Jack's stomach grumbled as he looked around the dining room. It was dismal place; if Jack had been the sort who read anything other than ten-cent paperbacks, he'd have thought it was downright Dickensian. Dozens of kids, most of them orphans, sat hunched on a series of hard wooden benches in front of splintered, worn tables. They had water, but no food yet. And though the kids were a veritable rainbow of skin colors, and covered every age from only five up to almost adult, and though they didn't all even speak the same language, they had one thing in common.
They were all starving.
It was at least as much Conlon's fault as it was Jack's, if not more. Spot Conlon was a skinny little thing out of Brooklyn, and to hear him tell it, he'd ended up in the Refuge for assaulting a senator or something, and it had taken five cops just to wrestle him down and drag him into jail. And he'd shown up bruised enough that some people actually believed him, but Jack was a con artist himself and recognized a whopper when he saw one. He didn't swallow it, but he had to give the kid credit; it wasn't often such a tiny guy could get so much respect so quickly.
"He's really not gonna let us eat, is he?" murmured the kid at Jack's right.
Jack dared a glance at Snyder, who sat impassively at the front table, obviously enjoying his dinner. Jack's stomach rumbled and he felt a momentary pain. He hadn't eaten since lunch the previous day; none of the prisoners had. Snyder had threatened to keep this up as long as necessary: until someone returned the stolen key to the front gate, no one was eating anything. And for the four meals since then, he'd had the kids file in to the dining hall and take their seats as usual. Then sit in silence for an hour (during which he, of course, enjoyed meals as usual), before trotting them back out to their rooms.
"Keep calm," Jack answered. "He'll break."
In fact, Jack wasn't at all sure of that, but it wouldn't due for him to break under pressure, either. It would have been one thing if he'd actually stolen the key himself; probably at breakfast the next day, he'd confess and let everyone else eat before things got really bad. Or rather, worse -- they were bad, starving-wise, but no one was rebelling yet. Jack didn't want to be responsible for some kid having a fit from starvation, and getting in trouble. But he didn't have the key, Conlon did, and more than anything, Jack was not willing to give up a fellow inmate.
"None of us know who did it!" some kid finally screamed.
Snyder stood up calmly. "I believe," he said, "I asked for total silence until the perpetrator has been named."
"But -- " the kid started futilely. Snyder gestured in a guard (smart enough to realize starvation could lead to rioting, he'd made sure guards were visible at every mealtime since the key had gone missing) and had the kid escorted out. Jack stared down at the table and traced the grain with a finger. The poor kid was probably going to get caned, at least; maybe he'd even end up with a day or two of isolation, locked away from the rest of the prisoners. And all he wanted was food. Jack's guilt warred with his defiance. He hadn't stolen the key, but he'd told Conlon where Snyder kept it, and he'd kept watch at the hallway while Conlon crept into Snyder's office while the warden was off inspecting one of the bunkrooms.
He looked up and looked around the room for Conlon. They were being careful not to talk to each other; Snyder didn't trust either one of them and would doubtlessly jump to correct conclusions if he saw them together. But Conlon looked over at him, too, and Jack noticed he was tapping his fingers restlessly against the table. Conlon wouldn't want anyone to know he felt bad, but that kid was going to end up beaten; he and Jack had just been looking for a little harmless fun, and hadn't meant to drag everyone else into this mess. They'd known Snyder would be angry, but hadn't anticipated this kind of wrath.
Jack tried to give Spot a questioning look. And finally Conlon nodded, almost imperceptibly; he stopped tapping his fingers and wrapped a fist against the table, and stood quickly. "I did it," he said finally. "And damned if I'm telling you where the key is."
Relief, admiration, and guilt all coursed through Jack at once. Snyder strode towards Conlon and Conlon stared him down defiantly, and -- probably having heard the stories about Conlon and not wanting to risk trouble -- Snyder had three guards walk him out. Which would, of course, only help Conlon's reputation grow; doubtlessly people who got out in the next few weeks would be bursting with stories about how Spot Conlon had fought three guards all the way to one of the isolation cells and had mercilessly stabbed one of them or something.
"Well," Snyder said, after Conlon had been escorted out, "I'm glad that unpleasantness is dealt with. Regular meals will resume at breakfast. I suggest you all spend the rest of the night contemplating what a little fun is worth to you."
"What?!" another kid screamed -- Jack knew this one a little, he went by Tenpin. "All that and we still don't get supper?"
Snyder turned on him, and, out of guards in the room, strode over and grabbed Tenpin's collar, literally hauled him out of his seat. Snyder leaned down and snapped in the kid's face, "Do not. Question. Me. Or you can enjoy another day without meals -- by yourself!"
He shoved Tenpin towards the door and forced him to stand next to it until a guard returned to walk Tenpin to another isolation room. Jack wondered how many of those there were in the building; Snyder would surely run out eventually. But Tenpin had a point -- all this trouble, and a confession, and still no food. Conlon had given himself up for pretty much nothing.
And of course, Jack was almost half guilty, too. His stomach growled again and people began to mutter in anger around him. But Snyder began to pace up and down between the benches, and no one wanted to get caught talking, either.
Anger began to eat at Jack's stomach, even worse than the hunger pains. This wasn't right. He was going to do something about it.
No one was surprised that Conlon wasn't at breakfast. But the rumor was, until he finally broke down and told Snyder where he'd hidden the key, he wasn't eating anything. That put a damper on Jack's enjoyment of his first meal in almost two days, since (now that no one else was on the line) Jack couldn't picture Conlon giving in before passing out from hunger. But it wasn't just Conlon's fate that turned breakfast into an unpleasant affair; the meal itself did that. It was watered down juice and oatmeal that looked as blandly unpleasant as it tasted. It was a little like eating glue, but at least it eased his stomach.
Of course, at his private table, only a few feet from where Jack was sitting at the end of his bench, Snyder was enjoying coffee, bacon, eggs, grapefruit, and fresh bread with butter -- he wasn't even pretending to share the prisoners' rations. He probably thought the prisoners should be grateful to be eating at all.
Jack stopped eating quickly, though kids around him continued to wolf down their food. He didn't blame them, but he couldn't bring himself to choke it down. Conlon was starving himself to death and Snyder was feasting in front of them. Snyder was a tyrant. It wasn't fair. It shouldn't end up like this. And Conlon shouldn't be suffering alone.
Barely knowing what he was doing, Jack scooped up a spoonful of oatmeal. He stood and turned towards Snyder, who barely noticed before Jack yelled, "Hey warden, eat this!" The spoonful cleared the feet between them easily and hit Snyder dead between the eyes. For a moment, everyone only gaped. Even Jack stared, eyes wide. The he smiled gleefully and turned fired again, though this shot went wide and coated a wall.
Snyder recovered from the initial shock and actually knocked over his table as he charged at Jack. Jack got off one more spoonful -- this one caught Snyder's shoulder -- before he turned and ran, but a guard was rushing for the other end of the aisle, cutting off his escape. Cornered with Snyder at one end of the benches and the guard at the other, Jack laughed and jumped up, landing on a table. He vaulted table to table towards the door, and now Snyder and the guard were chasing under fire -- it seemed that no one else was any more thrilled with breakfast than Jack had been, and large globs of oatmeal rained down on the authorities.
Jack hesitated on the last table, since a guard had stayed behind at the door, but seeing Jack was out of options, he rushed forward with his head down, as if he could ramrod Jack and knock him off his feet. Jack's eyes lit up at the now-empty doorframe and he actually yelled, "Geronimo!" as he leapt, flailing in midair, barely clearing over the ducking guard's head. He actually made it through the door and halfway down the hall, but (probably alerted by the commotion) two more guards appeared in front of him. He turned to head down the other way, but now Snyder and those guards (all of them coated in oatmeal and dripping juice) were behind him. Faced with two bad options he simply ran at the guard. He barreled into the man, and they both ended up on the floor. Jack struggled to detangle himself from the guard, but no matter how much he twisted and kicked, the man stayed atop of him, and finally got his arms pinned to the ground, and one of the other guards kicked him hard in the gut before he could move again. With the wind knocked out of him, Jack froze for a few seconds, and next thing he knew, he was dragged roughly to his feet, his arms pinioned behind him.
For a long second, Jack thought Snyder was going to haul off and hit him right there, but Snyder snarled, "Isolation. Now." All four guards closed around him, with the two at his sides holding his arms tight, and they marched him downstairs and shoved him into a tiny stone room with no windows and nothing but a bare mattress and an empty bucket inside. They slammed the door shut behind him, leaving him to wait for as long as it took Snyder to restore order to the Refuge.
Hours later, still starving and now aching all over, Jack lay on his stomach on the bare mattress. He could barely move, bruised from head to toe. His front hurt mildly less than his back, which was why he'd chosen the position he was lying in, but Snyder had been thorough and certain to leave him no way to lie, sit, or even stand comfortably.
Three extra months. Three months that Snyder promised would be living hell. But as Jack tried to breathe deeply and relax, hoping it would lessen the pain, he made a silent promise to himself: whatever hell Snyder had planned for him, Jack would return somehow. No matter what, Jack would find a way to make Snyder as miserable as he felt at that moment. And he could definitely think of some creative ways to do it.