Weekend Serial — Atonement in Zugzwang: a Refresher

Saturday, April 22, 2023


Hello, everyone.  Welcome back to my very strange fictional town, Atonement, TN.  Pepper Riley, and the guardians of this small town that is full of (secretly) supernatural beings are about to be placed in “zugzwang.”  To over-simplify, zugzwang (German for “compulsion to move”) is a situation found in chess and other turn-based games when a player is forced to make a move.

This week I had too many challenges, and I wasn’t able to focus enough to write a new episode of Atonement in Zugzwang.  Horsefeathers! Let’s be honest. I haven’t been able to focus at all.

So… I’m showing the past FOUR episodes here.  I hate to do this kind of thing, because I’ve seen for myself how many thieves are out there, whether for ideas or entire books.  Still, after two months of this new serial, maybe there are readers who are intimidated about getting onboard.  Hopefully this will provide a comfortable way for them to get an understanding of the story — and loyal readers to have a refresher.

If you need to go all the way back to the beginning, click here for Episode 1.   If you don’t need a review, then there’s always the scroll-bar or the page-down button.

Atonement in Zugzwang

Episode 5

CGI image by Teagan
CGI image by Teagan

The moon sank low on the horizon.  A breeze stirred Deme’s fine short hair.  She trotted down a series of pig trails, rather than take any roads.  When it was dark, otherworldly pigs glowed.

She was worried about the meeting place.  Honeybell would have said it was too exposed.  However, her best friend couldn’t know about this adventure.  Honeybell liked rules a tad too much.

One more turn on the trail and Deme met Moccus at the place he specified.  It was a small used car lot on the outskirts of Atonement, Tennessee.  The unexpected location sent a tingle of excitement.  The pigs weren’t supposed to go so close to the edge of town.  Unconsciously she wagged her twisty tail.

“Nice of you to show up, Deme.  Couldn’t resist having some fun?  I’ll never tell,” Moccus teased with a wriggle of his right hip which had a single brown spot.  “What took you so long?”

However, before she could answer, Moccus used a brass bugle to sound the call “As Skirmishers March.”

“What are you doing?  That’s loud enough to wake the dead.  Someone will see us,” Deme demanded, trying in vain to cover her ears at the loud rapid-fire notes.

“That’s the general idea,” Moccus muttered to himself, but seeing Deme’s reaction he became more serious.  “That was a bugle call from the US Navy.  It’s used for maneuvering troops in the field, or aboard ship as a call to deploy for a physical drill.”

Deme gave a derisive snort, refusing to be distracted by minor details.  However, when she heard leaves rustling not too far away, her otherworldly blue eyes narrowed.

“Moccus, I’m not sure I like where this game is headed,” Deme started but then she gasped.  “That’s no ordinary bugle.  I know what it is.  That’s the horn that sounded the cavalry charge at the Battle of Waterloo!”

Deme stamped a cloven hoof in frustration.  Moccus grinned.  Deme went on in a rush before she could change her mind.  It really was a delicious prank that the other pig had devised.

“You snatched it from the antiques Wirt Riley collected didn’t you.  What you’re doing is disrespectful.  And what about that new woman?  She’s his family and she loved him when she was little.  Don’t you think this will cause her heartache?”

“Come on, Deme.  Pepper Riley is an enlightened human.  She understands life and death, at least as it is for humankind.  Besides… You know it’s huge fun.  You should have seen the looks on the humans’ faces when they realized old Salty was missing!”

Torn between concern for others, and the love of making mischief, Deme hung her head.  She refused to look up as dragging footsteps drew close.  A car door opened, setting off a honking alarm.  Deme couldn’t help watching as Salty Riley got into the vehicle.

Moccus was already snorting gleefully.  A security guard came out of the sales building.  His flashlight cast beams of light all around.  Seeing the lights, Deme couldn’t suppress a snorting laugh.  The two otherworldly pigs darted under a nearby car.

“What the hell is going on out here?” the guard shouted when he saw a man sitting in the open car.  “Salty?  Salty Riley?  Are you drunk or something?  But wait a minute.  I heard that you were de— …dead.”

The guard let out a shriek.  He dropped his flashlight and ran screaming back to the building.

Moccus quickly sounded a retreat call on the bugle.  Salty Riley slouched away.  Moccus and Deme rolled with laughter.

“I just thought,” Deme abruptly stopped laughing.  “Don’t they have security cameras?  We’ll be seen!”

“Deme, I’ve got it covered.  The cameras won’t catch us.  We’re too short to be seen between the cars.  And if they did, the humans wouldn’t pay any attention to a pig,” Moccus assured her, but then he grunted quietly to himself.

“Moving old Salty is for a purpose.  A more serious purpose than you know.  And it might be a way for me to atone,” Moccus murmured as Deme hiccupped a giggle.

“What?” Deme asked.  “I didn’t catch what you said.”

Moccus tried to imitate the guard’s face instead of answering.  Just as another fit of grunting giggles came over the pigs, police sirens could be heard in the distance.  Deme and Moccus scampered away.


Pepper Riley as imagined by Resa McConaghy
Pepper Riley as imagined by Resa McConaghy

Skurownk-skurownk noises bounced from the kitchen, which was open to the living room, and echoed up against the big metal staircase.  I paused in the middle of dragging a chair to cringe at the racket I was making.  I never liked loud noises.

My late uncle’s kitchen had not been completely cleaned out by the people who were hired to store his valuables in the First Bank & Trust.  There were a few non-perishables in the cabinets.  That morning I was hoping hard to find a container of coffee.  I positioned the chair under a cabinet that I couldn’t reach.

“Argh!  Why did he put these cabinets so high?” I groaned.

Stretching, the tips of my fingers brushed something that felt like it would contain coffee.  I brushed at it until I pulled it close enough to grasp.  Then I noticed something glass behind it.  Tiptoeing and reaching farther I got my hand around the glass.

It was a Mason jar, which was filled with…

“My God, what is this?” I exclaimed.

“That’s a witch’s jar—” an unfamiliar voice began.

I was so startled that I shrieked.  Then lost my balance because I was stretching so far.

A pair of solid, strong hands grasped my legs, steadying me.

“Woah!  Gottcha, you’re alright.  Let me help you down,” he stated.

I collected enough of my wits to see that the man wore the uniform of a deputy sheriff.  That only improved the situation slightly.

“How did you get in here?” I demanded when maybe I should have been saying thank you.

“The back door was open, and it looked like you were going to fall.  Which, I might add, you nearly did,” he replied.

“I wouldn’t have if you hadn’t scared me to death!  Now what are—”

“I’m sorry ma’am.  Let’s start over.  Deputy Fletcher Hodge,” he introduced himself with a tip of his hat.  “Given the situation with your late uncle, my condolences by the way, the sheriff told me to do a perimeter sweep of your place.”

His unflustered manner relaxed me.  I also noticed that he was short, almost a head shorter than me.  I read his name tag aloud.  It identified Fletcher N. Hodge.

“You can guess what the N is for.  My dad was vertically challenged, and he figured I would be too.  He gave me the middle name Napoleon to remind me not to take my short height too seriously,” he elaborated with a crooked smile.

Muttering an apology, he took the Mason jar from my hands and placed it on the long granite bar that separated the cooking area from the rest of the downstairs part of the erstwhile gas station.

“You wouldn’t want to break this,” he explained with a bleak expression.

“Did you say something about it being a witch’s jar?  What does that mean?  What’s in it?” I asked all the questions in one verbal bundle.

“They’re also called protection jars.  You learn a lot of strange things, as law enforcement in Atonement, Tennessee,” he added at my perturbed expression.  “That unpleasant looking stuff inside it is broken glass, and a few drops of blood and urine from the person doing the protection spell.  The jars are meant to be buried somewhere on the property, but a dark unused cabinet will do.”

“Eeew!  Can you tell me what was going on with Uncle Salty that he felt the need for so much protection?  First the security alarm system, then storing his stuff in the bank’s vault, and what I think is bulletproof glass?  It is, isn’t it?” I asked, getting more upset as I listed those things, and Fletcher nodded.  “And now some kind of witchcraft protection.”

“That’s a Wiccan spell, so it would be white magic.  If that makes you feel any better,” he replied.  “Look, Ms. Riley, I can understand you being upset.  But I never knew your uncle to be involved in anything unlawful or immoral.  Frankly, I’m as puzzled by his sudden obsession with security as you are.  I do get the impression that someone must have threatened him.  But I haven’t found anything to indicate that anybody meant him any harm.”

The deputy was about to say more, when a loud knocking came at the glass door in front.  From where I stood, I could see that it was Maudie Rocket.  She was agitated so I hurried to open the door.  Fletcher Hodge followed on my heels.

“Pepper, have you seen the news?  Oh, that’s right you don’t have a TV here” Maudie began, but she turned a circle, glancing around the place before noticing the deputy.  “Oh, my.  Good things in small packages.”

Fletcher gave her an impish grin.  I breathed a sigh of relief that Maudie had not offended him.  As Maudie put her hands around his bicep, murmuring appreciatively, it finally occurred to me that the deputy actually was cute.

“What were you saying about the TV?” I asked Maudie.

My friend looked hesitantly from me to the deputy, and then back to me.

“I thought you would have heard, but I see that’s not the case,” Fletcher began.  “Wirt Riley was seen during the night, at a used car lot on the edge of town.”

“But that’s impossible… Isn’t it?” I started, but gave an uneasy glance at the protection jar.

“They showed security video on the TV,” Maudie interjected.

“Ms. Riley, the attending physician was certain that your uncle died.  There’s no doubt.  Please, just don’t let this upset you.  We’ll get to the bottom of it… whatever it is,” Deputy Fletcher Hodge assured me.

♣ ♣ ♣

The deputy declined my offer of a cup of coffee, although Maudie pressed him to stay.  While I busied myself with the coffee pot, Maudie prowled at a bookcase.  I supposed the books had not been worth much, because they had not been packed up with Salty’s other possessions.

A moment later, my friend perched on a barstool and flipped through a Sears catalog.  It was a very old one.  Bemused, I recognized it.  Many of the pages had items circled by a red crayon.

“I remember the day when I was little… Uncle Salty and I looked through that catalog.  He called it a ‘wish book.’  He told me to circle all the things that I liked so that Santa would know what to bring me,” I reminisced aloud.  “He was shipping out shortly after that.  He wouldn’t say where, but it was faraway.  He said that job might bring him a really big payday.”

♣ ♣ ♣

Episode 6

CGI image by Teagan
CGI image by Teagan

Suddenly uneasy, Deme looked over her glowing shoulder.  Had she heard something down there in the woods, or was she being paranoid?

She and Moccus sat high above the ground.  She glanced at him from the corner of her eye.  Deme had a sneaking suspicion that her friend had a greater purpose than topping his most outlandish pranks.  However, if Moccus had a secret, then he was keeping it to himself.

“We’re a pair of pigs, precariously perched upon a stuPENdous placard, as we present a plug for our preposterous prank,” Deme intoned grandly.

“Deme, you spent far too much time with Honeybell and her books while I was away,” Moccus responded wryly, but he wriggled his twisty tail.  “When I find your thesaurus, I’m going to burn it.”

Deme snorted.

“We should take the picture now.  It’ll be daylight soon and I don’t want to be missed at home,” she reminded him.

The old fun fair was located on the eastern edge of Atonement, Tennessee.  It was about a mile west of the used car lot, which had been the site of the first time they posed the old merchant marine’s body.

The place was deserted at that time of year.  Although there was a lot of open ground around it, particularly beside the “Zombie House.”  That meant the danger of exposure for the pigs was still a concern.

Of course, Salty Riley wasn’t really a zombie or undead in any other way.  The body only moved through the magic of the brass bugle.  Getting old Salty’s body posed beside the sign was a huge task, even for both otherworldly pigs working together.

It also took both of the pigs to operate the Polaroid camera.  That proved to be an unexpected challenge for snouts and cloven hooves.  However, Moccus insisted that a photograph was necessary.

“I can already imagine the newspaper headline, Real Zombie at Fun Fair Zombie House? he collapsed into such snorting laughter that he almost choked.

Unable to resist his mirth, Deme joined in on the fit of grunting-giggles.  It was a way of letting off steam from the intensity of excitement.  The risk of being seen was beyond anything she had ever done — and Deme had been the author of some truly outrageous pranks.  However, she had nothing on Moccus.

As she caught her breath, Deme’s pondering gaze went toward the east, where the sun would soon rise.  From their high vantage point, Deme’s supernatural vision spotted a line of light.  It went from their location to a point that she knew was the center of Atonement.  Another line ran from the Gate of the East Winds.  The wedge-shape of ground in the area between the two lines emanated a subtle glow.

That’s never been there before, Deme thought anxiously.

♣ ♣ ♣

Image by Chris Graham
Image by Chris Graham

“Go on back home, Deme.  I’ll ‘anonymously’ leave this photo at the newspaper office.  I don’t want to risk you getting into trouble,” Moccus told her, and then snorted again.  “The reaction of the humans will be worth all the risk and effort!”

Deme agreed.  She watched her friend until he was out of sight, but she didn’t go home.  On silent hooves, she followed him.

Moccus trotted directly to the newspaper office, just as he said he would.  Deme felt relief at that.  However, after he pushed the picture under the door, the prankster pig did not head in the direction of home.

“I didn’t know he could move so fast,” Deme grunted, panting for breath as Moccus zigzagged from parked car to trash can to bush.

Just when she thought she had lost him, Deme spotted Moccus behind the rundown gas station where Salty had lived.

Did he go inside?  The new woman, Pepper, lives there now.  If he’s teasing her in some way, then that’s a little too much.  But no.  I he didn’t have time for any mischief there, Deme thought, but she experienced a renewed wave of guilt about the possibility that their pranks were upsetting the woman.

From the back of the gas station, Moccus headed straight toward the woods.  That may or may not take him home.  Throwing concern about curfew to the winds, Deme followed him again.

Blessed Lady!  He really is fast!  And I’m in good shape.

Far ahead, she watched Moccus scramble over a fallen tree.  Even that obstacle didn’t slow him much.

Huffing for breath, she made it to the tree.  It was not a big tree, but it might as well have been an ancient oak.  She tried to scamper over it, but fell backward.

Breathing hard, Deme sat back on her haunches.  She knew she couldn’t catch up with Moccus after that.

Abruptly she noticed a pair of athletic shoes that were cleverly made to resemble mice.

“Is this blocking your way, little one?  We don’t want you to break curfew,” said a slim man with glossy black hair.

Though the fallen tree was not big as trees go, it probably weighed 200 pounds.  Yet the man lifted it with elephantine strength.

Even in the twilight, Deme’s eyes could make out the long scar beside his nose.

“Bheema!  Oh, I’m so sorry.  I mean Lord Ganapati, conductor of the celestial armies,” Deme cried in surprise.

She extended her left leg forward and lowered her shoulders, making a porcine bow.

♣ ♣ ♣


Photo by CJ Hyslop
Photo by CJ Hyslop

When I tumbled groggily out of bed and stumbled toward the bathroom, the cold tiles of the floor jolted me awake.

I’ve really got to get some rugs for this place… Or I would if I were staying.

Not counting the night on which I arrived and stayed with Maudie in the guest cottage she rented, I had just spent my third night in Atonement, Tennessee.  I felt compelled to stay until Uncle Salty’s body was found.  Distressingly, every new morning had brought something troubling — something to do with my late uncle.

First, the lawyer and my uncle’s banker friend confessed to me that Salty’s body was missing.  A blue glass bottle was left in place of the corpse.  Then inside the bottle, Maudie and I found a cryptic note.  It said, “You must setup the chessboard.”

After that, things really started to get strange.  Uncle Salty was seen at a used car lot.  The next night, he was photographed, posing way up on top of a sign for a “zombie house.”  I didn’t think my uncle would have been able to climb up to that spot even if he had been alive.  Yet everyone was certain that he was dead.

“I just know the police are going to tell me that Salty showed up somewhere again last night,” I groaned aloud.

My sleep had been disturbed every night as well.  Small sounds of movement woke me in the predawn hours.  I couldn’t pinpoint where the sounds originated.

Maybe I should hire Bheema to see if there’s some kind of critter in here.

Still bleary-eyed, I fumbled trying to open the coffee canister.  Abruptly I stopped.  Holding my breath, I listened.  A sound came from the area I thought of as Salty’s game room.  That’s also where the chess table was.  I picked up the flashlight I had been using to go through the cabinets.  It was daylight, but if an animal had gotten inside, I didn’t want to be empty handed.

I gave the flashlight a disdainful look.

Not much of a weapon.  If I needed to whack something on the head, I’d have to get too close.

Tiptoeing from the open kitchen and through the living room, I went around the corner to the game room.  I thought I might see or hear a mouse scrabbling away.  Or if I was really unlucky, an opossum might have made its home here while the place sat empty.

However, the sound that met my ears could not be made by paw-pads, or little scrabbling claws.  While not very loud, it was a clattering noise.  It was from something hard, clipping against the floor.  The sound faded away almost as soon as it started.

I sent a text to Bheema Parvati, my next-door neighbor, asking if he was available for his “Humane Pest Removal Service.”  Belatedly, I hoped it wasn’t too early.

The glint of the gold unicorn chess piece drew my eye.  Something had changed on the chessboard.  The unicorn was no longer the solitary piece on the table.

I looked around the room apprehensively, casting the beam of the flashlight into every shadowed corner and cranny.

As satisfied as I could get (which wasn’t very) that I was alone in the house, I moved to the chess table.  The gold unicorn piece I had found the first day was where I had left it, on the square where the queen’s knight belonged.

However, a psychedelic elephant — wearing pants no less, occupied the square for the queen’s bishop.

On the opposite side of the gameboard a rank of eight figures stood on the squares where the pawns for the other side would be.  Each was a statue of a lady in various poses of a dance.  They were all blue with gold spots.

I just about jumped out of my skin when a knock came to the front door.  I was surprised that Bheema might turn up at the door, instead of texting back or calling first.  It annoyed me, because I wasn’t dressed, but I went to the door.

On the way, I picked up an oversized shirt that I had left on a chair.  It would do to cover my pajamas.

Through the glass front of the building, I saw that the visitor was not my pest control neighbor.  It was Deputy Fletcher N. Hodge.  My shoulders sank.

“What is it?  Something else has happened, hasn’t it?” I said upon opening the door, and then realized how brash I must have sounded.  “I’m sorry deputy.  That was rude of me.  Please come in.”

He removed his hat as he came inside.  Then his brows furrowed when he returned my gaze.

“Miss Riley, you’re shaking.  Here, sit down for a minute.  Did you already see the news?” he inquired.  “No, I forgot.  You don’t have a television.”

“So, something else did happen,” I started, refusing to sit down.

Watching me carefully, Fletcher handed me a color photo.  Uncle Salty, wearing dark sunglasses, was posed beside a life-sized statue of a dancing woman.  She was painted blue with gold polka dots.

My eyes bulged.  I gasped and shoved the photos back at the deputy.  Speech illuded me, so I grabbed his muscular arm and pulled him to the game room.

I pointed at the rank of blue ladies on the chessboard.

“I found them like that just a minute ago.  The hippie elephant too.  They weren’t here before.  None of them except the gold unicorn,” I exclaimed, pointing at the chess pieces.  “Somebody has been in this house.”

Fletcher held the photographs I had shoved back into his hands.  My eyes darted from the pictures to the blue figures.  I thought about the other places where my uncle had been seen.  For a moment, I shook my head in distraught confusion.  I turned wide eyes back to the deputy.

“My uncle’s body…  These chess pieces…  Is someone trying to make me think I’m crazy?”

♣ ♣ ♣

Episode 7

CGI image by Teagan
CGI image by Teagan

The twinkle in the dark eyes of the deputy was replaced by concern.  I couldn’t stop shaking.

“Ma’am, I know you aren’t crazy.  Nobody thinks that.  Weird shi— I mean weird stuff happens in this town all the time.  Not that it means we take the situation with your uncle’s body any less seriously.  But there’s no need for you to be upset.  I don’t believe anyone is targeting you, whether it’s for a thoughtless prank or something malicious,” he tried to reassure me.

“It’s alright, Fletcher.  I’ll stay with Ms. Riley until she’s feeling better,” came the refined alto of Adelle Metatron from the still open front door.

In one hand Adelle held a wicker basket. From her other arm hung a similar container that was much smaller.  Both had lids that were securely closed.  Fletcher Hodge glanced at me to make sure I didn’t object to the woman coming inside, then he helped her with the things she carried.

At my confused nod, she moved to set the small basket on the bar, which separated the kitchen area from the living room.  Then she went to the living area and placed the larger basket on the sofa.  She handled it carefully.  Bending to put her ear close to it for a moment, she even gave the braided edge a caress before gliding back to the deputy and me.

My mouth opened to speak, but a female voice scratched from the device at the deputy’s shoulder.  He turned away and spoke to the dispatcher.

“I’m on my way, Connie,” he replied to the voice before returning to me.  “Ms. Riley, if you think of anything we should know — whether it’s some strangeness here, or something in your uncle’s history, then be sure to call me.  And if something scary happens just say so.  We’ll send a car right over.”

I nodded mutely, unable to think of what I was supposed to say.  Dealing with law enforcement wasn’t a frequent occurrence in my life.  Fletcher quickly excused himself and went to his next call.

The tearoom owner went to the bar.  Opening the smaller basket, she extracted lemon poppy seed muffins.  I finally found my manners and tried to be friendly.  Murmuring my appreciation, found paper plates and cups.  Uncle Salty didn’t seem to have many dishes that weren’t disposable.

At the first bite, I was already making yummy noises.  The muffins were moist and bursting with bright citrus flavor, and they were decorated with perfect lines of lemon glaze.

“They go well with this,” Adelle said with a grin.

Then she produced a small braided container.  It was clearly vintage, so I expected it came from her twin sister’s antique shop.  Inside, places had been formed for a small teapot and two teacups.  Adelle gingerly lifted out the hot pot.

“Think of it as a housewarming gift,” she said waving aside the objection I made around a mouthful of muffin.  “Or if you don’t stay here, it’s just a friendly gift.  No one should try to push you into a decision.  That’s very important right now,” she added as if to herself.

I sniffed the aroma.  It had a pungent edge that I would never have chosen myself.  Although it also smelled pleasant.  Adelle explained that it was catnip tea.

“No need for skepticism, Pepper,” she began upon seeing my expression.  “Admittedly, it takes some ‘doctoring’ to make the catnip palatable, but it can be done if one knows how.  The lemon and poppy seed flavors offset the tea nicely.  More importantly, with what you’re going through about your uncle’s body, you need a little help.  People don’t react to catnip in the same way as felines.  However, it can produce a mildly euphoric effect on humans.  You’re bound to be feeling anxious, so drink up.”

Just as Adelle and I finished the tea and muffins, my friend Maudie’s rental car pulled up outside.

“Maudie Rocket — what a delightful name.  Your friend went to the thrift shop to pick up a few things,” Adelle remarked, seeing my puzzled face.  “Didn’t she mention the stretching class?  I offered to guide you two through some stretches and a five-minute meditation.  It won’t take much of your time.”

I didn’t think I had ever encountered such a serene seeming woman.  Adelle was so poised, and clearly had many skills and talents.  I admit that I was a little envious.

Maudie approached the door, carrying several bags and a yoga mat.  Just as I got up to get the door for her, I saw Bheema jog over from next door and open it.

When Deputy Hodge dropped in, I forgot all about having called my neighbor.  I wanted him to check the place for pests.  I had heard movement inside the building every night, although I couldn’t pinpoint its source.

However, I had forgotten to warn Maudie.  Despite being a big flirt, Maudie sometimes reacted strongly to scars.  Bheema had a disfiguring scar that ran down beside his rather long nose.  I assumed he had been in an accident, but honestly, it looked more like he had been in a fight and somebody tried to take off his nose.

There was one other thing about the owner of Humane Pest Removal about which I wanted to caution Maudie.  Although she would have believed it was a huge asset…

The two came through the door in a bluster.  While Adelle and Bheema greeted one another and introduced him to Maudie, I used the act of helping Maudie with her bags to disguise my whisper to her.

“I already saw his scar,” Maudie began before I could speak.  “It’s horrid, but I didn’t let on.”

“Bheema, dear, won’t you join us?  We’re just going to limber up and try to get Pepper here to let go of that awful tension,” Adelle suggested.

“I’d like that,” Bhemma started with a bright smile, although he shook his head.  “I have to get to L-O-L-A Lola’s.  Ms. Tipton couldn’t open this morning because of an uninvited guest.  She’s in a tizzy.”

I noticed the melody of his accent.  I supposed that like many of us, the sounds of his homeland came and went when he spoke.  There was a British roundness to his speech.  Yet at moments it was clearly Indian.

“Pepper, I’ve already looked around outside.  I blocked off one spot that could possibly be a way inside,” he said, motioning toward the back yard.  “I’ll make a quick check inside, but if Salty ever had any pest problems, he didn’t mention it.  Then I’ll go and take care of Marge Tipton’s bats.”

“Bats!” Maudie shrieked.

“I’m glad there’s no belfry in this old gas station.  I’d have bats in it for sure,” I complained.  “Do you think any kids are pranking me or anything like that?  Between my uncle’s missing body showing up several times, and the noises…”

Surprisingly, his dark eyes narrowed as if he considered someone who might be doing such a thing.  After a second he shook his head.

“It’s doubtful,” he began with a serious expression, which suddenly turned to that contagious smile.  “Your new friend will be able to help you find the culprit if anything is inside,” he said, motioning to the wicker basket on the sofa.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Adelle began, but I had the feeling that nothing ever slipped her mind.

Just then the lid of the basket bumped up and down.  On the third bump, a tiny furry head popped up.

“I didn’t mean to impose,” Adelle began, but she cut off as a gray kitten scrambled out of the basket.

Thinking she meant the kitten as another “housewarming gift,” I started making mortified refusals.  Fortunately, my noises were incoherent, because I was mistaken about Adelle’s intentions.  Or so she said.

“I was going to show it to you, but I was distracted.  Please believe that I wouldn’t have brought an animal into your home without asking.  Kittens so small shouldn’t be left on their own,” Adelle spoke in a persuasive voice that made me wonder if she ever failed to get her way.

“Oh, it’s adorable!” Maudie gushed, already cuddling the tiny kitten.  “Is there something strange about the shape of its head?”

The kitten resisted being held, so Maudie placed it on the floor.

“It’s just an unusual shape, combined with a thick spot on her skull,” Adelle replied.  “A um, an expert in this kind of cat checked the entire litter of kittens.  The little darling is perfectly healthy.”

“Who do they belong to?” Maudie wanted to know.

Meanwhile I drew away from the kitten, not wanting to be drawn into what I was sure was about to happen — me becoming a new kitten parent.

“Ms. Lawton, who has the old Sunhold place on the opposite end of town,” Adelle replied.  “The mother cat is a lovely and smart calico named Lilith.  This baby seems to be as determined as her mother.  She took a liking to my nephew Donny.  She managed to follow him without anyone realizing.  Fortunately, Donny noticed her before anything could happen to her.  That’s why I have her with me.  I picked her up from Donny to take her home.”

Despite my efforts to be aloof and uninviting, the kitten ambled over to me.  Mewing, it started climbing my pants leg.  I extracted the tiny claws from my clothes and held her up to eye level.

Yes, I was already won over at that point, though I continued to deny it to myself.  I saw Maudie covertly grinning.

With a louder mew, the gray kitten head-butted me.  Surprised at what seemed strong for a weak, defenseless baby, I looked at her curiously.  To my astonishment, a single gold horn protruded from her forehead.

I gasped, and then blinked.  The horn was still there, glittering in a beam of sunlight.  I blinked again, harder.  The kitten’s head was normal.  It returned my gaze blissfully and started to purr.

♣ ♣ ♣

Episode 8

Image by Teagan
CGI image by Teagan

The presence of a small kitten in the room lightened the atmosphere in a big way — for everyone except me.

It may not seem like that much had happened to me, not to someone on the outside looking in, as they say.  While knowing that my uncle’s corpse was being taken around town and photographed (either that or he wasn’t really dead, despite the attending physician’s written statement) was awful, it wasn’t enough to make anybody lose their marbles.

Even when you consider the strange noises at night inside the erstwhile gas station, that was enough for anxiety, but not insanity.

However, the chess pieces that had “appeared” during the night… yes, that was weird to say the least.  There was something particularly disturbing about an entire rank of pawns being supplied for the opponent’s side.  It gave me an odd feeling.

Even so, the appearance of the chess pieces could be explained as some kind of prank.  Couldn’t it?  The security system didn’t show an entry.  I had only heard small noises, not a person tromping around.

I think what glued all those things together — in a way that made me question my sanity, was the town itself.  Though I’m not metaphysically inclined, I had to admit that Atonement had a certain vibe.  There was something different about the town.  The vibe wasn’t exactly bad or good… but it was full-on freaky.

Didn’t anyone else notice it, that essence of weirdness that permeated the town?  Maudie didn’t seem to, and she was one to follow her heart.  She only said she was “drawn” to the place.  Based on his name, I assumed that Bheema Parvati wasn’t born there.  Plus, there was something about him that suggested he had not lived there more than a few years, at most.

If Adelle’s catnip tea had any “mildly euphoric effect,” then it wasn’t enough to dim the intensity of my unease.

Turning my suspicious gaze on the gray kitten, I half expected that gold horn to be on its forehead again, but it was an ordinary kitten.

I saw Adelle and Bheema exchange a knowing glance.  Bheema’s expression was quite surprised.  Adelle, enigma that she was, had a complex mien, which briefly displayed mild surprise.  Her expression quickly changed to confirmation, and pleasure that was a little smug.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if she said “I told you so.”

I cleared my throat, but my voice still came out shaky.

“So, Lilith, did you say?  Did the mother cat have that same, um ‘thick spot’ on her skull?” I asked, lifting my eyebrows.

“Lilith is an ordinary cat, in as far as all cats are extraordinary,” Adelle murmured, and Bheema shot her a cautioning glance.

“That trait would have been from the kitten’s father,” Bheema commented playfully.  “You know, the males of any species are the hardheaded ones.”

“More precisely, from her father’s grandmother,” Adelle inserted and got another look from Bheema.

♣ ♣ ♣


CGI image by Chris Graham
CGI image by Chris Graham

Deme’s pale pink skin glowed in the light of the moon waning moon.  Although she would have glowed on any night.  Such was the nature of the otherworldly pigs.

She could travel as silently as the most expert tracker.  In fact, that is exactly what she was.

However, she was distracted by the moral dilemma that repeated in her thoughts.  She had a crisis of conscience about helping Moccus move Salty Riley’s body around town.  She had come to feel their prank was not only disrespectful, but downright inexcusable.

Unless, it was somehow for a greater good, Deme pondered.  There’s always more to Moccus than meets the eye.  Is he actually up to something honorable, but doesn’t want to admit it?  He would think that was bad for his reputation as the greatest mischief-maker.

A twig broke under Deme’s little cloven hoof.  In the nighttime silence, the noise seemed to crack like a musket shot.  Surreptitiously, she glanced over her shoulder.  Her meeting place with Moccus was a closely guarded secret, to which only the two of them were privy.

Unless the Conductor of the Celestial Armies has figured it out, she thought worriedly.  What caused Lord Ganapati to linger in Atonement, Tennessee?  As nice as he is when he’s Bheema Parvati, his presence does not bode well.  Plus, he’s so strong.  I wouldn’t want him mad at me.

“I wish I were as smart and knowledgeable as Honeybell.  She’d figure out whatever is really going on with him and Moccus both,” Deme muttered aloud in her frustration.

The abrupt sound of a voice behind her caused Deme to jump a foot into the air.  She gave a shrill squeal that she didn’t quite manage to suppress.

“Deme, you are as smart as me.  Although it would be a good idea if you read more,” Honeybell stated.

“Holy mud-wallow, Honeybell!” Deme exclaimed in a whisper.  “You scared me out of a hundred years’ growth.”

“What in the name of the great Fire Drake have you let Moccus pull you into, Deme?  You know that pig is nothing but trouble,” Honeybell grunted softly, though she didn’t look as angry as she sounded.

“I think they’re just up ahead,” Honeybell continued.  “Sometimes I can see Moccus’ glow between the foliage.”

Carefully, Deme and Honeybell crept forward.  Soon they heard Bheema’s voice.

“Moccus, you’ve gone too far,” Bheema accused in a dangerous voice.

“I’m sorry, Lord Ganapati.  I really didn’t think moving Salty’s body would make Pepper Riley lose her mind,” Moccus waffled.  “Or rather, think she was going nuts.”

“You’re doing more than that, little pig.  You know you can’t hide things from me,” Bheema went on undeterred.  “Salty’s antiques — the barber pole is missing.  You know how dangerous that artifact is!  If the wrong entities get possession of it…”

A soft gasp escaped Honeybell’s snout.  She motioned for Deme to back away.  Deme tried to speak after a moment, but Honeybell shushed her until they were well away from Bheema and Moccus.

“Honeybell, what’s the matter?  What’s the big deal about a barber’s pole?” Deme demanded when they stopped for breath.

“You know old Salty Riley was a little… looney, don’t you?” Honeybell began, and Deme nodded.  “I heard that he didn’t get that way until he came into possession of that particular barber’s pole.  It’s not an ordinary antique.  In fact, it’s at least as dangerous than the most powerful of the artifacts the Metatron family has gathered.”

“Honeybell, I know that Atonement, Tennessee is not only a place where supernaturals and humans are drawn so they can atone.  It’s also a safe repository for objects of power,” Deme asserted.  “But what’s that got to do with a barber pole?”

“You know that it revolves, don’t you, Deme?” her companion asked, and Deme gave a soft snort because Honeybell was breaking down the explanation too far.

Her friend gave Deme a narrow glare and a grunting snort before continuing.

“When this barber’s pole rotates clockwise, it renews the protective magic that surrounds Atonement.  That magic is also what prevents the especially harmful races of supernatural beings from entering this town,” Honeybell paused to make sure Deme was listening.  “However, if the pole is made to rotate counterclockwise, it creates an opening in the protective circle.”

Deme gave a hoarse gasp.  Honeybell nodded sagely.

“Evil creatures could get inside Atonement!  What if they got the artifacts stored here?” Deme exclaimed.

“Combine the powers of certain supernaturals with the magic of the barber pole and it could do much more harm that simply allowing evil creatures to get to the powerful artifacts.  Although it’s very unlikely, there is a possibility that time itself could be corrupted,” she paused at Deme’s skeptical snort.  “Regardless, it is certain — not just a potential, that Atonement would become something evil.  Worse that dark magic could pull into its sphere of evil all the inhabitants of Atonement,” Honeybell declared.

“Atonement, and everyone in it would turn into something evil,” Deme whispered and Honeybell grunted gravely.

Deme’s pink skin blanched.  The glowing pigs shuddered at the thought.

♣ ♣ ♣

Episode 9 will be posted next weekend. That chapter is driven by three things from fellow author Denise Finn.  Don’t miss it.  Wishing you a wonderful weekend.  I love to hear from you, so friendly comments are encouraged.  Hugs!

♣ ♣ ♣

The Atonement Series

Atonement kindle covers Cat eyes shelf 2023

Atonement, Tennessee

Full series of e-books with one click:  relinks.me/B087JV25JT

Kindle:  rxe.me/HGSVA8A

Paperback: relinks.me/1481826948

Also in Spanish, translated by Olga Núñez Miret! The title for the Spanish-speaking market is Expiación y Magia

Atonement in Bloom

Kindle:  rxe.me/5RRBLH

Paperback:  relinks.me/1726882128

The Glowing Pigs, Snort Stories of Atonement, Tennessee

Kindle   rxe.me/LTBDNH

Paperback   relinks.me/1725891972

♣ ♣ ♣

This is a work of fiction.  Characters, names, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, locales, or events is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2023 by Teagan Ríordáin Geneviene

All rights reserved. 

No part of this work may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission.  Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights.

All images are either the property of the author or used with permission, or from free sources.

43 thoughts on “Weekend Serial — Atonement in Zugzwang: a Refresher

  1. I’m all caught up on the episodes. Made a comment on FB. A great idea for a refresher. Loved the otherworldly pigs, Chris’s photos, Resa’s drawing and the story. Your creativity has no bounds. 📚🎶 Christine

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jan. It took about 15 attempts with the CGI generator to get one I would settle for — and I Photoshopped that one, drawing some subtle shadows on her face, so she didn’t look like a teenager. I’d like to have done more to age her, but that was all the time I could give it. I managed to get one that looked the age I had in mind, but her hair was bright dark pink, and I knew I’d never turn that into a rose-gold that looked right.
      Have a good weekend. Hugs.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Noelle. After more than a decade of writing weekly serials, I’ve studied reader reactions and for lack of a better word, habits. With many readers, blog posts don’t absorbed as well as when one sits down with a book. In the past, I’ve given a lot of little reminders in each episode. However, I’m writing this one with an eye toward easier editing when I “bookize” it. With some stories, that doesn’t matter, because of the genre or the tone. But this one will be part of an existing series, so… Anyhow, thanks for visiting. Hugs.


    1. I appreciate your support, Dan.
      Yeah… Right now, I don’t care if I don’t accomplish a single thing this weekend… except for an editing project. I’ve had two big cups of coffee and I’m still dragging. Oh… I just put a song in my head. Cool. LOL. Hugs.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, it is always good to get a chance to catch up (I know, because I missed some episodes while I was away, and all the details are so important in your stories), and I am not surprised you need to be in the right frame of mind to write this serial. It is a thing of wonder how you manage to pull all the threads together while ramping up the tension in the story. I hope you have some peace of mind in the coming days and I look forward to the next episode. Big hugs and love to Velma and Daphne.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ha! Olga, those two “Scoobies” have been in high gear all morning. I think they’ve finally worn themselves out… at least for a little while. Oh, to have that kind of energy.
      I appreciate your kind words and support. Hugs winging back to you.


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