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The Three-armed Man

A surreal journey through cyber-space, Part 1

Inspector Thumb's raddled body twisted and bucked, buffeted by the electron tides of virtual space. Every time a lonely bachelor logged on to, an excited stream passed through his nose like a hot wire. The route to www.useyourcarrot ran straight through the lace holes of his left shoe. Surges of power from Megadeathpaincity://nooneunderstandsus. thudded into the small of his back every afternoon, as thousands of adolescent boys got home from school and fired up their apple macs.
Inspector Thumb was in a very strange place.
When Sergeant Argent had punched that escape button, the whole of his fictional existence should have been ended entirely. The treachorous Argent was right. There was no back-up file, no hard disc, no floppy. When fictional finger met virtual keyboard, every particle of his carefully constructed imaginary world should have been annihilated.
But Thumb had somehow defied Argent's Armageddon. Precisely as the cataclysm occurred, the belt buckle of his Scotland Yard issue fawn trenchcoat had caught in the Refresh key, and now he dangled in cyber-space, suspended by a single length of double stitched Gore-Tex from a fragile corner of reality.
Sometimes Thumb's desperate thoughts became entangled in the electron streams and carried to disparate computers across the globe like viruses. Microsoft HQ began to pick up these fluttering and cryptic twitches amongst the dumped and disconnected trash of error reports and deleted spams. Complaints began as a patter, became a drizzle, and developed into a downpour. Bizarre images of shining brass and steel cradles obscured popular pornographic sites. Students sweeping Google for exam answers were swamped with irrelevant 'facts' about the history of West Hamley Slot Car Club. 'Friends Reignited' put people in touch with imaginary characters from a non-existent department of Scotland Yard. And slowly, an audible message was decoded from the fragments of background noise, the ethereal hum that was polluting mp3. 'The three armed man. Find the three armed man. Camel boy.'

It only takes two conspiracy theorists to start a conspiracy. It only took two idle and sociopathic computer junkies to pick up on these messages and build them into a global panic. Who is the three-armed man? And what is Camel-boy?

In a darkened flat in Eltham, a sallow-faced web-junky trashed his last tube of Pringles and decided that he would be the one who would find them.

And simultaneously, in a snow-bound cabin in the Yukon, a fur-clad off-duty Mountie wiped the congealed seal-grease off his P.C. screen and noticed a flickering image that shouldn't oughta've been there.

As the two men punched co-ordinates into their respective keyboards, thousands of miles away from one another but perfectly synchronised in time, Inspector Thumb dangled in the cross-hairs. The two computer lines intersected in the small of his back with a combined force that ripped through his flabby body, sending it into a violent spasm. He span violently in virtual space, and another stitch parted on the tightly stretched belt of his trench-coat.

The feed-back through the web was immediate and unmistakeable. In Eltham, the energy crackled up out of the computer line, up the stiffened and clotted fibres of the pale youth's sweatshirt and melted his earwax. He heard acoustic sound for the first time in years. But it was not from any obvious source inside or outside his heavily curtained flat.

In Bear Cack Falls, a similar phenomenon melted the tiny icicles that had hung from the Mountie's eyebrows since the onset of the cold season. And for a minute the howl of the snowstorm outside was silenced, and a clear and unmistakeable voice echoed off the cedar logs of the cabin walls. Oddly, it had an English accent.

'Refried' Fergie O'Halloran, the lonely occupant of the coldest Mountie station in Canada, and the stick-insect like occupant of 33b Elysian Mansions, Eltham, London S.E. known to himself and any friends he thought he had as X, but to his still extant but largely ignored parents as Tristram Fylde-Psmith, heard the same message. It was like a bugle call. A summons. 'Find the three-armed man. Camel boy'.

The two men were on a mission. The same mission. One, a two metre tall mountain of partly-metabolised walrus blubber, topped by a weather-and-whiskey-beaten face that was, these days, a couple of shades brighter than the slightly faded scarlet of his Mountie uniform. The other was a hollow chested sliver of humanity that flickered in and out of vision if observed walking past lamp-posts. Which he never did these days. He ate, slept and did various other unavoidable things never more than a few feet from his computer screen, the physical confines of his dark and rancid apartment merely an extraneous and unconsidered dimension of his internal world. Both men hit their keyboards in a manic flurry of fingertips; ten of them slender, calloused at the tips, and streaked with self-inflicted felt-tip tattoos, the other ten, half way across the world, fat and barely articulated, with yellow and stratified nails emerging from cut-off moose-hide mittens like glacial deposits. They typed in the same words, and Thumb twirled again in cyber-space with a soft ripping sound.

Somehow Thumb knew that he was at last in contact. Someone had returned his message. But why he kept thinking of the three armed man himself, he couldn't fathom. He kept himself sane by recapitulating all his successful cases. Fast Freddie's murder. The spiteful death of the Skewered Scrutineer. The pursuit of his two nemeses, Badger the disgruntled roadie and Racso Omt , the ruthless leader of the Society of Model Engineers, Gangsters, Murderers and Assassins known as SMEGMA. The Mabuchi Murders. All of the things that had made him the most successful and famous fictional slot racing detective of all time. He couldn't end like this. Sergeant Argent had just been a plot device, a counterbalance to his own inspirational genius, a means of explaining complicated plots to the reader, and someone to clear up the boring and unpleasant parts of the stories. He couldn't be the author! He couldn't have such power! But somehow Argent had succeeded in casting Thumb into this outer darkness, where he drifted between fact and fiction, reality and unreality, real time and oblivion, anchored only by the tug of his belt buckle, a pull that was exerting an excessive strain on the stitching.

And yet over-riding all these glorious and self-sustaining thoughts in Thumb's head are these two unshakeable images. One man leaning against a sign board. Two arms rest on top, and another reaches out from below. Another man reclines in a deck chair as beautiful women in scanty bathing costumes play beach ball. A plume of cigarette smoke curls above his head. He turns to look at Thumb, and his head is that of a camel.

He concentrates again, recalling epic baritone saxophone solos, note by strained and tortured note. He counts off all the Le Mans winners in chronological order, including Indexes of Performance and Thermal Efficiency. He enumerates the torque figures and r.p.m. of every electric motor in common use in slot racing. He drives an imaginary 500 lap enduro of the West Hamley track, recalling braking and power points with precision, differences in lane and corner configuration, recalling the track joints that can put the car momentarily off line, the grippier sections as well as the well-worn and slippy tricky bits. And through it all come, unbidden, the images of the three-armed man and the camel boy. But this time, there are voices too. As his imaginary Speed 8 Bentley crosses the line there are general shouts of approval from a crowd of spectators, but two singular voices call out 'We're coming for you, Camel Boy. Hold on!' As his overloaded brain closes itself down into sleep, a third and even more disturbing image floats across his inner eye. It is a fish in a hat.
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