TAMPA — Just before dawn, convenience store clerk Farrukh Ahmad, restocking shelves inside a walk-in cooler, looked up to see the barrel of a gun pointing at his head.
Ahmad, 19, knew the rules: If you're robbed, hand over the money.
Instead, he quickly hatched a plan that might have saved his life.
It involved a little acting, a little lying and a lot of gusto.
"I was thinking, I have a good chance here," Ahmad said. "I decided, I'm going to do this thing."
At 5 a.m. Saturday, Ahmad was working alone at a Mobil gas station on Busch Boulevard when two masked men walked through the front door.
One pointed his gun at Ahmad while the other fiddled with the cash register. The register wouldn't open, so the men ordered Ahmad to unlock it.
That's when the young clerk faked a freak-out.
"I started acting like I'd never seen a gun before," said Ahmad, who says he has spent time at a shooting range with his uncle. "I started shaking and pretending to cry to get a little sympathy."
The would-be robbers fell for it. "We're not going to kill you. Just do it," Ahmad remembers them saying.
But Ahmad kept it up, pretending that his hands were shaking so badly he couldn't work the register. He told them they would have to flip a backup switch outside the glassed-off counter.
One of the suspects was already outside the area, pointing a gun at the bulletproof glass, Ahmad said with a chuckle. The other turned to reach for the nonexistent switch, leaving only his leg behind the counter.
Ahmad slammed the door, forcing the other gunman out.
"I couldn't really see their expressions because … they had masks on, but I could see that they weren't really happy," he said.
Now he was stranded behind the glass with two armed men giving him "weird eyes." They'd already taken his cell phone, and he left the store phone in the freezer when the robbers came in.
So he lunged for a button to lock the men inside the store, hoping someone would see what was happening and call the police.
But one of the men grabbed the door just in time and the pair ran off.
Ahmad's a little disappointed they got away.
"I hope it never happens to me again," Ahmad said. "But like I said, they really learned a lesson."
Ahmad's family owns several gas stations — but not this one — and he's been working night shifts since he was 16.
As a student at Armwood High, he would work from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. six days a week, ringing up cigarettes and Lotto tickets. Then he'd head to his Seffner home to shower and get ready for school. By 4 p.m. he was asleep. At 10 p.m., it began again.
He graduated last year with a near 3.0 grade-point average. High school was the best part of his life, he said.
Ahmad came to Florida from Pakistan five years ago. He didn't speak any English, but he said his teachers were patient with him. "Everybody's so nice," he said. "I love this whole thing, America."
The night after the robbery, he was back behind the counter.
"The thing is, I should've just given them the money. It was maybe like $400. But I was just thinking the whole time, how will I be sure they won't leave me alone?" Ahmad said. "I would never give money to someone like that."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3386.