eon stopped at the guardhouse, which was crawling with prison guards and anxious security personnel. A guard with a clipboard stepped to the driver's door and said, "Your name?"
"Graney, family of Mr. Raymond Graney. Leon, Butch, and our mother, Inez."
The guard wrote nothing, took a step back, managed to say, "Wait a minute," then left them. Three guards stood directly in front of the van, at a barricade across the entry road.
"He's gone to get Fitch," Butch said. "Wanna bet?"
"No," Leon replied.
Fitch was an assistant warden of some variety, a career prison employee whose dead-end job was brightened only by an escape or an execution. In cowboy boots and fake Stetson, and with a large pistol on his hip, he swaggered around Parchman as if he owned it. Fitch had outlasted a dozen wardens and had survived that many lawsuits. As he approached the van, he said loudly, "Well, well, the Graney boys're back where they belong. Here for a little furniture repair, boys? We have an old electric chair ya'll can reupholster." He laughed at his own humor, and there was more laughter behind him.
"Evenin', Mr. Fitch," Leon said. "We have our mother with us."
"Evenin', ma'am," Fitch said as he glanced inside the van. Inez did not respond.
"Where'd you get this van?" Fitch asked.
"We borrowed it," Leon answered. Butch stared straight ahead and refused to look at Fitch.
"Borrowed my ass. When's the last time you boys borrowed anything? I'm sure Mr. McBride is lookin' for his van right now. Might give him a call."
"You do that, Fitch," Leon said.
"It's Mr. Fitch to you."
"Whatever you say."
Fitch unloaded a mouthful of spit. He nodded ahead as if he and he alone controlled the details. "I reckon you boys know where you're goin'," he said. "God knows you been here enough. Follow that car back to max security. They'll do the search there." He waved at the guards at the barricade. An opening was created, and they left Fitch without another word. For a few minutes, they followed an unmarked car filled with armed men. They passed one unit after another, each entirely separate, each encircled by chain link topped with razor wire. Butch gazed at the unit where he'd surrendered several years of his life. In a well-lit open area, the "playground," as they called it, he saw the inevitable basketball game with shirtless men drenched in sweat, always one hard foul away from another mindless brawl. He saw the calmer ones sitting on picnic tables, waiting for the 10:00 p.m. bed check, waiting for the heat to break because the barracks air units seldom worked, especially in July.
As usual, Leon glanced at his old unit but did not dwell on his time there. After so many years, he had been able to tuck away the emotional scars of physical abuse. The inmate population was 80 percent black, and Parchman was one of the few places in Mississippi where the whites did not make the rules.
The maximum security unit was a 1950s-style flat-roofed building, one level, redbrick, much like countless elementary schools built back then. It, too, was wrapped in chain link and razor wire and watched by guards lounging in towers, though on this night everyone in uniform was awake and excited. Leon parked where he was directed, then he and Butch were thoroughly searched by a small battalion of unsmiling guards. Inez was lifted out, rolled to a makeshift checkpoint, and carefully inspected by two female guards. They were escorted inside the building, through a series of heavy doors, past more guards, and finally to a small room they had never seen before. The visitors' room was elsewhere. Two guards stayed with them as they settled in. The room had a sofa, two folding chairs, a row of ancient file cabinets, and the look of an office that belonged to some trifling bureaucrat who'd been chased away for the night.
The two prison guards weighed at least 250 pounds each, had twenty-four-inch necks and the obligatory shaved heads. After five awkward minutes in the room with the family, Butch had had enough. He took a few steps and challenged them with a bold "What, exactly, are you two doing in here?"
"Following orders," one said.
"Do you realize how stupid you look? Here we are, the family of the condemned man, waiting to spend a few minutes with our brother, in this tiny shit hole of a room, with no windows, cinder-block walls, only one door, and you're standing here guarding us as if we're dangerous. Do you realize how stupid this is?"
Both necks seemed to expand. Both faces turned scarlet. Had Butch been an inmate, he would have been beaten, but he wasn't. He was a citizen, a former convict who hated every cop, trooper, guard, agent, and security type he'd ever seen. Every man in a uniform was his enemy.
"Sir, please sit down," one said coolly.
"In case you idiots don't realize it, you can guard this room from the other side of that door just as easily as you can from this side. I swear. It's true. I know you probably haven't been trained enough to realize this, but if you just walked through the door and parked your big asses on the other side, then ever'thang would still be secure and we'd have some privacy. We could talk to our little brother without worryin' about you clowns eavesdroppin'."
"You'd better knock it off, pal."
"Go ahead, just step through the door, close it, stare at it, guard it. I know you boys can handle it. I know you can keep us safe in here."
Of course the guards didn't move, and Butch eventually sat in a folding chair close to his mother. After a thirty-minute wait that seemed to last forever, the warden entered with his entourage and introduced himself. "The execution is still planned for one minute after midnight," he said officially, as if he were discussing a routine meeting with his staff. "We've been told not to expect a last-minute call from the governor's office." There was no hint of compassion.
Inez placed both hands over her face and began crying softly.
He continued, "The lawyers are busy with all the last-minute stuff they always do, but our lawyers tell us a reprieve is unlikely."
Leon and Butch stared at the floor.
"We relax the rules a little for these events. You're free to stay in here as long as you like, and we'll bring in Raymond shortly. I'm sorry it's come down to this. If I can do anything, just let me know."
"Get those two jackasses outta here," Butch said, pointing to the guards. "We'd like some privacy."
The warden hesitated, looked around the room, then said, "No problem." He left and took the guards with him. Fifteen minutes later, the door opened again, and Raymond bounced in with a big smile and went straight for his mother. After a long hug and a few tears, he bear-hugged his brothers and told them things were moving in their favor. They pulled the chairs close to the sofa and sat in a small huddle, with Raymond clutching his mother's hands.
"We got these sumbitches on the run," he said, still smiling, the picture of confidence. "My lawyers are filin' a truckload of habeas corpus petitions as we speak, and they're quite certain the U.S. Supreme Court will grant certiorari within the hour."
"What does that mean?" Inez asked.
"Means the Supreme Court will agree to hear the case, and it's an automatic delay. Means we'll probably get a new trial in Ford County, though I'm not sure I want it there."
He was wearing prison whites, no socks, and a pair of cheap rubber sandals. And it was clear that Raymond was packing on the pounds. His cheeks were round and puffy. A spare tire hung over his belt. They had not seen him in almost six weeks, and his weight gain was noticeable. As usual, he prattled on about matters they did not understand and did not believe, at least as far as Butch and Leon were concerned. Raymond had been born with a vivid imagination, a quick tongue, and an innate inability to tell the truth.