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A Coat for the Chief

by Sameer Kulkarni

The President had just fired the head of one of his nose-poking agencies and then learned that no one was willing to fill the spot. Mr. Mulliner, a practical man, called for his Chief of Staff.

‘Mr. Putts, we need to replace the head of the Referral Bureau.’

‘Shall I get the list of your relatives, sir?’

‘No, that’s too jejune and conventional.’

‘How about madam’s family, then, sir?’

‘No, no, that won’t do. The Referral Bureau needs a man of the streets.’

‘A man of the streets, sir?’

‘I’m tired of these sycophants. But then again, I want them under my thumbs.’

‘I think I know just the man. It’s my brother-in-law, Stud.’

‘What do you know about him?’

‘I don’t know too much, sir, except that he loves dog racing and works at Edelweiss Hosiery and Departmental Stores on High Street. The stock that throngs the street, not the High Street but the Main Street, is that he has never had to reverse his car yet.’

‘Fantastic! Bring him in. I shall interview him personally.’

‘Sir, it would be better if we head over to Edelweiss. See him in action.’

‘We? No, no. That will be too risky. I shall go there myself, in disguise. Polish my merkin.’

* * *

Presently, at Edelweiss, Stud was operating a small conveyor belt that was made out of a stretched pantyhose and was sprinkling dust from a salt and pepper shaker onto a few boxes. Next to him, Reggie, a boy of around eight, was placing one or two cobwebs, daintily, on the boxes and was readying them for display on the top shelf. Mr. Mulliner had a wig on and looked like the East India Company’s chief opium smuggler.

There was a customer at the other end of the shop, who was now walking towards Stud, with a jacket in his hand.

‘I will have this Spencer.’

‘Spencer? Is this a present for the Duke of Wellington?’

‘Oh, it’s for my wife. Is this waterproof?’

‘Listen buster: there is a bait and hook store across the street. Why don’t you go there and get a parka?’

‘Gee, you got me wrong. It’s just that we will be on the Maid of the Mist, and my wife doesn’t like wet clothes.’

‘If she isn’t planning to jump into the river, it will be fine,’ Stud said, putting the jacket in a bag and added, ‘Tell you what, I will put in this travel book for upstate New York. That will be fifty dollars.’

‘Oh, but the tag on the jacket said forty?’

‘And you supposed you can just mooch this book off me?’

‘Oh, I...’

‘Can you believe it?’ he said, looking at Reggie, ‘You try to do a man a good turn, and this is what you get.’

‘Oh, I will buy it. Adriana — Mrs. Scrooge, that is — loves travel books.’

Seeing this, Mr. Mulliner’s eyes gleamed with satisfaction; he had just found a man who could sell and coerce people into buying; a virtue worthy of public service.

Before he could break out of his revelry, Stud harrumphed at him, ‘Break it off, you! This is not a railway station. What do you want?’

‘Have you any Peplums?’

‘Reggie,’ he shouted at the boy, ‘get a Peplum medium down, will you?’

The boy nodded and started climbing a tall ladder to reach the upper shelves.

‘I don’t see any Achkans around.’

‘If you had eyes instead of those buttons, you could have seen them on that rack,’ Stud said, pointing towards a corner rack.

Just then Reggie threw a box from the top and it missed Mr. Mulliner by an inch. A thick cloud of dust surrounded them, and no one could see anything for the next twenty seconds. When the cloud climbed the ladder and disappeared into the top shelves again, Mr. Mulliner realized that the overcoat he had worn was gone, and so was his wig. If not for the whiskers, anyone would have recognized him as the President.

‘ overcoat.’

‘I would be careful putting ‘my’ in front of the items you don’t own yet.’

‘No, I meant..’

‘Here’s your Peplum,’ Stud said, throwing the box open in front of him.

‘I would like to try it on.’

‘Not here, you won’t. There’s a drama class upstairs, they are open for trials. They might let you walk out with a jacket. Now do you want this or no?’

‘You bet I do! I wonder, my overcoat..’

‘Reggie, get a London Fog medium out, will you?’

Reggie started climbing down the ladder, but his foot slipped and would have fallen almost six feet but for a right hand that held on to one of the rungs.

‘Atta boy! The training was worthwhile after all.’

‘Err... Mister, uh... isn’t he a bit too young to work in a shop?’

‘Mind your own business, you chump! Next thing I know you will be lecturing me on cockfighting.’

Soon, Reggie came out from the back room with a jacket and handed it over to Stud.

Mr. Mulliner took it in his hands, and suddenly realized it had a familiar touch and feel. It was his overcoat. To confirm, he checked the inside and found his initials that the laundryman had marked in indelible ink.

‘Oh, I think this overcoat is mine.’

‘What are you insinuating, mister?’

‘Oh, nothing. When that box came down—’

‘Let’s settle this right here, right now. The last thing I want is a tomfool walking into my store and accusing me of theft. Reggie,’ he called out to the boy.

‘Yes, sir?’

‘Reggie, do you remember this gentleman wearing an overcoat when he walked in?’

‘No, sir, I do not.’

‘What now, mister?’

‘Err... nothing. I think I will buy an overcoat after all.’

Next day, a dejected set of white collars turned their backs on a cardboard cutout of ‘No Vacancies’ hung outside the White Horse. The new head of Referral Bureau had taken the reins.

Copyright © 2017 by Sameer Kulkarni

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