On a cold Tuesday night in January, four teen-agers step out of the grainy darkness of far Southeast and enter a combination gas station and grocery store on the Prince George's County line. They unzip their jackets and unlimber an awesome amount of firepower--two .38 calibre pistols and a sawed-off .12 gauge shotgun--while people trying to buy soft drinks and cigarettes stand and stare. The customers begin "fledding out," as a witness later puts it. The Korean woman behind the counter gets down on her hands and knees and sneaks away among the stacked cartons of cereal and detergent.

Her husband does not see the gunmen until they have vaulted the counter. One points a .38 at him, speaks what has become an archetypal command in urban America: "Give me your money, mother- -----."

For the store-owner, being robbed is almost an avocation. Yet he feels sufficient outrage to refuse, and the gunman bashes him in the face with the pistol butt, splitting the skin above his left eye and releasing a torrent of blood. The victim sinks to the floor in pain and confusion.

The robbers take their time rifling the cash drawer. It contains about $500--a good haul. They stuff the money, even the pennies, into their pockets. The one with the shotgun goes into the outer office and brings back the attendant who works the gas pumps. He makes the attendant lie down on the floor. Then the robbers tuck their weapons under their coats, and saunter out to a waiting car.

A few minutes later, a radio call goes out from the police dispatcher to all Robbery Branch detectives on the street: another gas station has been hit. The owner is injured.

Det. Vernon Jones picks up the microphone off in his unmarked Plymouth and begins talking to the dispatcher while his partner, Det. Bobby Stanford, wheels their cruiser north, out of Anacostia. They have just finished up another call an hour earlier, at a Holly Farms fast-food carryout where they found two plainclothesmen up to their wrists in boxes of fried chicken, and the robber long gone. Stanford and Jones do not like the idea of another investigation so close to the end of their shift.

Both detectives have spent 11 years with the Robbery Branch, and the scene at the gas station is familiar: parked squad cars, a store full of uniformed policemen, an ambulance pulling away, red light revolving. The neighborhood, solidly black and violent, has a seedy rural flavor and a startling incidence of crime.

Stanford and Jones step out of their cruiser with the assurance of large men accustomed to trouble. Beneath their overcoats they carry snub-nose Smith and Wesson .38 caliber revolvers with 2-inch barrels, handcuffs, reporters' notebooks and ball-point pens-- standard tools of their trade.

They find the distraught Korean woman inside, giving a statement to 6D (6th District) officers. Her husband's blood freckles the concrete floor. The detectives have met other Koreans like them, Mom-and-Pop pioneers who set up shop on frontiers most small-scale entrepreneurs won't even consider. They work long hours and, according to Jones, "are perfect victims. They usually don't resist, and they have a hard time picking a black face out of a line-up."

This couple is named Kim. Mrs. Kim thinks she could identify two of the robbers, and the attendant thinks he could identify one, but neither is certain.

The odds that the robbers will be caught are, in a word, abysmal. Last year there were 6,210 armed robberies in the District, and in about three- quarters of the cases no arrests were made. That means thousands of criminals wander the streets of Washington and its provinces, looking for marks. Most of the action occurs in poor neighborhoods, but nowhere, literally, is safe.

The primary reason is appallingly simple: lack of bodies. A few years ago there were 43 detectives in Robbery Branch, and since then the number of armed robberies has almost doubled. Now there are only 28 detectives to investigate what could be 9,000 robberies in 1982, if the trend continues. Each man staggers under a load of between 20 and 30 on- going cases--an impossible, even ludicrous situation.

"We have so many cases," says another detective, "that sometimes when people call and start talking about a crime, we don't know who the hell we're talking to. Finally we have to say, 'I'm sorry, but exactly which robbery was that?'"

The crime committed against the Kims is typical. It contains the seeds of despair, frustration and, just possibly, justice. The investigation is more complicated than most people imagine, and a lot closer to the grimness of "Hill Street Blues" than the glamor of "Burke's Law." Technology and paper work have taken most of the romance out of detective work, which today depends upon computers and luck.

"You're lucky if the victim can identify the suspect," says a veteran detective. "You're lucky if you show him the right suspect's photograph, lucky if somebody hears a name used during a robbery, and lucky if you can find the robber."

Detectives have to beg victims to come down to headquarters and look at photographs. Their job is dangerous, and dirty, taking them through streets and low-rent neighborhoods even the residents despise. They eat bad food on the run, bought from the same carry-outs so often robbed. The pay is inadequate. They see themselves as victims of bureaucratic nit-picking and bureaucratic indifference. They see little of their families because their days are spent in court and their nights shuttling between the street and headquarters at 300 Indiana Avenue, where the elevators move like molasses and the halls are full of the ghosts of the wronged and the unrepentant.

"To be good at this job," says one detective, "you have to love it."

The blush fades after a few thousand stickups like this one.

At the Kims' gas station and grocery, Jones scribbles details, his elbows on the soiled counter top. Stanford questions the victims, making the attendant squirm. Then he and Jones drive across town to D.C. General Hospital.

"Nowadays a robber doesn't get any respect in the neighborhood unless he uses a gun," Jones says, with disgust. "They don't grab an old lady's purse anymore without sticking a gun in her face. When kids team up to rob another kid, a couple of them will have pistols. There are so many guns out there."

Guns are traded around like lawnmowers in Chevy Chase. Detectives say a pistol can be rented for a few dollars by an aspiring robber who pays later with proceeds from the stick- up--a kind of explosive U-Haul for the violent redistribution of property. Detectives would like to see pistols legislated into the Potomac, for they--and the victims--have to deal with the wrong end of the constitutional right to bear arms. But nobody in authority seems to care what they think.

Stanford and Jones: that cadence would grace any cops- and-robbers television pilot. They are hard-working and likable. Stanford wears a tweed hat down to the eyelids; Jones goes uncovered, with a more exuberant hair style. They agree on the absolute necessity of professional football and college basketball, and little else. Although they are partners, they shout a lot. Both have passionate opinions about society and their jobs and, like most detectives--and most human beings--would like to improve that world beyond the cruiser's filmy windows.

Jones believes Americans are doomed without education. "When we put people in jail, at least we could teach them to read and write. We should send people into the ghettos, to help those kids."

Stanford reckons education is worthless without discipline. "Didn't we try all that stuff in the '60s? Who did it help?"

"It helped us, didn't it?"

It is an old argument; Stanford and Jones rub elbows with the components every day. They have arrested people who are downright grateful. "They think that in jail they'll at least get three hots and a cot." The detectives don't believe recessions breed armed robbery.

"I haven't arrested anybody yet who's been RIFed," Stanford says.

"These guys have been in hard times all their lives," says Jones.

After 11 years with the department, Stanford and Jones make about $25,000 a year, only $800 more than a uniformed policeman with the same experience. They get a $300-a-year clothing allowance, which doesn't even cover the cost of cleaning. They have to pay for the ammunition they use practicing on the pistol range and for the batteries they use in their flashlights.

In addition to investigations and paper work, they have to attend arraignments, lineups, preliminary hearings, grand jury sessions during the day, appear for trials, "paper" their cases--fill out and assemble all pertinent documents for the assistant U.S. attorneys who try the criminals they catch-- and deal with victims and witnesses coming down to headquarters.

Stanford and Jones find Kim lying in the emergency room, wearing blue work pants and a soiled blue parka. His shirt is soaked with blood. After the doctor puts five stitches in his forehead, the detectives ask him if he can identify the robbers. Kim does not think so--it all happened so fast.

On the way out to the cruiser, Jones says, "I wouldn't work behind a counter in this town."

They drive to CID (Central Intelligence Division) headquarters. Their office on the third floor is loud with the clatter of typewriters as detectives in shirt-sleeves, a few wearing snap-brim hats, wade into their reports. They sit at metal desks jammed together, breathing air that smells of cigarettes and scalded coffee. A woman suspect sits with her wrist in a handcuff attached to a desk by a chain. Three detectives in jeans are putting away the 12- gauge pump shotguns and bulletproof vests used in stakeouts that night. They carry the same weapons as their adversaries in a gritty, unwinnable war.

Stanford and Jones immediately begin telephoning victims and witnesses to other robberies, trying to make a dent in their caseload. Stanford tries to cajole a woman into testifying against a robber. The woman thinks the robber will find and hurt her if she testifies--a common fear.

"He didn't need a reason to come after you the first time, did he? Let's put him away so he can't rob again." Stanford hangs up and adds, "Every time I call her, she's in bed. I don't know how she got robbed in the first place."

Jones types up a report on the Holly Farms robbery; Stanford takes the gas station. In addition, they have to prepare their 252s--progress reports on other investigations. Detectives in Robbery have entered the age of specialization. Different detectives belong to different squads that specialize in different robberies--street robberies, banks, gas stations, carryouts, liquor stores.

Armed robbers also have their areas of expertise and tend to hit the same sort of establishment again and again. Likewise, the bank squad or the liquor store squad develops its own expertise in each type of case, learning the names and MOs (modus operandi) of repeaters and developing informers.

Stanford and Jones are exhausted by the time they drop the reports on the sergeant's desk and haul on their overcoats. They came to work before 3 p.m., it is now after 11, and they are expected in court the next morning. They belong to the taxi squad--those detectives who investigate stickups of D.C. cabs--so they won't be assigned the follow-up investigation of Kim's gas station. That will go to a member of the gas station squad, one who most likely never heard of the Kims.

The Kims came to the United States from Korea 10 years ago with $180. Kim had fought as a lieutenant in the Korean War with the American Seventh Division, learning some English in the process. He says he later worked as a policeman in Seoul. He and his wife expected greater opportunity for themselves and their three daughters in the United States, although neither of them knew much about this country before they arrived.

Kim enrolled in the Lincoln Technical School, learned how to rebuild transmissions and went to work for a cab company. His wife found a job in a factory near Baltimore that produced plastic yarn. They saved their money, bought a small house in Prince George's County and adopted the names Harold and Gloria. Five years ago, he bought the station for $11,000 down.

He had trouble from the beginning. People stole gas and supplies, even though he hired locals to work in the station. He bought a 12-gauge double- barrel shotgun and kept it in the storeroom, where he slept to prevent break-ins. He was an ex-soldier, and soldiers are not passive.

Last June a man came in and made the usual demand for money. The man had his hand in his jacket pocket. Kim brushed against him, suspected that he didn't have a gun and promptly knocked him down. Then he closed the door on the man's leg, put a foot on his neck and picked up the telephone. "The operator couldn't understand what I was saying." So Kim hung up and dialed the number of the 6th District station, while the man writhed on the floor, and two of his friends stood outside, shouting threats at Kim. A squad car arrived in time.

In July, a man leaned over the counter and stuck a hand in the cash drawer. Kim slammed the drawer, and the man slugged him. The police caught him; Kim had his spectacular black eye photographed.

In November, a man came into the station and stood for several minutes trying to get a large handgun out of his trousers. Finally he succeeded and, pointing the monstrous pistol at Kim, demanded money.

Kim said, "You're not a very good robber." Then he pulled a latter-day John Wayne act. Kim a desk btold the robber he had a shotgun pointed at him under the counter, when in fact the shotgun lay in the storeroom. The robber thought about that for a moment, shoved the pistol back down inside his trousers and walked out.

Kim works about 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and that doesn't include the paper work. He says he makes about $150 a day. Most of the time Mrs. Kim works with him. "We have very special daughters," he says, explaining why he and his wife put up with the drudgery and the danger. "My daughters get good grades in school; they're popular. They must go to a good university-- they must. It's our last hope."

Kim spends little time with his daughters, sleeping at the station as he does five nights a week, alternating those nights so no one will know when the station is empty. He has to sneak out to go home even for a few hours. "This is my jail."

The Kims have been back to Korea once, where they discovered Kim's former friends in the army promoted to high rank and prospering. "They all had such soft hands," he says, in awe. "They asked me what America was like, and I showed them these." He holds up heavily callused hands with black, broken nails.

He would like to sell, but there are few buyers for such property. Most who look are afraid of the men who stand on the corner and the cars that cruise through the station without stopping. Kim refuses to abandon his investment, although every day, when the sun sets beyond the Anacostia River, his wife asks him to do just that.

Kim woke up the day after the last robbery with a swollen, discolored face. He and his wife decided to make the store less vulnerable. They shoved the counter in the garage up against the doorway, so no one could get around it. Kim went to Radio Shack to buy an electronic beam that sets off an alarm if anyone tries to climb over the counter. Finally, he brought the shotgun out of the storeroom and placed it beside the cash register.

Friends of the Kims in the neighborhood called to offer information about the robbery that they had heard on the street. Parents of children who had witnessed it called to express their sympathy, and some sent their children to the station with names. Kim wrote the names down.

The administrative sergeant assigned the case to Det. Leo Spriggs. By coincidence, Spriggs grew up in a house three blocks from Kim's station. He has been on the force for eight years, three of them in Robbery. He is known by his colleagues as a good detective with a collection of three-piece suits and a bandito mustache. He carries his gun in a $42 "drop" shoulder holster he bought with his own money.

It took Spriggs almost a week to get to the Kim's case.

Driving toward his old neighborhood, Spriggs hears on the radio that the Holly Farms robbed the previous Tuesday has just been robbed again. "These chicken places really catch it," he says. (McDonald's are usually crowded and therefore not hit as often.) And he adds, "When I was growing up, kids weren't involved in armed robbery."

Kim is expecting the detective. He is waiting at the gas station with an informant, a black teen-ager named Buddy (not his real name), who is eager to help. Buddy's parents are friends of the Kims, and Buddy, like many children in the neighborhood, considers the station his social turf.

Buddy and the detective confer behind the soft drink cooler, out of sight of customers. Most of the suspects are identified by nicknames. Buddy says of the shotgun, "They take turns with it, going out and sticking up people."

One suspect called Tiny (not his real name), Buddy says, has a silver .38 with tape on the handle. "Sometimes there don't be no bullets in it. A boy got his finger blowed off, trying to run with it."

Buddy is frightened, but Spriggs reassures him. Buddy agrees to report anything he hears on the street. "If you call my house," he tells Spriggs, "pretend your're calling about a job."

Driving back to headquarters, Spriggs says, "I can get a warrant if the Kims can identify a photo. If the U.S. attorney agrees, I can arrest the the suspects from Jump Street, and put them in a lineup." Jump Street means immediately.

He takes the list of names into the Fugitive Branch. Two computer terminals sit in a corner, video screens above lettered keyboards. The glass is smudged, the keys worn. On the wall hangs a drawing of a cobwebbed skeleton seated before a similar terminal, waiting for a repairman.

Spriggs pulls up a chair. A cigarette dangling from his lip, he punches in the code word that gets the computer started, and little green letters dance in a black hole. He punches in the words "Tiny" and "nickname," adds some numbers and hits the command key. The screen goes blank while the information percolates. Suddenly the screen is covered with dozens of Tinys and names that sound like Tiny, with their complete MOs.

Spriggs does the same thing with the other names, the beginning of a winnowing process that will keep him in front of the terminal until he is seeing double. He concentrates on the ages, addresses and the kind of crimes arrayed before him. The computer also provides information about license plates and crimes committed at any address or intersection. "If I misspell a name, the computer will come up with something close."

Spriggs has to go downstairs to Youth Division for additional information. After two days of intermittent work on the case--he has several new cases, in addition to two dozen old ones--Spriggs has two good suspects and three possibles.

He brings the gas station attendant into headquarters to look at photographs in the MO Branch, where color slides have replaced mug shots. MO has 100,000 names on file of people involved in serious crimes in the District. Slides of two of the suspects are mixed with many others and projected life- size on the wall, but the attendant does not pick them out. Spriggs writes "No ID" in his 252.

Spriggs calls the Kims to set up a time for them to look at slides and learns that the informant, Buddy, has gone out on the street on his own and taken photographs of Tiny and another suspect with a Polaroid camera.

Spriggs tosses his pen into the air in exasperation. "This sounds like a big break, but Buddy has put himself in danger. And if the Kims look at the photographs and can't identify them, then I can't show them different photographs of the same suspects without prejudicing the case."

He rushes out to Southeast. "I'll try to get Buddy some money from Crime Solvers," he says, of a program that pays citizens to help the police. "If I can't, I'll try to get it out of our kitty," a CID fund maintained for paying informants.

Kim looks chagrined as he takes the photographs out of his pocket. He and his wife have looked at them. One shows a grinning young man in a cardigan standing in the street; the other shows Tiny sitting on a car hood, his face in shadow. The Kims cannot identify either suspect.

They are invited to come down to the station and look at other color slides. Spriggs checks leads given him by other informants, none of them decisive. He has the other cases to occupy him, as well as grand jury appearances, trials and mounting paper work.

When the Kims come to headquarters, they are unable to pick an armed robber### out of several dozen projected onto the wall of MO Branch.

Luck then becomes the decisive factor. Eleven days after the robbery, Tiny returns to Kim's station and stands outside while a friend goes in to buy cigarettes. Gloria Kim recognizes him as the boy who stood guard by the door during the robbery. She points him out to her husband, and Kim watches Tiny and his friend cross the street into Prince George's County and enter a liquor store. Then he calls the 6D station.

A scout car arrives. The 6D officer calls the Prince George's police and takes Kim to meet them in the parking lot outside the liquor store. Kim points Tiny out as the boy identified by his wife, and they haul Tiny down to the station. A check of records reveals that Tiny, 17 years old, has been arrested twice for simple assault, once for petty larceny and once for making a bomb threat.

The Prince George's County police can't hold Tiny without a warrant. It is Saturday night and too late to get a warrant from the District, so Tiny is released.

Spriggs believes that he has the right Tiny. Gloria Kim's positive identification, known as a "second sighting," makes it unnecessary for her to identify photographs or to pick Tiny out of a lineup. All Spriggs needs is a warrant, but he does not come back to work until Tuesday, two weeks since a gunman struck Kim with the pistol.

The word is out in Kim's neighborhood that he is helping the police. That night, someone slashes all four tires on Kim's tow truck. Kim and his wife are scared. "This has never happened before."

The next afternoon, Spriggs types up an affidavit### and gets it signed by a D.C. Superior Court judge. But because of other work, he can't do the "turn-up"--locating and arresting the suspect. Instead, he gives the warrant and Tiny's case folder, known as the "jacket," to a team of detectives working the shift between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. They plan to drive to Southeast at 4 a.m., the best time to collar suspects at home. But on that shift several more robberies occur, and the detectives never get around to the turn-up.

The following day, Thursday, Spriggs attends a trial. Then he has to go to the pistol range, where detectives are required regularly to qualify to carry a gun. On Friday, Spriggs has to turn-up a suspect in another robbery. He doesn't make it to Southeast over the weekend, and no other detective has time to help.

Three weeks after the robbery, and 10 days after the second sighting by Gloria Kim, no one has attempted to arrest Tiny. Since the night of the stick-up, Spriggs has been assigned 14 new cases, on top of his old load. The Robbery Branch has received 400 new robberies to investigate, with the stakeouts further depleting the stock of detectives.

Two days later, Spriggs finally gets a chance to arrest Tiny, only to find no one at home. Three days later he tries again, with the same result. He puts out an APB (all points bulletin). Another branch of the police force, Special Operations Division (SOD), is now responsible for the turn-up.

"I gave them all the names," Kim says. "I provided witnesses and informants. I followed the robber and identified him. I can't help anymore." He is laughing. "I doolvers,n't understand the law in this country."

"Look," says a sergeant at Robbery Branch, "these guys have so many cases. They follow the strongest leads, but if those leads don't work out, well, they've got other cases waiting. The initiating officer likes to get the first pop at the arrest, but if he can't make the turn-up, he has to let the system handle it."

The system, in this case SOD, already has 3,500 unserved warrants.

The Kims, meanwhile, are shopping for a gas station in a safer neighborhood, should they be able to sell the one in Southeast. They would prefer to buy a fast-food franchise--a Gino's, or maybe a Holly Farms.

A month after the robbery, SOD arrested Tiny, acting on a special request from Robbery Branch. Tiny denied participating in the robbery. The Juvenile Section of the D.C. Superior Court ruled that he be tried as an adult. Arraignment was held in the Adult Section of the D.C. Superior Court, and Tiny was released the same day, without bail, on his own recognizance.