It was a drizzly Thursday afternoon in Southern California. Fiona Fitzgerald was combing through dilapidated antique stores and thrift shops in hopes of finding some inspiration for her next art piece. She wasn't looking for anything in particular, but nothing was catching her eye. Her feet were soaked through. Her socks and shoes were squishing as she trudged along, and she was catching a chill. The shops were about to close Fiona needed something to warm her up from the inside out. She headed to her favorite cafe in the neighborhood, The Nook.
Fiona liked to come to Antique Alley for inspiration. Her ideas sprang to life from the stories she imagined around the decrepit and abandoned items which used to mean something to someone at one time or another. Ms. Fitzgerald loved to browse the overlooked and forgotten things and breathe new life into them by giving them a new purpose through her artwork. She was a sucker for nostalgia.
The Nook was her safe haven from the unpredictable, modern world. Wifi, computers and smartphones were forbidden here. It was comfy with giant, cozy couches and chairs. The shelves were full of old books, board games and other knickknacks. This cafe was special to her and a small community who valued time away from the constant hum of modern life. The Nook was unlike everywhere else.
The older couple who kept the place up and running had recently announced its imminent closure. A simple flyer posted by the register heralded the sad news. Fiona tried to avert her eyes from the notice as she ordered at the counter, but it was impossible. They would be closed by the end of the month.
Feeling a bit depressed and defeated, Fiona plopped herself onto one of the ancient, dusty armchairs. With a heavy sigh she sunk into the familiar folds and crevices as if the chair was wrapping her a warm embrace. What would she do without this place?
As she waited for her order, Fiona day dreamed about saving this tech-free time capsule of a cafe. Who was she kidding? She was a burgeoning artist who could hardly pay her own bills. How could she ever afford to save this relic? Her savings was a joke.
Fiona inhaled deeply through her nose to smell the familiar aromas of coffee, baked goods, and old books. She wanted to remember this smell forever. Her olive-green eyes scanned the place and lingered on her favorite trinkets and forgotten titles, which haphazardly sat in the sturdy oak shelves. The Nook was her happy place.
This is where she came to be alone but not isolated, quiet without total silence. Ms. Fitzgerald adored the odd selection of music that was always playing in the background. It was just loud enough to hear but soft enough to eavesdrop on conversations. The Nook wasn't just a cafe. It was a living, breathing relic of simpler times. Walking in the door was like entering a more civilized dimension of the universe, a different world.
Fiona was jolted from her reverie as her glass of Merlot arrived. She looked up with a sad smile and a gesture of thanks. She wasn't in the mood to make small talk. Cherie always meant well, but she could talk forever if you got her started. Fiona loved everyone who worked here, but she wasn't a big conversationalist.
she reached for her glass, trying to free herself from the cavernous grasp of the chair. As she moved forward, Fiona felt something jab her in the leg. Whatever it was seemed to be embedded in the cushion. What on earth? She'd sat in this very chair hundreds of times before. She'd never noticed anything protruding from the seat.
It was then she noticed a small slit in the fabric that seemed to be hurriedly sewn shut, cleverly hidden in the seam of the seat cushion. It was starting to come undone and fray at the edges. A small corner of a notebook was barely poking through the small opening. How long had this little black book been hiding here?
Curiosity always got the best of Fiona. She surveyed the room to make sure nobody was looking as she gingerly wedged the book from its hiding place. The Nook opened its doors for service just after the war in 1945. The chair was older than that. It was a threadbare piece from the 1920's. This book could have been planted here almost a hundred years ago. Who would sew a tiny book into the seat of this once regal but now defunct chair? What secrets did it hold? She was determined to find out.
Indeed, the book was quite old and fragile. There were multiple, brief entries. They were written in French. Fiona delicately turned each page and read what she could make out from the little French she had retained from college. Ms. Fitzgerald did her best to decipher each entry. It seemed to be a a correspondence journal or ledger of sorts. The entries were sporadic with large sums of money being recorded each time. The recorded transactions would still be a lot of money by modern standards.
The ink was faint and the words were difficult to make out, but the dates were clearly legible. The entries were from the prohibition era. This unassuming, black notebook documented the illegal sale of liquor. This once well-hidden ledger seemed nervously unfinished. The last entry cut off before the profits of the last transaction could be recorded. Whoever wrote in the book last may have had to hide it ...and any other evidence... quickly.
As she moved in the seat, Fiona felt awkward lumps beneath her. She heard a rustling as she sank deeper into the cushion. She connected the dots of her thoughts, and she had a revelation. This lumpy, lackluster chair was much more than it appeared to be. Maybe it was hiding more than just the notebook.
She poked around discretely to avoid being noticed. She didn't want this possible treasure trove to be discovered by the wrong person. Underneath the crumbling fluff, there was a different texture. It felt like tiny balls of wadded up paper.
Fiona hated to be noticed or gawked at on the best of days. She was not a fan of being the center of attention. She actively avoided interacting with people the majority of the time, but the waitress had just spotted her squirming around in her seat. Cherie was headed over to see what Fiona was up to.
"what's the matter? You got ants in your pants?", Cherie squawked.
Nearly ejecting herself out of her seat, Fiona nervously replied, "Ew! No. Gross."
"How's the house wine? You starting to dry out and warm up a bit?"
"IT"S PERFECT!", Fiona blurted out a bit too loudly. "I mean, its fine. Thank you. It's lovely"
Whats that you have there? I never pegged you as a broad that carries a little black book around. I knew you must have a naughty streak, ya little vamp. Anyone you want to send my way? Any cuties for Miss Cherie?
"OH, its nothing like that. Me? Dating? Friends? Right Cherie. Like you don't know me?", Fiona mumbles sheepishly.
That's a shame cutie, There's a weirdo out there for every other weirdo. Don't get down on yourself. Let me know if I can get ya anything else. I'll be right over there." Cherie says, motioning to the front of the cafe.
"Sure. Thanks Cherie." Fiona says as she swirls the dark, jammy liquid in her glass.
As soon as Cherie turns away, Fiona sticks her childlike hand into the fraying slit that concealed the book. Underneath the top layer of the cushion, she can feel the unmistakable shape of crumpled balls of paper. Who would stuff a chair cushion full of paper? Someone trying to stash some cash in a rush, she imagined.
She manages to get her hands around one of the jagged wads and carefully extracts it from its hiding place. As soon as she sees what it is, Fiona stifles a surprised gasp. It's an old one-hundred dollar bill. She can hardly believe it, yet it all makes sense.
Naturally, being the curious woman she is, Ms. Fitzgerald wonders if there might be any more hiding in the frumpy old chair. Fiona slips her dainty hand in again to see. She retrieves another wad and straitens it out. It's another one! How much could be stuffed into the seat of this ragged old thing?
She checks the dates on the bills. 1927. This must be the money from the last sale of bootleg booze. There could be thousands here. Fiona is in disbelief. This chair could be the answer to saving The Nook.
She digs her fingers in even deeper. There are a lot more uneven wads of paper. She can hardly contain her excitement. She needs to find a way to get the chair back to her studio. Fiona takes a moment to consider her options.
In the murky depths of her memory, she can almost hear her father say "Everything is for sale for the right price." He was a good business man, and that is where the goodness started and stopped with him. Everything in his life was a deal to be made or a bargain to be had.
Nevertheless, Fiona finds this memory useful and comes up with a plan. She walks up to the counter where Cherie is admiring her own nails and smacking on gum. She had nothing to lose.
"Ya? what can I get ya?"
"Well, I was wondering... I know you guys are closing up shop in a few weeks. I've been out all day looking for something to inspire a project of mine, but I haven't found a single thing. However, there is something intriguing about that chair."
"That rotting pile of crap is intriguing to you? Are you feeling alright?
"Weird, I know. It really speaks to me though. I'd like to use it in my studio. I'd also like a memento to remember this place by. I was wondering if I could buy it off you. Would you take $100 for it?", Fiona asked.
Seriously? I'd pay to have it hauled away. If you want it, it's yours. I need it out of here by the end of the month or sooner. Some pickers are coming through tomorrow to buy up whatever we can sell, so the sooner the better."
Fiona could feel her face turning every shade of red with elation. "No problem. Can I borrow your land-line to call a friend with a truck? I can have it out of here by closing time."
Luckily, Fiona had a few acquaintances. Charlie was the only one with a truck and the closest living being to an actual friend that she had. She actually had his number handy too. Bonus!
She gave him a ring, and he actually picked up. Another bonus, and a rare event. "What's up Charlie? I was hoping you could help me out tonight. I need to get a chair back to my place..... and you're the only person I know with a truck. I'm at The Nook. I'll get you a beer if you help me out...please?"
Never a man to turn down a free beer with a green eyed girl, he was happy to help. "Ya. I'll meet you there in 15."
"Sweet! Thanks Charlie. I owe you one."
"I know. A cold one. On my way" He laughed
As soon as Charlie gets the frumpy, sad excuse for a chair unloaded, Fiona makes some dumb excuse as to why he can't stay. She tells him she has to get to work on her project. She is dying to finally discover if her suspicions are true.
Charlie is a bit disappointed that he wasn't invited to stay, but he knows how she is because he is much the same. "Alright, Earth Wind and Fiona, I'll catch you later."
Fiona thanks him for his help, apologizes for the 17th time, and basically shoves him out the door. She is more than excited, but she doubts she could be so lucky. Only one way to find out. She gets a palate knife and rips the seam from end to end.
Holy God, the entire seat is stuffed full of cash. She is sure that there must be at least twenty thousand dollars here, maybe more. That might not be enough to buy The Nook outright, but hopefully it will be enough for a down payment.
Before they open, Fiona heads to the cafe. She taps on the front door and waves to Cherie to let her in. Cherie is caught by surprise and hurries to let open the door. The drizzle from yesterday had morphed into pouring rain today.
Fiona is a bit winded as she ran most of the way, "I need to speak with the owners. It's important."
Cherie had never seen Fiona in The Nook at this hour, so she knows whatever it is must be worth waking the owners for. "Ok, OK.... let me get them on the phone."
Conveniently, The old couple lived just upstairs, were already awake and agreed to come right down. "My goodness child, What could be so important at this hour in the morning?"
Fiona tells everyone about her discovery. She was up all night thinking about it, and she knew the chair wasn't really hers....even though she bought it. It was The Nook's chair. She was just hoping everyone would be on board with her plan to use the money to save the cafe from closing forever.
Everyone's eyes light up as she recounts how she found the hidden treasure. They couldn't be happier. They too were hoping for a miracle to save this sacred space. "We couldn't have dreamed up a happier accident. It seems as if The Nook has chosen YOU to be it's next keeper."
The older woman remembers their opening day in 1945 and the joy this place had brought her for so many years. A little misty-eyed she says, "This is just the beginning for you. There are many more secrets yet to be discovered.