After the hurricane, some see destruction and some smell blood…
Category Five—the sequel to Five Midnights—is a new supernatural YA thriller from Ann Dávila Cardinal, set against the backdrop of a post-hurricane Puerto Rico. Available June 2nd from Tor Teen.
The tiny island of Vieques, located just off the northeastern coast of the main island of Puerto Rico, is trying to recover after hurricane Maria, but the already battered island is now half empty. To make matters worse, as on the main island, developers have come in to buy up the land at a fraction of its worth, taking advantage of the island when it is down.
Lupe, Javier, and Marisol are back to investigate a series of murders that follow in the wake of a hurricane and in the shadow of a new supernatural threat.
“Lupe, wouldn’t you rather spend the day on a beach on the mainland? Luquillo Beach is only a twenty-minute drive from the ferry terminal. I can pick you up on the way home this afternoon. There is no need—” Esteban’s voice was raised so he could be heard over the chugging of the ferry’s weary engines.
Lupe smiled up at her uncle standing beside her, his thick, hairy forearms leaning on the deck’s railing. “Don’t even bother to finish that sentence, Tío. You know damn well”—she smiled at his head-snap at the profanity—“ darn well that I’d rather hang with you while you do your badass job than lay on a bunch of microscopic rocks and shells baking like a pale scone.”
Esteban sighed. He did that a lot when they were together. At this point she felt it was her duty to exasperate him. She had noticed a spreading of gray across his hair on either side of his rugged face, even a sprinkling in his thick mustache, but the white only brought out the warm olive tan of his skin. So, she was aging him. At least he was aging well.
“I don’t understand why you insist on talking like one of my street informants. And I do not have a clue what a ‘scone’ is.”
“Pastry, triangle-shaped, dry. Tastes like sawdust pressed together. You’d probably like it. It’s old-people food.”
He glared at her as a smile snaked up the edge of his lips.
Their relationship had settled into this after the “Cuco Event,” as she liked to call it: a light layer of teasing banter covering a fierce loyalty and unconditional love.
Vanquishing a supernatural demon together bonds people, don’t you know.
At least with Esteban. Her boyfriend, Javier, was a different story these days. But that’s why she’d insisted on coming along on this little trip right after landing in San Juan. Javier was working in Vieques.
They stood in silence for a few minutes and Lupe enjoyed the feeling of the saltwater spray on her face. She’d been looking forward to coming down to Puerto Rico and spending the summer with her uncle and aunt all winter and spring long. Since her father had been working on his sobriety, life in their small Vermont town had been getting better, but there was something about coming to the island and her uncle’s house that felt like . . . coming home. She needed to have that feeling beneath her feet, like the world was where it should be. Her uncle was the originator of that feeling in her. She had nightmares about him and her aunt moving away from the island, leaving her like a raft unmoored from shore.
She shook off a chill and changed the subject. “Why have I never heard of Vieques?”
Her uncle shrugged. “It’s difficult to get there, and most Puerto Ricans go to Culebra, the island next door.” He pointed to a strip of land topped by a head of palms, still recovering from the hurricane with their tall, stripped stalks and bright green lollipop tops.
“Once the U.S. military took over Vieques much of it was not available to civilians.”
“That doesn’t sound fair.”
“Well, they’re gone now.”
Lupe had read quite a bit about it on the way from the airport when she’d found out they were going straight there. The island had been taken over by the Scottish—for, like, a day—then Denmark, then by Brandenburg-Prussia, wherever that was. The island seemed to be caught in a game of keep away for most of its history.
Lupe could kind of understand how it must feel, having spent much of her life being shuttled between Vermont and her father’s family in Puerto Rico. Javier was another reason she started to feel at home on the island. But a few months ago, after the hurricane, he started to act slightly distant, and seemed impatient to get off their chats. He insisted there was nothing wrong, that it was just the nightmare after Maria, but she knew she was not imagining his distance.
She would bet her life on it.
Vieques was growing bigger as they approached, and she could see the whirling blue lights of squad cars waiting near the dock. “What’s the case?” That’s the kind of question that used to get her shut down, but not anymore. As Esteban had often reminded her in the last year, she had a natural gift for detective work and was more helpful to him than half of his own officers.
“Dead tourists in the bio bay. Three college students from a boat tour.”
Damn. Lupe loved bio bays. Javier had taken her to the one in Fajardo at the end of last summer. The water lighting up as the kayaks sliced through had been like a religious experience. Blue glowing halos all around. But dead bodies kind of took the magic out of it. “I take it sharks are out of the question since you’re getting involved?”
“Nope, not sharks. They don’t like shallow waters anyway.”
An officer approached them, smiled at Lupe, and looked at her uncle with the manner of a dog afraid he would be hit. Lupe chuckled. She loved how everyone was so afraid of the big, powerful man, but to her he was a total softy.
The ferry staff scuttled around on the lower decks, preparing to dock on the rapidly approaching port, and her uncle was pulled away.
Lupe closed her eyes and relished the solitude. Preparing for the trip down here at the end of the school year had been crazed. Junior year finals, early college applications, Alateen meetings. But it was worth it so she could be in the same room with Javier for the first time since last summer. Hell, the same country. His fall semester at the University of Puerto Rico ended before it began, thanks to the hurricane, and he had to skip the spring semester to save money to live on. The poor guy never got a break. No wonder he was so gloomy lately. She had to try to give him more space.
The boat pulled alongside the dock with a long, painful scrape that sounded like a dental drill.
“Lupe, ¡ven acá!” Esteban called from below. The minute she joined him on the lower deck, they were hustled into a waiting police car.
The squad car bumped over the rutted dirt roads that led away from Isabel Segunda, the unofficial capital of Vieques. The small rural town reminded her of small-town Vermont. Quaint, colorful buildings, lots of greenery, but worn around the edges.
They hadn’t gone far before the houses started getting scarce and the road even bumpier, if that was possible. Where were they going? She leaned forward to talk to her uncle through the window that divided the front seat from back in the cruiser. “Where is the hotel that Javier is working at?”
“I thought you were the grammar queen?” Esteban gave her a sideways smile.
“Pray tell, esteemed Uncle, where is the hotel at which Javier is working?”
“That’s better. It is in Puerto Diablo.”
Lupe got that tight feeling in her stomach. Been awhile since she’d had that. About a year, in fact. “Um, Devil’s Port?”
“Yes. The Spanish invaders thought the bio bay was lit by evil gods.” Esteban snorted.
Lupe didn’t find it as funny.
She fell back in her seat. “Great.” She watched the unending green brush by the windows as the radio squawked, and her uncle and the local officer chatted in Spanish. It was as if they were driving through a tunnel of foliage, the walls a mosaic of every green imaginable, the sun filtering through like lace. She had expected the post-hurricane island to look . . . well, barren. Some of it had on the drive to Ceiba, but here in the heart of nature it was as if nothing had or could touch it. She put her face up to the open window and took a long, deep breath, the scent of earth, salt, and growing things reaching in and, as she exhaled, emptying her crowded brain.
The car jolted as if hitting turbulence and Lupe’s head banged against the top of the window frame. She rubbed her head with one hand and held on to the overhead grab bar with the other. “Um, you’d think if they’re building a fancy resort, they would make the road a bit smoother.”
The officer answered. “This area was only accessible by boat up until last month, Miss. They are going to make it smoother before it opens.”
“Why weren’t there roads leading to it before?”
He shrugged. She hated that kind of answer. It wasn’t an answer.
Her uncle offered, “After Hurricane Maria big investors started buying up property.”
Lupe sneered. “The vultures descend.”
The officer nodded his head. “Well, people were unhappy about the building on this part of the island, it is right up against the wildlife refuge. But this resort will provide many jobs. It already has.”
“Yeah, but at what cost?”
The silence in the car was enough of an answer for her.
The greenery on either side of the road ended abruptly, and they drove into a clearing the size of a football field. Workers hustled like bees around a massive hive of white cinder block buildings. The car made its way around a large round fountain, the intricately tiled bowl empty of water, but gathering sand at its edges. They pulled under the entrance portico, the workers stopping to watch as Esteban and Lupe got out. She was slowly getting used to the attention involved in being the niece of Puerto Rico’s chief of police, but it was still kind of weird.
“Okay, let’s find Javier,” her uncle declared, about to stride off on his long legs.
She grabbed him by the arm. “No, Tío, please! I can find him myself.” Ugh. Talk about humiliation. She didn’t need an escort: she was practically seventeen! “Why don’t you go on to the crime scene? I’ll join you soon.”
He looked down at her with narrowed eyes.
She threw up her hands. “C’mon, seriously? It’s midday, and there’s, like, a thousand people around here.” She gestured at the workers around them.
“How will you get there to meet me?”
“Javier can drive me. Or I can walk.”
“No. Absolutamente no.” His voice had that ‘open up, it’s the police’ tone, the one that made people jump. Well, people other than her.
Lupe rolled her eyes. “Okay fine, I’ll get a ride. I can handle myself, Tío!”
The radio squawked and she could hear a voice asking about the chief’s ETA. And his cell phone chirped. She could always count on the pull of his job at times like this.
He sighed. “Very well.” He pointed a finger in her face, and, in their time-honored ritual, she made to bite it. “But you call me if you need a ride. I can have one of my officers come—”
“Yes, Tío, whatever you say, Tío, of course—”
“Basta! Enough of your sarcasm.” He opened his phone, barked into it as he folded his tall frame into the passenger seat, and waved as the car pulled away. The original multitasker.
With a flip phone.
Gotta love old people.
Lupe took a deep breath. She loved her uncle like crazy, but she was just not used to his patriarchal ways. Her father had sobered up in the last year, but he still let her do whatever she wanted. He’d kind of lost the right to parent when she’d had to take care of his drunken grumpy ass for most of the years of her life.
She pulled out her own cell phone but, unlike her uncle, her smartphone didn’t seem to have any service in this part of the island. So much for texting Javier. He said something in their last chat about laying stones on a patio, so she started to walk around the building to find something that looked like a patio with a handsome teenage boy.
She could tell just from seeing him on the small screen of her phone that Javier had only gotten more handsome in the last year, his face more defined, his hair longer. Her heart raced at the idea of seeing him again in person, finally. It was too bad he had to work all summer, but maybe she could talk her uncle into bringing her out here more often during the week. But the next time: minus the dead bodies.
But there always seemed to be dead bodies involved. What was up with that?
As she walked around to the back corner of what appeared to be the main building, she looked up and stopped short. The vista that spread out before her literally took her breath away. A half carpet of transplanted and overly perfect grass led up to a sugar-sand beach and a huge expanse of crystal-clear turquoise water, its gentle waves glistening at the crests like they were topped in diamonds. She’d been coming to Puerto Rico every summer of her life and she’d seen beautiful spots, but never anything like this. It was totally untouched. That is, if you ignored the pounding of hammers and whine of saws in the background.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Lupe jumped; she’d been so lost in the view she hadn’t noticed the boy who had come up beside her. She looked over and saw that he was blond and blue-eyed, tanned but in that “I have leisure time to spend at the Hamptons” entitled white guy kind of way. To top it off, he donned a clichéd ensemble: he was dressed in tennis whites. Christ, did anyone even wear tennis whites anymore? Especially not someone who appeared to be not all that much older than her. When he smiled with his bright white and perfectly shaped teeth, she realized he looked like he’d walked off a page of a magazine.
“Yeah, it sure is.” She examined him through narrowed eyes with a look that she realized was probably just like her uncle’s. “Um, this place isn’t really set up for tourists yet, is it?”
His eyes crinkled in question, then he smiled, realizing she meant him. “Is it that obvious I’m not local?”
“You might say that.” Lord, he even held himself in an entitled way, his shoulders back, his head tossing here and there.
“Ah, but you haven’t seen me salsa yet.” He put one hand flat against his stomach and the other up in the classic salsa pose and began to shuffle around in a not-totally-shabby salsa step. Very white boy could move his hips.
She couldn’t help it, she chuckled.
“Besides, who are you to talk?”
Just the tip of her guard went up. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you sure look like a tourist.”
The heat flamed behind her eyes, and she was about to rip him a new one when she heard her name.
And then Javier was walking up to her in all his brown-eyed glory, his dark curls held at bay under a faded baseball cap. If at all possible, he had gotten even more handsome. The outside work had warmed his skin to a golden brown, and highlights of copper glistened in his hair. He might well have attained godlike status since she’d seen him last. He stepped close and went to hug her, his gaze grabbing hers in that way that made her skin feel hot and shivery all at once. But then he noticed tennis-whites guy and stopped.
Javier looked over at him with a smile that was tight in a way probably only she would notice. He nodded at the boy. “Sam.”
And Sam Tennis Whites nodded back, his smile also slightly tight. “Javier.”
Lupe just grinned. Oh, she was totally going to have to get the scoop on this playground tension. Boys were such a trip.
Sam put his hands up as if in a truce. “Well, guess I better go. Nice to meet you—” He waited for her name like someone who got an answer to every question.
Lupe never had been the kind of person who obliged people like that. She just kept smiling and nodded. “Yeah, nice to meet you too, Sam.”
He paused for a second, his toothpaste-ad smile wider when he realized she hadn’t given him her name, and then walked away, hands in the pockets of his tiny white shorts.
“What a pendejo,” Javier said under his breath.
Lupe’s cousin taught her all the necessary swear words so even she knew what that meant. “Who is that guy?”
“Nobody of importance. He’s the developer’s son.”
“The man who bought this part of the island and is building the resort.”
“Ahh, I see.” Now Lupe understood the slight sneer on Javier’s lips, the distaste he had for this Sam guy. Javier took her hand and started walking toward the trees. “C’mon, it’s too public here, I feel like we’re in a fishbowl.”
As she followed, she looked back at the expanse of tropical-calendar beach. “Yes, but what a fishbowl.”
They walked through a break in the trees and over a path of long, gray, marble stones. She looked up and into the deepening jungle, and asked, “What are these stones here for? The lagartos?” She imagined a line of the bright green lizards walking up and down the marble.
“They lead to a storage building.” He pointed to a large, concrete box up on the left, no windows, just double red doors.
“Is that where you’re bringing me? How romantic!” But then he was pulling her to him, kissing her hard, as if trying to combine all the kisses they’d missed after being separated those long months. Lupe pulled off his baseball cap and threw it to the side, digging her fingers into his thick, dark curls. His tongue slipped in and out of her mouth as if searching for something. When they separated, she had to catch her breath, the whole island spinning as she stared into his deep brown eyes. “Well, it is pretty damn romantic after all.”
He answered with a soft, slow kiss, their lips sticking slightly as they separated as if wanting to hang on longer. “God, I missed you, Lupe.”
She ran her fingers over his sharp cheekbones. They’d gotten sharper since she’d last seen him. “I miss you too, Javi.” Looking into his eyes, she said, “I’m sorry about all you’ve been through; sorry I couldn’t be here with you.”
“No, I’m glad you weren’t here! I felt better knowing you were safe.”
She smiled. “You sound like my uncle.”
Javier didn’t let go of her, but he looked away. “I don’t know what I would have done without your uncle through all that. Taking me and my mom in like that? He’s, like, a saint or something.”
She laughed, “He thinks so, anyway.” But then she got serious, taking his face in her hands. “That’s what we do for people we love.” And then she kissed him, wrapping her arms around his neck, pulling him as close as she could.
Lupe wished they could stay there, standing with their bodies pressed against each other, leaves and branches and wildlife rustling all around them. The way he looked at her, like he wanted to crawl inside and inhabit the same space, it made her knees shake. She’d dreamed of this moment for months and months. Forever, it felt like. But then in the distance, back toward the resort, someone dropped something big, the sound echoing through the clearing, and reality was back.
He pulled his body away, slowly, reluctantly, took her hand, and they started to walk back to the jobsite.
“When can I see you?”
She smiled. “You’re seeing me now.”
He lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed her knuckles, his lips soft and gentle. A feeling like electricity traveled along her skin.
“I need to see you alone.”
There it was, the island was spinning again.
He stopped, held on to her upper arms and looked at her from the top of her head to the turquoise of her fresh pedicure, in that way he had where she felt his gaze like heat. “I’m so happy you’re here.” He carefully put his fingers on her chin, and leaned in, his lips gently pressing against hers, his smell of warmth and salt and boy sweat making her head swim.
He pulled away and looked around.
She felt the blush at her hairline when it hit her. “Oh right. You’re at work.”
He smiled at her with that one-side-higher-than-the-other grin she’d grown to know so well and she had to shake her head to clear the fog Javier tended to put her in. Maybe she just imagined there was something wrong.
“I have to get back to work.”
“Right.” She hated that he had to work all summer, but he needed money to live on while he went to college in the fall and she supported his wanting to pay his own way.
He took her hand again and started walking back toward the hotel’s main building as the percussion of construction came back into focus. When she was with him it really was as if everything else faded away. She wasn’t sure that was entirely good, but it sure felt good.
“Do you need a ride to meet your tío?”
Lupe was about to answer when a car engine roared in the small partially finished parking lot up ahead. She didn’t know about cars, but even she could tell this was a nice one. Convertible, white and shiny, rounded lines like a cat stretching. And then she noticed Sam’s blond head above the steering wheel, his eyes masked by large, dark sunglasses.
“No, I can get a ride,” she said absently, distracted by the ridiculous shininess of the boy and his car. Lupe realized Javier was staring at her and she looked up at him. He was giving her the narrowed eyes. “What?”
“Stay away from him, Lupe.”
“What? Who?” She really was confused, mainly because she’d never seen his face like this, the lines on either side of his mouth like angry slashes.
He tossed his head in the direction of the car. “Sam. Stay away from him.”
Then it finally hit her what he was saying. She dropped his hands and put hers on her hips. “Excuse me?”
The flame in her own eyes must have flared because then he tried to backpedal. “He’s not to be trusted. He thinks because his father is the owner, he can do what he wants—”
“Uh-uh, Javier, I was talking about getting a ride from one of my uncle’s officers, but more to the point, you don’t get to tell me who I can and can’t hang out with.” She didn’t know this guy Sam and couldn’t care less about him, but she was damned if she was going to tell Javier this now.
“What, you like him?” He started waving his arms like he was directing traffic or something. “Of course you do, he’s rich and flashy—”
What was wrong with him? “Oh no, you clearly have learned nothing about me in the last year if you think either of those things mean shit to me.”
“What do I know what you’ve been doing for the past year? We’ve been in two different worlds.” He was pacing now like a caged tiger.
“I don’t know, maybe because we Face-Timed every freaking night?” He was really pissing her off now. Hadn’t they just been kissing in the trees? How had this gotten so out of control?
“It’s just . . . Lupe, that guy is yet another colonizer taking this island for all it’s worth!”
“What? He’s, like, eighteen years old! He’s not colonizing shit!”
He scoffed. “You just don’t get it.”
“I know I don’t, but focusing your anger on that kid is a waste of time. I don’t care for this big, ugly McResort either, but there are more effective ways to fight this, to find an outlet for all this understandable anger. Marisol is—”
He put up his hand. “I know what Marisol is doing.” He looked about to say something else, but seemed to change his mind. “Bueno, forget it.” He grabbed her hand again, but not in the gentle laid-back way he normally did, and started pulling her toward the front of the property.
Lupe pulled her hand free, a heat beginning to rage in her chest, behind her face. Ever
since September it was as if a piece of the hurricane had parked itself around Javier’s head, the storm raging and thrashing behind his dark eyes. “Look, I understand you’re pissed, but don’t be trying to drag me around like your pet poodle.” She started marching away, thoughts sparking in her head like lightning. The tears that were threatening only made her angrier. What had she done to deserve being treated like this? Nothing, that’s what. But that didn’t make her feel any better. As she walked, she was aware of every stone that skittered away at the thump of each step over the sparkling, new gravel.
She stalked by a pair of men balancing a flowering tree, roots and all, over a neat hole in the ground. They froze as she passed, tree still in hand, probably stunned by the electricity shooting off her skin. She should have stayed in Vermont. No. She loved it on the island, loved seeing her aunt and uncle and her best friend Marisol. She would not let his cranky ass take that away from her.
When she reached the beginning of the empty road that led away from the resort, the tears finally broke free, and she felt them run down her hot cheeks. How could she have been so wrong about them? She walked with her head down and wondered if she could take an earlier ferry and wait for her uncle at the other side, in Ceiba. She had to at least get off this island and back to the main island. She wanted water between her and Javier. She couldn’t think straight.
Lupe became aware of a vehicle coming up behind her, and she moved closer to the trees on the side of the road. Hopefully they’d just pass on by.
No such luck. A beat-up blue truck with a landscaper’s logo on the door pulled up beside her and slowed.
“Lupe, I’m sorry.”
At the sound of Javier’s voice her heart and her feet started moving faster.
The truck kept pace with her. Javier put his arm along the back of the passenger seat, leaning over toward the open window. “Lupe, please get in. I’m sorry.”
No. She would not be swayed by the softening of his voice, by the way his eyes were lit by the sun peeking into the truck.
“Listen, three guys were murdered here yesterday. It’s not safe—”
“Oh, I’ve faced worse,” she snapped.
Javier nodded. “Yes, I know you—”
She stopped and crossed her arms. “No, clearly you don’t!” She waved back toward the parking lot. “What the hell was that back there about Sam? I don’t even know that guy!”
Javier pulled his arm back and slumped in his seat, his body deflating like the air had been let out. “I know,” he said finally. “It’s me, not you. I’m just not the same since Maria. It’s like that storm . . . it chewed us up and spat us out.”
The truck slowed and Lupe found herself slowing with it, listening. There had been those few terrible days when she couldn’t reach him, when she imagined the worst. Later, when she asked him about it, he didn’t want to talk much about it. She learned more from her uncle and he used words like they were being rationed.
“El Cuco . . . I thought that was the worst thing that would ever happen to me. I thought if I could survive that, I could survive anything.” He stopped the truck and stared straight ahead.
The air slowly released from Lupe’s anger like a long-held breath. Silently, she opened the passenger door and slid into the seat.
He started driving, slowly, talking as he looked straight ahead. “I don’t like feeling so angry. It’s just, this is the only work I could get this summer.” He gestured back at the hotel as if it were listening. “I hate working for these vultures.”
He nodded, his mouth a straight line, his eyes still in the distance. He looked over at her. “What kind of people take advantage of a natural disaster? To make money?”
Lupe looked right back at him. “Monsters.”
Monsters were something they both knew a lot about.
Excerpted from Category Five, copyright © 2020 by Ann Dávila Cardinal.