A Shot in the Stark

SOUND OF FURY

IT WAS nice and sunny the other day so I went out my garage and pulled the dustcover off my M-48 tank. She's a real beaut, vintage Korean-War model from back in the days of no-holds-barred V-8's and regular gasoline. I was about to start her up when I realized that the chrome and enamel "Kill" stick shift knob was missing. It's not like you can just walk into a tank shop and order a new one. Nowadays they're made of plastic with the words. "Drive safely" on them. It just wouldn't be authentic.

I went back to the house and looked under "Arms Dealers" in the Yellow Pages. I noticed a small ad at the very end of the section: "You've tried the rest, now buy the best. All makes and models. U.S. D.O.D., 1-800-555-ARMS. Must be over 21." I dialed.

"Hello, Pentagon?"

"Hi, I need a very particular weapons part..."

"Where are you calling from, sir?

"Uh, Cambridge."

"Please hold, sir." While I waited the phone played a computerized version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to ease my wait. Boop, boop, boop, boop. Very soothing.

A man came on. He seemed very no-nonsense. "Alright," he said. "You wanna buy some arms? Discount is my middle name."

"I just want one part. The gearshift knob fell of my tank."

His voice became very conspiratorial. "You want to know the truth?" I nodded, then realized he couldn't see me. "Well, I'll tell you. I don't care if you want a gearshift or an antimissile system. Once you've tried our new jet fighter, you won't want anything else. And if you agree to test fly it, you'll be eligible for a free trip to Bermuda."

WELL, I was intrigued. I'd never been to Bermuda before, so I let the guy take me down to the airport for a spin. It turned out his name was Ernie Snakoyl, and he had a top job in the NSC. He just sold arms on the side to put his kid through college. "Actually, this has nothing to do with the Pentagon," he said, "Really."

The plane, strangely, was a French Mirage. We were doing a cool Mach 2 over the Atlantic before I had time to straighten things out. "What the hell is an American arms dealer doing selling French aircraft?"

Ernie turned around from the cockpit and gave me a look like I was Ferdinand Marcos at a March of Dimes rally. "Are you serious?" he said. "What are you, a `Peace through Strength' guy or something?"

I confessed my ignorance, and Ernie obliged in enlightening me. "Say you're running a war against a neighboring country, but at the same time, your President lets it be known that his mansion could do with some renovations. What you need is some discount weapons, right?"

I shrugged. "All right," Ernie continued. "You could go to the U.S., but state-of-the-art F-15's cost serious dough. You'd have to go to Plywood Ranch for the President's renovations. That's no good.

"Then again, you could go to the French and pick up a couple of their old Mirages. You'd save major bucks. Or you could go to Israel or South Africa and pick up a Kfir or a Cheetah, which are basically knock-offs of the same thing."

"That sounds like a good idea," I said.

"Ah, but! But when the renovations get done on the president's house and he orders an Air Force flyby to celebrate, what happens? He sees a squadron of Mirages fly overhead, turns to you, and says `Mirages? Mirages? That's what the guys next door are flying!' And he gives you your walking papers."

"It's a tough world," I said "What I should have done is bought some good, solid American aircraft."

"No, you've got me wrong." Ernie said. "The U.S. doesn't sell decent aircraft to Third World countries. The Mirage is the only jet for you."

"But what about the President?" I asked.

"Well, he wouldn't be so mad if he had a new pool as well, would he? That's where we come in. What you do is call the State Department hotline and tell them that you're thinking of going commie. Immediately you get shifted from the "Good Friends" to the "Questionable Friends" category up on the Hill."

"No, I don't," I protested.

"JUST LISTEN," Ernie said. "Congress decides to woo you back into the fold, and votes you $100 million in food stamps."

"Ah," I said. "But the President doesn't like food stamps."

"True. So you come to me. I take food stamps. With my discounts, you'll get the jets, the renovations, and a new pool. The boss will love you."

Ernie gestured at the Red Sea below us. "You want to try some of this stuff out? I got a brand-new Exocet missile slung out of this baby, best firecracker in the world."

"But we're in a rather heavily populated region of the globe," I pointed out.

"True," he said. "But everyone's at war anyway. Iran, Iraq, North Yemen, South Yemen, Lebanon, Syria--no one will know the difference. Pick a target, any target--look, there's a ship down there. Ready?"

"That looks to me like a U.S. Navy ship," I said.

"Yeah, but they've got the state of the art anti-missile defense system, the Phalanx. Completely automatic. Safe as can be. And frankly, well, these Exocets make a lot of noise, but they don't always go off." He brought the plane down to wavetop level and, with an impressive wooshing of flames and superheated gas, let the missile fly.

"That was great, wasn't it?" Ernie asked, as the Exocet sped off on its course. Soon we were back at altitude, heading home. As we passed over the strait of Gibraltar, Ernie suddenly turned to me, a look of shock on his face.

"Oh shit," he said. "I sold them that Phalanx."

Rutger Fury, the longtime political correspondent for the National Enquirer and former Bimini customs agent, is a close personal friend of Jeffrey J. Wise.