The Coven of Aberdeen by Michael Anthony

There I was again. Heading down Horserace Road to the home of the Latham Sisters. It wasn’t all that unusual because whenever something odd happened around Aberdeen, that was the first place I went, and for good reason. Suspicions often involved one or more of the four siblings. Or, as they were whispered about in town, The Coven.

Aberdeen is like many other Nebraska farming communities that dot the prairie, except of course for the coven. A good many locals believe the Latham sisters possess certain unnatural powers they do not always use for good purpose. The women, none of whom ever married or moved out of the house in which they were born, did little to dispel the rumor for it gave them wide berth to do whatever they pleased in and around Aberdeen.

So, when Kay Barrett called my office to report her seventeen-year-old son Tommy missing, I didn’t wait the customary twenty-four hours before commencing my search. Though he was likely out with friends smoking, drinking, or both, I figured it best to start with the Lathams.

While on my way I recalled another peculiar incident from several years back. An eighteen-year-old cashier had shown up for her shift at Monroe’s FoodMart sporting a black eye. Coworkers suspected her boyfriend, Mateo. After all, he was Latino and for some that was reason enough.

I was unconvinced because my interactions with Mateo suggested he wasn’t violent, and, in fact, was planning to study criminal justice at the county college. An anonymous call about something hanging from the Trapman Creek Bridge vindicated my belief about Mateo.

It turned out to be an oversized bulk seed bag suspended from the steel support. Inside we found none other than the cashier’s brother – bound, gagged, blindfolded, and roughed up pretty good.

Though the nineteen-year-old refused to say how he ended up in that six-foot sack, I had a pretty good idea. Then, like now, my instincts took me right to the Latham’s where I found Bettina at the farm’s roadside produce stand.

Despite having had a few run-ins, mostly about Bettina’s open hostility towards townsfolk, we exchanged the usual social pleasantries. But, the moment I mentioned the cashier’s brother, Bettina feigned surprise. Unconvinced of her professed innocence, I tried a different approach and asked about the girl. Just mentioning her name dulled Bettina’s sharp edge. She seemed almost maternal in her comments about the girl.

Bettina said she had heard rumors that the brother wasn’t happy his sister was dating a Mexican. I told her Mateo was Guatemalan. Bettina shrugged and said the girl’s brother was quick with his fists and somebody ought to teach him a lesson. When I asked where she was the previous night, Bettina smiled, saying she had been home with her sisters the entire time. Of course, all three backed her up.

I was sure that Bettina, who had she been born male would have likely played football, had been the teacher of the pugnacious brother’s ‘lesson.’ But, with only suspicion, I chalked it up to a well-deserved comeuppance for the troublemaker. Never again did the girl show up for work with a black eye. The brother disappeared, supposedly headed to Winnipeg, though that was never confirmed.

Bettina wasn’t the only Latham sibling with a reputation as someone not to be crossed. The eldest, Mildred, was widely believed to have put something in a neighbor’s blueberry pie after learning the woman had made an intimate offer to the County Fair judge if he would pick her entry over Mildred’s. The judge survived, but lost more than a few pounds over several days, most of which were spent in the bathroom.

Then, of course, there was the mysterious fire that consumed Dotty Haugen’s mobile blacksmith trailer outside the White Deer Motel. Seems she and a Latham farmhand, who also happened to be Esther Latham’s lover, were spending several afternoons a week there. Once again, the sisters provided an unshakeable alibi.

Reflecting on the Latham’s long history of such mystifying episodes, I concluded that if not true witches, they were, at the very least, spiteful vigilantes punishing those they believed had wronged them. Maybe now you can understand why I came out here first. Just saved me time.

Nearing the Latham farm, I radioed headquarters for an update on Tommy Barrett. Told there were none, I continued to the house. It took several minutes for someone to answer the door. But, as I had learned over the years, the Lathams operated on a schedule completely of their own making.

“Sheriff. What brings you out this way?” Bettina asked while wiping her hands on a blood-soaked rag.

I said nothing, waiting until she looked down and admitted, “Oh, dressing a chicken for dinner.”

I nodded. “Wondering if you or your sisters heard anything about Tommy Barrett?”

“Why? Something happen?” she said.

“Not sure. Sisters around? Like to speak with them too.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Bettina countered, her left foot curling behind her right. “Other than me doin’ some shopping in town, nobody’s been off the farm in weeks.”

“Still need to speak with them.”

Bettina’s eyes creased beneath thick untrimmed eyebrows as she said, “All right. Come on in while I get ‘em. Want anything? Water? Homemade apple juice?”

Recalling how a pair of coyotes that had been tormenting local farmers ended up poisoned not far from the Latham home last year, I declined. Politely, of course.

While waiting in the foyer for the sisters I studied the dining room. The table was set for a formal dinner, right down to place cards before each seat. Across the hall, heavy brocade curtains drawn tight against the morning light turned the living room dark as dusk. Something seemed hidden beneath a blanket in the shadows, but without a warrant or probable cause, I stood immobile. Other than an old landline telephone on a small table just inside the entrance, there wasn’t a radio, television, or any digital device to be seen anywhere. The entire home looked as though it was maintained by a local historical society, which in a strange way, it sort of was.

Sisters Mildred and Esther descended the stairs in tandem. “What’s all this about?” Mildred asked.

“Sheriff’s looking for Tommy Barrett,” Bettina said. “Where’s Annabelle?”

“Taking a bath,” Esther replied in that timid voice that belied her ability to wreak mayhem.

Bettina turned. “We’ll ask her. If she knows anything, I’ll call you.”

Considering I had seen Tommy and Bettina near the root cellar when I passed the place a week earlier, I doubted their honesty. Despite my skepticism, I started for the front door. “I’ll let you get back to preparing for your guest,” I remarked casually while motioning towards the dining room.

“Oh, it’ll just be the four of us. As usual,” Mildred said.

“Thought I counted five place cards. Must be mistaken,” I parried, all the while studying Mildred’s tightening eyes.

Bettina dismissed my question with a nonchalant wave of her bloody hand.

Back at my office, I searched department files looking for any prior interactions between Tommy and the Lathams. Despite persistent rumors that Bettina believed it her mission to introduce Aberdeen’s young men to certain carnal pleasures, I found nothing remarkable. Yet, those five place cards gnawed at me.

Leaning back in my chair, I gazed at the calendar, counting the days until I turned in my retirement papers. Twenty-nine. I couldn’t wait to hit the road with Suzanne and our golden retriever. A ringing telephone woke me from my daydream of motoring down some desert highway past saguaro cactus and tumbleweed.

Though brief, the call was troubling.

A worried Kay Barrett said Tommy’s stepfather, Earl, hadn’t come home and wasn’t answering his cellphone. I suggested he was probably out looking for Tommy. That’s when Kay admitted Earl was the reason Tommy had left in the first place. Apparently, the week before last, a decade of escalating conflicts between the two turned physical. After a violent confrontation, Tommy told his mother either Earl had to go or he would. Now, she feared both had.

I wondered why Kay hadn’t mentioned the fight on her initial call, especially since there had been suspicions of domestic abuse before. Kay refused to press charges every time. I assured her I’d look for both.

Earl was known to hang out at Taylor Dickenson’s Garage. Neither Taylor, nor the two mechanics slouched in the office heavy with cigarette smoke and the pong of motor oil had seen Earl in more than a week. A check of Bowl-a-Rama, Shaky Jake’s Bar, and the Primrose Diner ended the same. No leads. Last time anyone recalled seeing Earl was a week ago. Again, something Kay hadn’t mentioned.

Looking like an orange beachball, the late afternoon sun sat on the western foothills as I stopped at the end of the Latham driveway for the second time that day. Using binoculars I scanned the house and surrounding fields. Other than a mound of dirt near the root cellar, everything looked as it had that morning.

I waited until the sky darkened into cool steel blue and lights came on in the farmhouse dining room. Indistinct shadows moved back and forth across the window. Once they settled, I walked alongside the gravel drive to avoid being heard. Standing near the front porch, I counted four or five shapes behind lace curtains that made positive identification impossible.

A surprised Esther Latham answered the door asking why I was there again. And why so late?

“Got a few more questions about Tommy Barrett,” I replied. This time without the friendly smile.

Visibly flustered, Esther clutched the collar of her housedress as though I had caught her coming out of the shower. She looked over her shoulder, the one partially hidden by the front door. I heard chairs scrape the dining room floor.

Mildred and Annabelle joined Esther and invited me inside. The three formed a human wall across the dining room doorway. I apologized for interrupting their meal. In near perfect harmony, they responded, “No problem.”

I said I’d like to speak with Bettina too. As if on cue, she came sauntering down the hallway.

Hoping to incite a reaction, I said bluntly, “Any of you seen Earl Barrett?”

Esther’s jaw clenched. Her eyes widened. Noticing her sister’s reaction, Bettina hurriedly said that Tommy Barrett was a good kid. Something I already knew.

Annabelle led me into the parlor. I smiled thinking they just might be the last folks around Aberdeen who still used that word. Then again, nearly everything these four did was unusual.

The Latham sisters stood in a semi-circle around me as I again asked when Tommy had been out here last. Bettina shrugged, “Not really sure.” The others said nothing.

With the four siblings as stone-faced as Mount Rushmore, I bid them goodnight and walked back to my truck. On the way home, I decided to open a formal investigation into the Latham sisters’ possible involvement in Tommy’s disappearance.

Early the next morning, my phone rang. It was Kay Barrett saying that Tommy had returned home. Earl hadn’t.

Tommy Barrett wasn’t much help when I questioned him later that day. Only after his mother left the room did he admit being out at the Latham’s farm. Seems he didn’t want her to know he and Bettina had been, in his words, “foolin’ around.” He swore he had no idea what happened to his stepfather.

When confronted with Tommy’s admission, Bettina reluctantly confirmed he had been there and that she had simply been confused about exactly when. Yet, she remained adamant it was a stillborn calf buried beneath that mound of dirt by the old root cellar. I wasn’t buying it.

Just as I began the paperwork requesting a warrant to search the Latham place and especially that mound, my deputy called. He said there had been a hit on Earl’s cellphone downstate along with several charges on his credit card at a truck stop near Kearney. Kay suggested he might be headed back to Vegas where she had met and married him over a wild three-day weekend.

Turned out it really was a stillborn calf buried near the root cellar. But, to this day no one’s heard from Earl.

Tommy Barrett is now dating a girl his own age. As for his mother Kay? Well, she’s been seen around town most often in the company of none other than Annabelle Latham.

Yes, the Latham sisters are still out there spooking the hell out of Aberdeen townsfolks who swear they’re the reason pets go missing and for those eerie howls that echo across the valley near midnight when the moon is full.

The wife and I bought a place along the Rio Grande just outside Las Cruces. With that old dog of ours asleep at our feet, we sit on the porch and watch the setting sun turn the river into a ribbon of gold. 

Finally, the Coven of Aberdeen is someone else’s problem.

 © Michael Anthony, 2021

Michael Anthony has published fiction, poetry, illustrations, and photographs in literary journals and commercial magazines. Most recently these include Goat’s Milk Magazine, Dove Tales, The Quiet Reader, and The Sock Drawer. His work may be viewed at: MichaelAnthony.MyPortfolio.com

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