The other day I got a note from Barbara Cox, science librarian at the University of Utah, where I teach, saying she had come across an item that sounded like "one of your stories" - in other words, an urban legend.

So I wound my way down to the labyrinth of the science section in the basement of the university library. There Cox presented me with last October's issue of the English periodical New Scientist, and called my attention to the column that appears under the pseudonym "Ariadne."Ariadne, you may remember from your college mythology class, was a daughter of Minos. She gave Theseus the thread he unwound to use as a guide in escaping the famous labyrinth of Crete.

"Good heavens, the indestructibility of those famous myths!" the item began.

The myth this Ariadne was referring to, it turned out, was the legend of "The Double Theft": " . . .A car was returned after going missing. It was accompanied by a note of apology and an invitation to dinner in a good restaurant as compensation, the invitation being anonymous, of course. Off to dinner went the car's owners, as they have in Phoenix, Glasgow, Bangkok and Bonn, coming back to find that their house had been ransacked in the meantime."

Ariadne noted that the story had recently been "reported from Italy to bamboozle the credulous Daily Mail."

I, too, have found "The Double Theft" reported in the press as a supposedly true story. From my files, I can add Madrid as a city where the legend has been collected, and doubtless it is even more widely known.

In an earlier column, I explained how the American story of the stolen car that is returned with a note and a gift (which lures the owners away from their home) had a prototype in English versions collected in the early 1970s.

The note usually thanks the couple "for saving my life tonight" through the use of their car. The offer that lures them away from home isn't a dinner invitation, but tickets for an upcoming play or concert.

In some versions it is only the car's battery that is stolen and then returned (or replaced with a new one). The note-writer explains that when his car's battery went dead during an urgent errand, he had to "borrow" theirs.

As if this scenario is not unlikely enough, lately "The Double Theft" has acquired even more bizarre twists. Here's a typical version a reader in Milwaukee jotted on a postcard and sent to me:

"This supposedly happened to a co-worker of a friend. The charcoal grill had been stolen from their backyard, and then returned a few days later. It was all cleaned up, and inside was a note saying, `Sorry, but thanks. Here are two tickets for tonight's Brewers game for your trouble.'

"When they got home after the game, they found that their house had been ransacked."

I like the idea of those thieves cleaning the grill for their victims!

In other versions the tickets are for a World Series game, which suggests that this must have been some fancy mansion that was burglarized.

A reader from Riverside, Calif., sent a version in which a power lawn mower was stolen and then returned with two Los Angeles Rams tickets taped to the handle. This reader didn't mention whether the thief had also sharpened the mower's blade before returning it.

I have also heard a version of "The Double Theft" in which the thief leaves two different notes. The first contains the usual apology and tickets to a football game. When the couple return home, they discover the robbery - and a second note: "Hope you enjoyed the game!"

(C) 1988 United Feature Syndicate Inc.