The world spun tighter on its axis when the Kovrovs came to visit. It took a lot of work to put on the necessary show—cleaning the house, planning the meal. Luke lingered in his room to avoid the chores and steel himself. Luke had two ties draped around his neck, the plain black one he usually wore and a shiny red one his dad had given him that was supposed to look more mature. It did, probably, but in a costumey way Luke couldn’t settle into. He’d been sitting through lunches with the Kovrovs for his entire life, but this was the first time Alexei Kovrov’s request had been, We have some business with your young man. It was time to step up, but the red tie felt more like dress-up than work clothes. He went with a third option, a skinny blue one, looping it into a loose knot under his unbuttoned collar. His mother knocked on the door, one quick rap, as she opened it. Helene Melnyk was not a tall woman, but she carried herself like one, and she could peer down her nose at Luke even though he stood six inches above her. She was dressed for lunch, too, in a burgundy dress that shone against her dark-brown skin, and when she surveyed him, she was Queen Mom. Luke pointed to the tie she had probably come to remind him to wear. She shook her head and reached for him, buttoning his collar underneath the knot and yanking it tighter around his neck. Luke pretended to gag, and she laughed. “There you go.
” She patted the tie over his chest. “Look at you. We wouldn’t be in this mess if you hadn’t gone and grown up so fast.” He covered her hand. “What can I help with?” “Go take the counter, will you? Camille’s helping with the borscht.” Luke hid his smile. “Yes, ma’am.” He ducked through the living room, where they’d moved the furniture around to add leaves to the dining table and his sister glared balefully over a bowlful of beet soup, and loped downstairs to the store. Almost everyone who came to visit the back room of the Melnyk family’s shop on East 149th Street thought they were crossed, straining against a curse or hex or binding, and almost no one was. Anyone in Luke’s family could tell who was only sad or lonely, confused or broken, unlucky or poor, but Luke could feel a real crossing before it entered the room.
The front of Helene’s Thrift and Sundry was a thrift shop, mostly clothes and hats. Luke hit the lights and flipped the sign on the door to OPEN. Somehow, though, the street knew this was a Kovrov day and not real life—the store stayed empty as Luke sat behind the counter, flipping back and forth between apps that couldn’t hold his attention. He worked his tie loose and popped the button open again, while he sat alone. The Kovrovs had some business with him. It was Alexei’s style to be mysterious about everything, innocuous or not. There was no guessing what he’d meant. Camille popped downstairs as the time ticked past one and the Kovrovs were due. She was stressed. Luke could tell because her fountain of curls was larger than usual, pieces spiraling free where she’d been pulling at them.
Luke mashed at his own head to make sure everything was in place. His sister was his mirror—the two of them were the only Ukrainian-Creoles they knew, and they had identical square jaws and narrow eyes, identical brown skin, and identical masses of hair that tended to give them away. Luke’s was all right, though. Camille must have had a more stressful morning. She was neat in her best white dress for lunch, but she presented her magenta fingertips furiously. “Borscht!” “I owe you,” Luke said. She dropped her elbows to the counter, glance slipping out the windows. “What do you think he wants with you?” The question yanked at Luke’s gut, but he shrugged. “Probably to uncross something. I am the best.
” He smiled his big, charming grin, though Camille was about the only person it didn’t work on. She rolled her eyes. “I hope not. There’ll be no living with you.” Luke’s grin relaxed, truer. “It would be weirder if they wanted you.” She raised her eyebrows but nodded. When Luke and Camille had been born with their twin eyes and twin hair, they’d also been given twin gifts: she had a knack for crossing nasty curses, while Luke could uncross just about anything. She studied kitchen hoodoo like quarterbacks studied tape—not only to understand, but because there was a competition to win. Luke couldn’t hurt anybody, though.
All he could do was unhurt people. The Kovrovs couldn’t want anything too bad from him. The more he thought that, the less true it felt. Camille straightened, smoothing down her skirt, as an angel-white Bentley Flying Spur rolled up to the curb. “Here we go.” Villains always made an entrance, so Alexei’s was flawless. His driver opened his door, and he whipped his aviators off his face as he stepped out, a tall man in a pinstripe gray suit. He wore his brown hair long, brushing his shoulders, and had large downturned eyes. The effect was poetically sad, like he was the hero of a tragedy, but he bestowed a wicked smile on the Melnyk twins as he entered. He looked ready for paparazzi—he did catch them sometimes, as a socialite and real-estate mogul.
Luke followed him on the blogs—who knew if it was true, but last night he’d read that Alexei had dumped the man he was seeing, a Broadway actor he’d started dating after having an affair with a woman in the same show. Seedier papers sometimes called him The Godfather, but he was also Luke and Camille’s actual godfather. Alexei greeted them with kisses on each cheek, like a European, even though everyone knew he was from Brooklyn. “Good afternoon! Any tales from the neighborhood?” He pointed his chin at the door to the back room, not the street. “I do love your stories. I don’t know anyone else who has their own witch doctor.” Luke stiffened. He didn’t belong to anyone but himself. When he didn’t answer fast enough, Camille said, “Tell him about the pigeon lady.” Luke nodded.
“She was crossed. Somebody had put a bunch of pigeon feathers in a mojo bag. Everywhere she went, they were bothering her. Even walking over to her place, I got whacked by a few of them.” “Gross!” said another voice, and Luke jumped. An outfit by the door shifted and resolved into Jeremy Kovrov, who’d been hanging back. “Indeed,” Alexei said. Jeremy was a Kovrov cousin or something, but as he sidled up to Alexei, it was hard to believe they were even the same species. Jeremy’s head bobbed at Alexei’s shoulder, his fair hair shaggy along his forehead and collar. And Alexei had never entered a room hanging silently on its edges.
Sometime during the past six months, Jeremy had grown up like everyone else—he looked like those where-are-they-now photos of child actors, all stretched out as they’d grown. He wore a bright pink T-shirt, and half his left arm was covered with rubber and metal bands, thread friendship bracelets in every bright color, and a clunky black watch. Jeremy tagged along with Alexei to lunches, an apprentice to the family business. It was hard to name what the Kovrovs did—protection, cooperation, extortion—connecting magical suppliers and consumers across New York. If today was about a job for Luke, it was probably good news, a summer flush with cash. But the Melnyks owed debts to the Kovrovs, too, and sometimes these meetings left Luke’s parents scrambling to cover the bills. And while they struggled, Jeremy was being groomed for some Kovrov dukedom. Luke plastered on a charming smile. “What’s up, Kovrov?” “Not much, how are you?” Luke glanced at Camille. “We’re good.
Ready to pound some borscht.” “Mm, borscht,” Jeremy said brightly. That was all anyone could be expected to squeeze out of that subject, but Alexei kept quiet, studying Luke sharp and cool. When Luke caught his eye, his face changed like a switch had flipped, the soft-focus light coming back on. “Our cue?” Alexei offered an elbow to Camille, and Luke closed up the store as the others went upstairs. Before he followed, he paused in the dark room to give himself a pep talk: He was powerful, and the Kovrovs were allies. Whatever challenge Alexei had set, Luke would handle it. Chapter Two Jeremy tried to grab a seat at the corner of the Melnyks’ table, but Alexei dragged him to the center, hissing, “Stop hiding.” He wasn’t trying to hide. He had waved! But no one had seen him, and this wasn’t the place to argue.
He sat at Alexei’s right hand and let them ignore him from there. Only Alexei and Yuri Melnyk, the twins’ dad, did much talking. Jeremy listened and tried to learn, but it was all stuff about the good old days and people he had never met and which cool bars had been turned into juice shops. Usually, Jeremy came to business lunches because there was some way for him to be useful, babysitting or doing magic tricks. He didn’t have a task today. Alexei had called this lunch a treat, but it was more like a test. Jeremy knew—from Instagram, not from their acquaintance—that Camille Melnyk was deft and creative with makeup. She painted her eyes and lips in a whole rainbow of colors every day and dressed in outfits pieced together from the front room of her family’s store. Today, she wore a neat white dress with a high collar and full skirt, and, to Jeremy’s eye, no makeup at all. It might have been funny, how obviously her mother had picked out the clothes, but the Melnyks’ politeness was too painfully stiff.
Yuri had a tie on, tight around his neck, and Helene wore a full-skirted dress. Jeremy hadn’t thought this through. He had on trim dark jeans and his favorite pink T-shirt and shouldn’t have felt so slobby. On cue—the first lag in the conversation after they’d started eating—Jeremy said his line. “Thank you so much for lunch, Yuri. Everything is delicious.” Yuri nodded. “Of course.” Alexei nodded, too. Confidence inspired, Jeremy ad-libbed another: “I think you make the best dumplings in the city.
These are so good.” Yuri chuckled gently. “I’m glad you like them. There’s more if you want.” Jeremy did want them. He ate dumplings like they were rolling toward him on a conveyer belt until Alexei elbowed him under the table. The one other time anyone under twenty spoke was when Luke got a text or something, his phone buzzing. He pulled it out, saying, “My bad, I’ll put this on silent,” but he looked at it for too long to only be doing that, and a few minutes later he excused himself. When he came back, phone hidden, his mother tried to glare at him, but he wouldn’t make eye contact with her. It was miserable, this show they put on for Alexei, even though he ignored the whole thing.
Alexei wouldn’t care who was texting during lunch, and if it was some kind of personal drama, he’d love to hear about it. Luke’s text was probably more interesting than this small talk. Luke always seemed busy and independent for a teenager, very…was glamorous the word? Mature. Intense. Like the rest of his family, he wore formal clothes, but he carried them nicely. The top button of his white shirt was undone, a V of skin peeking under the knot of his tie. What Instagram had taught Jeremy about Luke: He liked cats, purple Gatorade, and street art. He liked his parents’ cooking better than restaurants, unless it was okra or beets, and he worked a lot but he enjoyed it. He liked math and science better than English and history, which Jeremy could hardly even imagine. Also, one of his friends posted weekly Thursday thirst traps of models and celebrities, all across the gender spectrum, but Luke only ever commented on the pictures of guys.
Once, the friend had posted a picture of a wan model, all cheekbones and legs, and Luke had replied, “Drag me.” Jeremy could second-guess the blue of the sky, but the evidence was pretty solid that Luke liked boys. Jeremy snapped his eyes back to his empty plate, but Alexei’s attention was hot enough to burn his cheeks. This was the treat, or the test: just say something. Luke also liked the kind of flashy action movies no one in Jeremy’s family ever wanted to watch, so all Jeremy had to do was bring up The Fast and the Furious. “It sounds great on the new sound system at home…” Something like that. Something cool. “We have a little business to discuss.” Alexei nodded to Yuri and Helene. “And there is a task I would like our witch doctor’s help with.
” The Melnyks all straightened in their chairs, their attention sizzling as Jeremy grabbed his messenger bag from the floor and pulled out two burlap witch bags. Luke winced, and Camille leaned forward. “Oooh.” “Quite,” Alexei said. “A client found these in their home, luckily before they managed to hurt anybody. I’d like an inventory of the contents and a swift execution.” Luke nodded. “Yes, sir.” “Wonderful. Jeremy will stay with you until that’s done—call me if there are any problems.
” He turned to Jeremy. “I won’t need long, but take your time. Call me when you’re done, and we’ll come pick you up.” Sure he would. He’d want a debrief on everything Jeremy had said to Luke, and there would be nothing to tell him. “I’ll take the subway.” Alexei arched one sly eyebrow but didn’t answer. He followed Helene and Yuri downstairs and left Jeremy alone with the twins. They wouldn’t let him help clear the table—Luke did it while Camille spread a piece of newspaper and dumped out the first bag. “You are a sexy thing,” she said to the pile of ash and sinister little objects.
Jeremy didn’t see it. “How does this work?” Camille turned back to the table and picked through the mess with her bare fingers. “I see what pieces they used and guess how they layered together. We’re trying to rebuild the puzzle.” Jeremy nodded, and Camille gave him a canny look. “‘Puzzle’ is not just a metaphor for ‘problem’ here,” she said precisely. “Whoever made this created it with a specific focus, just like drawing a picture. Then they broke it up and put it in this bag, and now we’re rebuilding the picture so we can see what they were trying to do.”