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Prologue

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It was a cool rainy July day in the last full year of the war when I got the call from Alice Compton about the papers.  After my mother's death in 1937 I had sold their fine home on Queen Anne street, and had lived modestly off the proceeds from both the well-furnished residence and the remaining medical supplies from my father's old practice.  I had not wanted to live in the beautiful old place for it had a somber, sad atmosphere to me ever since father had fallen as a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1916 at the Somme.

The Comptons of Kensington had lived in the home happily enough, not haunted by the ghost of Dr Watson, save in proud memory, but like so many homes in London it had been struck by a "buzzbomb" launched out of Germany.  While the family survived, much of the house had not, and while picking through the tragic ruins of the building, they had discovered a section of the attic that had been walled off.  Within were some of father's old medical equipment -- now outdated and merely curiosities -- and a chest containing old papers.  Much of the papers, Mrs Compton explained, were simply records of the medical practice and household bills, saved in my mother's meticulous and conscientious fashion.  

But it was a particular sheaf of pages which caught their attention and knowing me from the sale and to my regret the notoriety of my father's writing and adventuring days, however diminished by relation, thought I should see them.  When the streets were safe to travel and curfew allowed, I made my way through the brick-littered avenues past wrecked buildings and the signs of Nazi hate rained down upon London so often, all the way to Queen Anne street in Marleybone from my much more modest home in Hounslow.

Alice Compton greeted me warmly, despite the situation.  I almost wept looking at the wreckage of the once-beautiful building, now only half erect and crushed on one side as if a gigantic foot had stamped upon a boy's twig structure.  Alice had dirt and soot smeared on her face and clothes, but seemed invigorated by the effort of picking through the rubble, putting her best face upon the situation.

"I was so excited when we found it," Alice explained.  "Just holding something Dr Watson himself had written, it was like some grand archaeological discovery!"

"Found what?" I tried to ask, but my voice was drowned out by a section of the second floor collapsing as the men cleared away a precarious portion of roofing.

"There it was, hidden away all these years, I expect you never even knew it was there!" Alice said proudly.  "Why, it was over our heads all this time in the dining room!  If only we had thought to check, but who would expect part of the attic to be walled away like that?"

"One wonders why it was closed off," I said quietly, looking up at the structure.  I wanted to press her for more information, but she seemed so happy to tell her tale, I didn't care to interrupt the flow of thought.

"Who can say?  Perhaps your mother was, er, ill at ease with the old reminders..." Alice tailed off uncomfortably.  She had drifted into awkward territory for proper English conversation.  We both looked at the wreckage a moment, trying to pretend neither had heard her.

"I hope you can rebuild it," I suggested.

"Oh, I should think so, once these horrible bombs stop falling.  I read in The Times that our boys are over there right now, fighting to destroy the launching sites." She nodded triumphantly.  "They'll get this Hitler fellow sorted out soon enough.  They and the Americans, I suppose."

"Oh quite, I'm sure," I agreed.  Soon, I hoped she would get back to the reason she'd called.

"I don't suppose you have any?" Alice asked.

I was taken aback.  "Americans?"

"Oh no!  How absurd!" Alice laughed.  "Any of your father's old notes about the Holmes cases!"

Suddenly my heart started pounding.  "Quite a few, yes.  Most of his transcripts from the published cases, and notes for many more, although sadly incomplete.  Father would write much of the stories from his memory, you see."

"Oh well perhaps this won't be so exciting to you.  You see, we discovered a rather sizable sheaf of pages in handwriting, even some sketches, and they seem to be about a case or perhaps two.  Something about an Abernetty family."

"Oh!" was all I could say at first.  This was one of the 'lost cases' which my father had mentioned in The Six Napoleons, a tale I had no notes about and no one could recall.  Apparently, unlike some of his more famous cases, it had not risen to the notoriety which attracted the newspapers. 

"That is, well that is quite a find!"  I finally managed to say.  I was concerned she would want to sell the papers and did not wish to excite her too excessively.  My father's Scottish blood had come to the fore, I am ashamed to say.

Alice opened up a satchel at her waist and pulled out a yellowing paper.  "You see, there are scores of these pages, 'From the desk of John Hamish Watson'... why, I never knew his middle name."

"My mother would often call him by the English variant James, it was her pet name for him."

"Well, isn't that just fascinating!" she said, and from the look in her eyes, I believed her.  It seemed that like so many, Alice Compton was a Holmes aficionado, fascinated with all things regarding the great detective and his works.

Alice pushed the satchel into my arms, grinning like a schoolgirl.  The smear of soot across her forehead and nose made her look like a naughty little girl.  "Here, you take them.  If you want any of the other papers, give me a ring, and I shall get them round to you quick as ever I can.  They rightly belong to you, after all!"

I blinked in surprise, and could not help but smile, captured by her enthusiasm.  "Perhaps if you think they are worth a few coins, I would be happy to compensate you..." I found myself saying.

Alice's smile disappeared.  "Oh no.  No that would not do, not proper at all.  They belong to your family.  I shouldn't wish to take any sort of 'compensation' for them."  

I had offended her, and the kind connection we shared was over.  Determined to escape before I made matters worse, I tried to find a kind phrase of gratitude and left with cheeks burning.  Yet the feeling of shame was soon overcome by a sense of wonder.  What did these pages contain?  What story was hidden inside them?  I had only found notes this complete once before, in the ghastly tale of the Baskervilles, and was eager to find what treasures the Compton family had discovered in their moment of tragedy.

Taking the Omnibus home, I clutched the satchel close, as if surrounded by scoundrels  who would as soon steal my papers as look at me.  No one could see them until I had read through the notes completely, it was my secret now.  Not even Alice seemed to have done more than glimpse at them.  I was determined to do nothing else than read through the pages in the shelter that evening.

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