The voice on the other end of the phone was calm, in control. That part wasn't unusual. Women who call the offices of Highlands Investigations & Legal Services, Inc., often sound unbreakable. If only that were true. This one used an even tone, but it disguised a fire raging in her gut. And judging from the tale she spilled, she had good reason.
The woman and her husband were from out of state. Her husband was a traveling businessman. But she suspected that not all of his business is the kind that's done in public. The worst part was that the louse was supposed to be atoning. She'd caught him cheating before. He'd asked for forgiveness and promised to change his ways. To stop poking women who weren't his wife. Well, she said, he was breaking his promises but making good on his poking.
And this might be her last chance to catch him in the act. She'd had private investigators in two other states track him, but neither had nailed the jerk.
Now he was headed to Denver. And, she guessed, straight into the arms and legs of a pretty business associate of his. She just needed the proof.
Colleen Collins and her husband, Shaun Kaufman, live in a modest brick bungalow in northwest Denver with two Rottweilers and an occasional teenager. The kids are from Kaufman's first marriage. The fiercely loyal Rottweilers come from fancy breeders. Their names are Aretha Franklin and Jack Nicholson.
Kaufman is a sucker for big dogs. Collins is scared to death of them. But when he moved into her place several years ago, his giant horse-dog Buddha, a predecessor to the Rottweilers, came with him. Collins built a white picket fence, a sign that she was serious about the relationship, but not about letting Buddha in the house. Then, one cold and snowy night, Kaufman opened the door. It's time, he said.
"I almost wet my pants," Collins says. "I was so afraid."
Monster dogs weren't the only new thing to which Kaufman introduced Collins. (She eventually learned to love Buddha, God rest his soul.) Another was private detective work. The two now run their own agency, Highlands Investigations & Legal Services, Inc., taking on everything from background checks to cheating spouses to research for criminal attorneys. They're a real-life husband-and-wife team of private dicks — though they hardly look the part. Kaufman, a former lawyer, is short and stout, with spiky gray hair, a biting wit and a sailor's mouth. His uniform consists of cargo shorts, Grateful Dead T-shirts and Velcro-strap sandals. Collins is tall, curvy, more fashionable, with natural red hair and an easy laugh. A bit older than Kaufman, she describes the pair as "lighthearted fifty-somethings."
In addition to detective work and dog-rearing, they moonlight as authors and recently completed their first book: an instruction manual for fiction authors called How to Write a Dick: A Guide to Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real Life Sleuths.
The writing bit comes from Collins, though the double entendre in the title is typical of both of their senses of humor. Before she was a private eye, Collins was a romance writer. Her first novel is about an English professor named Russell who's set to marry a socialite named Charlotte. But he gets drunk at his bachelor party and wakes up with a tattoo: a red heart on his chest with the name "Liz" etched in it. Liz, it turns out, is a tattoo artist with a penchant for literature. When she meets a drunk, poetry-reciting Russell the night of his party, she falls in love and marks him as her own.
Harlequin, that almighty paperback peddler of sexy beach trash and housewife panty-burners, bought Right Chest, Wrong Name in 1996 and published it as part of its tame "Love & Laughter" line: lots of jokes, a few kisses, but no sex. That suited Collins just fine. She's always preferred plot-driven stories to ones whose appeal lies mostly in tawdry descriptions of thrusting and moaning. Despite its lack of thrusting, the book sold well, and Collins wrote another: Right Chapel, Wrong Couple, about two strangers who get married in Las Vegas to escape from the mob. That book was translated into Italian and given a new title. Poker in Vegas. Talk about a double entendre.
But "Love & Laughter" soon shut down, and Collins started writing for a line called "Duets": two slightly steamy novels for the price of one. One of her books, Rough and Rugged (she didn't choose the title), was nominated for a Romance Writers of America award. It's about a bitchy L.A. executive named Liney in search of a rugged male model for the Cooking Fantasies magazine spread she's overseeing. At a Wyoming diner, she meets Raven, a bad-boy biker with a broken heart and killer abs...