A steely war veteran from India, Ajit Ram sits in an open gas station booth past midnight, his pockets filled with cash and his only protection the hope that the surveillance camera behind him will scare off criminals.
In February, the camera didn't stop two men from beating an attendant and emptying the cash register - it wasn't working. The owner fixed it after the killing two weeks ago of another employee at the Westampton filling station.
The 62-year-old Ram, who fought in the 1971 India-Pakistan War, came to take the slain man's place. He is in a battle in which he carries no gun, and barely speaks the language of the enemy.
"Maybe it will happen, maybe it won't happen," Ram says in Hindi when asked if he fears a robbery or worse. He is a slight man with a gray mustache. "I don't know."
On April 14, Ram's predecessor, Abdur Rahman, 50, was inducted into a grim fraternity linking South Asian immigrants across the country who have been attacked or killed during their work at gas stations. A customer discovered Rahman's body after he was shot around 11:15 p.m., alone on the shift. Rahman moved here from Bangladesh in 1990 and was sending money back home to his wife and eight children.
Gas stations are frequently manned by South Asian immigrants with slim formal education and little knowledge of English. They work long hours, seven days a week, often at the front lines of violence.
They have found it can come with a steep price.
In February, Gurdev Sohi was shot to death at his gas station in Oregon City, Ore. In December 2007, two men - one from Philadelphia - entered a Syracuse, N.Y., gas station, shot Gurleen "Roby" Singh in the chest and stole $400. The 25-year-old barely survived.
That same month, Dashrath Patel and Pravinkumar Patel died after a man shot them both in the head at a gas station in Polk County, Fla. In South Bend, Ind., Barkat Singh survived being shot during a gas station robbery December 2006, just months after his cousin was killed during a holdup.
In New Jersey, Makhan Singh was killed for $400 at his gas station in Atlantic City in March 2007. Gurbachan Singh was murdered at a Passaic gas station for $700 and two cartons of cigarettes in December 2006. In Burlington City, Kulbir Singh was stabbed to death in September 2006.
"This is an ongoing, pervasive problem. . . . You're a very visible minority who stands out and you're an easy target, especially if you work at night," said Kavneet Singh, who is treasurer for the World Sikh Council and lives in Voorhees.
Kavneet Singh, who also owns a business brokerage firm in Mount Laurel that deals largely in gas stations, estimates 1 in 3 gas stations in New Jersey are owned by followers of the Sikh religion from India's northwestern state of Punjab. Some South Asian workers are Hindu, like Ram, and Muslim, like Rahman. There are more than 2 million South Asians in the United States. The U.S. Gas station where the Bangladeshi man was killed is owned by a Sikh named Malkeet Singh.
Many of the Sikhs who work at gas stations come from rural, less-educated backgrounds, and gravitate toward established immigrant business owners at a gurdwara, or Sikh place of worship. Landing gas station work is easier than finding work in a store, where they would have to interact with customers in fluent English and may not be able to work long hours or keep their turbans, these gas station workers say.
But those who work the night shift leave much to fate. South Asians in the industry say working at a gas station is especially dangerous in New Jersey because employees work outside, without the protection of bulletproof glass.
What's more, criminals sometimes see immigrants as easier targets because they assume they won't speak English or know what to do during a holdup.
"There's no control over who enters your work space," said Amardeep Singh, executive director of the Sikh Coalition based in New York. "And where you yourself are confined to that work space - for example, gas station workers, convenience store workers, hotel or motel owners - in those types of jobs, our community has been in a heightened level of danger and violence."
Last March, a man wearing a hooded sweatshirt entered the Burlington City gas station where Balkar Singh worked, thrust a knife at him and demanded money.
Balkar Singh, previously a sergeant in the Indian Air force, pulled the man's baggy sleeve over the knife, snapped it in two and kicked him. The man ran away.
Now, he works at a gas station down the road, where a Sikh was shot in 1995 but survived.
"You need to have a little fear inside you," he said. "You have to be a little cautious, working nighttime."
His gas station's owner, Raj Badesha, and Kavneet Singh say they've known of at least a dozen gas station killings of South Asians in the region since they have gone into business. There are no reliable statistics giving the racial breakdowns of such crimes.
Satwinder Multani put two people on the night shift after three men robbed and shot his brother to death in 1996 while he worked alone late at their Stratford gas station.
"Everybody is scared," Multani said. But, "a lot of places, nobody can afford two because in the nighttime is not much business."
Harjeet Singh, 28, works nights pumping gas in Cherry Hill to send money to his family in India.
"I go back to India, I don't go back to India, I don't know," he said. "This Bangladeshi man is killed. Tomorrow, it's me?"
Lately, Vicky Kumar, a 24-year-old who wears an earring and has shaved his hair, has been working nights at the U.S. Gas station in Burlington City, where 70-year-old Kulbir Singh was stabbed to death while working alone the night of Sept. 12, 2006.
The station is no longer open 24 hours, but Kumar, too, pumps gas alone. He feels scared after 10 p.m., but "anybody kills anytime," he said.
It is a lonely place after dark where Ram, the night attendant at the Westampton station, works. U.S. Gas is like a tiny island of light in a dark sea.
Who could witness a murder here? Who could stop it? Rahman's murderer is still at large. In January, two men assaulted an attendant and robbed the station. In December, another man robbed the station at gunpoint.
Ram came to the United States in 2003 to earn money for his wife and young children back home. He can earn a lot because he doesn't pay rent and works long hours. Malkeet Singh provides some of the U.S. Gas workers, including Ram and Kumar, free housing.
The owner, who declined to comment for this article, said two weeks ago that he cannot afford to put two people on the night shift.
Maureen Hogan, who lives across the street and was friendly with Rahman, talked to him at the station the night he died.
"I remember thinking what a dark, desolate night it was," she said.
As she read a book in her bedroom 2 1/2 hours later, she heard a gunshot. Her dog barked furiously.
There was a pause.
Then another shot.