A DEMON'S scarlet face is printed on Tom Antion's business card. Flanking the face are two hands whose index fingers tug at the corners of the mouth, from which a tongue sticks out impudently.

"PRANKMASTERS," the card says. "Professional Tricks Orchestrated Anywhere in the Free World."

Sometime I may be motivated to pay Prankmasters' going rate of $75 or more for an orchestrated trick. Not today, though. My Weekend assignment was to play one good practical joke, and I accomplished that two nights ago without any professional help.

What has drawn me to Prankmasters' headquarters, a brick rambler in New Carrollton, is the desire to hear the career highlights of a veteran prankster-for-hire. Antion, the 34-year-old founder of Prankmasters, gladly obliges me. For more than an hour he sits in a living room chair recounting his capers.

So broad is his experience that he hardly knows where to begin. I prompt him by tossing out a category: journalism. Antion instantly relates a tale in which he was hired to pose as an editor of an architectural magazine.

The clients were friends of the designated victim: a builder who had just completed a large, fancy home. The prank was to unfold at a reception at the home, during which the builder would be lauded for his terrific work. The reception would double as a sales pitch to potential future clients of the builder.

"The clients took me out ahead of time and showed me every little minor defect in the house, things that you couldn't notice unless you were absolutely a construction expert trying to nitpick," Antion says. "And I made note of every one of these."

As planned, the reception climaxed with a grand tour of the home, which had been bought by one of the people in on the joke. "As we're taking the tour, the builder is telling me all the fine points of the house, and as we pass all these little defects, I'm stopping and noticing. I'm not saying anything; I'm going like, 'Hmmmm,' and rubbing my hand over it.

"It was really comical because the builder would try to get past that area real fast and just keep talking about the good points. I could notice that some of the people who were in on the joke were just hiding laughing in the next room because they could see this guy was sweating bullets."

Antion had earlier agreed to say a few words to the crowd at the tour's conclusion. Following a few other speakers, who all had made favorable comments, he stood before the assemblage. "I said, 'Well, there's no doubt that this is a luxurious house. And I certainly could see it in my magazine. But . . . .' And then I named off every defect and said that if you want a finely built home, stay away from this builder. And everyone in the crowd, you could see they were embarrassed for the guy."

Antion interrupts the story to explain that the builder was hardly an innocent victim. "Over the course of a year he had been pulling tricks on everybody, including the architects and the owner. He'd become good friends with them. So this was their chance to get him back."

After a few minutes of scathing comments -- all of which were being videotaped by the home's owner -- Antion "popped the joke" by looking straight at the victim and saying, "You've been hit by the Prankmaster."

Mirthfully he recalls, "It was kind of a slow mushroom effect, with people figuring out that they'd all been had. There must have been a hundred people there, and other than the few accomplices, they had all been sucked in. And they went nuts."

Bravo.

I've always believed a well-played practical joke can be a supremely pleasing form of entertainment. Still, I wasn't sure an article on pranks belonged in a newspaper section devoted to serious subjects like theater, music, painting, photography and cinema. And so when I impulsively suggested the idea, I assumed my editor would reject it hastily.

Not only did he okay it, he told me to perpetrate a prank as part of my research. "Talk to a bunch of people about practical jokes," he said. "Then take the best one you hear, and play it on somebody."

And so it was that on a recent Saturday evening, my friend Robb Deigh found himself suddenly flabbergasted to be driving along King Street, in Alexandria, in his own car.

Before I explain, let me say I'm particularly proud of the trick because I dreamed it up myself. Over the course of my research I had heard some good practical jokes described, but none suited my circumstances. One Saturday morning as my story deadline loomed, I sat fretting over the assignment. I couldn't think of a clever caper. What would I do? Just as it seemed I would have to resort to playing some petty household prank on my wife, the car scheme came to me.

My wife and I had made movie and dinner plans with Robb and his wife, Joan. That evening, we would be going to their house in Arlington. As usual, Robb would probably offer to drive the four of us in Joan's car, a four-door. With a little luck, I could arrange for her car to be replaced by his while we were in the theater. Naturally, Robb would express surprise upon finding his dark-gray 1986 Toyota Corolla instead of Joan's fire-engine-red 1988 Toyota Corolla in the parking space. And we would all insist he was crazy.

My luck was very good. Joan happened to be at work that afternoon, so I was able to call her and bare the plan without arousing Robb's suspicion. Joan told me she and Robb both had keys for each other's car, so she could leave her two sets under their door mat. Robb's sister-in-law fortunately was available to make the car switch.

Everything went as planned until we arrived at Robb's car after the movie. There, without pausing, he took out his keys and unlocked both doors, and we all climbed in. (Later he would explain that he's so used to getting into his car that he didn't give it a second thought on this occasion.)

He started the motor, backed out of the space and headed for a restaurant in Old Town. My wife and I smiled at each other in the back seat. Soon, Joan turned to us and flashed a quick, wide-eyed, lower-lip-biting grin.

Robb drove on, oblivious.

For 10 minutes, I listened as the other three talked about the awfulness of the movie we'd seen ("Crazy People"), and I resisted the urge to comment on the car. Then it occurred to me that Robb might have noticed the switch but felt too foolish to say anything. As he drove along, his expression wasn't anxious, but perhaps he was suffering secretly. Perhaps my joke was turning cruel.

"You guys may think I'm crazy," I said, "but I could've sworn we drove Joan's car to the movies."

For a few moments, nobody said anything.

It's impossible to do much research on practical jokes without hearing Alan Abel's name mentioned repeatedly. Every jokester says Abel is the best in the business, America's consummate prankster. A New Yorker, he teaches a course called "Don't Get Mad -- Get Even" for the Discovery Center, an adult-ed outfit. But among funny folk he is better known for publicity stunts played on what he calls "the world stage."

Perhaps you'll recall the one he pulled last January: He and seven friends put up $150 apiece, rented a hotel suite and bought a load of champagne. They got an actress to pretend she'd just won $35 million in New York's lottery. The actress held a press conference in the suite and laid out all sorts of nutty plans for spending her windfall.

Recalling how the New York Post put the woman's picture on its front page, Abel says, "We hit the golden jackpot." Well, not quite. A New York Daily News reporter who had taken Abel's course recognized him in the suite and wrote a story exposing his gag.

Remember the '83 Super Bowl, when the Redskins played the Miami Dolphins? Abel managed to sneak a fake official onto the field.

"He called four plays and he stopped the game," Abel says. "And then a big fat policeman chased my guy down the field and the crowd booed and hissed as the cop caught him and ushered him out of the stadium, because they didn't want the guy collared. But what they didn't know was I had hired an actor in a police uniform to be the first one out to chase the ref when the curtain came down on the caper."

At other times Abel has sown confusion by placing look-alikes of Idi Amin and Salman Rushdie in conspicuous situations. And he claims partial credit for the "Martian landing" episode that occurred last summer in the Soviet Union.

"I was not there but my friends from Moscow University perpetrated it," he asserts. Abel calls that prank a "test run" for a similar, but more elaborate one he plans to commit in the near future.

"I can't tell you where and I obviously can't tell you when," he says, but he promises the world will be fully flimflammed.

I have no problem with Abel's upper-deck grand scams -- they're loads of fun -- but I'm more interested in jokes aimed at individuals. Personal pranks, if you will. Gags that add gusto to a birthday party or an office get-together or an evening out with friends. I can be tickled, too, by a good revenge joke.

Frank Kuznik told me about one he pulled a few years ago. Kuznik, now a Washington freelance journalist, had just left the staff of a magazine in another city. A colleague had tormented him during his last few months on the job, and Kuznik felt she had some payback coming. The day before he left town, a Saturday, he went out and bought the "biggest, ugliest" fish he could find. He went to the magazine office and placed the fish atop a ceiling panel directly over his old foe's desk.

Kuznik says he soon learned that the source of the big stink remained an office mystery for four days. When a maintenance man finally found the fish, "the smell almost knocked him off the ladder." People at the magazine correctly guessed the perpetrator and accused him. Kuznik denied it, but now he cheerfully 'fesses up, saying, "That's a nice prank that makes a statement but doesn't really hurt anybody."

Discerning humorists accept as gospel the notion that victims should never be hurt by practical jokes. Unfortunately, there's a steady supply of stories about dim-witted jokesters who either deliberately harmed their victims or didn't consider the probable adverse effects of their jokes.

Funnyman C. W. Metcalf, a Coloradan who travels around the country putting on humor seminars for corporations, tells this story about unintended consequences: "Woman goes to work in an office. The co-workers all pull jokes on each other all the time. So they're chatting with her at lunch and they find out she's absolutely terrified of spiders.

"They get a tarantula and they put it in the food dispenser, and somebody says, 'Could you get me a candy bar?' She goes to the food dispenser and there's this tarantula crawling up the glass. She shrieks, she faints, she falls, she hits her head, she gets a concussion, she ends up in the hospital. Not a real funny joke, folks."

Tom Antion of Prankmasters says he'll never play a joke in which his victim suffers pain, substantial humiliation or monetary damage. (He refuses, for example, to throw pies at people.) Quite often, though, Antion may pretend to be on the verge of inflicting one or more of the above.

As he sits in his living room, he tells me about the time he was hired to con a public relations executive. Having quizzed the victim's colleagues, Antion knew the fellow loved to talk about his profession and also cherished his car, a vintage Fiat that he always parked in a spot visible from his office window.

"First of all I planted a girl in his office to speak with him about public relations," Antion says. "One of his friends had asked him to see her, so we had an accomplice, a trusted person in his life, ask him to see this girl. Supposedly she wanted to get into the field.

"So I pull up behind his vintage Fiat," he goes on. "And I come out and I've got paint all over me and I've got a box of paints and so forth. And I get a tape measure out and I start measuring the hood of his car. And he sees me out there, and he excuses himself from the girl and runs out the door and asks me what I'm doing."

Antion showed the man an authentic-looking invoice that called for the car's pinstripes to be removed. Antion had cut out a magazine picture of Conan the Barbarian, "and I said, 'I have to put this Conan mural on the hood and this dragon-slayer on the trunk. And I don't get paid by the hour, so if you'd get lost, I can get busy here.' Of course, I hadn't actually touched the car."

The man insisted it was a mistake. Antion waved the invoice in his face and told him again to scram. The man asked to call Antion's office.

"So I gave him my actual number at Prankmasters, and he was so flustered that he called, and the answering machine says, 'You've reached Prankmasters, blah-blah-blah,' and he says, 'Aw, it's a machine, it's gotta be a mistake.' He didn't even hear 'Prankmasters.' So the girl comes out of the office and says, 'Hey, what's the matter?' And he says, 'Well, this guy's got this invoice and he's gonna mess with my car.' She says, 'Well, I'll save you.'

"She rips her clothes off and she's got a Wonder Woman suit on and does a singing telegram for him and then pops the joke. So that was like a double whammy. We hit him from two directions. That's one of the main techniques we use: Distract somebody in one area and then hit him from the other area."

When a practical joke succeeds, I ask, how is the victim supposed to feel?

"They're slightly embarrassed, which is not a dangerous thing," Antion says. In fact, he adds, people should take a practical joke as a great compliment. "If someone did it to me, I would think, 'Wow, someone really went out of their way to spend time on doing something specifically for me, rather than giving me a pair of socks or a tie or something.' "

A while later he says, "Our motto is: Whatever we do for you will be remembered forever."

I have no idea how long my friend Robb will remember the car trick, or whether it made him feel complimented, but I'm certain it added some zing to that Saturday evening. Throughout dinner, our conversation kept returning to the joke.

At least three times we recalled the moment when Robb realized he was driving the wrong car. He had sat bolt upright, straightened his arms and stared at the steering wheel. He had said, in reply to my question about Joan's car, "That's right, we did drive hers. Wait a minute. What the . . . ?" He had looked over at Joan with what I considered an exquisite blend of befuddlement and alarm. And then, a minute later, I had revealed the prank.

As we finished dinner, Robb -- who earlier had excused himself and gone to the men's room -- told me to watch my step because he was going to get me back. I said, "Don't even think about it for at least a year. I'll be expecting it, so you'll never be able to burn me."

The waiter came by and placed the check near my elbow. I had already told Robb and Joan I was treating, but the waiter didn't know that. Funny he should give the check to me instead of placing it near the center of the table. At that moment, I should have realized something was afoot, but I didn't.

I took out a credit card and opened the leather folder to place the card inside. Casually, I glanced at the check. Total: $103.25. Pretty expensive, considering we had ordered no alcohol or dessert. Above the total, one item caught my eye: "1 FISH FILLET $57.95."

Still trying to remain casual, I showed the check to my wife and said, "Does this look like a mistake to you?"

From across the table, my friend interrupted. "What does it say?" he asked, grinning slyly.

Bravo, Robb, bravo. You struck back fast.

But now it's my turn again, and I feel I must warn you: For my next trick, I may be calling in some professional help.

Washington writer Kevin McManus wisely refrained from playing pranks on Weekend editors.