Darkness crept across the side streets and into the alleys as the sun descended behind the tall edifices at the western end of the campus. Streetlamps came on, illuminating walkways lined by ivy-covered brick buildings. A faint acrid odor of soot drifted over us when we crossed 35th Street and entered College Green, a pleasant oasis in the middle of a concrete-coated world, a square-block area cut by paved paths creating geometric islands adorned by sculpture, trees, and grass.
Next to the library, on the north side of the square, stood three fraternity houses, stately old, four-story structures, built in the Edwardian style, empty, as students departed for fall break. Susan and I paused in the shadow Ben Franklin’s statue where he sat high on his pedestal and oversaw the scene.
Susan sniffed the air. “Something’s on fire,” she said.
I scanned the structures around us and spotted smoke bleeding from a third-floor window of the Delt house. The brightness around us fluctuated as the moon played peek-a-boo with the clouds.
“There.” I pointed. “I hope no one’s inside. No lights are on.”
“I’m calling 911,” Susan said and grabbed her cell phone.
We rushed to the house, pounded on the door. and got no response. I checked to see if it was locked, then we hurried to a safe distance away. Two kids stepped out of the darkness and blocked our path.
“There’s a fire,” I said. They didn’t move. “We need to find a campus guard.”
They showed no interest in my concern. Neither appeared more than twelve years old, both a full head shorter than me.
“Give me your money,” the taller one, said, his voice soft but menacing. His full-length coat, several sizes too big, hung off his shoulders, his face, buried in the hood of his sweatshirt. He gestured with one hand while keeping the other in the coat pocket. I focused my attention on the hand I couldn’t see. The other kid guarded his back, head on a swivel, surveying the area.
“What if I don’t give you my money?” I said as I guided Susan behind me.
He started to take his hand out of his pocket. Moonlight reflected off the cylinder and the barrel of a gun, shiny, silver, small, lethal. Then, darkness returned as the moon hid behind clouds scudding across the sky.
“Give me your money,” he demanded with a growl.
We stood at arm’s length apart, not quite close enough to grab him. But I thought about it. After all, he was so much smaller than me; I could easily take him. A better plan came to me.
“I don’t think the gun is real,” I said. A gamble, uncertain how that would play with these newfound friends, I braced myself for his response.
“Do you want to find out?” he said. His buddy laughed. I don’t think I impressed either of them with my skepticism regarding their weapon. Try a different tack; that one isn’t going over well.
“No, I don’t need to know,” I said. “We can skip the demonstration,” I appealed to their humanity. “I’m a working guy and don’t carry much cash.”
“Just give me your money,” he demanded, patience waning, words clipped, with emphasis on, “Give.” His friend danced behind him as if he desperately needed a bathroom. Increasing amounts of smoke poured out the third-floor window of the Delt house.
“Do I have to give you all my money?” A reasonable request given my financial situation but possibly not the best ploy. I tried motioning Susan to walk away. She stood steadfastly behind me.
“Give me some money.” The moon reappeared, brightening the place. I still couldn’t read him. His face remained hidden within the hood.
Some money. That sounds like progress. I reached into my back pocket and retrieved my wallet with care. Should I ask how much? Maybe he accepts American Express. I opened the billfold and showed him the sparsity of bills.
“Can I keep half?” I said and guessed at what might be a reasonable amount to give him. I removed a dollar. Thought for a moment and decided two dollars would be better, one for each of them.
I held my breath as his hidden hand slowly emerged from his coat pocket. He hiked up his pants and took the money. Sirens sounded in the distance.
He glanced over at his buddy who made a gesture to something behind us, then raised his hood to look, and handed the bills back to me.
“Okay,” I said. “That was fun. If the cops see you pull this stunt, they’re not going to ask if the gun is real.” Alas, unsolicited advice is never appreciated, and they didn’t thank me for mine. They turned and fled east.
Smoke billowed out the window as flames appeared on the roof. I turned to Susan.
“You, okay?” I asked. Her face was pale even in the dim moonlight, eyes narrowed, brow knitted.
“I’m speechless,” she said and shoved me. “Were you serious? Why didn’t you give them what they asked for? That gun might have been real.”
Before I had a chance to defend myself, two campus guards came toward us. The moon ducked out of sight.
“Don’t move,” the officer said. “What did you buy from those kids?”
“You watched the whole interaction without intervening?” I shouted. “Those two held us at gunpoint!”
Sirens blared. The fire trucks arrived.
The campus guard spoke into his radio, stopped, and looked at us. “Which way did they go?” I pointed east. He talked into his radio again. “They are headed to you. Approach with caution. They’re armed.”
As Susan and I settled in to observe the firemen storm the Delt house, gunshots rang out echoing through the green.