"I found something strange back in the woods," said Bob.
"Can I take your order?" said the waitress.
"Yeah, I'll have the French Toast, and a hot chocolate." said Conrad.
Bob studied his menu. "I guess I'll have two fried eggs, bacon, and toast. And coffee," he said.
The waitress scuttled away. The sun broke through a hole in the clouds, and bright sunshine streamed though the plate glass windows of the coffee shop, dancing briefly on the gleaming chrome and polished linoleum. Then the clouds covered the sun again, and the morning became dull gray once more.
"Did you hear what I said?" asked Bob.
"You found something strange back in the woods," said Conrad, with an obvious lack of interest.
Conrad sighed. "What?"
"Well, you know the ruins?"
Bob stopped because the waitress appeared again, with Conrad's hot chocolate and a pot of coffee.
"I think someone's living back there."
Conrad slurped whipped cream off of the surface of his hot chocolate and snorted. "So what?"
"Well, it's... you just have to see it, that's all."
Conrad rolled his eyes, but said nothing.
After breakfast, Bob and Conrad got into Bob's car and drove off towards the woods.
"See," said Bob, "for a while now I've been seeing this bum looking sort of guy out on the highway at the edge of the woods. I'd drive past and see him sitting on a big rock, eating cereal. After noticing him a number of times, I figured out his routine. Every morning he'd emerge from the woods, sit on the big rock and eat a bowl of cereal, and then hitchhike into the city. So I concluded that he must be living back there somewhere."
Conrad was looking through the window at the passing landscapes and only just barely paying attention.
"But I didn't really give it much thought until a couple of days ago. I always figured, well, he lived back in the ruins... big deal, right?"
Conrad smiled, but said nothing.
"But Thursday's paper had an item of interest. There was an obituary for an unknown man. It said he'd been killed in a traffic accident, but that the guy had no ID and nobody knew who he was. They printed his picture... and it was the guy I'd always seen eating cereal. I'm sure of it. So I decided to try to find out where he'd been living."
Bob turned off the main highway onto a dirt road that went deep into the forest. The road was bumpy, they had the windows open, and as the car lurched and careened down the jeep trail, dust and the smell of the forest and the occasional insect flowed in over them. "Mexican Radio" by Wall of Voodoo came on the radio and Conrad turned the volume way up.
The woods were dense on either side, the trees tall and straight, but suddenly the road veered to the left and ran along side an open clearing. Bob pulled off onto the grass, lurched to a stop, yanked on the emergency brake, and leapt out.
At the far edge of the clearing was a sprawling mass of ruins. A hundred years ago it had been a monastery, but a tragic fire had destroyed all but the stone walls. Bob and Conrad wandered into the ruins, Bob leading the way, Conrad trailing disinterestedly behind him.
The bum's home had been in a sheltered corner of the ruined sanctuary. He had built a sort of lean-to roof, and under it were several canvas bags filled with stuff, and also a pile of old blankets that must have been his bed.
"Now look," said Bob. He pulled out the nearest of the large canvas bags and opened it. It was filled all the way to the top with little packets of condiments, the kind you get free at fast food places. Bob scooped up a big handful and let them trickle through his fingers. Little airtight packets of ketchup and mustard, soy sauce and mayonnaise, sweet relish and lemon juice. Little paper packets of salt and pepper, sugar and Sweet 'n Low and Non-Dairy Creamer. Little foiled covered square plastic tubs filled with tartar sauce and grape jelly and strawberry jam and honey.
For the first time, Conrad took an interest in what Bob was attempting to tell him. He started digging through the sack, saying "Man, this guy was weird." The majority of the condiments were standard things like ketchup and sugar and chinese mustard. But occasionally they'd find something more exotic, like horseradish sauce or chopped onions or Tabasco sauce.
"What's in the other bags?" asked Conrad.
"I don't know, I never looked. I didn't stick around this long before. I guess I was afraid he'd come back."
"But the guy's dead, right?"
Conrad had pulled open the second of the bags and begun rooting through it. It contained an unusual assortment of items. Several busted up looking umbrellas, a whole bunch of mismatched gloves, several badly rumpled copies of Playboy magazine, one or two wristwatches, a couple of wallets, a purse, two big boxes of Rice Krispies, a box of cigars, and, most notably, hundreds and hundreds of ball point pens. "Mostly junk," concluded Conrad.
"What's in the third bag?" said Bob.
Conrad opened it and peered in. "Looks like it's just clothing." This bag was at the back of the lean-to, where it was very dark. "Bring it out here," said Bob.
Conrad pulled the bag out into the sunlight. Bob helped him open it up, and together they dumped out the contents.
"See, it's just old clothes," said Conrad.
"Yeah, but some of them are pretty nice," said Bob, holding up an old Hawaiian shirt.
"What's that?" asked Conrad, pointing at a rumpled looking canvas thing that had been at the bottom of the sack.
Bob picked it up. It was another canvas sack, like the others, but one which was less full and sort of wrapped up around itself. Bob opened it, and his eyes bulged.
"What is it?" said Conrad. Bob slowly turned his head and looked at Conrad, but before he could answer, Conrad became impatient and looked into the sack for himself. His eyes bulged, too.
The sack was filled with money.
A very large amount of money.
Conrad finally shook off his astonishment and began digging through the sack. It was small bills, mostly fives and tens, many ones but also many twenties. The bills were generally old and worn, but were nevertheless neatly packed together, most of them being in the form of small stacks of bills, folded in half and bound with thick rubber bands.
"Jesus Christ, Bob, this is thousands of dollars!" said Conrad.
Bob sat down on the broken stone floor. "Who was this guy?" he said at last. "I understand the packets of ketchup, he was just collecting free stuff. And the old umbrellas and gloves and junk, he was just picking up trash. But where did he get the money?"
Conrad was grinning. "Who cares? We're rich!"
"No we're not!" shouted Bob. "We can't just take this money! What if it's stolen! Maybe he held up a bank, or something? Then the money might be marked, and we would be arrested! And the cops are not going to believe that we found it in a lean-to built by a dead bum."
Conrad starred at Bob in disbelief. "You're nuts! Look, they're old bills, they can't be marked! And anyway, what we can do is just sit on the money and watch the newspapers, and if we see anything about a bank robbery and it looks too shaky, well, we can turn the money in and maybe get a reward. And if not, we're rich!"
"And we can't just leave it here. No way."
"No 'buts'. It'll be fine. Now let's get out of here!"
"Wait, we should put things back the way they were. Make it look like it did before we were here. If somebody else finds this place, they should think it was just as he left it."
"Yeah, OK, that makes sense." They closed up the canvas sacks and put them back into their places in the lean-to. Then they walked briskly back to the car, and drove out of the forest.
When the got home, they dumped out the money and counted it. It came to just under sixty thousand dollars.
"This money has got to be hot", said Conrad. "Otherwise, why would that guy live like he did? He must have been waiting for the heat to blow over."
For the next two weeks, they read all the newspapers, searching for any clues they could find as to where the money could have come from. They also went to the library, and read back issues for as long back in time as they could stand. They found nothing.
After another couple of weeks they started to get fed up with being rich and not being able to enjoy it, and started dipping into the funds. Conrad bought an expensive new stereo system. Bob bought a new car.
Finally, after about six months, they gave up on trying to figure out where the bum had gotten the money. They could find no indication that he had gotten in any illegal fashion, at least not within any measure of recent history.
"Who knows where he got it", said Bob at last. "Maybe he inherited it, but refused to let money change his life. Maybe he was some kind of miser who never wanted to spend money on anything and thus squirreled away a fortune. Maybe he did steal it somehow, and was never caught, but was too afraid of getting caught to spend it. Who knows? What I can't understand is why anyone would be rich and still live like a homeless bum."
Conrad shrugged. "Well, maybe he just preferred living the way he did. Anything's possible, right?"