I was somewhat taken aback when we saw Xena of Amphipolis for the first time. For one thing she was upside down.
The Athenians had not only imprisoned her in a prison cell, behind a door of thick timbers reinforced with bars of iron, but had chained her to the wall. She was using those chains as an exercise apparatus, or so it appeared, and she had adopted an inverted position with her arms splayed out and her feet near the ceiling. She maintained the pose for a few seconds after we entered the cell, and then she swung over and around, landing on her feet facing us.
My mental picture of her had not been flattering. I had expected that she would be rather, well, mannish. Tall and probably stocky of build, no doubt, and her hair would be cropped short. Her voice would be harsh or gruff. Legends of beautiful Amazon women were all very well but in real life men are much stronger than women. For a woman to be a warrior whose strength, as well as skill, was renowned throughout Greece she would have to be somewhat masculine.
The attractive and feminine woman who faced us rather confounded my expectations. She was tall, certainly; I am close to six foot and her eyes were on a level with my own. However stocky was certainly not the right word to describe her build. She wore a leather cuirass moulded to her figure, as did the male hoplites whom had we encountered, but the figure to which it clung was very definitely that of a woman. Her legs were long, her waist narrow, and she possessed certain very womanly attributes that were emphasised by bronze decorations set into the leather. Her dark hair hung down past her shoulders. She was not as pretty of face as was Gabrielle, at least in my opinion, but no one could have called her unattractive.
“Welcome to my temporary home,” she greeted us. An engaging smile appeared on her wide and full-lipped mouth. “I’d offer you a drink but I’m afraid,” she lifted her manacled hands, “that I’m a little tied up at the moment.”
Poirot removed his hat and held it at his chest. He inclined his head towards her and smiled. “But of course, Mademoiselle, I understand most completely.”
“These are the ones who the Oracle says can clear your name,” Gabrielle introduced us. “Hercule Poirot and his assistants Captain Hastings and Miss Lemon.”
“Xena of Amphopolis. Thanks for coming.” Xena’s eyes moved as she looked us up and down. “I guess, going by your clothes, that you came a very long way.”
“I brought them across two and a half thousand years,” Gabrielle said.
Xena’s eyes widened. The small window of the cell admitted enough light for me to see that her eyes were very blue. “Far further than I have ever been. I won’t ask you questions about how Greece fares in your time. We’ll just stick to the here and now, okay?”
“To concentrate on the matter at hand is indeed wise, Mademoiselle Xena. Time, it presses.” Poirot smiled. I could tell that Xena’s directness had impressed him favourably.
“The Archon Eponymous has set your trial for the first day of the waning moon,” Gabrielle said. “Six days from now.”
“So the guards told me,” Xena replied.
“I must therefore discover the truth with the utmost alacrity,” said Poirot. “I have some questions for you, Mademoiselle.”
“Ask away,” said Xena. “It’s not as if I have anything else to do but answer.”
“First, Mademoiselle, how well did you know this man Aristarchos?”
“I knew him by sight,” Xena answered. “That’s all. He was well known in the city and somebody pointed him out to me. I never spoke to him.” Her eyebrows twitched up and down. “I tried to, once, but he saw me coming and walked away. It wasn’t important enough for me to push it.”
“Indeed?” Poirot touched a finger to the tip of his moustache. “And what was the matter about which you desired to speak to him?”
“I heard that he had voted to have me barred from Athens. I was just going to tell him that I was here and not doing any harm, so, no need for him to worry.”
“And, when he avoided you, were you annoyed at his discourtesy?”
Xena’s eyes narrowed and her nostrils flared. “Yes, I was. But I don’t kill people for being rude to me.”
Poirot waggled a finger at her. “Calm yourself, Mademoiselle. Your pardon, but the question it had to be asked.”
The smile returned to Xena’s face. “I guess so. You must know what you’re doing or the Oracle wouldn’t have sent Gabrielle to you. Okay, go ahead and ask your next question.”
“So, then, you bore no grudge against this Aristarchos? If he had prevailed in the Assembly, and you had been excluded from Athens, would this have been the matter of great importance to you?”
Xena shrugged. “It would have been annoying. Athens is the best place for shopping in all of Greece. Unless you want weapons, in which case you go to Sparta, but who needs more than one sword plus a spare? The food in Athens is excellent, it has the best theatre, it’s a nice place to visit. But I could go to Rhodes or Syracuse for clothes or jewellery, if I had to, and Euripides and Sophocles are good but the best play I’ve seen lately was by Pelopidas of Thebes. ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Hoplite’.” The corners of her eyes crinkled as she smiled. “So, annoying, inconvenient, but that’s all. Anyway, it didn’t happen. I came here to spend some Persian gold and everybody was okay with it.”
“Until Aristarchos was murdered and you were arrested.” Poirot frowned. “The motive it is most slight. That they arrested you at all is almost beyond the comprehension.”
“It must be because she isn’t a citizen,” I put in, speaking for the first time since we had entered the cell. “I doubt if they’d have arrested an Athenian on such a flimsy basis.”
“True, my friend,” Poirot agreed. “I ask next about Opportunity. Did you go to the Acropolis that night?”
“No,” Xena said. “There’s nothing to do there. The Persians burned down the old temples and the new one won’t be finished for years. We spent a little time there during the day, because Joxer likes watching other people do hard work, but we were gone long before dark.”
“That Aristarchos was there in the night is the puzzle,” Poirot mused. “Ah, that I could have questioned the widow myself! Miss Lemon delivers the report most accurate but it is not the same. It cannot be helped. Can you produce witnesses to prove that you were elsewhere?”
“Not for the whole night,” Xena admitted. “I can find a hundred people to prove where I was in the early evening. I won the arm-wrestling contest at Madame Tryphosa’s tavern and they’ll remember me. Later on?” Xena shrugged. “Joxer stayed there after we left. Gabrielle and I returned to our inn. I did nothing but sleep, but I can’t prove it. They probably wouldn’t take Gabrielle’s word and, anyway, I could have crept out while she was sleeping. I didn’t, but I doubt if I could convince the Athenians just on my word.”
“It is not of the importance so great, Mademoiselle,” Poirot said. “The Method, that is where the importance lies, for that is the reason why they have arrested you. The pinch of the nerves with but one hand. Tell me, Mademoiselle, what is the reason for the technique so difficult? The good God, or in this place the gods good and the not so good, gave us each the two hands. To strangle someone must surely be easier if one uses both.”
“Not so easy if you have a great big shield strapped to your other arm,” Xena pointed out. “I don’t often use a shield but I’m usually carrying something. The chakram throwing discs that I learned to use in the lands beyond the Caspian Gates – and I had better get them back once I’m out of this place or there will be big trouble – or a bow. The last time I used the move was when I had one arm out of action and I’d lost my sword.”
“A shield?” The conclusion seemed obvious and I jumped to it. “Then we should look for a hoplite. Lykourgos had quarrelled with Aristarchos, remember?”
Poirot’s lips curled up at the corners. “Ah, my dear Hastings, so quick to see the obvious,” he said. “How many hoplites are there in this city, Mademoiselles?”
Xena was first to answer. “Five or six thousand. Although only the hundred or so who are doing guard duty will have their shields with them at any one time.”
“One would hardly put on a shield in order to go and strangle your enemy,” I pointed out to Poirot. “I still think that Lykourgos is worth investigating.”
“You may well be right, my friend,” Poirot said. “I have the beginnings of the theory. There is much work to do before I can know if I am correct.” He turned to Xena. “The case against you rests only upon the method of the crime. It is a technique most rare. Only you in all the city can perform it, they say. So, you are the one arrested.”
“That’s what they told me,” Xena agreed.
“Then there exists the possibility that the method was chosen particularly to implicate you. Tell me, Mademoiselle, do you have any enemies?”
A broad grin appeared on Gabrielle’s face. Xena herself broke into open laughter. “Hundreds,” Xena said. “Thousands, even, if you include Persians. Even a couple of gods.”
Poirot’s eyebrows furrowed and he began to tease the ends of his moustache between his fingers. “Gods are not a factor that I had taken into account,” he mused.
“I think you can rule them out,” Xena told him. “This is Athena’s personal turf and she doesn’t like any of the other gods interfering. Even Ares wouldn’t mess with me here.”
“So we need consider only mortals? That is good.” Poirot’s brows straightened. “Would any of your human enemies slay a stranger for the purpose of causing you to be suspected?”
The smiles were wiped from Xena and Gabrielle’s faces in an instant.
“Callisto,” Gabrielle said. “She would. She has done in the past.”
Xena nodded confirmation. “She has. But she’s dead.” She sucked in one cheek and then let it out again. “Although she fell into quicksand. I didn’t see a body. I’m pretty sure that she’s dead, but maybe…”
“She’s not that subtle,” said Gabrielle. “She would have made sure that there were people around. Not close enough to see faces but close enough to tell that it was a woman. And she’d have shouted ‘So perish all those who cross Xena,’ or something like that. There would probably have been evil cackling.”
“Could she have performed the neck pinch?” asked Poirot. “And is she known in this city?”
“I don’t know about the neck pinch,” said Xena, “but she has trained in combat since she was a child. It wouldn’t surprise me.”
“She’s known in Athens,” Gabrielle added. “Definitely. Known and wanted for murder.”
“To hide within the city, to come out at night seen by none, and to kill a man against whom Mademoiselle Xena might be held to have some grudge. It seems not likely,” Poirot deduced. “Perhaps not to be ruled out most absolutely, but of the plausibility remote. I shall continue with the theory that I have formed.”
“And what is that theory?” Xena asked.
“If you permit, Mademoiselle, I shall not say at this time. There is much work yet to do before it is in the shape to be revealed.” Poirot raised his hat. “I think that I have asked as much as I need for now, Mademoiselle Xena. There are matters that I must investigate and so, if you excuse me, I shall bid you farewell.”
“Farewell, Hercule Poirot,” Xena said. Her eyes twinkled as she gave a smile that lit up her whole face. “I wish you success in your investigations. For totally selfish reasons.”