Jill Sorenson

Set The Dark On Fire

© 2009

For Chris


Many wonderful people helped make Set the Dark on Fire possible.

Thanks to Shauna Summers, Jessica Sebor, and Vincent La Scala at Bantam Dell. Working with this team has been a dream come true. Extra thanks to the art department for the hottest cover ever.

I’d also like to thank Dr. Sean Bush, emergency physician and venom specialist featured in Animal Planet’s Venom ER, for his generosity and patience in answering my questions about rattlesnake bite treatment.

Thanks to Rob Schmidt, a freelance writer and contributor of social commentary columns at Newspaper Rock, for sharing his expertise on Native American culture.

Special thanks to my husband, Chris, an avid rock collector and enthusiastic admirer of cultural artifacts. While I was conceptualizing this project, he showed me photographs of the fertility stones in one of his grandmother’s books, Manfred Knaak’s The Forgotten Artist: Indians of Anza-Borrego and Their Rock Art. Those pictures inspired one of my favorite scenes.


Shay opened her eyes with a low moan. Her ears were ringing, her mouth was dry, and her head pounded with every heartbeat. From the blurry-edged space beside the bed, the telephone continued to shrill.

She blinked until the numbers on the digital clock came into focus: 4:52 A.M.

Reaching out, she fumbled for the receiver. “Hello?” she croaked, rolling onto her back and squeezing her eyes shut as a wave of nausea lapped over her. Her voice sounded like crushed gravel.

Another voice, one that was far more pleasant, low-pitched and even-toned, drifted into her ear, awakening a new level of consciousness. “This is Sheriff Meza with the Tenaja Falls Police Department. May I speak with Shay Phillips, please?”

He paused between her first and last name, as if reading it from a piece of paper. Although he was a complete stranger, he spoke with assurance and authority, like a man who was accustomed to getting what he wanted.

Something about his voice made her toes curl up under the covers.

Her headache throbbed and receded, throbbed and receded. Then the meaning of his words penetrated the fog surrounding her brain. “What?” she said, bolting upright.

“May I speak with…”

Barely listening, she dragged her tired body out of bed and stumbled across the room. All knees and elbows in the best of circumstances, she was extra-clumsy after a rare night of overindulgence. She hadn’t felt this wrecked since her twenty-first birthday.

Five years ago exactly.

The room shifted, sending her careening into a set of dresser drawers, and she caught her hip on the edge. A bolt of agony shimmied down her leg, but she ignored it, lurching out into the hallway, toward the extra bedroom.

The door that loomed before her was littered with graffiti. A collage of crass bumper stickers, CD album covers, and website graphics ate up every inch of available space. Most of the images were angry and some of the words were profane, but Shay drew the line at pornography. If her little brother wanted to look at naked women, he could refer to the material stuffed under his mattress like a normal teenage boy.

At eye level, a magazine clipping featuring an airborne skateboarder urged her to “Get Bent.” Beyond the door, she could hear music, not loud enough to melt eardrums, so he was probably asleep.

She rapped her knuckles against it. “Dylan?”

“Do I have the wrong number?” Sheriff Meza asked.

“Hang on,” she said into the phone, twisting the doorknob. A few months ago he’d locked the door and climbed out the window, leaving the music blaring to throw her off. Since then, she’d removed the lock, but she hadn’t entered his room uninvited.

She didn’t want to walk in on him… doing anything.

Dylan was home, to her relief. To her chagrin, he wasn’t asleep, nor was he alone. Angel Martinez, her next- door neighbor’s dark-haired, wild-eyed daughter, was underneath him, digging her fingernails into his naked back.

The phone fell from her hand, landing with an audible thud on the worn carpet.

Dylan hadn’t heard it ring, and he hadn’t heard her knock, but he heard that. Looking over his shoulder, he fixed her with a murderous glare. “Get out.”

Too horrified to do otherwise, she pulled the door shut and closed her eyes with a wince, trying to dispel the image. It registered, somewhat belatedly, that this was her house and she was in charge. Dylan was underage, and so was Angel, as far as she knew.

“I’m going to open this door again in two minutes,” she warned, raising her voice. “Two minutes!”

Her head swelled with pain, making her dizzy. At her feet, Sheriff Meza was silent.

She picked up the phone. “This is Shay Phillips. Sorry about that.”

“No problem,” he replied smoothly. “I wouldn’t have called so early, but we have a wildlife situation, and I was given your name.”

She frowned, trying to focus on the conversation instead of what was going on behind Dylan’s bedroom door. Local law enforcement contacted her on occasion, if a mountain lion had been spotted in the area, but that wasn’t the kind of news she needed to get out of bed for. This was rural Southern California. Mountain lions lived here.

“This is a lion situation?” she interpreted.

“Yes. I was hoping you could offer your expertise.”


“Well, there’s been a fatality.”

Her jaw dropped. “A human fatality?”


“Oh my God,” she said. Mountain lion sightings were infrequent, attacks extremely rare, and fatalities… a person was more likely to be struck by lightning. “Are you sure?”

“No,” he admitted. “I’d like for you to take a look at the scene.”

She swallowed sickly. This hangover was going to get a whole lot worse before it got better. “Of course,” she said anyway, her pulse racing. “Where is it?”

“On the outskirts of town. Kind of hard to get to. If you don’t mind, I’ll pick you up and take you there

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