Detective Manning was at one of the five schools in the local area to warn a hall of fidgeting students about the dangers of truancy. In the space of a few days, two students, quarterbacks from rival teams, had disappeared whilst playing truant. The case baffled Manning and the snigger that tinkled through the auditorium annoyed him.

“One of you, or your best friend could be next.” He scowled at the collective sigh from the students. Smart arse kids.

The principal gave a signal the students could leave and Manning watched them spill out of the hall like tumbleweeds.

“They’ll soon stop laughing if it happens to one of their friends,” he muttered to himself as he left.

Back at the police station, Manning drank lukewarm coffee and ate a stale bagel while he reviewed the evidence, or lack of it. Background checks and interviews with school staff had turned up nothing. He couldn’t understand how no one had seen the kids leave school. Football coaches were having conniptions over their missing players. It was the finals season and they wanted them back. The whole community would be up in arms if he didn’t sort this out fast.

The broken ceiling fan made intermittent whirring sounds as he surveyed the carnage on his desk and wondered if the football connection was a coincidence.

He looked up when the phone on his desk started jangling, sighed and picked up. “Manning.”

“Detective Manning, my name is Chris, I’ve got a young patient here. Tells me some man followed him when he left school to come see me. I read about the missing kids and thought I’d better report it.”

Manning’s eyes popped and he sat up. “Right. Chris, are you a doctor? where are you exactly? Which school is the kid from?”

A light laugh tinkled down the receiver. “I’m a chiropractor, the kids name is Jack, from St Josephs. I’m about to treat him, but thought you might want to come talk to him when we’re done.”

Manning took down the address details, then, before he hung up he asked, “I don’t suppose Jack plays football?”

“Yes he does. That’s why he came to see me, hurt his back in a tackle.” Manning hung up, grabbed his car keys and bolted for the door.

The relief of the car air-conditioning kicked Manning’s brain into gear on the ten-minute drive. Two teenage football players disappear when truant from school, and a third followed when he leaves early to go to an appointment. There must be a connection. Was it team rivalry between coaches, competitive parents, or an opportunistic lunatic with a fascination for athletic young men? Could a scouting agent have kidnapped them to start a super football team? Enslaved training? Stop it, Manning thought to himself, the heat’s getting to you.

The walk from the car park to the clinic was enough for Manning’s shirt to get soaked with sweat again but a gust of cold air provided relief when he opened the door. No one was in the reception, but he could hear voices from behind a door.

Floor to ceiling glass cabinets  lined two of the reception walls. Manning stepped toward them and leaned toward the glass. They were full of the reconstructed skeletons of a variety of animals from frogs up to a small fox. Each specimen was frozen in a natural pose. Manning turned at the sound of a door opening. A skinny, balding guy he reckoned in his mid thirties came out followed by an athletic young man.

“What’s with all the dead things,” said Manning waving an arm at the cabinets.

“Detective Manning I presume,” said the chiropractor, and laughed at his own joke. He shrugged when Manning didn’t respond. “I’m interested in bones and body structure. It’s my job, so I study them. I’ve got a horse skeleton out the back if you’re interested? I treat animals as well.”

“Right,” said Manning, thinking oddball. “And you must be Jack?” He gave the boy a once over.
“Yes sir.”

The chiropractor chipped in. “I’d say when Jack hit the ground the impact caused a vertebral subluxation and gave him a bit of whiplash. Nothing we can’t fix with a few treatments, we’ll have you up and running for the finals yet, won’t we Jack?”

Bloody hocus pocus thought Manning. “That’s all very interesting,” he said to the chiropractor, then to Jack. “But I want to know about this bloke who followed you son.”

Jack described the man who had asked him for a light and then followed him down the street and Manning took notes.

“You or your mates ever play truant Jack?” Manning could tell from the kid’s expression he was contemplating whether to lie. “Honesty’s the best policy with a policeman, and it won’t get you into trouble today.”

“S-sometimes, can get benched for it though, so won’t be doing it with the finals coming up.”

“Good. Follow the rules, don’t want you disappearing as well. I’ll drop you back at school.”

“I see you’re moving a bit awkwardly there Detective. If you come and see me I could help you with that.”  The chiropractor handed Manning a card.

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Manning made a mental note to run a background check on the chiropractor. He would also order increased police patrols around the schools and ensure they all had Jack’s description of the man who followed him.

At the school Manning turned to Jack, “You seem like a good kid, stay out of trouble. Here’s my card, call me if you notice anything unusual.” Jack nodded and then disappeared into a sea of youth milling around outside one of the buildings.

Within a few days there was another disappearance of a truant quarterback.

Manning pointed out the window and shouted at the investigation team. “We’ve got half the force out patrolling the streets around those schools. Nothing! Haven’t even caught a kid skiving off class, are the idiots on patrol blind?”

He was about to launch into another tirade when an officer tapped him on the arm. He turned ready to set fire to the minion, who sensed it and spoke fast.

“Something’s happened sir, we think we’ve picked up the mystery lurker.”

Manning let out a long slow breath and the heat in his face subsided. “Get him here fast, and the boy Jack, from St Joseph’s. The rest of you get back to work, this could be a red herring.”

“Tell me as soon as they get here, and get some foils for a lineup with the suspect.” Manning stormed back to his office with clenched fists.
He needed to dispel some of the pent up frustration and started to tidy his office. He shuffled papers into neat piles and swept old sandwich wrappers into the bin. He put the bin down and noticed his shoelace was undone but when he leaned forward to do it up he felt a sharp pain in his lower back. He let out a yelp as he straightened up and winced and moaned when he tried to stretched. He remembered the card in his pocket and pulled it out. He called and made an appointment with the chiropractor.

Manning yelled, “What?” at a knock on his door.

The timid officer pocked his head in, “Both here sir, boy in interview room one, suspect in four with some others for a lineup,” he ducked out again.

Manning slugged down a couple of painkillers from his desk drawer with a glass of tepid water and headed for the interview rooms. He was in no mood for small talk. He opened the door to interview room one to find Jack nervously scanning the room.

“There’s some men I want you to look at, tell me if any of them is the one who followed you.”

They headed to room four trailed by a young officer. Through the one-way glass were six men standing in a line facing them. “Take a long look and tell me if you recognize any of them,” said Manning.
He watched Jack study the men for several minutes. The boy tipped his head to one side and narrowed his eyes, then he pointed toward the lineup, “That one, second from the left, pretty sure that’s him.”

“Good man,” said Manning, “Officer take Jack back to room one, get him a coke or whatever he wants and wait there with him. I will want to talk to you again son.” He patted Jack on the shoulder.
The man Jack identified was alone in the interview room when Manning entered. Manning stayed standing.

“What have you been doing hanging around outside the school?”

He waited for the anticipated denial. When it arrived Manning attacked. The guys eyes widened as it registered what he was being accused of and he spilled his guts. He claimed he only wanted to make a bet on the football final game and was waiting for Jack to get the bookies contact.

“Bookie? Jack?” Manning asked.

“All the football captains hold a number for the bookie who runs the betting for the high school games.” A friend had shown him Jacks photo on Facebook so he would know who to look for. He claimed he had alibis for the days the truants had disappeared but Manning told him they’d hold him on suspicion till they could check them. Then he went to see Jack again.

“Something you forgot to tell me son?” Jack gave Manning a quizzical look.

“Illegal football betting?” Jacks face reddened.

“Think you’d better tell me all about that, or you won’t be playing in the final,” Manning said and crossed his arms over his chest. The stab of pain in his back made him wince.
The threat was enough to get Jack talking. He claimed not to know who the bookie was, but did have his phone number. All the team captains had the number of the bookie and anyone who wanted to bet would see one of the boys to get it.

“Ok, Jack, I want you to give me that number and then I want you to carry on as normal. No telling anyone about this conversation ok? If anyone asks, still give out the number.” Jack nodded and leaned forward to write a name and number on a piece of paper Manning produced.

Manning returned to the incident room, roaring orders to put tails on all the football team captains, hold the suspect in interview room four as long as possible and trace the owner of the phone number Jack had given him.  It sent police scurried in all directions.

Manning grabbed his keys, eased himself into his car and headed to the chiropractors. By the time he got there he felt and walked like an old man.

The chiropractor greeted Manning in reception like an old friend, “Detective, thought I’d see you back here, oh, you do look a bit sore, come on through.” Manning followed him, scanned the room, eased onto the table and lay face down.

The chiropractor did what he called muscle tests, then started making sudden thrusting movements around Manning’s lower back causing popping noises.

Manning breathed deep and in between the thrusts asked . “Tell me about all those skeletons out there in reception, where do you get them?”

“The bigger one’s like the horse out the back I buy from suppliers. Some of the smaller ones I prepare myself. I get friends to let me know if they come across any road kill, or a pet dies and they’re prepared to donate it to science.”

“Unusual hobby,” said Manning. “How do you turn a whole animal into a skeleton?”

“There’s a couple of options. If you’re not in a hurry, you can compost them, or bury them. If you want to do it fast and have the stomach for it you can cut off the meat first then put it in a colony of dermestid beetles. They eat off the rest of the fleshy bits. I’ve got a friends cat going in the compost out the back at the moment. I can show you if you like?”

Manning felt queasy. “What about that human skeleton. Is that real?” Manning waved his hand in the direction of the skeleton on a stand in the corner.

“Sure is,” the chiropractor said enthusiastically, “Hard to come by too. That one’s a recent buy from a bone dealer, only got him yesterday. The human ones come from people who have donated their bodies to science when they die.”

The chiropractor finished manipulating Manning’s back and left the room. Manning stretched with relief, then on a hunch he broke the end off one of the fingers of the skeleton and put it in his pocket. He almost knocked the lot onto the floor.

“How are you feeling? Want to come and see my horse?” said the chiropractor when Manning went back into the reception.

This guy is a real freak thought Manning but didn’t want to spook him. “Next time maybe. I am feeling better though, thanks .” He stretched and rubbed his relieved back.
Back at the station, Manning pulled the finger tip bone out of his pocket,  pointed at one of the investigators in the incident room and growled more orders.

“You. Get this DNA tested against all the missing kids, and someone get a tail on this chiropractor,” he waved the chiropractors card toward another officer.

“How are we going with finding the bookie? And what about that lurker we’re holding, his alibis check out? We’ve got about 24 hours to clear this up before that kids tongue starts wagging or we have to let the lurker go and he starts talking.” The investigators sitting around flew into action.

Over the next few hours things unfolded fast. The alibi of the lurker who had followed Jack was confirmed, which disappointed Manning. Investigators found the bookie and bought in the chiropractor, who had shown signs of fleeing. He must have noticed the missing fingertip.

It turned out the bookie worked for a body broker and had a gambling habit. Under pressure he admitted he owed some shady characters a lot of money and had placed a very large bet on the team Jack played for to win the finals.

When he found out Jack had injured himself, he decided to handicap the opposition by removing a few players to save his own skin. He picked them up when they were truant from school which enabled him to go undetected.

It was one of the most bizarre stories Manning had heard in his long career as a Detective. The bookie had used the fast method to clean the skeletons, and sold one to the chiropractor. The DNA match showed the skeleton belonged to the first truant.

The chiropractor had spooked when he saw the missing finger and thought he would get into trouble for buying a human skeleton, which was illegal. The Chiropractor identified the bookie as the man who sold him the skeleton.

A few weeks later Manning was at the football final. All the players were wearing black armbands in honor of the missing quarterbacks. Jack kicked the winning goal, then turned to salute Manning who was rubbing his lower back.

Image: Epi Island, Vanatu

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