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Scenes from the past and present, linked by shadows and light, death and violence

In their novel "Light in the Shadows," co-authors and spouses Linda Lafferty and Andy Stone meld the life of 16th-century painter Caravaggio with a present-day adventure

Linda Lafferty and Andy Stone had their first date on the ski slopes of Aspen, Colorado. They were married in 1986 and still live in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Linda is the author of five previous novels that have been translated into several languages. Linda won the Colorado Book Award in 2014 and 2016 for “The Drowning Guard” and “The Shepherdess of Siena,” respectively. 

Andy’s writing career began in Aspen in 1974, when he was hired as a reporter for The Aspen Times. He worked for the paper on and off over the next 35 years as a reporter, editor, columnist and, eventually, publisher. Along the way, he wrote his first novel, “Song of the Kingdom.” In 2016, after retiring from the newspaper, he wrote and published his second novel, “Aspen Drift.” 

The following is an excerpt from “Light in the Shadows.”

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


2020 Colorado Book Award finalist for General Fiction

Village of Caravaggio, Lombardia,

1577

A dark-haired boy sat on an overturned bucket, staring at the two dead men.

His grandfather had died during the night, his mouth open, gasping, choking on his hideously swollen tongue. Now the tongue had retreated back into his maw, hiding behind his brown, broken teeth like an eel.

The boy’s father had lingered a bit longer, but his death had been just as painful.

In the dim light of the terra-cotta oil lamp, a flea skipped across his father’s hairline and then disappeared into the folds of his wrinkled tunic, stained brown with sweat.

The two men had traveled back the forty kilometers from Milano just days before and had carried the plague with them to the hamlet of Caravaggio. Now they lay side by side in death.

The boy could not cry. He sat stunned, playing the scene of the dying men over in his young mind. He shut his eyes but still saw the mottled colors of their skin, their mouths twisted in agony, the silver translucence of their tears and sweat.

He saw dark browns and red, the palette of the night.

Michelangelo barely opened his eyes, his sight only a slit through his thick eyelashes. He studied the sunken lines of his father’s face, his lifeless hand. Every minute detail of his father’s corpse was branded in his memory with searing permanence.

Linda Lafferty and Andy Stone.

His father had a raucous laugh and a swagger. He would throw his son in the air, making him laugh. He did the same with young Fabrizio, the marchese’s son, only a few years older than Michelangelo.

Fermo Merisi. Bigger than life, a commoner who had charmed nobility.

Michelangelo opened his eyes once more to look at his father, at the hands and arms that had launched young Michele so gleefully in the air. They were as still as stone. And blackened—especially the fingertips. The forearms were puckered with purple welts.

The boy stuck his fist in his mouth, sinking his teeth into his first knuckle. Still, he did not cry, but stared hard at the dead men.

“You are the man of the family now,” his mother had told him, grasping his shoulders minutes before. The raw crimson of her eyes had shocked him. They were the color of bloody meat.

The holy water that his mother had fetched from the town’s spring, the fount where the apparition of Mary had appeared a hundred years ago, proved useless even after the priest’s blessing. His mother laid her cheek against his father’s chest after the death rattle. Then she fled sobbing to the Sforza palace to plead for succor from the widow Marchesa Sforza-Colonna. Michele’s older sister, Margherita, swept up his three younger siblings, taking them along with her as she fetched the gravedigger.

“Stay here, Michele,” his mother had told her eldest son.

Michelangelo was alone in the room with the two dead men. The boy’s mouth curled up in a snarl, his features pinched in rage. He hurled the flask of useless holy water, dashing it on the stone floor.

He watched the stone darken, the contrasting shadows etched at his feet. Then he looked up, staring at the corpses in the dark room.

Where is God? Where is Mary, mother of God?

He curled his small fists tightly, his dirty fingernails biting into his flesh. The hurt felt good, real. He could control the pain by releasing the pressure or make his flesh throb by contracting his fingers.

He wanted the hurt to match the pain in his heart. To match the black abyss of despair that seized him.

He stared down at his filthy nails and the little red gouges he had made in his tender palms. Faint traces of blood tinged his skin. A shiver rocked his body, and he realized how cold he was in the room with no fire. A darkness enveloped him, a curtain descending over his eyes.

He fought against the blinding rage. Inside his eyelids, he saw the image of the two dead men in sepia. Then, a splash of scarlet.

He felt warmth, a radiance. His eyes opened.

The slanting sunlight of October shone through the canvas-covered window. The light touched the face of his father, leaving his grandfather’s open mouth in shadow.

He heard voices outside. The Marchesa Costanza Colonna had sent men to carry the bodies to the graves.

The little boy blinked in the sunlight at the warm glow that bathed him and his dead father.

There is God. The light.

A Warehouse

Present Day

Professor Richman woke once into a world of swirling shadows and lightning flashes and, later, woke again into a calmer darkness. A gentle hand stroked his forehead. His eyes weren’t ready to focus. A face loomed over him. He twitched; the face became Lucia’s. His head was cradled in her lap as she bent over him, her hand on his forehead. And beyond her was a room cluttered with broken furniture and piles of boxes. A faint blue-white light—moonlight? How long had he been unconscious?—seeped in through a window high above. Where were they?

He tried to sit up, and her calm, cool hand clamped down over his mouth. She leaned even closer. “Not a sound.” Her words were no more than breath in his ear. “Listen.”

“Light in the Shadows” by Linda Lafferty and Andy Stone.

Beyond the pounding inside his head, he eventually could hear angry voices from the next room, muffled by thick walls and a heavy door. He couldn’t understand a word, but she listened with fierce concentration. He let himself drift away again, but his mind filled with lightning flashes, disturbing images. The priest’s body—yes, he had seen that. And the blood—yes, that was real too. And he remembered the painting and the shouting, and he veered away from the memory before it replayed the pistol slashing across his face.

It had gone quiet in the next room, a sullen silence. The professor struggled to sit up. Lucia steadied him and helped him rest his back against a wall. She leaned close again. “They’re fucked. They have no idea what to do with the painting. Don’t know where to go with it. Don’t know what it’s worth. No idea it was going to be so big. Idiots.”

He didn’t feel strong enough to point out who was in charge and who was captive.

“Where are we?” He tried to keep his voice as quiet as hers had been.

“No idea. It took hours to get here. Locked in the back of a truck. Didn’t know if you were ever going to wake up.”

The professor sat in silence for a while, trying to make sense of what had happened. He couldn’t. He’d thought he wanted an adventurous new life—now he just wanted his old life back. As soon as possible.

With a sudden stabbing jolt of pain, his leg began to cramp. He lurched, trying to get to his feet, and in an instant she was up, steadying him in the near dark.

For a moment they stood, swaying, hugging each other for support. Then she gave a start, grabbed his shoulders, and slowly turned him—until, clutching each other in the darkened room, they were staring at the painting. The painting from Te-Te’s chapel, with its cracked frame and too-perfect faces, leaning against a stack of cardboard boxes—but seeming to float in the dark, picked out of the shadows by the moonlight.

The professor closed his eyes. Someone had died for that painting. For that sad fraud of a painting.

But Lucia was transfixed. She settled Richman on a solid-enough box and walked a half a dozen steps to stand just outside the pool of moonlight and stare.

The moon was long gone, but Lucia was still standing in the dark watching the faintest gleam on the varnish of the painting when the shouting began again in the next room. Shouts of surprise, then anger, rage, and fear. A choking gasp. A struggle. A scream that was choked off. Silence.

Lucia whirled, grabbed the biggest box she could lift, and set it against the inside of the door. There were quick footsteps prowling the next room. The professor was on his feet, and together they staggered to the door with an even larger box. It hit the door with a thump and the footsteps stopped, then hurried across the room toward them.

The doorknob rattled. They abandoned stealth and raced to stack boxes against the door. The professor wobbling, doing his best.

There was pounding on the door, a fist. The pounding changed to thundering kicks. The boxes shook, but held. Lucia scanned the room for a way out, but everything was lost in shadows. The professor paused, swaying, one last box in his arms, when a gunshot sounded, muffled by the door and the boxes. The bullet didn’t penetrate the boxes, but the professor sat down fast. There were two more shots.

Sitting on the floor, Richman reached out and slapped the side of one of the boxes. Lucia looked over at him.

“Books!” he said, managing a smile. There wasn’t any point in keeping quiet now.

There was one more shot, and Richman scooted away from the pile. The saving power of literature only went so far.

The pounding began again. This time heavier. Sharp and heavy—an axe—and now there was a crashing and cracking. The door couldn’t hold for long. Lucia grabbed Richman’s hand and dragged him back toward the shadows. Another thundering blow. The sound of the door splintering.

And then, in an instant of silence between the blows, there were new voices on the other side of the door, clear and sharp. Lucia pulled the professor farther into the dark. A gunshot. A shout. A volley of shots. Lucia grabbed the professor, hugged him tight, and they turned to face the door, clinging to one another in a moment of simple survival.

And then the room exploded. Exploded out of the darkness behind them—not in front, where the noises and the danger seemed to be coming from. The force of the blast tossed them back against the boxes of books that had saved them from the gunfire.

Darkness closed in again.

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