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Case 105: The Adventure Of The Red-Headed League (1890)

Chapter Text

Narration by Doctor John Watson, M.D.]

I glared almost resignedly at the not-yet-finished manuscript for our adventure with the Goode Brothers on which I only had to do a final grammar and spelling check on before submitting it to the 'Strand' magazine. It had been irritatingly difficult to get right and my writer's block had made me grumpy and ill-tempered at both work and home. The magazine had been pestering me for it throughout spring, here we were at the start of August and it still was not done. And worst of all Sherlock's lounge-lizard of a brother was due here any minute, which while it might mean another case would also subject me to being in the same room as him.

I wondered if I had time to summon Lady Holmes. I could even ask her to bring along her latest story.....

Someone was shaking his head at me from across the room. I scowled at him. He really had to stop with the mind-reading!


Sherlock and his irritating brother talked only briefly about our recent cases. Mr. Bacchus Holmes was very clearly suspicious about the case involving Huret the Boulevard assassin who had somehow resisted all efforts to track him down having disappeared into England disguised as a Cistercian monk, but fortunately more pressing matters forced him to move on. And I noted that he looked quite pale, doubtless the result of having to spend time in hospital while Lady Holmes visited every day and read him the best (or perhaps worst) of her stories.

“We have a serious problem”, the lounge-lizard scowled from the comfort of the fireside chair. It may have been the middle of summer but it seemed that someone had forgotten to inform the British weather and it was uncommonly cold. I felt annoyed that once again our guest was assuming his brother's assistance as if it was some right, whereas Sherlock always politely requested his elder sibling's aid when he needed it, never demanding it. Indeed, on one or two occasions in the past it had not been forthcoming without some 'prodding' by my friend. Although after the Lincolnshire Tempests Case his brother had been.... fractionally less obnoxious. Once he had gotten out of hospital.

I smiled at the pleasant memory and pointedly ignored a sharp look from the resident blue-eyed wiseacre in the room.

“What is it?” Sherlock asked turning back to the visiting nuisance.

“Middleton's”, his brother said heavily.

Miss Bradbury's detective agency, I remembered. Run by the unseen Mr. William Middleton. It was odd how, our noble Queen included since her late husband's passing nearly three decades back, there seemed to be a rule that the most powerful people in society were often the least seen. Sherlock looked at his brother.

“What of them?” Sherlock asked.

“Some of Mr. William Middleton's people think that they should supply information only to Professor Moriarty as he is 'the coming man'”, our visitor lamented. “It would be a complete disaster!”

“Why?” I asked.

Sherlock turned to me but not before shooting his brother a warning look. Mr. Bacchus Holmes very clearly had to work to suppress whatever biting comment he had been about to utter. I totally failed to suppress a smirk.

“Mr. William Middleton has always kept his business strictly neutral until now”, my friend explained. “But many of his employees will of course be tempted by the money that the professor has at his command.”

“He would allow that?” I asked dubiously.

“Moriarty has divided even his own criminal fraternity with his actions”, Sherlock said. “Queen Molly continues to refuse to have nothing to do with him despite his efforts to patch things up with her, and after he disposed of Mr. Grendon in the mincing-machine, most of the city's other top criminals have moved away from him.”

“Some things disgust even vermin!” Mr. Bacchus Holmes agreed.

“Is it perhaps because of the Red-Headed League?” Sherlock wondered.

“What on earth are they?” I asked. I was learning all sorts of new things today.

“A potential rival to Middleton's if they ever become established”, Mr. Bacchus Holmes explained. “It claims to be descended from one of those infernal Italian family things, the Borgias and all that. Because people who are different always got picked on – still do if it comes to that – the League was set up to defend the interests of gingers in society. Over time it began using information as leverage and now it has shown up in London. I wonder if that is why the Middletons might be prepared to abandon their neutrality; they might perceive the League to be a threat.”

“If Professor Moriarty gains preferential access to the sort of information that either organization possesses, it would indeed be a disaster of the first magnitude”, Sherlock said. “I am surprised that he has not moved against the League already in an effort to try to win Mr. William Middleton over.”

“He most likely has”, his brother said. “The League had acquired an office in Whitechapel but it was burnt to the ground just days after opening. There was a huge red number '1' on the floor which fortunately turned out to be just red paint; one never knows with these people! And a second set of offices in the Minories met a similar end a few days later except this time there was a big red '3' on a wall.”

Sherlock waited for me to note down that information before speaking.

“Has anyone tried to approach Mr. William Middleton about this?” he asked. His brother shuddered.

“You know as well as I do that no-one ever 'approaches' Mr. William Middleton”, our visitor said pointedly. “At least not before getting past the ferocious Miss Bradbury! Lord but that woman has a powerful uppercut!”

Miss Bradbury rose yet another notch in my estimation and I made a mental note to buy her a cake for her efforts. Although someone could really stop shaking their head at me like that!

“Miss Bradbury is despite her seemingly lowly position possibly the third-most influential lady in the capital, after our two Queens”, Sherlock said. “I must say that her continued position has been something of a surprise as Mr. Middleton had traditionally only employed secretaries for one month at a time until she arrived. Yet she has held the post for over six years now. So what did you do to make her hit you, Bacchus?”

His brother scowled at him.

“In a city this size I suppose it is the law of averages that not every woman can see my charms”, he said loftily. “She must have misinterpreted my intentions. And what sort of woman keeps a knitting-needle up her sleeve like that?”

I looked at him in confusion. Sherlock smirked.

“After the uppercut, Miss Bradbury pitched her second strike rather lower”, he said pointedly.

I made a mental note to upgrade my pastry to a full-sized celebration cake for Miss Bradbury, despite the resident wiseacre's disapproving look.


Over the following week four more attempts by the Red-Headed League to set up offices in the city went up in flames. Or more accurately the first three went up in flames while the fourth one ended when someone blew up the whole (mercifully empty) building! In each case a red painted number was left at the scene; a '5', an '8', a '9' and an '18'. The attacker did not appear to be overly mathematical, I thought.

Eight days after the lounge-lizard's visit an invitation arrived at Baker Street. Sherlock had been making some inquiries into the matter but had not yet shared them with me, and now he looked oddly perplexed.

“It is to attend a meeting with Miss Bradbury”, he said. “I quote, 'it is also advised that a representative of Professor James Moriarty will be attending this meeting as our organization considers its future policies towards certain groupings in this city. Kindly note that the bringing of weapons in any shape or form will not be well received'.”

“So they have summoned you”, I said. “I wonder why.”

He looked at me strangely.

“There was no name on the message so I opened it”, he said. “Miss Bradbury wishes to speak to you!”

I gulped.


Chapter Text

The following day I duly went to Middleton's, a nondescript building in a row of shops near the Angel, Islington. I was immediately shown up to the offices of Miss Charlotta Bradbury. They were small and rather mean for so influential a lady and most decidedly dwarfed by the impressive studded oak door with the name of the company owner on it on a gleaming brass plate (I privately doubted that even a charging elephant could get through that!). There were also two of those chairs that I knew from experience sank almost to the floor if one tried to sit in them (we had some at the surgery for our more 'difficult' clients) and a bookcase full of what appeared to be mostly second-hand books. Miss Bradbury gestured me towards one of the two far more sturdy chairs across the table from her and I sat down obediently.

About five minutes later a blond fellow was announced as 'Mr. Elias Evans' by a boy whom I did not even see. The newcomer was a tall blond man of about my age and had a mean-looking pinched face. He glared at me but did not speak.

“I will not make the introductions lengthy”, our hostess said, “because I am sure that the two of you wish for as little to do with each other as possible. Mr. Elias Evans, Doctor John Watson. Time is money gentlemen, so let us keep this brief.”

I snapped to attention.

“A decision has been taken that, with the current instability caused by the advent of a potential rival in the city, our company's long-established position of neutrality will no longer suffice. This is what is going to happen. You are each going to take a dossier back with you to your respective masters. Doctor, you shall leave her precisely eight minutes and forty-three seconds after Mr. Evans as he has further to travel. Two cabs are being held outside, one for each of you. We must have fairness above all else.”

I nodded, noting my opponent's smirk.

“And Mr. Evans”, she said warningly, “you will both be watched every step of the way back. If you try to stop and telegraph the information ahead I shall know. And I shall not be pleased!”

The smirk vanished at once.

“The dossier will present a challenge to your respective masters, the answer to which is a whole number”, the lady continued. “When you or they think to have solved it, you and/or your agents may come back here and tell me or you may send a telegram containing your answer. The first communication by either method will be accepted and considered. However – and this is of great import - once I have received your answer by either method you must then follow it up by coming here in person and stating your reasons within one hour. An incorrect number or a failed reasoning means a forfeit so your opponent will automatically win. The prize will be that Middleton's will exclusively provide information to whichever side wins and will provide none to the losing side for a minimum period of ten years.”

“That sounds fair”, Mr. Evans said. “Anything else?”

She looked at him pointedly.

“Although I should not have to say this, I will”, she said firmly. “Your employer in particular, Mr. Evans, may consider that a pre-emptive strike either immediately or in the event of a failed guess might be in his best interests. Believe me, it would so not be the case.”

Her voice turned cold, and I flinched.

“There is a huge dossier on the activities of not just your employer but also yourself. Including, I might add, a certain incident in Tulse Hill last year concerning a certain brothel run by the late Mr. and Mrs. Peasegood which features quite prominently. I consider myself fairly broad-minded in this day and age but I have to say that even I had to take a stiff drink after reading that!”

My opponent turned bright red. Miss Bradbury pulled out a watch.

“Mr. Evans, you may leave now”, she said. “The time begins the moment that you pass that door. Remember, not only your cab-drivers but certain other of my agents will be watching you - the whole time!”

The blond man grabbed one of the two huge dossiers on the table and left hurriedly. I sat back and waited for the time to elapse.


Once safely back in Baker Street I gave Sherlock the dossier that I had been provided with.

“Surely we have the advantage?” I pressed. “Professor Moriarty has no-one that he can call on with your abilities?”

“Except that if we get it wrong then we forfeit and the Professor wins”, Sherlock fretted. “I must be one hundred per cent confident of our answer before supplying it to Miss Bradbury. He may feel that he might take a chance.”

The dossier contained one immediate surprise – the attacks on the Red-Headed League had not as we had thought been the work of our rival but of Middleton's itself, whose owner had not taken kindly to attempts to as it was put 'encroach on their turf'. The other contents were a school primer poster which unrolled to reveal the alphabet and punctuation marks along the top and the numbers one to forty along the bottom with pictures of various Greek myths along the middle, and a small envelope containing a cigarette-card of an ironclad ship, the 'H.M.S. Bellerophon'.

“If the answer is a number then perhaps may take it that the six numbers found in the Red-Headed League's buildings were the start of some sort of series”, Sherlock said. “We have 1, 3, 5, 8, 9 and 18.”

“It does not make sense”, I frowned. “The gaps are 2, 2, 3, 1 and 9. It is neither arithmetic or geometric.”

“So what else could it be?” Sherlock asked.

We both thought on the matter for some time.

“I did think of letters in each word”, I said. “Three letters in the word 'one', five in the word 'three', but then it breaks down.”

Sherlock stared at me curiously, then grinned. He grabbed the primer and made a few quick notes on a pad before turning to me.

“Doctor”, he said urgently, “you are a genius!”


He hastily scribbled something on a piece of paper then stood up.

“We must telegraph this to Miss Bradbury immediately”, he said. “I do not wish to risk a boy being intercepted by one of my rival's agents as I would not put it past him to try to stop us despite the fact I am sure she has covered such an eventuality.”

I looked at my watch.

“The local post office will be closed”, I observed.

“Miss Bradbury is doubtless aware of that fact”, he said, “as our rival lives nearly a quarter of a mile further from a post office than we do. But we both live about the same distance from a major railway station that operates much later into the evening, in our case Euston. We will stop off and send the answer from there. Or rather I will drop you off and you will have to join me in Islington once you have sent it. It may even be that I beat the message to her offices.”

“Surely she will have gone home for the day?” I objected. Sherlock chuckled.

“Somehow I think not”, he said. “Not when the future of the business is at stake. She will expecting one or both of us to have solved the conundrum by tonight.”

I pulled my shoes and coat on and we ran from the room.


Chapter Text

He was of course right. I arrived at Middleton's not long after Sherlock and was shown up to Miss Bradbury's offices to find the two of them waiting for me.

“Well, gentlemen”, she smiled. “You are venturing your answer to our little conundrum?”

“I am”, Sherlock said confidently. “Fortunately a guinea is a most excellent motivational tool for the average London cab-driver, and I see that we have even beaten my friend's telegram here.”

There was a knock at the door and a small boy darted in, placed a message on the silver platter next to Miss Bradbury and stood smartly to attention. She opened it and read it.

“Only just, gentlemen”, she said. “No reply Tom, thank you.”

The boy somehow managed to disappear without apparently leaving the room. Miss Bradbury eyed us cautiously.

“A most interesting answer”, she said carefully.

The lady was good. There was not even the flicker of an emotion. Then she smiled knowingly.

“You are correct. But you have provided only half of what was asked of you. Unless you can explain your reasoning, we may consider that you made a fortunate guess.”

Sherlock looked offended.

“I never 'guess', madam”, he said, sniffing as if she had uttered an unpleasant word. “I have had my suspicions for the past week but your conundrum, once my friend here had provided me with the key to solving it, was the confirmation I needed.”

“Me?” I said in surprise. He turned to me.

“You wondered whether the letters in each word might be the answer”, he said. “Of course that would have made the sequence 1, 3 and 5 to then go 4 ad infinitum but that, coupled with the clues that Miss Bradbury was so kind as to provide us with, showed me the correct answer.”

He turned back to the lady.

“It was an appropriate word that you chose”, he said. “The six numbers left at your rival's destroyed offices, when read against the primer that you provided, matched against the letters A, C, E, H, I and R. I deduced that we were looking for a seven-letter word and that the number that corresponded to the missing letter would therefore be the correct answer. However that still left several possibilities, as well you knew. Off the top of my head I could supply the words cashier, archive, chaired and the name Charlie, which would mean the missing letter could be an 'S', a 'V', a 'D' or an 'L'. And there are almost certainly rarer words which would only expand that field further.”

“Nine in all”, she said. “I am surprised that you did not immediately think of one more.”

“I did not, until I saw the picture of the warship”, Sherlock said. “I think you played us a little unfairly there, madam.”

She smiled with an innocence that even I did not believe for a second.

“What makes you say that?” she asked.

“Because that word, which was the correct one, is unusual in having two possible spellings”, he said. “The old eight-letter version and the newer seven-letter one which I would fathom is not in some older dictionaries. Matters were further confused by the fact that some but not all books follow our Anglo-Saxon ancestors and print 'ae' as it once was, the single Anglo-Saxon letter ash. The ship gave me the final clue.”

“How could a ship give you a clue?” I demanded.

“The ship was 'H.M.S. Bellerophon'”, Sherlock explained. “And in Greek mythology, which judging from that overladen bookcase is a major interest of someone in this establishment, the hero Bellerophon killed a beast called the chimera or chimaera. The missing letter was therefore an 'M' which corresponds to my answer, the number thirteen.”

She nodded.

“You have done well”, she said. “You have solved the conundrum and Middleton's will honour its side of the deal, however much that will doubtless annoy Professor Moriarty. Mr. Middleton will be apprised of your success this evening.”

I expected Sherlock to stand at that point but he remained seated.

“I would have thought that he knew already”, he said coolly. She looked at him curiously.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

He chuckled.

“It really will not do, Miss Bradbury. Or perhaps I should call you 'Mr. William Middleton'?”

A silence hung in the air between them, before she threw back her head and laughed uproariously. I stared at her in astonishment.

“You!” she said forcibly. “I knew that you were trouble from the day I met you, but I was sure that you would not be able to find me out. How did you know?”

“With access to one of the most powerful banks of information that the world has ever known, I realized many years back that 'Mr. William Middleton' was someone I needed either neutral or on my side”, Sherlock said. “You covered your tracks extremely well my lady, but one or two very small slip-ups made me suspect. I had decided not to pursue matters, but this challenge was so important that I had no choice but to follow up on my suspicions.”

“Such as?” she demanded at once.

“Mr. Middleton lived in a huge house but kept no servants”, he said. “Perhaps not so strange for a recluse except that the house only received a major burst of cleaning when he was 'away on holiday', a local firm being called in on each occasion. Yet when I examined the house close up – I am afraid that I did trespass on your property, madam, though of course I did not then know that it was legally yours – everything was in surprisingly good order. That suggested that someone was living there who maintained the house at least to some degree, which from my little knowledge of the fake 'Mr. Middleton' made it look as if someone else was involved.”

“Go on”, she said.

“I dug further and found the answer”, he said. “Mr. William Middleton had been grafted onto a family of that name by the high-quality efforts of Mr. Silas Rosenberg – he did not betray your confidence as such but he did one time reveal certain tricks he used in his documents that I was able to spot this time – and William's brother Mr. John Middleton was a real person. He had one son George who I quickly established was of weak character and unlikely to be able to run a bath, let alone a powerful information business. Therefore you are most likely Mr. John Middleton's daughter.”

“Dad died ten years ago”, she said with a sigh. “He always wanted me to take the business on after his death – George was and still is about as effective as a chocolate teapot! - but he knew as I did that a woman running such an organization would never cut the mustard, even in this day and age. He set most of it up himself, you know. All I had to do was keep things going, pretend that he was still alive and that I was just his secretary.”

“That was also a clue”, Sherlock said. “A man who averages one secretary a week does not as a rule suddenly decide to stay with the same one for over six years, however efficient she may be. And I expect that you enjoyed the fact that one of the possible answers to the conundrum was a short form of your own name.”

“It did not help that I was born on the wrong side of the blanket”, Miss Bradbury said. “Mother was just a factory worker and Father had a brief affair with her before his own father sent him abroad for a few years. He never knew I existed until I rolled up at his door.”

She looked up, her eyes bright.

“I worked hard to get where I am today, gentlemen”, she said gruffly. “You know as well as I do how people would react if this got out. I am totally at your mercy.”

Sherlock rose to his feet.

“It has been a pleasure doing business with you, Miss Bradbury”, he said politely. “I look forward to many further dealings with your most estimable organization. Please extend our greetings to..... 'Mr. Middleton'.”

She smiled at that. We shook hands and left.


We were standing outside looking for a cab when a small boy hurried up, looking up at the buildings and nearly running into us as he went.

“Steady young chap!”, I said. “Why the hurry?”

“Message for Miss Bradbury at Middleton's”, he said, sounding anxious. “The fellow who gave it me promised half a crown if I got back to him with an answer in under an hour. It's in Westminster so I gotta run.”

“Short thick-set gentleman with a stubbled beard?” I asked.

He nodded, looking warily at us both. Sherlock took out a half-crown and placed it in the boy's hand. He looked at it incredulously.

“Deliver your message”, Sherlock advised, “but when you return with the answer, take my advice and stand well back. It is not going to be well-received and I doubt that you will get as much as a farthing!”

“Cor!” the boy said, looking at wealth the like of which he had almost certainly never seen in his life before. “Thanks guv'nor!”

“Good luck”, Sherlock smiled as the boy trotted into Middleton's.

“He will need it!” I prophesied.


“There is still the Red-Headed League”, I observed later as we were sat by the fire after a most pleasant dinner. Mrs. Harvelle's apple-pie was one of those heavenly miracles which did not occur often enough in my humble opinion.

Sherlock chuckled.

“What is so funny?” I asked.

“John, the Red-Headed League was the chimaera”, he yawned. “It never existed.”

“But... how?” I spluttered.

“Consider the circumstances”, he said. “The resourceful Miss Bradbury had taken a dislike to the rising menace of Professor Moriarty and wished to abandon her firm's traditional neutrality and adhere to the side of law and order. The general criminal fraternity will not respond well, she correctly reasons. So what to do? She creates, if I may use the word, a chimaera.”

“A chimaera”, I said slowly.

“In the modern sense of an illusion”, Sherlock said. “A rival organization which tries repeatedly to encroach on her turf only to be set fire to repeatedly and, finally, to have their buildings blown up beneath them. The message from 'Mr. William Middleton' is loud and clear; mess with us and we will repeatedly set fire to you, and if you still do not get the message we shall blast you to kingdom come! Anyone looking to take them on would think twice when they stare at six sets of smoking ruins in barely a week.”

“That is brilliant!” I said.

“Indeed”, he said. “Miss Bradbury is in her own way as formidable as Mrs. Emmeline Strong, and much more dangerous. It is good to have her on our side in the coming conflict. We shall need every ally that we can get.”