destroy you with it."

He's also destroyed a friend or two with a well-placed line. Says Bill Tendy, chief assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District, "I remember during the Tramunti trial. I wasn't involved and had stopped in one day to watch. Paul was direct-examining. He left his lectern and approached the witness stand to show a piece of evidence. I was sitting in the front row. On the way back, he passed directly in front of me. Now remember this is a sensational trial. It's very serious and very suspensful. He judge expects the utmost propriety. So curran comes by and says out of the side of his mouth, like Bogart, 'How am I doing, dad? I said, 'You're doing fine, ace.' They guy just doesn't get riled."

A secretary has brought coffee. He has warmed some. He is till contained, a minimalist. He is asked if there is a particular American sensitivity to truth in this post-Watergate era that may somehow affect his job. He answers very slowly.

"Well, I think there may be a little too much cynicism - as distinguished from skepticism - in the country right now. Oh, I don't know what I read about the American people, but that's not the same thing necessarily. But in any event, I don't think it's may job to worry about it."

Then: "I know of only one way to conduct an investigation. And that is to go and do it."

He seems about to say something more. "Never mind."

But what was it?

"Nothing. We were getting metaphysical."

He is asked flatly why he took the job. "It was important to the country. I think lawyers have an obligation to public service."

Then it was a matter of conscience? He hesitates. "I'm not so. . . I don't believe in indispensable people. I don't have that view of myself."

The ash on his cigarette is long; he is holding it straight up.

Curran says he will be surprised if his investigation lasts more than a year. The statute of limitations on criminal violations of the federal electrion laws is three years. Since the period of the Carter campaign that has aroused the most interest fell between March and June of 1976, that seems to put a mandate of time on the special counsel.

But he will stay as long as it takes. What will he do when all this is over? He anticipates it beautifully.

"Why, slip back to where I came from. And maybe play more tennis." CAPTION: Picture, Paul Jerome Curran, who is special counsel investigating the "peanut loans;" AP photo