At 6 a.m., a silver Beemer pulls into the parking lot of a fast-food joint. The car door opens and out steps a well-dressed man, his bookish features a mix of anger and nerves. He walks toward a van with tinted windows and climbs into the passenger seat.
Behind the wheel is Mike Lewis, a stout man in a sharp suit who looks like a cop-turned-insurance salesman. The two men shake hands and make small talk as the van's vents blast hot air. Then the well-dressed man asks the question that's been on his mind for months: Is she sleeping with someone else?
Lewis hands him a manila folder. Inside are cell-phone records that document late-night conversations the woman had with another man. It isn't definitive proof, but it's enough.
Follow her, the man says. Starting tomorrow night.
He counts out $650 in cash for the cell-phone records and background info. He passes Lewis his credit card to pay another $350 for surveillance. But he has a request: Make sure the bill doesn't say "private investigator."
He doesn't want his wife to know he blew $1,000 to keep tabs on his mistress.
"The biggest mistake people make is they confront the cheater with circumstantial evidence," Lewis says. "They should call a professional. We deal with this every day."
Lewis is a private eye, one of an estimated 50,000 nationally, according to International Counterintelligence Services Inc. "Everybody and their brother is trying to get into this industry," says ICS consultant David Rabern.
Not long ago, Lewis was one of the wannabes. In 1996, he owned Petti's Pizza in Mentor, where things didn't get much more exciting than a ham-and-pineapple pie. One day, Lewis was driving his daughter to Lakeland Community College when he saw a flier advertising a private-investigation course. His sense of adventure awakened.
Eight years later, Lewis operates Confidential Investigative Services out of his house. He handles about 300 cases a year, almost all of them involving infidelity. He has spied on sports figures, newscasters, and local celebrities whose names you would recognize if he hadn't promised confidentiality.
If the nonstop ringing of Lewis's cell phone is any indication, there's no shortage of adultery in Cleveland. Or anywhere else, for that matter: A national study released by Reuters found that 53 percent of women and 59 percent of men have been unfaithful.
"Men like a variety, it pumps their ego," explains Lewis. "Women are generally looking for things that die out in a relationship: the flowers, the attention."
Valentine's Day is especially good for business. It's often when new affairs begin, says ICS's Rabern. "It's a sweetheart day. That's when people have the opportunity to tell someone how they really feel."
Lewis has caught enough cheaters to keep Jerry Springer booked for a year.
One of his first clients was a woman who was convinced that her husband was sleeping with a co-worker. She hired Lewis to prove it.
He tailed the man to a Radisson hotel, where the husband met up with an attractive brunette. With Lewis's video camera rolling, the lovebirds disappeared into the room, only to emerge a short time later holding hands and kissing.
Lewis met the wife at a public library and played the footage for her. She sobbed loudly. She had been wrong. It wasn't a co-worker. "It was her sister," Lewis says.
For another case, Lewis followed a local nurse to a medical conference in Boston. She checked in with her husband's credit card. Big mistake. The hubby, who had hired Lewis to spy on his wife, called the hotel and granted Lewis access to the room.
He snuck in when the nurse was out and mounted a camera disguised as a clock on the top of the TV set. When she returned that evening, she didn't notice the small change to the decor.
The camera transmitted its gritty video to a recording device in Lewis's nearby van. He viewed the footage with his client at a park the next day. The husband watched in anguish as his wife played doctor all night long. "We caught her banging a prominent heart surgeon," Lewis says.
Technology has made Lewis's job easier. Global positioning systems are so cheap, he can afford to throw one on the back of a suspect's car, then track it on the internet. Sometimes he'll wear a tiny camera hidden in his tie or glasses.
But the job isn't all James Bond. Sometimes it's 16 hours stuck in a car, watching a window. Lewis keeps a Coke can in the van, in case he has to piss during a stakeout.
He never knows where the day will take him. Lewis may start in Cleveland and end up in New York by nightfall. He keeps a change of clothes in his car and plenty of quarters for tolls.
Observing cheaters has given Lewis a sixth sense for warning signs. For instance, if a girlfriend starts leaving her cell phone in the car at night, she's probably hiding an affair, he says. Any change of habit should throw up red flags.
"If all of a sudden he wants to switch from boxers to briefs, it's going to look bad," he says. "If I could give advice to the perpetrators, it's don't fall into any patterns."
Somehow, seeing couples at their worst hasn't jaded Lewis. He's happily married. His wife runs the background checks for the company and has even been known to do occasional work in the field. If anything, seeing so much infidelity has only drawn them closer, he says. "We are fortunate to be able to see the mistakes other people make."
The job has also given him rare insight into relationships. In a way, it's like working for National Geographic and filming the mating rituals of Bonobo monkeys. From what he's seen, we're not far removed.
"I enjoy watching human behavior," he says. "The best way to observe true human behavior is to do it when they don't know you're watching."
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