Almost without fail, Carl Mecca Jr. catches the Metro to his job, where he fights millennial disorder as part of the District's Y2K team. But one day, he was late for a meeting. So he jumped in his 1990 light blue BMW and cruised downtown.

He parked in the 400 block of Sixth Street NW. He returned at 6:15 p.m. to discover a blank slab of asphalt where his car once stood. He peeked behind some trees and noticed a sign: "Tow Away Zone after 4 p.m."

Must have been hauled off, towed, Mecca concluded.

He hurried to the city's Department of Public Works. It was 6:50 p.m. The department was locked. He went to the Benning Road impound lot. No record of the car. He flagged down a police officer. He filed a stolen-car report. That was Aug. 12.

Three months later, he received a ticket issued Aug. 12 by the DPW. It was for parking during rush hour. He had a flush of hope. That ticket must have meant that the car was towed, he thought, hoped, wished. But the car was still missing.

DPW has no record that his car was ever towed, agency spokeswoman Linda Grant said.

So here Mecca was just days before Thanksgiving hankering for the open road and a trip home to New Jersey. Without his car. He had to rent one at his own expense, because his auto insurance policy pays for only 30 rental days.

"I'm from Newark, New Jersey, the car theft capital," Mecca said. "No one ever bothered the car there. But I come here, and it's gone."

Mecca's problem underscores how difficult it can be to find a lost, stolen or towed car in the District, even when the owner works for the city.

Mecca enlisted the help of Alfreda Davis, special assistant to the city administrator. She works in the same building as Mecca. But she couldn't find his car, either.

He asked the Emergency Management Agency to join in the search. Still nothing. Mecca said over and over again that he never wanted trouble. He just came for a two-year stint in a Y2K job, with the hope of getting absorbed into city government afterward for a job well done. Now, he has filed a letter of intent to sue the District over his lost car.

Detective Daniel Straub, of the D.C. police department's auto theft unit, said the car may be on a lot--unknown to the city--of a towing company that will charge him expensive storage fees once the car is returned.

That sort of thing happened to David Bocian when he went to Spain on vacation in March 1998. He left his beloved sport-utility vehicle in a legal spot on 21st Street downtown, near his apartment.

Two months later, he got a call from the city saying the car was in a private lot. He called the lot, owned by Precision Towing, a company that sometimes towed at the behest of the police. He owed $1,724 for storage fees, tow fee, taxes.

That may happen to Mecca. But his car also may be lost in a city system that sometimes records license plate numbers by hand.

"When someone is writing down all these things by hand, there is a chance for human error," Straub said. "What if my letter Z's look like a 2? What if G's look like 6's. There are a lot of things that can go wrong."

Straub believes the city needs to better monitor private towing companies, which remove cars without the District's permission.

"A lot of times the facts are clouded by the lack of control of tow truck companies. So often, it could be an unauthorized tow company sees a ticket, and they see it as carte blanche to take the vehicles," Straub said. "As far as these companies are concerned, they are just helping out the city. The company will say the police should have notified the owner, and then the company will say, 'By the way, you may owe us in excess of $1,000.' We need more staff to watch and keep track of these places."

Straub also is anxiously awaiting the District's installation of computers from the National Insurance Crime Bureau Vehicle Impound Program, a master, nationwide computer tracking system for cars that are towed.

Meanwhile, as the city sorts these things out, Mecca is on his way to the Garden State, in a rental.