Detective Joe Haggerty, bearded and dressed in a leisure suit, and his partner Thom Grace, clean-shaven and prematurely gray, settle comfortably in their unmarked police cruiser, turn onto 14th Street NW and casually scan the dark streets for the familiar faces. Haggerty and Grace are police specialists. They stalk pimps.

The world in which they work is filled with shadowy people - robbers and junkies, pickpockets and prostitutes, burglars and panhandlers who, like bats out of a cave, flock to 14th Street to prowl. They use stealth, weapons, and the con to whip their prey.

Somewhat farther back in the shadows, in the lounges and on side streets, chattering with each other about the vagaries of life, are the pimps. They try to keep their clothes clean.

Unlike other policemen, Haggerty and Grace see their quarry every night. They know many pimps by name and ask some how they're feeling. That very closeness, though, breeds frustration; pimps are among the most elusive criminals to jail.

"In most cases you have the crime and look for the crook," says Grace. "Here we have the crooks and we gotta find the crime. Basically we have to wait until a pimp kicks a girl's ass and she comes to us. Without a complaint, we don't have anything."

Haggerty and Grace are veterans of the midnight-to-dawn shifts along the seedy, littery strip of 14th Street that runs from Florida Avenue NW to H Street. It is known, they announce, as "The Stroll."

On one corner stands a man in a chartreuse jumpsuit with a leather cummerbund studded with rhinestones, and a wide-brimmed hat. On another corner is a young man in white mink. It might well be Easter on Fifth Avenue. Except the parade is on the sidewalks and the spectators are driving down the street.

The pimps usually stay between Corcoran and K, the detectives explain. Pimps have no use for the lower end of The Stroll, with its porno shops and clip joints, or the upper end, where the droves of junkies take long looks at their gold rings and fancy clothes.

Haggerty takes out his card file, and begins sifting through mug shots. He eyes the men on the sidewalk, as the cruiser passes by them, and they eye him.

There are about 500 pimps in Washington and mot are black men in their 20s, the detectives say. They have names like "Mr. Angel," "Delicious," "Gizmo," "Baby Ruth," and "Cornbread."

About half of them are from out of town, streaming here in increasing numbers. They come from Boston and New York, where lawmen are cracking down on them, and from almost every other state, lured here by the word that D.C. courts are lenient on prostitution. "It's a free port now," Haggerty says.

In fact, there are so many coming into the city that a lot of pimps are having trouble making money. Detectives say some of the out-of-town pimps are telling their girls to rob. Local pimps claim that this is giving them a bad reputation.

A few weeks ago some pimps from Memphis shot at some pimps from the District after a wild chase down The Stroll in their Cadillacs. Police are talking about a possible pimp war.

"There's going to be one," says Haggerty, as the cruiser approaches Thomas Circle. "You see how big The Stroll is. There's just not enough room. Somebody's gotta move."

The cruiser stops at the corner of 14th and P and Haggerty hops out. The man he wants to talk to is wearing a burnt orange suit. He calls himself Caramel Candy. Haggerty flashes him an ID card: "Good evening. I'm detective Haggerty from third district prostitution."

The conversation is quiet but short. Haggerty comes away with the man's name, date of birth, Social Security number, his car model, and tag number. "That's about all we can hope to get." Haggerty, nevertheless, logs the information in his notebook.

Not all the exchanges are so pleasant. Some pimps don't talk. Some don't talk nice.

"Good morning, Bennie," Grace shouts out of his cruiser at a sullen man picking his teeth on a stoop near Thomas Circle.

"What's it to ya?" the man growls. "What you care?"

Grace walks up to within 4 inches of the man's nose. "Maybe we got a misunderstanding here," Grace says softly. "Here I say 'good morning' to you and you come off with a bunch of mouth."

"I ain't gotta talk to you," the angry man says.

"No you're right, you don't, but there's no law that says I can't talk to you."

"Everytime you talk to me you lock me up." The man stands up. "You come around to gloat."

Grace has arrested Bennie on a charge of carnal knowledge of a 13-year old, and has served subpoenas on him several times. Bennie's case is pending in the court. "Even though I locked you up, I talked to you as a man, and if someone says something to you like a man I would expect you to answer like a man, not a child," Grace says.

The angry man leans closer. "Why don't you take that gun off and step back in that alley . . ."

Grace stands his ground. "If you're ready, all you have to do is do it now," he says.

A stalemate. Nothing useful out of Bennie's mouth tonight.

"I said good morning to him because we try to be polite with people; we want them to talk to us," Grace says, driving away. "We want the girls to remember us then they get beat up." And they want pimps to tell them thing for their files.

Haggerty and Grace have spent much of their police careers chasing pimps. They have index cards with pictures of the pimps, and files full of long-time pimps and new ones. Most of them have not been caught. Women seldom turn their men in and when they do, judges turn them back out.

Police have arrested about 1,000 prostitutes this year, and about 20 pimps. They have sent the men to court for pandering (causing a woman to work as prostitute) and procuring (setting up dates and receiving money) and related offenses, but none has received anything more than probation.

Why, then, the hunt that has consumed so many of Haggerty and Grace's nights, yet yielded so fe arrests? Haggerty answers the question with a tape recording. It is an interview with Angela, a prostitute who had gone to the police for help.

Angela: ". . . He jumped on me today, but the last time he really beat on me was last week . . ."

Q. "What's he beaten you with?"

A. "Clothes hangers, jumper cables, [WORD ILLEGIBLE], pipes, anything he picks up . . .

Q. "Have you ever had any medical treatment for the beatings? . . ."

A. "Well, the day that I cut my wrist, he was beating me when I cut it 'cause like that was the only way I could get him up off me was to cut my wrist, and you know, for him to see this and leave me alone . . ."

Q. "How long did you live there with him?"

A. "Going on two, two-and-a-half years . . ."

Angela said she joined her pimp because he supplied her with drugs, she stayed with him because she was afraid to go, and because "before he was on narcotics he was a different person."

That's why they go after them, Haggerty and Grace, say, turning off the recorder. Pimps abuse women and coerce young girls into prostitution.

"They'll buy a girl a tube top and a bikini and make 'em sleep maybe two or three to a bed, and he'll take all the money, because he needs a new wardrobe, because he needs a new car," Haggerty says.

Why do the women put up with it? Some of them are attracted to the charisma, the domination of the man, he says. Others yield to drugs or fear. Or a lie.

The pimp says, "Oh, baby, we just gotta get ahead, get a bank account, then someday you and me'll get a place in the country," Grace says. "He says he loves her, but to a pimp love means money."

At 3 in the morning, a prostitute beckons the detectives at 14th and Corcoran. "Ask me for some ID so it looks like you're checking me out," she whispers, leaning into the crusier. She has information. A pimp has an arrest record and has stashed a pistol in his room, a possible felony. She asks them to put in a good word for her with the U.S. Attorney's office. "We'll mention you helped," Grace says and the detectives head to the rooming house.

The man seems stunned when the detectives walk in. His woman sits up in bed, clutching a mongrel.She appears to be about 20. The man, wiry, greying, sits passively beside her as the officers begin rummaging his room. The wallpaper is peeling and the soiled curtains are falling off the rods. Clothes are piled, not hung, in the closet.

"Anywhere you want, look anywhere you want," the man says quietly.

Under the bed the detectives find half-eaten tins of sardines, mounds of dogs excrement and dozens of used syringes.

The detectives find a rifle and take it with them.

"Anything you want," the man says.

After they leave the officers went to wash their hands.

It's hard to interview a pimp. Why should they make a case against themselves when the police can't?

R. A., clad in jeans, sneakers and a sweatshirt and standing at People's drug store at Thomas Circle at 4 in the morning, agrees to talk. He is coy. He likes to talk.

He admits to being a "part-time" pimp, or 'player'.

"That's like being a part-time robber," Grace whispers. The detectives walk away, the only condition under which R. A. will talk . . .

"I don't occupy all my time with a woman . . . R. A. says. "I like to do different things. Sometimes I choose to bowl, or play billiards, or dance, or listen to music. My goal is to be content and enjoy life."

He is 23, slightly built and has a beard and large, expressive eyes. He grew up in Northeast and went to Catholic schools.

"From 9 to 3 I got taught by Catholic nuns, then I had to come out into the street. There is a book knowledge and a street knowledge. It's best to know both."

Because of his Catholic upbringing he says, "I am respected and admired by everyone who comes into association with me because I am a total gentleman."

R. A. says he would not beat a woman. "The average player who beats a woman wouldn't like to be beat himself. I can't see it."

But he sees nothing wrong with ordering a woman to sell her body. "It's no different than a husband who tells his wife to go to work. To a player, love and money are on the same level. A player never puts love over money."

He sleeps till midnight, he says, then rides his bicycle around 14th Street until dawn, while his women work nearby. "The world is a stage and everyone's an actor," R. A. says. "The best actors are players."

At dawn Haggerty and Grace settle in for their usual breakfast at the usual place, the Holloway House cafeteria, 14th Street and New York Avenue NW.

After their night's work the two have no arrests and a few tidbits for their notebooks. They know they barely make a mark on the pimp population, but as they see it, if they didn't try, who would? They take some comfort in the fact officers throughout the department call them for information when a pimp turns up as a suspect in some other crime.

Outside the cafeteria trash blows on The Stroll. The pumps, prostitutes and junkies have played out their sidewalk games and vanished. The streets fills with day people getting off buses and subways, rushing for office buildings or maybe a quick Egg McMuffin.