How to Tame a Dragon by Lila Mina

Chapter 1

Naomi

Sure, sex is great, but nothing beats this!

Naomi Demos slammed shut her overflowing grey binder. A wide smile on her lips, she jumped to her feet and knocked twice on a desk cluttered with half-eaten protein bars, cookie bags and empty mugs of coffee.

“People, may I have your attention, please?

Around her, the special task force known as the International Police Cooperation Division of the Hellenic Police glanced away from their screens. Exhaustion painted faces grey, but eyes were sharp, filled with grim focus.

“It’s official!” Naomi’s grin just kept widening, head clearing up for the first time in weeks. “The Kappas-Dogu case is a wrap! Congrats to you all!”

Most of her colleagues whooped and clapped, but a couple of them simply rested their foreheads on their desks with wide smiles. Like a warm wind, relief swept over their collective heads. For a minute, their cramped and windowless office on the second basement floor of their headquarters turned bright and cheerful.

Naomi shared a high-five with Cristos Ariti, their resident cybercrime expert. The man truly deserved the promotion coming his way; he had taken down half of the Greek-Turkish drug and weapon trafficking ring by himself.

“Really, Lieutenant? It’s over for good?” Anastasia Baros called from the other side of the room, twisting on her chair with a mischievous grin. “No final report to check and sign? No meeting with the captain?” She checked her watch with a flourish. “I mean, it’s only five to eleven, I’m sure you can find something for us to do instead of sending us off to bed.”

Their colleagues laughed at their easy banter, and Naomi winked at Baros. After months of sleepless nights and nail-biting meticulous forensic work that had brought them to the verge of burnout, smiling and joking felt almost alien—but oh so good.

“If you insist, Baros, I’m sure I can find you a couple of tasks for tomorrow, eight o’clock, to make you happy,” she called back. “I know how much you love painting my reports in red.”

Another round of laughter, and Baros shrugged easily.

“What can I say, Lieutenant. You can’t ace everything, and ninety-percent of solid police work is writing Pulitzer-level reports that’ll make the prosecutors swoon.”

“Thank goodness you’re here, then.” Naomi scrunched a sheet of paper into a ball, grabbed a pen and scribbled a smirk on top of it. Then she lobbed it at Baros’ head from across the room. Baros caught it easily, holding the smirk up against her own beautiful smile.

With a snort, Naomi shook her head, not taking offense at Baros’ poking. It was a long-running joke between them. Greek was Naomi’s second language, but she hadn’t received any formal education in it before her late teenage years. Her writing was notoriously riddled with typos.

“Congratulations, Lieutenant.”

Radovan Lompar’s low baritone made Naomi glance up in surprise. The man stood by her desk, and she stared at his extended hand. For once, the smile stretching his razor-thin lips touched his eyes. Naomi relaxed a fraction before giving him a solid handshake.

“Thank you for your hard work, Lompar,” she replied sincerely but without cracking a smile.

Watching the back of her efficient and competent number two as he walked back to his desk, Naomi sighed; Lombar wasn’t an easy man to handle. Naomi had yet to figure out if it was her gender, orientation or mixed origins that ticked him off and often sent him on endless rants with their captain about her leadership style. Or maybe it was simply the fact that the brass had picked her over him to lead their unit.

Still, they’d managed to work together well enough. Mostly because from day one, she’d made it clear that she couldn’t care less about his opinion of her, and he was smart enough not to sabotage her work.

“Boss, I could fall asleep on my chair, but how about we go out for drinks then?” Cristos asked, rolling on the balls of his feet, a hopeful look on his youthful face.

His words shook Naomi from her musings, and she nodded, throwing him a smile. For sure, her eyes burned from the lack of sleep, her lower back demanded a long stretching session, and she could use a hot shower, but they deserved a damn drink. If she had to be honest with herself, after her disturbing nightmare of the previous night, her bed didn’t look so attractive for now.

She grabbed the black cardigan hanging on her chair and threw it over her white blouse.

“Rumor has it that’s the right plan for a Friday night. Tonight is on me!”

Her team cheered loudly, and there was rush of scraping chairs. Warmth spread in her chest as she watched them, a sudden surge of energy and relief passing through the room. For the first time in weeks, she found it easier to breathe.

They’d nailed the coffins of those cruel bastards. Justice was coming their way, and no amount of corrupt politicians would help them now.

Their group of seven turned off computers and lights and headed for the elevators on the other end of a gloomy and empty hallway with yellowish stained walls that had never seen better days. A few minutes later, they were back in the land of the living, gulping down fresh air on the lively streets of the urban neighborhood of Ambelokipi.

The usual night crowds enjoying the cool atmosphere of early summer strolled around them. The marble building of the police headquarters behind them, they took off on a side street closed to traffic and walked toward their favorite joint, a family-run restaurant located on a large rooftop.

Her eyes wandering on the crowds around them, Naomi’s stomach growled as wisps of mouthwatering grilled meats, chicken and vegetables reached her. An excellent reminder that she hadn’t had a proper meal for more than a week. Groups of all ages and walks of life sat around tables eating, drinking and chatting in front of small cafes and restaurants on each side of the street, with music pouring from rooftop bars.

A typical Friday night in Athens that she and her team could enjoy for once.

Taking their time, Naomi and Anastasia let their male colleagues walk ahead.

“You should really use this to ask the captain for a holiday, Lieutenant,” Baros said. “With all the days you’ve got, you could take a full month.”

Shrugging, Naomi re-tied her shoulder-length hair in a low ponytail, using the beat to hide her grimace at Baros’ kind but insistent nudge that came up every month or so.

As she tried to think of something to say, a low tingling sensation in her neck made her tense. Ingrained reflexes had her scan the area around them. There was nothing particular to see, but after years on the street, she’d learned to listen to what her subconscious registered.

Someone in the crowd was staring at them.

After two beats, nothing happened, so Naomi shook herself. The feeling went away, but she made a mental note of the place and time.

“I guess I could, but I don’t have any dream vacation in mind,” Naomi said, picking up the thread of conversation with a small smile. “Where would I go?”

“To the beach, to New York, on a sailing boat, hiking in a fjord, snorkeling in Thailand… who cares? Just get away from it all,” Baros said, sweeping her arms wide at the noisy street. “How about Japan?”

Baros’ casual mention of Japan punched Naomi in the face, and she recoiled, a rush of stress making her ears buzz. Clenching her jaw, she stared at the paved street and brushed beads of perspiration running down her neck with her sleeve.

Calm down, she doesn’t know.

“You know me, I need to plan this kind of thing. Jumping on a plane isn’t my style… and Japan is out of the question,” she said, curtly. With a sigh, she glanced at the night sky and shook her head. “I guess I could visit my father and his family in Santorini. He’s been nagging me for months…”

“There you go! Santorini it is!” Baros clasped Naomi’s shoulder, and the contact sent electricity shooting through Naomi’s body–this time in a good way.

Tightening her fists behind her back, Naomi exhaled through her nose, at the same time thankful for and angry at the strict fraternity rules between officers and their subordinates.

Anastasia Baros was a strict no-go, and her friendly brushes didn’t help. Still, on days like this, Naomi wished she was the barista working at Baros’ favorite coffee shop, allowed to play a delightful tango with the beautiful brunette.

A ridiculous scenario. The feeling of shared danger and excitement from working together on difficult cases added to her forbidden attraction for the smart weapon forensic specialist.

As they climbed the narrow stairway leading to their favorite restaurant, Naomi caught herself before her eyes could lock on Anastasia’s long legs in front of her, or worse, at her shapely butt.

She groaned inwardly at the pitiful state of her personal life since her last breakup. She needed to get laid and stop pining after an inappropriate crush. A long holiday would help, but the bleak truth was that she hadn’t been joking. She had no idea where to go and even less what to do with herself for more than a weekend.

“Ah, this view! It never gets old.” Baros’ exclamation snapped Naomi away from her melancholy.

Letting Anastasia join the others at a long table nearby, Naomi took a few steps toward the edge of a large terrace illuminated by fairy lights. She smiled fondly at the ancient jewel in full display on the left side of the building. The sight never ceased to lift her spirits.

Lit by dozens of powerful beams, the Acropolis stood in the distance at the top of a limestone hill. At the center of the outcrop, stealing the spotlight, the Parthenon was a golden jewel overlooking the city under the dark velvet of the night. Ever since Naomi had first set foot in Athens, she had fallen in love with the temple of its ancient patroness. More than once, her feet had taken her there when she needed time for herself. Even with crowds of tourists milling around, she always managed to find a quiet spot.

Somehow, with its high columns and its tales engraved in its walls, the Parthenon reminded Naomi of the Shinto shrines and their tall torii gates she used to visit with her mother before… well, before everything had fallen apart. A lone witness of ancient covenants between mankind and the gods, standing tall despite centuries and the forgetfulness of mortals.

For Naomi, it was a tenuous link with the beliefs and tales of her distant childhood home where gods and other Unseen creatures still lived around mortals. She didn’t believe in wicked fox tricksters or in mischievous jumping umbrellas, but she loved the parallels between the lores.

The melancholic thought brought back her disturbing nightmare of the previous night during her couple of hours of meager sleep. Heart once again heavy, Naomi shivered despite the warm temperature, and she rubbed her painful shoulder. It hadn’t stopped twitching since earlier that morning, and she blamed her exhaustion for it.

In her dream, she shared a cup of tea with her mother and grandmother. They sat inside a tea house built over the pond of a Japanese garden.

A peaceful image, if it hadn’t been taken right out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, or a Lovecraft story. Every tree in the garden was scorched, creatures swam under the dark waters around them, and behind pitch black clouds filling the sky, a huge shape moved and lurked, its silent call bouncing inside Naomi’s head. Naomi couldn’t bring herself to lift her head to look at it.

Yet, unfazed by doom rolling toward them like a monstrous tsunami, her foremothers chatted happily, smiling like Naomi had never seen them before.

“Lieutenant! What would you like to drink with your meze?”

Naomi jumped, Cristos’s voice bringing her back to her surroundings.

She massaged her shoulder, and goosebumps covered her skin.

“White wine, please,” she replied, throwing a strained smile at the table her team had picked.

Sitting next to Cristos’, Baros waved at her with a bright grin, but with a small headshake, Naomi communicated that she wasn’t ready to join her colleagues yet.

This night out was her idea, but she always needed a little bit of time for herself to transition from weeks spent on adrenaline to a more normal rhythm. If her work could ever be called normal. On top of that, her nightmare didn’t help.

With a heavy sigh, Naomi leaned against the rusty balustrade, closed her eyes and breathed in the warm air. It was filled with the scent of roasted and spicy food, tobacco smoke mingling with a hint of weed, and the more discreet scent of purple coneflower blooming all along the edge of the terrace. Vibrating with life, promises and hope for a better, safer tomorrow.

For a moment there, the storm humming in her mind and body eased into a calm pond.

“First time in Athens?”

Blinking at the sound of the melodious voice, Naomi glanced at a tall woman leaning against the balustrade a couple of meters away. Like she always did with people she met for the first time, Naomi scanned her from head to toe, her analytical brain filing bits of information for later use.

Perhaps in her early fifties, she wore a simple yet sophisticated pearl-grey dress, and a pair of golden bracelets. With her relaxed pose, loose yet complex chignon holding dark brown curls with touches of gray here and there, her serene expression and an old and well-worn open book in her hands, the newcomer rang no alarm bells.

“No,” Naomi retorted, making sure not to turn her body toward the woman and hoping she’d take the hint and take her leave. “I live and work here.”

Eyes narrowed, she braced herself for a nasty comment. It wasn’t the first time someone assumed she was simply a tourist, at best. This kind of remarks always cut deeper because not only it was her birthright to call Greece home, but it was also the only one she had since awful decisions made by her relatives had shut the doors of Japan.

“I see. Forgive me, you were so lost in the contemplation of the Acropolis that I thought it was brand new to you. I fully understand the fascination, though. Eyes are drawn toward it.”

Relaxing slightly, Naomi shook her head.

“Yes, every time I look at it, I see something new, even from a distance. There’s a vibrancy to it...” Naomi glanced again at the ancient citadel, an odd surge of emotions choking her.

She couldn’t say why, but the words kept coming, spilling out of her. Something about this woman made it suddenly easy to chitchat with a complete stranger. For sure, it wasn’t every day she met a fellow fan of the Acropolis.

“A presence… As if someone was still home if you see what I mean?”

Saying it aloud felt a bit ridiculous, but the woman threw her a half grin and leaned toward Naomi, her striking blue-green eyes glistening.

“I do! It happens to be my favorite monument in the country.”

Naomi glimpsed the title of the book when the woman snapped it shut. Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. Naomi raised an eyebrow; who carried that in their bag and read it on a Friday night?

The stranger straightened, and Naomi realized that the woman had a good head over her.

“It’s a place that you always carry with you. Wherever you go, it will always bring you comfort, don’t forget that.” The woman’s smile brightened, and Naomi swallowed hard, surprised by the strength of the emotions constricting her throat.

“Happy end-of-case party, boss.”

A hand touched her elbow, and Naomi whipped around, startled. Lompar–holding a glass of chilled wine towards her–took a step back, his eyes wide.

Pressing her hand over her chest, Naomi laughed. “Sorry, I just…” but when she glanced back to the stranger, the woman was already gone.

She stared at the empty spot, half relieved, half confused, then scanned the rest of the terrace but couldn’t spot the woman.

“Something wrong, Lieutenant?” Lompar asked with a frown. “You weren’t coming to the table, so I’d thought I’d bring you something, but if you’d rather stay alone…”

“No, no, you did the right thing,” Naomi replied, shivers running down her spine. “I got lost in thoughts, then there was this woman… Oh never mind,” she added with a shrug; she didn’t like looking silly in front of that complicated man. Then she raised her glass and offered Lompar a solemn bow. “Cheers! Here’s to the virtue of good team work.”

“And here’s to hoping it was enough to land those bastards in jail once and for all,” Lompar said, somber, joining her to lean against the balustrade. “I’ve worked awful cases in the past twenty years, but this one… There’s something that doesn’t sit well with me. Loose ends we should have tied.”

Naomi nodded and rubbed her face, her satisfaction cooling.

“I know what you mean. I’m happy we could nail them on the drug and weapon counts, but I’ll forever regret losing track of that informant who was willing to talk about the human trafficking side.”

Rubbing her neck and rolling her stiff shoulder, Naomi grimaced. This was supposed to be a fun night, but things had started turning sour with her memories of her nightmare, and now she couldn’t help but remember that their job had been good but not perfect. Organized crime cases were often like this.

“That was a shame, but I can’t let go of how we were pressured to forget about it. The pictures of those bodies she showed us…” Lombard whispered. Naomi shuddered in agreement and sipped her wine. “They’re branded in my brain. I’ve met all sorts of criminals and seen some truly ugly stuff, but what kind of monster does that? And how the hell did they do it?” The normally unflappable officer said from behind clenched teeth.

With a low hiss, Naomi hung her head, the taste of wine turning sour in her mouth. She leaned closer to Lompar.

“I know that you think we should have fought harder,” she whispered. The noise around them protected their sensitive conversation. “It sickens me, too. It was awful, but we had to let it go so we could stop those monsters based on hard evidence, instead of taking the risk of losing everything by opening a door that we couldn’t close. But I won’t forget those victims, I promise.”

Staring into the distance, Lompar gave a curt head shake. This was why Naomi could work with him despite their disagreements. The man was a pain, but deeply honest and allergic to corruption. They had the same goal in mind—protecting innocents and giving them justice.

From her youngest years, through a home-made blend of Buddhist teachings and Western classical studies focusing on ethics, her parents had taught her about the unfair power of privilege, and how compassion had to be cultivated to help others. Still, the realpolitik of high-stake investigations in circles where corruption and greed ruled often crushed her ideals, to her ever-growing frustration.

She had yet to find another path that would lead to better and more satisfying results.

“Let’s get back to our table,” Lompar suggested. “This is a team-building moment after all.”

Before Naomi could reply, her smartphone buzzed in the back pocket of her slacks. Her stomach sank when she saw the international phone code of Japan in front of an unknown number.

Blood rushing to her head, for a second, she toyed with the wild idea of throwing her phone over the balcony. Then the moment was gone.

Moshi moshi.” Naomi switched to Japanese, gripping the iron balustrade in front of her.