They were eight and a sergeant, and in their tough, self-protective banter laced with insults and unprintable words, they liked to call themselves the "A" Team. Hutchison laced his hands behind his head and swung his cowboy boots up on his metal desk. Fisher hunched over a sheal of reports. Obal, Shawen and the others fitfully conversed, scrawled note or mulled over their work, all waiting for the "big one" to come in over the phone.

There were 20 gray metal desks in the squad room, the Crimes Against Persons division at Montgomery County police headquarters in Gaithersburg. Venetian blinds covered the window. Wanted posters and pizza menus were tacked on the walls. In this cluttered fortress, every detective juggled an average of 12 cases at once, each a journey through a world of victims, blood-soaked clothing, knife wounds and bodies.

From 4 o'clock to midnight, the "A" Team waited for the inevitable tangle of passion and circumstance that each year resulted in more than 1,700 violent crimes against people in the county. After a few calls, it was hard to think sweet things about strangers.

"We don't just describe the world as 'we' and 'they'," said detective Jan Hutchison, as a raw March rain slanted down. "That's just the way it is."

The supervisor of the self-proclaimed "A" Team is 40-year Sgt. Bernie Gillespie, who has a sporadically troublesome ulcer that he soothes with milk, and a face that bears a faint resemblance to television detective Barney Miller.

Gillespie usually spends his time editing shift reports and hunting for holes in cases his investigators might have overlooked. One day in March he was lying face down in a muddy creek in Potomac looking for a knife that a 16-year-old juvenile said he threw into the water after committing an armed robbery nearby. Gillespie was dressed, not in the sharp street clothes that are one aspect of a detective's special aura, but a frumpy-looking wet suit. Belches seem to come from his snorkle.

Up on the bank, 28-year-old Paula Obal, one of the "A" Team's two women detectives, peered intently at the water for a glint of metal as Gillespie combed the silt.

Gillespie finally rose dripping from the creek and pushed his mask up on his forehead. "That kid wasn't kidding you, was he?"

"I'm just going by what he told me," Obal said. "He was right on the money with everything else. And it's logical. This is the only opening along the trail."

"I've seen every inch of the bottom, it ain't there," Gillespie said. "I'll take another look."

An hour later he waded out of the water with two golf balls.

"Waddya got?" an onlooking neighborhood youngster asked.

"Shark's eggs," Gillespie said.

He picked up his pinstriped gray suit, revolver, handcuffs and Timex watch, and carried them back to the car. A crowd of youngsters tagged loosely behind. Obal said the knife wasn't crucial to the case, but would have been nice to have.

"Well, that knife's not where he said it was," Gillespie said. "I can testify to it in court. I couldn't say beyond a resonable doubt if it were the Atlantic Ocean, but it's not in that creek."

The effort to produce evidence ranges from the crude task of dragging creeks to searches of a more subtle sort, as when investigators brainstorm for a scheme that might help pinpoint clues or organize an otherwise unintelligible tableau.

The crime of homicide spurs an intensive hunt for clues. In the four days between the murder of George Angerman Jr., a 36-year-old county tax assessor whose bound-and-gagged body was found July 1978, shot to death in a Rockville parking garage, and the arrest of 15-year-old Paul Wersick, who was eventually convicted of the killing, 40 detectives and uniformed officers conducted more than 2,000 interviews.

Angerman's wallet, found in a field not far from where Wersick lived, eventually led to the youth's arrest, but one of the significant clues was the knot in the red bandanna used to bind Angerman. It was a square knot, and led detectives to suspect that whoever had tied it knew something about knots. Wersick, it turned out, was a boy scout.

Jan Hutchison is a rangy, 39-year-old detective with dark hair silvering at the ears and a laid-back, street-wise style that, as much as his power of subpoena, seems to inspire candid relationships with informants. If not the best, he is among them.

The chief of "Persons," Lt. James G. Roby, did away with the star system in the division when he took overin 1978. He organized the detectives into partners, and put more than one shift at work on a major case. Before that, the higher-ranking detectives would get the plum assignments, and their subordinates would get the "dumps".

Star system or none, Hutchison is sought out by his colleagues for his expertise and insights.

"I've got enough to lock this guy up but not enough to convict him," said detective George Neville, working on a sexual assualt case.

"Then it's an exercise in futility," Hutchison said.

"It's all circumstantial, but it's all good. Canine tracked him, he's the right height, he's got a speech impediment."

"Just put it up. If they don't indict, they don't indict."

"There's too many things. It's got to be him."

"Why don't you just put the cuffs on him and say, 'I got you'".

"That's a long shot. . . The thing is, the harder I came down on him, the less reaction I got on the polygraph. The more I jumped in his s--, the more his heart rate decreased. The only reason I asked Ingrid to talk to him is that I figured a woman would freak him out."

Three years ago, Hutchison arrested two Silver Spring men in their early 20s. They were charged with assault with intent to murder. They had shot a friend in the back with a shotgun, stood over him and laughed while he bled. It was supposed to be an execution; the victim had ratted on his buddies, telling police that they were involved in the pistol-whipping of a drug dealer.

Hutchison had already elicited a statement from one of the two suspects. He brought the other one, a Marine, into one of the little rooms used for interrogations across the hall from "Persons." He didn't expect a hard time.

He remembers starting out "even tempered," asking the suspect who was subsequently convicted of assault with intent to murder, if he wanted to give a statement. The Marine was a tough guy and he sneered at the notion of a statement.

That touched off a scene that is still remembered by lawyers who heard it entered into the court record.

"You're a Marine aren't you, a maggot, right?" shouted Hutchison. "I don't want a statement from you. You make me sick," he said, pounding the table. "I don't want to hear anything you have to say. You're lower than whales -- at the bottom of the sea. You're a goddam yellow. . ."

"I went on from there," Hutchison recalled. "I called him every name I could think of. Most of them you couldn't print. I had nothing to lose. I was only expressing my sentiments."

After the trade, Hutchinson stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

Ten minutes later there was a knock. One of the other detectives went to the door, and in a bawling voice the Marine said, "Could I please talk to detective Hutchison."

The statement he gave, and the method by which it was obtained, were later accepted by the court.

To a new detective like 29-year-old Jan Jaremko, a tall, brown-haired woman who has a master's degree in criminology and cusses as well as the men, the talent of interviewing and evidence-findings can be honed but not acquired.

"I think there's a lot of truth in the old saying, 'It takes a criminal to catch a criminal.'" she said.

Jaremko had scarcely been in the crimes against Persons division three months when she went on her first homicide, a case that has not yet come to trial, in which a middle-aged woman was stabbed and beaten to death in her Silver Spring apartment.

Jaremko, who had spent six years in uniform and pictured detectives as "a different breed that seemed like demi-gods," was apprehensive. She was part of the two-person "evidence team" that had to sketch the crime scene on legal pads, outline the body in crayon and hunt for things that might tell the tale while other detectives canvassed the neighborhood for interviews.

She took care not to touch anything as she entered the apartment, a cardinal rule. Police photographers were making a film record of the crime scene so detectives could later say whether cigarette butts in the ash tray were indeed clues or had been doltishly stubbed out by uniformed officiers, whom the detectives are forever bemoaning because of their ability to mess up investigations.

Standing a few feet from where the body lay face down near a couch, Jaremko tried to put herself in the slain woman's life, tried not to think about her own mortality, "the senselessness," she said, "of what it would be like to die that way."

Something struck her as odd. Neighbors had heard noises around nine o'clock. The woman had come home from work and Jaremko knew she liked to drink. The apartment . . . looked too . . . tidy.

The insight struck her to the quick: someone had cleaned the victim's place up. "It was almost intuitive," Jaremko remembered. "That was the biggest insight I had."

Although the bar glasses had been washed and put away, police were able to dust them for fingerprints and the evidence led shortly to the arrest of a suspect.

"I was shy about asserting my theories at first," Jaremko said. "I was afraid I'd be laughed at. But no matter how farfetched it is, the only way to be satisfied is to throw it out. You mind is as good as the next person's when it comes to solving things."

As the detectives season, they grow increasingly hard-boiled about the blood and the pain and the trauma. Only the death or victimization of a child breaches their objectively.

"If you ever get to the point," said Jaremko's partner, detective Charles Peters, "where you don't bust your [rear] on a child in need of help . . . if you ever get to the point where that doesn't mean anything to you, then you'd better quit."

Of all the horrible pictures of bodies, some in advanced stages of decomposition, the worst to Miles Albans, the only detective with a law degree and membership in the Montgomery Bar, is the picture of a three-year-old girl stabbed to death in the back last winter. "That was really bad," he said. "There were detectives who were crying."

Nine Paul 14 and 15, on the road. .

Nine for county wide, Paul for persons as in Crimes Against Persons, and 14 and 15 for detectives Jan Hutchison and his partner, Tony Fisher, a strapping 29-year-old black man who was peering at a map of Montgomery County.

"No, straight."

Wipers brushed the rain off the windshield of their unmarked, caramel-colored Concord. In the back seat were two attache cases containing rape kits, crayons for outlining bodies, body shrouds, glassine envelopes, paper bags for bloddy clothes, ropes for cardoning off crime scenes.

The radio squawked and Fisher reached for the knobs. A 160-pound male had just forced the manager of a supermarket in Chevy Chase to open the safe at gunpoint, and fled with $5,000. The tires of the Concord sizzled in the rain as the car accelerated onto the beltway and headed west.

"Nine Paul 14 and 15, taking the call," Fisher said. "I told you nights like this are vulnerable to robberies."

They missed the supermarket the first time, turned around and parked out front. A uniformed officer was there, waiting for the detectives to take over. He outlined the incident.

"We're with the police," Hutchison said to the manager. He divided the witnesses with Fisher, to interview them for descriptions of the suspect. They put their heads together to compare notes.

"He was clean-shaven, did you get that?"

"Yeah."

"That's unusual."

They advised the manager of ways to protect against more robberies, drove back to Silver Spring, and pulled into a Lums for dinner.

"We'll work up a composite Monday," Hutchison said, cutting an open-faced roast beef sandwich on white bread. "You just don't hit one grocery store and end a life of crime."

"This guy won't go gracefully," Fisher said. "He's somebody who had nothing yesterday, and now he's got $5,000. He'll be a big shot. He'll drive around in a car with women. He'll spread it around. He'll shoot it in his arms."

"That's wasn't too bad," Hutchison said, throwing down his napkin. They left a small tip, and were back on the road. Hutchison groused, "We eat out every night of the week on the evening shift. You get back on day work, and what's the first thing your wife wants to do? Go out to a restaurant."

Earlier a call had come in from Silver Spring. An old man was reporting an armed robbery; he had said friends of his cousin and tied tied him up and stolen the TV. Now he was down at the district station and the Silver Spring police wanted a robbery detective.

"Aw, Christ . . ." Fisher groaned.

"Sounds drug-related," Hutchison said.

"It sounds like a dump," Fisher said.

At the district station, a frail-looking, white-haired black man sat at a picnic table wheezing loudly. Opposite him was another man, dressed in a white nurse's uniform and nurse's shoes. His hair was coifed and high-lighted with orange streaks.

An overweight, uniformed officer threw up his hands when Fisher and Hutchison walked in. "I don't know what I got," he said. "I got a 70-year-old man with emphysemia, a stolen TV and a he-she who says his cousin did it. You tell me what I got."

Hutchinson sat down with the old man, and Fisher took the transvestite, whom they were calling a he-she, into a small room.

He closed the door. "Okay," he said. "Let's begin at the beginning."

The transvestite was 32, and there were tears in his eyes. He was sure it was his "cousin" and his cousin's two friends who'd brandished a knife, tied up the old man, his uncle, and stole the TV. The cousin and his two friends had driven up the night before from Richmond to spend the night.

"Are you gay?" Fisher asked.

"Of course," the man said.

"I had to ask."

"I know."

When Fisher emerged 20 minutes later to see how the transvestite's story meshed with the account Hutchison had heard from the old man, his partner wanted to know more about the clothes the robbers had been wearing.

Were they the same clothes that the dudes from Richmond had arrived in? Had they brought any luggage with them? And why did they steal just a five-year-old television set?

The case was beginning to fulfill its billing as a dump except that the old man was badly shaken up, still gasping for air, and the transvestite, his nephew, felt indirectly responsible for what had happened.

Hutchison poked his head into the interrogation room where the transvestite sat forlornly.

"Three dudes came up here with no money," he said. "They waved a knife, tie up the old man and steal a color TV. They're not going to get $35 for that on the street. What's that, $11 and change apiece? Now does that make any sense to you?"

"You don't know my cousin," the transvestite said.

The detectives made a couple of calls out of state, got a few leads, and finished what they could do then and there.

"How long you been here" asked a uniformed officer.

"Since Christ was a carpenter," Hutchison said.

"Hey, can you guys give the he-she and the old man a ride home?"

"Aw Jeez . . ."

"Hey, thanks."

They dropped the pair off in front of a row house a few blocks from the station. The old man was still a little dazed and breathing in gasps, but he scrambled out of the car and his nephew helped him up to their house.

Back in the squad room, there were greasy pizza cartons. Gillespie strolled out of his office and flopped an open folder down on the desk of Hutchison, who wrote the section on report-writing in the division's manual on standard operating procedure.

"You don't have a conclusion that says what you're gonna do," Gillespie said. "You gotta have something at the end."

"You look at that case and you tell me what I can do," Hutchison said.

"I know, I know," Gillespie said. "But you gotta have a conclusion that says what you're gonna do next."