With briefcases swinging at their sides, the two men leaving downtown D.C. police headquarters look like lawyers. But when they open their cases on the trunk of their car, the true nature of their business is revealed.

There are a Polaroid camera, a tape recorder, a flashlight, a bullet pouch and rubber gloves. "Plenty of rubber gloves," says Detective Kerwood Nixon. "When you're rolling bodies, you never know what they might have."

Their business is homicide investigations, and for Nixon and his partner, Frank Kahane, the day's agenda involves a search for anyone with information about a group of heroin dealers whose product goes under the name "Misty Blue."

A D.C. police dispatcher had received a call at 2:21 p.m. last September 23 reporting an argument between two men that had ended with gunshots. When Nixon and Kahane arrived on the scene, they found the body of a man with two bullet holes in his head.

Months have passed since the slaying, and Nixon and Kahane have continued to search for the killer between filing reports and making court appearances.

So far this year, the D.C. homicide squad has recorded 38 homicides compared to 25 for the first two months of last year.

"There was a man sleeping in a car, heard an argument and looked up, saw the victim in the rear view mirror -- but that's all," Nixon says. "We're working this one from the bottom up."

On the night of the murder, Nixon and Kahane spent hours knocking on every door in a five-block radius of the shooting in Northeast Washington near Kenilworth Avenue. They had come up with a nickname for the slain man, and hours later learned his real name. Through his wife, they discovered that he had $500 ("the rent money," she said), some heroin and a pistol in his pocket.

When the body was searched, nothing was found.

The detectives wondered if this was a robbery gone bad, but word on the street had it that the slain man was a "Misty Blue" dealer who had been loaned -- or "fronted" -- heroin from a rival dealership known as "Terminator."

One source had said that the man was caught selling the lower quality Terminator under the more expensive Misty Blue label, and was killed by Misty Blue enforcers.

Another source, just as anxious to receive a payment for his information, said Terminator forces had killed the man for defaulting on the loan.

For several months, the two detectives staked out Northeast Washington housing projects waiting for a man who fit the description they had been given of a Misty Blue enforcer.

Hundreds of people have been interviewed, scores of auto tags and registrations run through police computers. Suspects have been called in for questioning and released. Yet no arrest has been made.

Nixon, a five-year veteran of the homicide squad, and Kahane, on the squad for just over a year, say they do get frustrated when a case bogs down -- adding that police could use more community support.

"There's a murderer loose out here," Nixon says. "You'd think people would be trying to help us."

The detectives make a stop at the D.C. morgue, where they pick up special film for their cameras and scan the overnight intake sheet. On any given day, the morgue is nearly filled with the carnage of day-old death.

"Three SIDS and one OD," an assistant medical examiner calls off the inventory. (SIDS refers to sudden infant death syndrome; ODs are overdose cases.)

Nixon sighs and recalls a war story.

"Remember back in 1983, two young men entered the South Capitol Street Carry Out, purchased a fish sandwich and began arguing over who was going to carry it," he said. "The man with the sandwich got mad and threw it on the ground, so the other guy pulled a knife and stabbed him to death."

The men smile grimly.

"Whatever the reason," Kahane says. "All we see is despair."