The black clouds of a tropical storm had enveloped the Miami area early last Monday when hard-charging attorney Stephen Arky left two notes on legal paper, put a .38-cal. revolver to the right side of his head and pulled the trigger.

One of the notes was to his wife, Marlin, who found her husband dead in the bathroom when she returned about 10 a.m. to their Coral Gables home from a dental appointment. The note said "he loved her," but that he was "depressed . . . and couldn't deal with it anymore," according to Metro-Dade homicide detective John Butchko.

The other note, addressed "To Whom It May Concern," said this: "As for the ESM matter, I swear now that I did not know anything about the adverse financial conditions. I am innocent of any wrongdoing in that case and so are my partners."

So ended the life of a 42-year-old lawyer admired by his friends as a principled and decent man. He was a wily former federal enforcer and scourge of white-collar criminals who built a meteoric career on a reputation as one of the good guys -- until last spring, when he was entangled in the financial crisis that shook Ohio's savings and loan institutions.

The "ESM" in Arky's note referred to the obscure Fort Lauderdale securities firm whose collapse sent shock waves through the U.S. investment system, cost professional money handlers at least $250 million and touched off the Ohio banking crisis. It brought disaster to Arky's father-in-law, Marvin Warner, the politically connected, high-rolling Cincinnati financier, and apparently death to Arky, whose firm counted ESM as one of its clients.

It is not yet clear to what extent Arky was involved in ESM's questionable dealings or benefited from them. But some of his friends said his fatal depression was born, in large measure, of embarrassment.

Arky had tried a month ago to commit suicide, Detective Butchko said, by taking "some sort of pills." His law partners never knew about it, one of them said.

"Based on things he said to us in the last three weeks, after he suddenly seemed to snap, I think he believed really he was a burden on us all," said his law partner, Eugene Stearns, who in recent months has taken on the role of spokesman for Arky. "He thought he was doing us all a favor . . . . It blows us all away."

Stearns argues that Arky was the innocent target of a vendetta by ESM's receiver and of irresponsible journalism and that the publicity was more than he could take.

Miami attorney Richard Pettigrew, a former assistant to President Jimmy Carter and Arky's first law partner, said, "I thought he approached everything on the basis of the highest principles."

Pettigrew, now with the firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and chairman of the Dade County Democratic Party, added that Arky was "highly aware of where the lines are and that you must stay far away from them."

"He was very mature in his understanding of the business world . . . and cautious to a fault. I think, ultimately, this was what was so embarrassing to him, that someone so good at evaluating people and business could so misplace his confidence."

Soft-spoken and low-key for a wealthy and ambitious man, Arky was not given to the con-artistry and extraordinarily high living allegedly associated with some of the primary people in the ESM scandal, one of whom was reported to own a $78,000 dog.

Until the scandal surfaced five months ago, Arky's life had seemed golden.

"He was the epitome of a young lawyer who had married right and had the right father-in-law and was in the right business luncheon clubs," said James Russell, business editor of The Miami Herald.

Arky drove an "old Rolls Royce," lived comfortably but not ostentatiously and contributed to various community insitutions and causes, according to acquaintances. He jogged and played softball occasionally at his children's school, Pettigrew said.

The son of a St. Louis storekeeper, Arky earned a law degree from Washington University there in 1967 and went to work in 1968 for the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington.

Stanley Sporkin, Arky's former SEC boss and now general counsel for the Central Intelligence Agency, said, "He was one of my finest young men."

Arky moved to the SEC's Miami office, where the securities business is reputedly one of the biggest and most scandal-ridden in the country. At that time, the SEC was in hot pursuit of fraudulent municipal bond dealers in Memphis, a market in which two of the people who were to found ESM were then operating.

One of the two was Ronnie Ewton, the "E" in ESM. He and Arky met subsequently when they were in the Army Reserve, at about the time Arky moved into private practice. It was Arky who introduced his father-in-law to Ewton, setting the stage for a series of business arrangements between the two.

Following a traditional path, Arky left the SEC to join Pettigrew's firm in 1971 as a corporate and securities specialist and, Pettigrew said, immediately impressed clients with his expertise.

After that firm dissolved in 1976, the lawyers regrouped as the general commercial firm of Pettigrew, Arky, Freed, which later became Arky, Freed, Stearns, Watson & Greer, a 55-attorney firm in downtown Miami.

At first, the firm was noted primarily for its youth and aggressiveness. But it got a crucial leg up when it signed Arky's father-in-law, whose patronage ushered the firm into the high-stakes realm of bank mergers and no-holds-barred takeover fights.

Arky acknowledged Marvin Warner's role in the law firm's success. But, he told The Miami Herald in late 1982, Warner's business would have meant little if the firm had stumbled in handling it. "He gave us the entree, and we capitalized on it," Arky said.

ESM's collapse in March precipitated the shutdown of Warner's S&L in Ohio, Home State Savings Bank. Depositors started a run on the banks when they learned that Home State's loss of $150 million had wiped out a private insurance fund of $130 million. Gov. Richard F. Celeste ordered the closing of all 71 institutions insured by that fund.

Arky's law firm was one of several that represented ESM. According to a lawsuit filed by the state of Ohio and statements by Miami lawyer Thomas Tew, court-appointed trustee for ESM, Arky was given favorable treatment on his personal account with ESM. In April, in an interim report filed in Fort Lauderdale district court, Tew named Arky as a "potential" ESM insider for legal purposes, meaning that payments to him might be recovered.

Stearns says that Arky lost more than $125,000 in his ESM account, which he closed last January.

Arky steadfastly denied Tew's allegations. In April he accused Tew of "viciousness, recklessness and prejudice" and of improperly using his position to pursue a longstanding "personal vendetta" against him.

"They're feeling the heat and want me off the case," Tew said, denying Arky's claims in turn.

The feud reportedly dated from 1971, when, as an attorney for the SEC, Arky sued Continental Tobacco Co. for alleged securities violations. Tew was an investor in and counsel for the tobacco firm.

Tew was in Ohio, testifying at a special state legislative hearing on the ESM case, when he received the news of Arky's suicide. He continued his testimony but decided to leave out the part dealing with Arky's favorable treatment.

Tew said, "It's a tragedy -- these issues, nothing is worth a life over."