Excerpted from “Pieces of Everyone, Everywhere” by Cynthia Swanson, copyright 2022 by Cynthia Swanson, included in the anthology “Denver Noir ” edited by Cynthia Swanson. Used with permission of the author and Akashic Books (akashicbooks.com). “Denver Noir” is available May 3.
Digging graves is straightforward labor, involving little more than brute strength and a sufficiently sharp blade. The job can be done with relative ease by even the most doltish of common workhands.
But here’s something many do not know: exhuming graves, by contrast, is art. One cannot simply thrust one’s spade in the ground, hack around until one hits upon some solid object, then mercilessly subtract shovelful after shovelful of raw earth until the grave’s remains, treasure-like, are exposed. Nor can one wrest such treasure from the ground, haphazardly tossing fragments to the surface and flinging them into any vessel conveniently nearby.
No. Such practices would be immoral. Moreover, they would, as my Uncle August said, invite misfortune. August believed, as do I, that regardless of circumstances, the dead deserve to lie peacefully. They should be disturbed only in the most dire of situations. If a body must be moved, it should be done properly and with reverence.
“There’s no cause to uproot them, Sam,” Uncle August told me. “If you have to do it, you better have a damn good reason. And you better treat them with respect.”
I had, and continue to have, no argument with that. All bodies, in my belief—both the dead and the living—should be treated with respect.
Uncle August and I had this conversation last year while standing in an Iowa cornfield. Plowing a new field, we encountered a shallow grave under a meager scattering of stones. We found no coffin, no shroud, not even a scrap of clothing—just a full, adult human skeleton set into the thick Midwest soil, all flesh that once graced the bones returned entirely to the earth. That the grave was unviolated by an animal was nothing short of providence.
No one besides our family had ever homesteaded that land, so the skeleton was either an Indian’s or perhaps belonged to some white man who, decades earlier, had been making his way west and died en route. Uncle August said his money was on the latter, because Indians are smarter than that—they don’t leave their dead lying about like so much rubbish. I suspect he’s right.
Either way, Uncle August said we were obliged to move the body appropriately. We returned to the barn and hammered together a solid though simple coffin. We lugged it to the field and eased the bones into place, carefully reassembling those separated from their neighbors. Then we moved the entire affair under a willow tree—where it should have been all along, as was obvious to both of us—and ensured the box was set accurately, buried deeply. The task cost us nearly a full day of plowing, but we accomplished it with respect.
Well. What would Uncle August say about my first job in my new city of Denver, Colorado? What would he say about the merciless, hack-job labor into which I had embroiled myself?
I choose not to think about it. When such thoughts enter my mind, I hang my head in shame.
Upon arriving in Denver, I’d spied the undertaker’s notices all over town. Posters were tacked to trees; advertisements took space in the local papers. Gravediggers needed for extensive exhumation project. Apply in person, E.P. McGovern, Undertaking and Embalming, 549 Larimer St. Strong white men only.
Inspecting one such sign, I inquired of a bystander how to find Larimer Street.
He glowered. “Cursed Tammany crooks. Think you’re free of them out here in the west? Think again, son.”
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I shook my head. “Sir?”
“Mayor’s out of town,” the man explained. “Acting mayor is in deep with the local Tammany Hall cronies. Crooks pushed through a downright pointless contract to relocate those graves.” He shook his fist. “It’s nothing but taxpayer money lining wicked pockets, son.”
None of this made the least bit of sense to me. I asked again for directions to the funeral home.
“God’ll smite me, aiding such sinful jobbery.” He looked me up and down, appraising my shabby hat and coat. “But I can see you need the work.”
Indeed, I did. When the gentleman gave me directions, I thanked him and hurried away.
Applying for the job at McGovern’s funeral home, I was given a brief account of the situation. The graveyard in question, named City Cemetery, was located east of the Capitol and just a few blocks south of Colfax Avenue. For a time, this area had been the outskirts of Denver proper. As the city grew, a larger and more remote cemetery, Riverside, was established some miles north. At that point, City Cemetery was essentially abandoned—the graves uncared for, the tombstones crumbling, the entirety of it an eyesore. Now, the city intended to transform it into a park. The land would, as it was explained to me, become a green, grassy setting, intended for the leisure of those who lived nearby.
The next morning, upon arrival at City Cemetery, I glanced around at the nearby homes. They were nothing short of mansions, each larger and more elaborate than the next, positioned like well-trimmed rosebushes along the cemetery’s perimeter. No surprise that well-heeled homeowners were loath to gaze upon an unsightly public space.
The crew that assembled that day numbered approximately thirty, each stronger than the next. It was a warm spring morning—the type of day that, upon other circumstances, might inspire hope within the soul. In outlying cottonwood trees, sparrows chirped. Closer by, robins pecked for worms, and sunlight-seeking wildflowers broke through the dry earth. Along the boundary of the cemetery, curious onlookers gathered, arranged in a muddle that reminded me of the disorganized shelves at the unkempt country store back home.
The laborer next to me grinned. “What sport,” he said, striking the blade of his shovel into the scrub grass, where it met, clanging, against a rock. “What d’ya think we’ll find under there, lad?” He clapped me on the shoulder. “Nothing but thieves and degenerates, I hear. Bastards gettin’ what they deserve.”
Not entirely convinced of this, but disinclined to engage in argument within my first few moments on the job, I dipped my head just enough for my gesture to be recognizable as a nod.
In some areas of the soon-to-be-erstwhile City Cemetery, graves had already been exhumed. Long before undertaker McGovern was hired to finish the job, city officials had put out notices that any Denverite who had relatives at City Cemetery would be wise to have them removed to Riverside. The Jewish graves on the hill were relocated, every one of them, carefully and with respect, by families and synagogues. The Catholics negotiated a deal with the city to purchase their parcel of the graveyard, leaving those who had worshipped both God and the pope to continue peacefully resting in their current locale.
The remaining section of City Cemetery—“the Boneyard,” as I learned it was called—was where paupers, thieves, and unclaimed, disease-ridden bodies were buried. No surprise, then, that most of these bodies were unspoken for. Who’d speak for them?
Wagonful after wagonful of rudimentary caskets were brought forth and unloaded. “Dig,” the foreman—a bulky, weather-beaten fellow named Rudiman—instructed us. He told us not to attempt salvaging any containers we encountered; most, he said, would be cheap construction, not worth the cut-rate lumber comprising them. Instead, we were told to put the bodies in the delivered caskets, mark them with the identifying tags provided, and keep going.
“There are thousands of bodies in this soil!” Rudiman shouted to the assemblage. “You’ll be paid for each one you tag. The faster you dig, the more money you make. Have at it, men!”
Someone let out a holler: “Let’s do this, boys!” Enthusiastic spades were raised, and piles of dirt and rubble soon began to dot the landscape. Less inclined to revelry but nevertheless eager to demonstrate my strong work ethic, I grasped my shovel and began to dig.
I looked up. An elderly woman, threadbare shawl over her head and shoulders, had quit the onlookers and was making her way among the workingmen.
“Respect them, I say,” she told the laborers. “Say a prayer for each man’s soul as you raise him. Treat his body with tenderness—for tomorrow, it will be your own.”
They brushed her off. “Go away, old woman,” one man growled, raising his shovel in a half threat toward her. “Leave us to our toil.”
Across the clumps of earth, the woman’s eyes met mine. She hobbled over, gripping my shoulder, pulling my head toward hers.
“These men are unwise. But you possess prudence,” she whispered in my ear. “Do right by them, girl.”
She knew. How did she know? I’d hidden it so well—or so I’d believed.
Before I left Iowa, Uncle August had been the one who’d shorn my hair, handfuls of my rich dark locks stuffed into a bag for me to tote on my journey, in hopes of selling it at some future date. August loaned me britches, a belt, and two work shirts, one to wear and one for a spare. He handed me a long cotton cloth and told me to bind my—providentially small, anyway—breasts.
“You’re safer this way, Samantha,” he said.
I eyed him. How could I—whether dressed as woman or disguised as man—feel more threatened elsewhere than I was in my own home?
Three nights earlier, August had discovered my father at me. August did his best to haul Father away while I lay helplessly, my eyes filled with terror. August cursed and yelled and took the blows that blackened both eyes.
Only a few weeks prior, Uncle August and I had mourned the loss of my mother, who’d contracted influenza in early February. Before then, she’d done all she could to keep Father from me. So did August, once he knew. But like his sister and like me, August had no power over that man, who dwarfed him. Father had Uncle August by close to a foot and more than seventy pounds.
I’d inherited my father’s coarse facial features and his height, but not his girth. I was gawky and thin-limbed, my strength stringy at best. I could not fight off my father.
A disguise, on the other hand, I could manage.
And so it was Uncle August who helped me prepare for my journey—my mother dead and my father drunk and snoring in the barn. Harmless then, but he wouldn’t stay that way; we both knew it.
“Join me,” I said to August.
He shook his head. “You know I can’t, Sam. Not with what I owe him. He’d come after me—and where would that leave us?”
Father had paid for August’s passage from England—and paid, as well, the hefty gambling debt that caught August in Chicago, before he made his way west to our homestead. “I’ll keep working, pay off my debt. Then I’ll come to Denver, if I can,” August assured me. Gently, he touched my cheek. “I can pay your train fare and put a few dollars in your pocket. After that, you’re on your own. I’m sorry, Samantha. I’d do more, if I were able.”
“I know you would.” I nodded. “Thank you, Uncle.”
He reached into the pack beside his cot, the canvas knapsack he’d toted across the Atlantic, in which he kept all his worldly possessions. “I did set aside a small sum for this.”
Into my hands Uncle August pressed a slim volume—Poems: Second Series by Emily Dickinson.
I opened to the title page: Robert Brothers, Boston, 1892.
“Hot off the press, just last year,” Uncle August said. “I know you love your words, Sam.” In the lamplight, his eyes dimmed. “I wish things were different. You should’ve had the opportunity to continue your education. You should . . .” He drifted off, turning away from me.
I laid a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right. This gift means everything to me.”
I thumbed through the beginning of the volume. Several pages in, I stopped. Over my shoulder, Uncle August read, as well.
We play at paste,
Till qualified for pearl,
Then drop the paste,
And deem ourself a fool.
The shapes, though, were similar,
And our new hands
I looked up at Uncle August. “Thank you,” was all I could manage to whisper.
He gathered me into his arms. “You’re the pearl, Samantha,” he said. “You’re the pearl.”
I nodded at the old woman, who nodded back and left my side. I gripped my shovel’s handle, contemplating the humble tombstone at my feet. Ernest Smith, it read. 1855–1872.
No other words. Nothing indicating how young Ernest—aged seventeen at time of death, precisely my own age—had met his fate.
I bent to the ground, with my index finger tracing letters on stone. “What happened to you, Ernest?” I whispered. “What happened?”
The foreman, striding among the headstones, spotted me. “Get up,” he said.
I stood, shovel in hand.
Rudiman considered me. His eyes beheld my shorn, capped head, then took in my smooth cheeks and jaw. His gaze lingered at my collarbone, where the top button of my shirt was unfastened against the warmth of the day. From there, his eyes roamed the length of my body and came to rest on my long, booted feet.
He gazed upward, meeting my eye. “Get to work, boy,” he growled.
I took up my spade. My arms, in Uncle August’s shirt, were wiry. Plain of face, with no brothers to assume the fieldwork and no prospects for leaving my father’s homestead and becoming some other farmer’s wife, I’d left school at fourteen and taken my place in the fields. There, I’d been paid nothing for my work. But here on this rubbled turf, laborers would earn twenty-five cents for each body we removed from the ground and transferred to a new casket. Undertaker McGovern, I suspected, was being paid many times that amount by the city. Rudiman, self-importantly stomping amongst the workers, likely also received a healthy cut.
But I would earn nothing unless I started to dig.
Nonetheless, I was careful. I removed dirt from Ernest’s grave, the mound piling up until I encountered a rotting wooden box, sunk in the middle and exposing a skeleton’s torso.
Ernest had lain here for over twenty years, almost as long as the cemetery existed. What had he done? How had he died?
Gently, I shoveled my way around the decrepit box. When enough of the ramshackle casket was exposed to begin raising it, I set aside my spade and bent to the earth.
“Need a hand?”
A fellow laborer, young and handsome, smiled at me. I admired the well-defined shoulder muscles I discerned through his faded cotton shirt. His beard was full and neatly trimmed. I had to resist an impulse to touch it.
We each took one end of Ernest’s crumbling coffin. As we raised it, the bottom collapsed. A stench erupted, and I covered my nose with my neckerchief. The corpse, primarily skeleton but for a few persistent scraps of flesh, tumbled to the earth.
I fell to my knees. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered to Ernest Smith’s remains. “I should have been more cautious.”
My associate knelt beside me. “It’s all right,” he said. “You did your best.”
We looked at one another, and without a word folded our hands in prayer.
“May God have mercy on this dear, departed soul,” my companion said.
“Amen,” I finished. “Amen.”
On the second day, we sat amongst the dead eating our noontime sandwiches. I had my Dickinson with me, and I read beneath the shade of a cottonwood.
And so, upon this wise I prayed,—
Great Spirit, give to me
A heaven not so large as yours,
But large enough for me.
“Rise, you men!” Rudiman shouted. “Cease your loafing and get yourselves unloading.”
I looked up. A fresh shipment of caskets had arrived. Tucking the book into my knapsack, I got to my feet.
Hauling coffins from wagon to ground, we noticed something portentous.
Someone spoke. “Sir,” he said to Rudiman, “these caskets are mighty small.”
Shielding my eyes from the noonday sun, I observed that the man who spoke was none other than yesterday’s fellow precant over Ernest Smith’s remains. Again, my fingers itched to stroke the smooth hair along his jaw.
Rudiman approached, joined by our employer, E.P. McGovern. “What’s your name, man?” McGovern asked.
“Walter Perry,” came the reply.
McGovern lowered his hat over his brow. “Well, Perry, I don’t see as how it’s your place to ask questions. But as you ask, these caskets are all I was able to get on short notice.” He held up his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “You hear about the accident at that mining site out in Utah? Can’t tell you how many dead, but every remaining full-sized casket in Denver has been shipped west. Can’t find one to save your life—much less theirs.” McGovern waved a hand dismissively at the graves, then shook a finger in Perry’s face. “Way I see it, sir, you got two choices: either you find a way to fit these bodies in the caskets provided, or you set aside your shovel and leave the work to those who have the stomach for it.”
McGovern and Rudiman waited. Walter Perry eyed one man, then the other. Then he stuck his shovel in the ground and crossed the field. Exiting the cemetery, he broke through the assembled onlookers and disappeared.
The undertaker and foreman exchanged chuckles. “Anyone else?” McGovern called out. “Or are the rest of you real men?” He looked around the decaying field. “Your decision, gents.”
I felt my shoulders stiffen. I saw no possibility that a grown man’s body could fit into so small a casket. And yet, I lacked the courage to do what Walter Perry had just done—simply walk away.
My dilemma seemed to elude the others. Indeed, it appeared that they relished the task ahead. With fresh enthusiasm, shovels were raised. Skeletons were hacked apart—torso, upper limbs, pelvis, and lower limbs separated with the swift strike of metal on bone. Skulls were carelessly cracked from the rounded bone at the pinnacle of the spine. All of these bones were then crammed into tiny caskets, intended for children who left this world before their third birthdays.
Naturally, most of the disconnected frames did not fit, no matter how valiantly the men—at first—attempted ramming them into the miniature boxes. The remains of these unfortunate souls were, instead, distributed to secondary and sometimes tertiary caskets. “All the better,” one worker said. “We’re being paid by the casket, right?”
Overhearing him, McGovern grinned. “That we are, mister.”
Something else happened then too. Perhaps the men had exceedingly enjoyed the contents of their whiskey flasks during the noon hour. Or perhaps it was simply that the notion of what was being asked of them, the notion of dismantling and cramming adult skeletons into diminutive caskets, brought out something animallike in the workers.
I can’t say what it was. Regardless of the reason, tactics became increasingly macabre. Men warmed to the task, and their inhibitions, if they had any, loosened. They worked faster and rougher, gleefully shouting obscenities at one another and at the cemetery’s remains.
Then began the looting. Laborers examined bodies for jewelry. Cigar boxes filled with treasured possessions, buried alongside some of the deceased, were opened and rifled through. Anything of worth was stuffed into laborers’ pockets.
I glanced about. The old woman was nowhere to be seen, but I could hear her words in my head: Respect them.
I nearly put up my blade. How could I go on? How could I, recalling young Ernest Smith’s decomposed body, continue this mockery of a job that McGovern and his henchman Rudiman required? How could I—remembering my first exhumation, the one in an Iowa cornfield, remembering my uncle’s kind eyes and warm words—how could I, under these circumstances, attempt to transform such gruesome work into art?
But I needed the work. Afraid to try my luck at a boardinghouse, fearful my secret would be revealed, I’d been spending my nights in a bedroll, curled up in an alley off Colfax Avenue, all night slapping my palm against the dry dirt to ward off the rats who scurried and sniffed nearby.
My plan was to save up sufficient funds to take off my mantle of maleness. Using what I earned from this repugnant job, combined with what I could get for the mounds of hair stuffed in my knapsack, I’d buy myself a frock or two. Then I’d figure out what, in this new life of mine, came next.
And so I hoisted my shovel and commenced exhuming the next grave in my path. Trying, as best I could, to disassemble the corpse slowly and carefully—and then fit it like puzzle pieces into a juvenile casket.
I left the jobsite at dusk that evening, walking north on Franklin Street and turning west onto Colfax. My pack over my shoulder, I focused my eyes ahead, taking in the tableau of the under-construction Colorado State Capitol building and the setting sun dropping behind the Rocky Mountains.
Despite the ghastliness of my first job here, my sense of Denver was that it was a city of opportunity. In such an environment, one might achieve success—or better yet, happiness. Provided, of course, that one was able to find one’s footing.
As I breathed in the combined scent of horse droppings in the road, refuse in the alleys, and frying meat in the boardinghouses, I heard the clomping of boots behind me. Prickly, I forced myself not to turn my head, hoping that in refusing to acknowledge whoever trailed me, I might will them away.
The footfalls came closer, and hands grabbed both my arms. I twisted my neck, coming face-to-face with Rudiman and McGovern.
“You, boy,” McGovern sneered. “You work for me, don’t you?”
Swallowing hard, I nodded. “Please, sirs,” I said, in my practiced gruff voice, “take your hands off me.”
“We will not,” the undertaker replied. “Not until you explain yourself.”
I shook my head, feigning ignorance. “Sir?”
Placing a hand on the small of my back, McGovern thrust me into the closest alleyway, shoving me behind a wooden barrel beside a brick wall. My pack tumbled from my shoulder and rolled across the dirt.
McGovern nodded at Rudiman, who pressed on my shoulders until I sank to the ground. “You work too slowly,” Rudiman said. “You’re not man enough to be on this crew.” He pushed me backward, and my head snapped against the bricks. My eyes closed, then opened again, trying to focus on Rudiman’s jeering face. “But then again, you’re not man enough for anything—are you?”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” I croaked.
“You know exactly what I mean.” Rudiman took one hand off my shoulder and gripped my chin, tilting it toward the twilit sky. “Such smooth skin,” he said, and his voice bore nearly the softness one might use when addressing a lover.
“Please,” I begged.
He shook my jaw from side to side.
Arms akimbo, McGovern eyed me. “You’re fired, boy.”
Jerking my head, attempting to release myself from Rudiman’s grasp, I said, “You owe me for two days’ work.”
“Such cheek,” McGovern snapped. “I owe you nothing. You deceived us—and liars deserve no wages.”
I stared him down. “Please tell your henchman to unhand me, sir.”
Rudiman chuckled. Grinning up at McGovern, he said, “Whad’ya think, boss? Let’s have some fun, eh?”
I opened my mouth to scream, but Rudiman clamped his hand over it.
McGovern shrugged. “I don’t get into any of that business.” He turned on his heel. “I’ve said all I have to say on the matter. What happens from here is of no concern to me.” He exited the alley.
Rudiman watched him go, then turned back to me. “Try to make fools of us,” he said. “I’ll show you a fool.”
He tightened his hand over my mouth. Forearm pressed to my collarbone, he snaked my belt from around my waist and tore at my britches until my body lay bare and exposed beneath him.
Afterward—after he buttoned his pants and left me lying in the dirt—I tried to catch my breath, half-naked and crumpled on my side.
In my mind, I played the prior moments back, wishing I’d had a knife or a gun. Or even a stick to poke in his eye.
Anything. Any object to make me feel less vulnerable than this.
Fumbling in the dark, I pulled on my tattered clothing and reached for my pack. I patted it, assuring myself that its humble contents—my bedroll, a flannel cloth to wipe my laborer’s brow, a shirt that had at one time been my uncle’s and at one time had been clean, and most importantly, my hair and my poems were safe and intact.
I doubted Rudiman would come back, but just in case, I made my way to a different alley. Was one safer than another? Likely not, but I had to take my chances.
There would be no sleep for me that night. Once the moon rose, I read by its faint glow.
Through the straight pass of suffering
The martyrs even trod,
Their feet upon temptation,
Their faces upon God.
Determined, I looked up at the sky.
I would be no such martyr.
The offices of the Denver Republican were two stories tall, composed of brick, with heavy cornerstones and a wide oak door. They’d be imposing to one who had fear.
But I no longer had fear.
Upon that morning, and every day of my life thereafter, this is what I stored in my heart: when we are filled with fear, no others fear us. But when the chin a man grasps becomes the chin tilted high and proud, above a neck long, upon shoulders squared, fear dissipates like a blown-over cloud.
“I wish to speak to the editor in chief, please.” Before the clerk seated at his desk could respond, I went on, “I have a scoop for him. I believe he will be most interested.”
Seventeen years later, on a warm day in the spring of 1910, I stood pencil and pad in hand amongst the crowd at the newly christened Cheesman Park. As each speaker took the podium, I scribbled notes for my story about the dedication of the park’s neoclassical marble pavilion. A thing of glory, the pavilion stood in the east portion of the park and oversaw the lush green lawns that last century’s city elders had envisioned—those green lawns that the Tammany politicians, now long gone, were unwilling to lay over paupers’ graves.
And yet, exactly that happened. After the Denver Republican broke the story—“The Work of Ghouls!” ran the headline—the city immediately shut down McGovern’s horrific operation. For a time, nothing else happened; the graves remained opened, pieces of everyone everywhere. Eventually, Denver’s first bipartisan mayor was elected, and a different company was hired to set the skeletal fragments into the earth from whence they came. At that point, properly reassembling corpses was impossible. Bones were transported as they were into the exhumed graves, covered and tamped down. Folks say the poor, restless souls still wander the park, especially by cover of night. I don’t doubt it.
After they followed my lead and scooped the story before any of the other papers got wind of it, I talked my way into a job as the Republican’s first female cub reporter. My initial stories were trivial, many of them relating to ladies’ charitable activities. Eventually, Ellis Meredith, suffragist and reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, took note of my work, finding in my stories the lyricism and authenticity I pursued regardless of subject matter. Ellis took me under her wing and helped me get hired on at the News as a beat reporter covering civic issues—a position I hold to this day.
I never saw Walter Perry again. I kept an eye out for him, but if he was still in Denver, our paths failed to cross. Perhaps because no other man I met had Walter’s integrity—or perhaps simply because my lifestyle is incongruous with it—I chose never to marry. It’s a decision I’ve yet to regret.
In 1896, three years after I left Iowa, I heard from Uncle August that my father had died. Threshing accident it was, terrible shame—apparently, someone had emptied the water from the steam thresher’s tank, causing an explosion when the machine was fired up. Father, standing nearby, was effectively blown to bits.
No one besides August knew my whereabouts, and since he was not a blood relation, Father’s homestead passed to distant relatives in Cedar Rapids. Then August joined me in Denver. Our reunion was a delightful one, although he only stayed a few months before marrying a young widow and moving with her and her children to California.
And Rudiman? That lecherous soul was not difficult to locate. The day after the city fired McGovern, the undertaker dismissed the laborers and left Rudiman alone to close up the City Cemetery jobsite. The wretch did so in near darkness, swilling from a flask as he went about collecting pickaxes and shovels.
This time, I was prepared. As night fell, I selected from the discarded shovels the heaviest and sharpest one I could find.
Approaching Rudiman from behind, I swung with all my might and all my care—ensuring that when his head split open and his body collapsed, it did so into an empty, waiting, desecrated grave.
Cynthia Swanson writes literary suspense, often using historical settings. Her debut novel, “The Bookseller,” was a New York Times best seller, and her second novel, “The Glass Forest,” was noted in Forbes as one of “Five Novels with a Remarkably Strong Sense of Place.” She lives with her family in Denver. Find her at cynthiaswansonauthor.com. She is the editor of “Denver Noir.”