“Young boy, why are you crying?” The perplexed gatekeeper asked. He could not understand what had warranted the little child’s cry. And it was terrible to see a lad as young as this weep so pitifully. It was worse hearing the sound of his wails. Something emotionally aweful must have occurred to the little one, for the old man could not see on Black any visible bodily injury, at least no recent one. Every effort he made to pacify Black was not enough; no sweet words could mollify this boy from his hurtful fate. Black knelt there on the ground before the open gate and cried his heart out. He wept for everyone he had lost; his father, his mother, Priest Duba. The ground where he knelt was soon damp with his tears.

“How may I help you, little boy?”

How may I help you? The question reverberated in Black’s head. The words came so strangely to him as if he was hearing them for the first time. How may I help you? What a funny question! How could anybody help him now? He wanted no one’s help; it was too late for anyone to help him now, too late! Where were the helpers when he needed them? Where were they when his mother was dying? What help did anyone render when he was starving to death on the streets? No one came around to fight for him when he walked into the den of three mean lions. Now, all of a sudden, someone wanted to help him, but it was too late now; his fate had gone beyond redemption. Black shook his head in anger; he didn’t want anyone’s help. He would take care of himself. He would survive in this tumultous world. He now lived totally for vengeance. Not only Chief Salami but also humanity would pay dearly for all what had happened to him.

The boy slowly rose up from his kneeling position and wiped the tears off his face. The time for self-pity had passed. He needed to start his journey to the road of vengeance. He saw that the gatekeeper was still staring at him with a concerned pair of eyes.

“How may I help you?” The ridiculous question escaped again from the elderly man’s mouth.

Black stared straight into the man’s eyes and firmly said, “I don’t need your help, I don’t need anyone’s help. I can take good care of myself. To hell with help!”

Then he walked out on the man.

As he walked away, Black’s heart was filled with hatred; hatred for the man who had dealt him this unkindness. The boy’s vengeful pledge grew stronger. He was sure that if his chest was carved open now, rather than a heart, it would house a hot slab of stone emitting smoke as it burned hotness. The stone in his chest burned viciously, furiously, fiercely, it burned only to scald the cruel Chief Salami and, perhaps, all he held dear in the world. But currently, Black was nothing but a mere ‘fingerline’ where the chief was a wicked financial leviathan. Black knew better than to directly go at loggerheads with his foe now. He had to grow into a sharp-toothed shark himself. He also needed to grow in wealth if he was going to square off with the big chief in a moral or immoral battle; the nature of the brawl would depend on the chief himself and his actions.

He walked into a crowded street with the intention of making a heist. He kept a sharp pair of eyes focused on the people using the sidewalks, the ones struggling to get into moving buses, those opting to disembark from stopping vehicles, the busy traders and proud buyers. The boy wondered who he should rob among these classes of people. The zeal to covet another person’s property had returned to him with full force just barely after the priest’s sudden demise, and Chief Salami’s callous conduct was the catalyst that sped up this thievery reaction.

However, to Black’s young mind, stealing had been considered an easy sport; he saw nothing hard or bad about grabbing something you desire and using it. The world would be better off if it was like that, there would not be much people going hungry. Hell, his mother would even have remained in the land of the living. Black had carved for himself the philosophy regarding the apportionment of ownership. He had many beliefs but his latest belief, in this regard, was the idea of shared fortune. If losing the coin you have would not place damnation on your existence, then you shouldn’t nurse a qualm about sharing the currency with someone whom not having it would kill. This personal theory had been established long before Priest Duba found him. Of the several reasons behind his belief in an easy getaway, mobility was perhaps the most crucial.

Although he was still a kid, he considered himself an outstanding purloiner among his unknown compatriots all around the world. He wasn’t like the common petty pilferers still in their immature categories, people who had become crooks without the tiniest sense of idealism or ingenuity. He still engaged in small-time thievery though, he was still gradually learning to act with neither impulse nor desperation. His tiny brain was systematically growing a repertoire of clever thoughts in the dishonourable art of stealing. Soon, he would be planning his theft more carefully; weighing the risks and benefits of any chance at the display of his talent, and he would act only as a result of wary and systematic analysis.

Peter Black was a careless thief, but something was going to teach him to become a more careful one.

He melded among the crowd, small and agile, ready to rob someone unsuspecting. He walked among the people, searching for a perfect pick. What he needed now was money; the few coins he possessed had dwindled remarkably. He was now mildly desperate; a desperation that went beyond mere feeding money. He needed to gather enough wealth for the task ahead. He spotted a well-dressed man whose wallet was peeping out of his back pocket. An easy pick, Black reflected. A ridiculously easy pick. A dumb man; which wise man would keep his purse in his back pocket? The man had just alighted from a lorry. Black moved close to the man; he was going to pick the wallet and run, no one would be able to catch him, he was sure of that. Then just as he was about to grab the purse and make his retreat, a sudden scream broke out. The crowd became excited, screaming and barking. Black was confused. What has happened? Is there a motor accident? He looked down the road to confirm the veracity of his suspicion. Then he saw it! It was not an accident! The crowd was chasing a man, a runaway criminal, and the pursuers were screaming “Thief! Catch him! Thief!”

One spectacular thing about the bolting villain was that he was a swift runner; a far better runner than Peter Black, but the pursuers were determined to catch the lawbreaker. Both street thugs and bus-conductors went after the thief, but they could not catch the sneaky pickpocket. One of the angry mob of pursuers picked up a tin of Peak Milk from the table of one trader and hurled it with all his strength at the scurrying kleptomaniac. It was a perfect shot; the tin hit the thief squarely on the back of the head and he fell onto the ground; and before he could rise up to continue his hasty retreats, the pursuers had caught up with him. A large crowd gathered round the criminal as he was being beaten. All the people in this area hated pickpockets of any kind with the passion of the people whose hard-earned possessions were picked. Black joined the crowd to have a see at what fate would befall the thief. He could see blood streaming out of the thief’s head where the tin had hit him. Black had a closer look at the condemned pickpocket; the thief was about nineteen or twenty years old, as dark-skinned as Peter, but was way taller. Apart from the head injury, the thief’s lips were split and one of his eyes was swollen shut.

The thief kept repeating “Please, I’m sorry! Please, I’m sorry!” But none of the beaters seemed to be listening to him.

They kept slapping him, punching him, kicking and flogging. The thief cried out in pain as a man kicked him in the nuts. Soon, his clothes were torn off him and he was totally naked, and more beatings were administered on him.

A few moments later, one robust thug rolled a tyre to the scene, and following behind him was another man with a five-litre keg filled with petrol. The thief saw the items, frowned in confusion, but when the significance of the item occurred to him, he screamed out very loud.

Black watched in horror as the thief was held down by strong hands and the tyre was worn on his neck like a necklace. The petrol was poured on him, the entire five litres of the liquid was emptied on the unfortunate captive. Now the thief could not free himself because his arms and legs had been tightly tied with strong strings. No one attempted to stop what the men were doing to the poor thief; it was like the people were eager to witness the inevitable lynch; they all wanted to see the thief roast and ooze out oil. It was not everyday something as exciting as this happened, therefore, no one, except Black perhaps, wanted any interference in this remarkable process of barbecue. Black was shivering violently as he watched the activities of the instant judges. This was no sight for a boy of his tender age to behold.

Besides, it could have been Black himself suffering this thief’s fate. Cold terror overcame him as he watched the thief wail pitifully at the brutal and mortal end looming over him. The woeful strain behind the thief’s sorrowful lamentation reverbrated in the little boy’s ears. The sound of the cry pulled at his heartstring; it would haunt him for a long time. Black prayed never to hear such wail of anguish again in his entire life.

The crowd shrank backward as the man who poured the petrol brought out a matchbox. The real show was about to begin; all the previous activities were merely icings on the cake, this was the real thing. Everyone stayed at a safe distance and watched the man bravely light a match and torched the thief. The poor fellow caught fire immediately, even the man who set him ablaze was scalded. And, somehow, by a process of sheer bewilderment, the rope that tied the thief down got loose and the burning young man sprang up immediately and started running around, still bearing the tyre on his neck as he ran blindly. People took to their heels as he ran towards them. The fire totally engulfed him and he still managed to run a few metres more before he totally collapsed on the hard ground. He burned sootily; he cooked, toasted, barbecued and fried.

The fire burned on. The odour of the burning flesh was not unlike the roasting of a goat. At first, the flesh smelled delicious, then it smelled terrible, disgustingly terrible. Some of the spectators with weak bowels retched violently at the site. Thereafter, the crowd began to disperse. The world left the corpse to burn itself to a massive charcoal.

Black walked away sadly. Ironically, the event he had just witnessed did not teach to quit stealing, it only taught him to be more careful.

As he walked away, he discovered that he was holding a purse. He didn’t know how the purse got to his hand.

Peter Black had unconsciously stolen the purse.