Drawing Inspiration From El Cuco, This Suspenseful Novel Is Perfect for Spooky Szn

With spooky szn in full swing, Ann Dávila Cardinal’s Five Midnights is the perfect book to revisit. Published in June 2019, the suspenseful book takes inspiration from el Cuco. The novel follows Lupe Dávila and Javier Utierre working to solve murders taking place around Puerto Rico. Lupe and Javier, who find themselves at odds (Lupe is a Gringa-Rican from Vermont and Javier is not), put their differences aside to solve these case, which takes them on an unexpected journey. 

Below, read an excerpt from the book.


July 6, 11:36 P.M.


“MEMO, MAN, YOU’RE shuffling again.”

Memo smiled sheepishly and whispered, “Sorry, Ángel.” Truth was, this casually-walking-around-the-store-while preparing-to-rob-it thing was a stretch for him. When did Memo “casually walk” anywhere? But Ángel just smacked him on the back and nodded. His faith in Memo was infectious.

As they walked down the snack aisle, Memo concentrated on staying cool and calm, breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth like his therapist had taught him. He could sense the pressing of the familiar out-of-body feeling that usually preceded an anxiety attack, the sensation that he was being dragged into a gaping, dark hole in the ground, scraping his nails into the floor as he went. He counted his breaths, pushing the fear back, and swallowed an Ativan. He couldn’t freak out now; he couldn’t let the guys down. He just had to keep it together until they finished the job; it wouldn’t be much longer.

After Memo defended Javi outside the church, Keno was pretty pissed at him. And home was no better. A few weeks earlier he’d been thrown out of yet another private school and his mother was on his back 24/7. If she only knew that he spent his weekends robbing stores he would be sent to military school faster than you could say “delincuente.” She wouldn’t get it. It wasn’t about the money; she bought him whatever he wanted. It was for the way it made him feel. Like he meant something, like he mattered. Better than the high from any drug.

Memo took his position at the back of the store while Ángel walked toward the register as planned, casually striding with the six-pack of beer dangling from his forefinger. How did he stay that cool?

Yeah, Memo was afraid. And he’d thought about saying no, but it was actually running into Javier that had sealed the deal for him. Ever since they were kids Javi was always the smart one, the cool one, the leader. Memo had looked up to him like a brother. He’d tried to be happy for him when he cleaned up, he really had, but then Javi was just gone, los cangrejos had scattered, and Memo had been left in the neighborhood like an outgrown pair of kicks. But these guys from El Norte? They made him feel like he was somebody, like he was family.

Memo hid behind the stand of snacks, his stomach pressed against the cellophane-wrapped guava cakes with their bright red jelly leaking out of yellow cake like blood. Over the top he could just see Angel’s hoodie-covered head as he arrived at the register, the bored clerk hunched on a stool as he punched at his cell phone with his thick fingers.

It was happening. It was really happening.

Memo straightened up, his head barely topping the rack as he tried to concentrate on what was going down in the next few minutes. He ran through the plan in his head. Ángel would point the gun at the clerk, who would hand over the cash from the register, and they’d hoof it the hell out of there and celebrate with the stolen beer.

There was an old man in front of Ángel in line, with a gray hat like the ones Memo’s grandfather used to wear. Memo rocked back and forth while he watched the man fishing for change. Ángel was jiggling his hand in his pocket and Memo could picture his finger on the trigger of the revolver hidden in his sweatshirt. Hurry up, viejo! Memo silently urged the old man. He was gonna get himself killed in a minute. No one had an itchier trigger finger than Ángel.

Finally the old man took his brown paper bag and turned to leave, but just before he stepped away from the counter, he looked back toward where Memo was standing and stared directly into his eyes. All the air got sucked out of the store, and just for a second, Memo considered running, going straight home, apologizing to his mom, and leaving El Norte behind. But before Memo could move, Ángel glared at him and Ángel’s voice returned to his head. Sac-up, pana! When Memo looked over at the old man again, he saw his back as he pushed through the store’s glass door.

Across the length of worn linoleum flooring he could see Ángel waving the gun at the clerk, hear the clerk yelling back. What the hell was he arguing for? Didn’t he see the gun in his face? They’d chosen this store because it was one of the few in the area where the person behind the register wasn’t sitting in a bullet proof plastic box and the night staff seemed like they didn’t give a sh*t. But this clerk was new and something wasn’t right. Memo lurched out from behind the rack, knocking boxes of meringue cookies to the floor as he rushed to the front, with knife drawn, to back up Ángel. That’s what he was there for, right?

When Memo was only a few feet away, the store clerk stood up. He was bigger than he seemed; his head reached the cigarette rack above. He lurched over the counter and grabbed Angel by the front of his shirt. Surprised, Ángel’s arms flailed and the gun dropped to the floor, skittering to a stop in front of Memo.

Time stopped, like in the movies. Memo stared at the gun silhouetted on the worn, gray floor while the other men stared at him. It must have only been a second, but to Memo it felt like a lifetime. There was no sound, only the rapid thumping of Memo’s heart pulsing in his ears. Fear tightened around his chest like a rope until he felt as if his breathing would stop. He pictured Javier in the church lecturing him about his choices as if Memo were a kid or something, as if he couldn’t control his own life. As he watched his friend’s panicked eyes dart back and forth, Memo thought of how Ángel suggested him for this job, how he’d believed in him.

In one swift movement Memo bent over, picked up the gun, pointed it at the surprised clerk, and squeezed the trigger. The bang pressed on him like a weight, the whole store shuddering from the noise. He stared down the barrel of the gun and watched the clerk’s mouth open in shock as he dropped Ángel and stumbled over the stool behind the counter, dragging it to the ground as he fell. The blood spread across his white T-shirt like the prize hibiscus flowers in Memo’s mother’s garden.

Ángel lurched behind the counter and was pulling cash from the register. Memo just stared at the empty space where the clerk had stood. The acrid smell of gunpowder snaked into his nostrils. His mind was blank and racing at the same time as fear rushed back in like tumbling surf.

“Memo! We got to get outta here!” Ángel was pulling at him, money spilling from inside his zippered sweatshirt. Ángel reached back to grab the six-pack of Medalla beer from the counter and lurched for the exit.

Memo pulled himself from his daze and followed his friend out the door, the bell above tingling happily as it swung back as if elated by their departure. As if they were just two more happy customers.

As if everything in Memo’s life hadn’t just changed.

Then they were running. He looked down and saw his Nikes flashing, felt the cracked pavement smacking against his soles. But it was as though he wasn’t in control of his legs. Thankfully they were just going on their own. They had better survival instincts than the rest of him. As he ran he realized he was holding something. Something heavy. The gun.

Oh sh*t. He’d killed someone.

He’d never killed anyone before. Never even come close. Memo was the kind of guy who hung back, let other, stronger guys like Javier or Ángel take the lead. Guys whose mothers didn’t still buy their underwear.

Ángel scuttled around a corner, down the shadowed side street to the abandoned building that they’d found last week when they were scoping out the job. There were so many to choose from these days: businesses were dropping like flies. Memo saw his friend climb through the broken plywood that covered the mouth of where the front door had been and he followed close behind, his jeans almost catching on the jagged, wooden edge. He landed on the concrete floor with a thud, and ran through the dark, abandoned storefront toward Ángel in the back. Empty cans skittered away from his feet like rats, their aluminum clanks way too loud in the cavernous space.

Ángel was sitting in the corner, his chest rising up and down with each ragged breath. Memo leaned his back against the graffiti-covered store wall and stared at the shafts of light that sneaked their way through the broken windows.

He was numb. Totally numb.

He’d f*cked this one up big. He was sure he would be thrown out of the gang, and his mother. … damn, it would kill her if she were to find out. He bent down and put the gun carefully on the floor, pushing it away as if it might bite. He squeezed his eyes shut and braced himself for the sound of sirens. Ángel’s voice in the dark made him jump.

“Man, that was some serious sh*t, Memo!” Ángel gasped, his breath slowing.

Here it came. The reprimand. The rash of sh*t. Memo steeled himself as he had for seventeen-sh*t, in a few minutes it would be eighteen-years. His mother had been dressing him down since he’d been old enough to walk. When he was a kid los cangrejos constantly teased him, criticized the way he threw a ball, talked to a girl. And now the Calaveras called him a pussy about twenty times a day; he walked wrong, talked wrong, hell, he couldn’t take a piss right. Well, it probably made sense he’d get thrown out of the gang for an eighteenth birthday present. Memo braced himself and looked down at his friend. If he still was his friend.

Ángel was smiling back at him, his white teeth glowing in the dark like a beacon. “Memo’s a man now, bro! I knew you could do it!” Ángel reached up and grasped Memo’s forearm for a shake.

The second their arms touched, Memo felt a tingling rush through his body. Could it be true? He hadn’t f*cked up? Realization slowly muscled its way into his spinning brain.

He’d made it. He wasn’t a candy-assed rich boy anymore. He was a badass, murdering man.

The laugh started deep in his belly, glee sparking like static all over his skin. To think he had almost run, had considered leaving la vida. Ángel was right. He was finally a man. He could feel it in every cell in his body, like he’d started the day as a boy and was ending it as a man. In a few minutes he would be eighteen. He would be a man. Next time he saw Javier he was going to be the one talking down. Memo slid his back down against the wall and smiled at Angel in the dark.

Life had never been better than this.

Ángel started laughing, and then they both couldn’t stop, gulping breaths side by side on the concrete floor of an empty building, not caring that their voices were echoing off the high ceilings. Ángel reached into his sweatshirt and tossed fistfuls of bills into the air like confetti. It was the best high in the world.

Until Memo heard a scraping sound from the blackness of the corner.

Ángel must have heard it, too, and their laughter turned off like a light switch.

They sat and listened to the silence. A minute.


Nothing. “What the hell was that?” Ángel’s whisper sounded tight.

“I don’t know, man.” Was it the cops? Nah, they were just fired up. “Probably just a rat.” He lifted his hand for Ángel to slap. Memo chuckled at his nervousness, but he felt the dark shadow he’d been talking to Javier about spreading like an oil spill, just beyond his line of sight.

Ángel cracked open a beer bottle and handed it to Memo. He held his own up to clink. “Here’s to you, man. Welcome to the dark side … and happy birthday.” The clink of the bottles sounded loud in the cavernous room, but it was such a normal sound that it comforted Memo. He was stupid to worry. They were on top of the world and no one could knock them off.

Memo looked at his phone: 11:59, almost midnight. “I’ll be eighteen in one minute.” Finally. Memo smiled big as he lifted the bottle but froze as it touched his lips. Next to him Angel’s eyes lit up, huge and round like twin moons, his bottle shattering on the concrete below.

“What’s up, Áng,” Memo started to turn around, but something like a rope covered with skin had wrapped itself around his chest and he couldn’t take a full breath. Was he having an anxiety attack? A heart attack? The pressure was almost beyond pain, past terror. Memo stared at Ángel, wishing he could lift his arms to reach toward his friend, but they were pinned down, pressing into his sides.

Memo felt a lurch, the bottle flying from his hand, the sour smell of beer filling the room. Then he was moving backward, his body dragging along the concrete floor, his jeans scraping over discarded nails, empty cans. He was frozen, fear turned his limbs to ice despite the antianxiety medications and hundreds of hours of therapy. He wanted to crane his neck to see what had him, to see what was pulling him like a ragdoll toward the shadowed store corner, but somewhere in his dark mind he knew. He knew that anything he’d ever feared before was meaningless. There was also a kind of relief, a theory proven.

Somehow he always knew this was how it would end.

Memo watched as Angel got smaller and smaller and the shadow spread into his vision, blacking out all but a pinhole view in the center of emptiness. The pressure around his chest was tightening until his ribs cracked one by one like twigs underfoot on a forest walk. His body stopped fighting and his bladder gave way. For the first time in his life, he was resigned. He wished he could call his mother and say, “See? See, old woman? I did have reason to be afraid!”

Then there was nothing beneath him and his legs scraped on the ragged edge of the sudden hole in the floor, following his head and torso into total darkness.

July 7, 2:04 A.M.


SOMETHING WAS HAPPENING downstairs. Lupe wasn’t awake enough to know much more than that, but her body was up and moving before her brain could even react. Growing up as she had, she could sense trouble in the night like a change in the temperature, even when asleep. She walked quietly to the door of her bedroom and listened. Her uncle was talking on the phone downstairs. Calls at this hour were never good news.

“Sí … sí… where?”

Then her aunt’s voice, Lupe couldn’t hear what she was say ing. She headed downstairs.

Her uncle was strapping on his bulletproof vest over his shirt, while Maria watched him with haunted eyes.

Esteban noticed Lupe standing in the stairwell. “Bueno, I have to go. They found another body in San Juan.”

Her aunt gasped, but Esteban was there in a split second holding her arms and looking into her brimming eyes. “It isn’t Izzy.”

Her aunt nodded. She looked relieved but still worried. Lupe had to ask. “Izzy? Why the hell would it be Izzy?”

“Language, Lupe! I can’t talk about this now. At least this time there was a witness. God willing that will help us find the killer.” He kissed Maria gently on the lips. “Lo siento, mi amor. Go back to sleep.”

“I’ll try, papi.” She smiled at him, but Lupe could see the tightness tug the edges of her mouth.

He kissed Lupe on the forehead, the spicy scent of his aftershave surrounding her like a hug.

As they watched Esteban walk out the door, it was Maria’s turn to sigh. “Ay, Lupe. I never like to see him leave at this hour, but I really don’t like this case. There’s something evil about it.

There will be no going back to sleep for me.”

Lupe thought she should do something, like put her arm around her aunt’s shoulders, comfort her, tell her it’s not evil, just senseless. That everything will be all right. Isn’t that what a normal niece would do? But she was frozen in place. She was actually kind of pissed that they were keeping whatever was going on with Izzy from her. Finally she offered, “I’m sure he’ll be okay.” But even she didn’t believe it.

Used with permission from Tor Teen, an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates. Copyright (c) 2019 Ann Davila Cardinal. Five Midnights is available now.