When she got back, she took a job inspecting potato chips at a Frito-Lay factory, watching the shimmering yellow snacks roll by for eight hours a day. "That was my big wake-up call," she says. "I went back to college."

At the University of California, Santa Barbara, she majored in theater, graduated with honors, and then set out for Los Angeles to become a director. In the meantime, she became a waitress. But she used the stereotype to her advantage when writing her resumé and cover letters. "I said that what I really wanted in life was to be a waitress. I said I'd been practicing very hard, breaking plates and getting orders wrong," Collins recounts. "I said, 'But until I can become a great waitress, I'm willing to work in film production.'"

The letter was good, and it caught the attention of some big Hollywood names. Collins worked for Dick Clark and then Michael Ovitz, co-founder of the Creative Artists Agency (and briefly, decades later, president of Disney). She'd take his calls, divert his wife and carry out cryptic, barked orders.

"Find me Sean Connery!"

"Well, where is he?"

"He's in Scotland!"

But Hollywood was unfulfilling, and Collins next landed a job at the Santa Monica headquarters of the RAND Corporation, the think tank known for churning out Nobel Prize winners. A few years later, she was running RAND's artificial-intelligence lab, making sure the computers were working and maintaining RAND's connection to the first rudimentary version of the Internet. She liked the job so much she went to graduate school to study telecommunications.

Afterward, she moved to northern California to be a technical writer, writing manuals for microprocessor chips. She loved it. She also loved a computer genius who'd designed a machine being used at the University of Colorado in Boulder, so she moved to Colorado and married him. In 1989, while working as a technical editor at Denver's Baby Bell, US West, she decided that in her spare time, she would write her first novel.

Unlike Collins, Kaufman is a Colorado native. He was born at St. Luke's Medical Center, the son of an ER nurse and a musician in what was then called the Denver Symphony. "If it had a reed and made a sound, my dad played it," Kaufman says.

For a time in the mid-1950s, Kaufman's dad owned a record store downtown called Harmony Records. One of the regular customers was hotshot Denver defense attorney Walter Gerash, defender of the Brown Berets and the Black Panthers. He and Kaufman's dad became friends. And young Kaufman, a nerdy kid who loved sports and school, became enamored with Gerash's stories about the law.

"It was just the most awesome thing in the world, to be able to walk around downtown in a cape and represent boxers," he says. (Gerash did both.)

Around the time Kaufman started high school, his family situation became fluid. He moved to California for a while, where his dad was playing music for TV shows like Flip Wilson and Password, and then to Aspen to live with his mother. Kaufman had transformed from nerdy to nerdy-and-a-bit-wild. Once, while hanging out at the house of a wealthy high-school pal, he met Hunter S. Thompson. "There was this weird bald dude in the freaking living room," he says. "There was a pile of coke and some lines cut out on the glass table...and he's drinking a martini and they've been playing paddle tennis."

Kaufman's life became much less glamorous after he graduated from Aspen High in 1974. He moved back to Denver, lived with his grandmother, started college at the University of Colorado at Denver and worked in the laundry room at St. Anthony Central Hospital, washing blood out of sheets. "The whole time I'm working down there, I'm thinking, I want to be a fucking lawyer, because I don't want to do this for the rest of my life." He made it to CU-Boulder, where he majored officially in history and unofficially in girls, the Dead, Judaism and "mystical experiences."

And then, after a year and a half spent working in a Boulder food-stamp office, he saved enough money to attend law school at the University of Denver. Starting in his second year, he worked for Gerash as a researcher, running down answers to questions such as whether Ross Carlson, accused mommy-and-daddy killer, could use his parents' life insurance to pay for his legal defense. Sometimes he got to do investigative work. "I had to go take pictures of a kid who got hit by a car on his motorcycle, and his leg was real fucked up," Kaufman says. "Walter said, 'Take pictures. Show. The. Hurt.'"

Fresh out of law school in 1984, Kaufman landed a gig at the state public defender's office. He got married two years later and began having children, three girls and a boy. He stayed in the public-defender game until 1990, when he struck out on his own in Colorado Springs. Almost immediately, he landed a big case: co-defending a man named Brian Hood, who manipulated his girlfriend, Jennifer Reali, into shooting his wife, Dianne. It was one of many headline-grabbing cases that Kaufman worked on.

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