IN THE MAIL, on the airwaves and in the newspaper at your doorstep, contests are incessantly promising to fulfill your every wish -- house you, clothe you, drive you, make your car payments, send you to exotic places on ocean liners and 747s, shop you till you drop, feed you, slim you and give you wide-screen TVs, state-of-the-art stereos and the latest in high-tech CD players.

Promises, promises. But, who ever wins? The truth is, for those willing to take the time, Washington is a contest and sweepstakes mecca, awash in free cars, cash and international vacations. Some prizes are begging to be taken, as in, take the $10,000, the trip to London, or the '88 Mustang LX convertible. Please.

Profiled here are some plucky, fortunate Washingtonians who capitalized on the temptation to get something for nothing. They filled out entry blanks, then filled their plates, at the city's only free lunch.

Irene Townsend is geared up for the most important run of her life.

The spritely Springfield resident has come seriously dressed for competition, in jogging shoes, a roomy yellow sweatshirt and loose slacks. Members of her family stand nearby, ready to cheer. Microphones and television cameras focus on Townsend's swift maneuvers through a complex obstacle course.

But Townsend's race isn't taking place in a sports arena. We're in busy, upscale, brass- and glass-adorned Georgetown Park shopping mall. Armed with a credit card she just won, Townsend has 90 minutes to spend $10,000 -- courtesy of the mall and radio station WCXR-FM (105.9), cosponsors of the spending spree.

Townsend's smoothly executed dash -- she sketched, then memorized the mall's intricate, multi-tier floor plan -- takes her through the airy racks and showcases of Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch, Bailey Banks & Biddle, and a dozen other pricey shops. (Though mall spokeswoman Susan Hastings assures us in a post-spree interview, "You don't need $10,000 to shop here.")

When it's over, Townsend's victory wreath comes in the form of shopping bags brimming with treasure -- a computer and printer, two stereos, a VCR, two CD players, pearl and diamond earrings, and stylish clothes galore -- all carted home in the style to which Townsend, at least for the day, seems accustomed: by chauffeur-driven limousine.

Townsend, 55, a senior tax analyst for Psychiatric Institutes of America, worked hard for her booty. She estimates she trekked to the mall "15 or 20 times" to deposit her "several" ballots during the entry period. Then came the working over from the media on the day of the spree. The "$10,000 woman," as she came to be called, withstood a relentless barrage of questions from TV reporters looking to fill a slow news day. (For instance: "Does your husband know you listen to a rock station?") The run was easy by comparison. Ever the good sport, Townsend, in the spirit of the day, earmarked one-tenth of her winnings for charity.

There are other winners, too, all anxious to tell their stories. Like:

The 32-year-old I Street stockbroker who won a 1988 Mustang on his lunch hour -- one week after the Black Monday crash;

The Department of Defense knight-errant whose testimonial for a rust inhibitor landed him an ad appearance, along with a $2,500 modeling fee;

The 37-year-old Bowie construction superintendent who won an hour of free playing time -- to the tune of $10,000 -- on an automatic teller machine;

The photo plant worker from Laurel whose year-long grand prize began with a dinner date with "Falcon Crest" star Lorenzo Lamas over stuffed lobster and champagne at Duke Zeibert's; and

The Laurel carpenter whose new Olds Cutlass Calais is evidence of how lucky the Irish can be, especially on St. Patrick's Day.

People who seek out contests and sweepstakes on a regular basis claim no win comes easy. If you must spend all day planted next to the radio, invest every week in a roll of postage stamps, or fill out stacks of entry forms until your hand cramps, you're paying a price, sometimes for a win that never materializes. Given that, John Forster has a story about one of the easiest sweepstakes wins ever.

That day in mid-October, the E. F. Hutton stockbroker had no hunches, strategies or game plans for winning. He simply followed his stomach.

Leaving his brokerage firm on I Street for lunch, Forster stopped first for a haircut and learned from his barber that a new bank a block away was giving away free pizza. By the time Forster got to the Carteret Savings Bank at 18th and I, the pizza was gone. But a 1988 Mustang LX convertible, the featured attraction in Carteret's Grand Opening Sweepstakes, was still on display. Forster filled out a single entry blank. "It took five minutes of my time to do it," he said. "It seemed to me to be worth it."

According to Carteret manager Edward O'Brien, Forster's entry was picked from a field of 3,700 vying for the Mustang.

More than a month after his win, Forster is still reeling. The car comes with "everything," he says, "all the bells and whistles, with the exception of the V-8 engine." But Forster almost seems more taken with the mechanics of the free contest he fell into than the grand prize he has reaped.

"It's unreal," he says, chortling, as he divides the value of the Mustang by the number of entries. "On a strictly pool-the-money, buy-the-car basis, it should have cost $4.25 to enter the raffle."

And what about the irony of his good fortune coming just days after Wall Street's October 19 stock crash? "It came at a good time," he says, laughing again.

Mark Dysart's grand-prize win required nothing more than listening to his usual radio station, WGMS (570 AM/103.5 FM). Dysart, a 37-year-old director of research and education for Transportation-Communications International Union in Rockville, calls himself a "faithful listener" to Dennis Owens' morning program. So when the station began its Beethoven "Winning Works" contest, Dysart was all ears. At stake was a seductive grand prize: a 1988 Mercedes 190E 2.3 sedan -- along with a first-class trip for two to Germany.

The contest required tuning in over a 10-day period for the names of 10 Beethoven compositions. One piece was played each day during a designated hour. Listeners were told which one-hour segment to listen to each morning. Players filled in their answers on an official entry form and mailed it back to the station. The names of all 10 selections were also announced periodically throughout the contest.

Lynn Stander, WGMS advertising and promotion director, says several thousand entries came in for the station's biggest promotion ever -- a total of one hundred prizes, including a grand prize worth more than $38,000. The big one went to Dysart, whose entry, Stander indicated, was the first picked.

"I don't do this very often, in fact, rarely," a soft-spoken Dysart says. The only other win he recalls is a $100 prize he picked up five or six years ago in a raffle sponsored by the United Democrats of Frederick County.

This May Dysart will see Germany with his wife and, while there, tour the country in his prize Mercedes. At the end of their week abroad, his car will be shipped to Baltimore.

"It's a very fortunate stroke of luck," Dysart says, "but I don't expect to win again. Anybody deserves only one." While Dysart is for the moment not the least bit interested in pushing his luck, a number of fellow workers view him as their lucky charm. "Lots of people have come by," he says. One of them even asked, "Can I touch you and go play the lottery?"

Most people would think Erik Lindengren's win was easy. The Bowie resident's single entry took the grand prize in the Most "Cash Countdown" sweepstakes. (More than 215,000 entries were received.) Lindengren was told he could collect his winnings at the bank. But, like Townsend, Lindengren had to work to win.

At Rockville's White Flint Mall, under careful scrutiny by Most officials, the media and the public, Lindengren had to fetch his prize from an automated teller machine, $120 at a time. In one hour, he had to dial out the entire $10,000 pot. Anyone who's used automated banking knows how tenuous an operation even a single withdrawal can be. Under harsh lights, Lindengren was called upon to execute scores of flawless transactions in a row. In addition, contest officials kept from Lindengren until the last minute specific information about the particular ATM machine he would perform on, including its access number.

In the days before the big withdrawal, Lindengren researched machines similar to the one at White Flint. He discovered, for instance, that it would be "more efficient" if he used both hands. "I could play one side with one hand and the keyboard with the other hand," he says. "I didn't want to have the machine waiting on me. I wanted to make sure I was always waiting on the machine."

The 37-year-old construction superintendent decided that too much practice could be counterproductive. "Because I didn't know the secret code, I didn't want to get ingrained in a format that I might find myself doing habitually. I just made sure I knew how to operate the machine with no hitches."

Minutes before his time started, Lindengren was given the access code: "6678." He wrote those numbers on the back of his right hand, "so there would be no delay in trying to remember it."

His near-Olympian preparation paid off. Eighty-three transactions later, in a time of 51 minutes and 45 seconds, Lindengren at last had his $10,000 prize.

Months after his win, Lindengren "still feels great about it." Then he bursts into laughter. "I can always look at my checkbook."

Would he consider entering more contests? "In fact, I sent out three sweepstakes entries today," he says. "They came in the mail, and they were each for $10,000. So what the hell." And there's another roar of laughter.

If there is a story of a contest win that is a dream come true, it belongs to Pamela Ann Rapp, 32, of Fairfax. "Let's see," she says, a few breathless moments after learning of her win from Giant Food. "How old am I?" Rapp had just gotten the news that she would be flying to London courtesy of Giant. Her excitement was understandable. One of "probably 40" entries she and her parents deposited in her name was chosen from more than 50,000 Giant received as part of their "Foods from Britain" promotion. Rapp boasts she entered "at every Giant Food store within reach.

"It's incredible," Rapp says, collecting herself. Sometime this year, she and a companion will fly to London for a week of theater (tickets to the musical "High Society" come with the package), sightseeing and soaking up the Edwardian splendor of her accommodations at the Waldorf Hotel.

Lots of people win trips, but Rapp's is one of those unusually appropriate wins that makes you wonder.

"I'm heavily into the 18th century," says Rapp, who delights in imitating historical lifestyles when not attending school full time at Northern Virginia Community College. She first joined a group that recreated the daily routine of the First Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line. That got her interested in "the social aspects of the period." Currently, she dabbles in baroque court dance and "gentry workshop," she explains, "giving people the tools to recreate 18th-century gentry life."

"The last time my mom and I went out to drop off entries," Rapp confesses, "we prayed over them."

Sometimes that works, too.

Bruce Weigle, 37, of Annandale, also spends his spare time recreating history. In fact, his weekend habit of suiting up in armor as a member of the Society for Creative Anachronisms led to his contest winnings -- appearing in an ad for the multi-talented household product WD-40.

Weigle, who works for the Department of Defense, had used WD-40 as a rust inhibitor on his medieval armor for years. "In fact," he says, "it continues to be one of the best applications for the product." When Weigle put his enthusiasm into a 25-word testimonial for the nationally conducted "Appear in a WD-40 Ad" contest, his entry slew the competition.

As his grand prize, Weigle was flown to San Diego for a photo session and given a $2,500 modeling fee.

Weigle shared the top honors with Diane McCrea of Annapolis who vouched for the product's grease-cutting qualities. On a weekend trip to the beach, her strapless, pink party dress accidentally got stained. McCrea applied WD-40 and, according to the company's press release, a "romantic weekend was saved."

Ah, romance. Ever since the game a couple of years back called the "Canada Dry Joan Collins Sweepstakes" ("Win a fabulous dinner with Joan Collins or . . . One Million Dollars!"), contests that pay off in celebrities hold a special allure. (By the way, the winner of that contest suggested Joan try one of those Entrees for One frozen dinners.)

Jane Buter, 25, was a production worker for District Photo in Beltsville when she won a radio station contest with a very special two-part prize. The first part was a year's free lease on a new Lincoln Continental. Because the participating dealership chose to rotate Buter's prize every four months, she actually got to use three different Continentals. All she did was gas 'em up.

The Laurel resident still swoons as she recalls the second part of her prize: dinner with "Falcon Crest" star Lorenzo Lamas. Buter and Lamas were limoed from the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Crystal City, where the contest took place, to Duke Zeibert's restaurant. For "two to three hours," the couple chatted, drank champagne and feasted on lobster stuffed with crab meat.

Lamas proved both a gracious and lively dinner companion. "He was very talkative," Buter says. "We talked about his kids and about race cars. He's into that. And we talked about how it feels to be a contest winner." She arrived home about 1:30 in the morning.

Sometimes the key to winning is having the right key. Ask Greg Golden, who runs his own door repair and replacement business in Centreville. Golden and his wife were handed two keys as part of a promotion of Manassas Mall by WAVA-FM (105.1). Like nearly 800 other catalogue-holders given keys, the Goldens were encouraged to try their luck turning over the engine of a 1988 Ford Festiva parked in the showroom of Tyson's Ford. If one of the keys worked, the car was theirs.

Thinking he knows a thing or two about keys, Golden eyed the first one and pronounced it bogus. It opened the Festiva's door, then flunked the ignition test. An unabashed Golden admits he was ready to force the key into the ignition when both his wife and a startled salesman ("He had his head in the window by now," Golden notes) suggested he try the other key. Golden did, and the sound of the Festiva's engine filled the showroom.

SWEEPSTAKES RED ALERT --

Check your coat pockets and purses if you dined at the Bethesda Benihana restaurant from the first week in November to December 4. During that period, lunch and dinner patrons at the Wisconsin Avenue Japanese steakhouse were presented with foil-wrapped Cella's chocolate-covered cherries after their meals. Inside of one of those wrappers might have been an official notice that you were the winner of a trip for two to Tokyo. We're told the winning chocolate has yet to be found.

Though the sweepstakes officially closed in December, Riva Peskoe, a spokesperson for TRG Communications in New York, which organized the contest, has pronounced the winning chocolate still valid.

Find it, and you'll fly to Japan on American Airlines. You'll spend six nights at Tokyo's Akasaka Prince Hotel. And to help send you packing, they'll throw in a set of luggage. All free.

Gary Howard is a contest enthusiast for the past five years, and his recent winnings run the gamut from big cash and a video system from a cereal company to a frozen turkey from a local radio station.