"She wanted me. I was sure of that," Sam says, recalling the day about two years ago that he met Cheri.

Her cart accidentally bumped into his at the local supermarket, and he struck up a conversation with the striking, long-legged redhead. They hit it off immediately, engaging in what Sam calls "sexual banter so hot" that it threatened to melt the contents of the nearby frozen-food lockers.

Sam says they joked and laughed as she smiled at him flirtatiously, cooing about his muscular chest and arms. She toyed briefly with his beard, saying that the bristles were "fun to play with." And when they parted, her fingertips brushed lightly over his hand, and she bid him goodbye with a husky "See ya around."

Little wonder, then, that Sam was pleasantly surprised when they ran into each other again later that week at the neighborhood video shop. Cheri was even more friendly than before, mentioning that "there weren't many handsome men around" like Sam. So after a brief chat, he invited her to dinner. She quickly accepted.

It was clear, Sam says, that the meal would likely involve a course after dessert.

"From the very beginning, I was positive we would have sex," he says. "There was only one problem."
Sam was married.
By his own admission, he had it all: an affectionate wife, Karen; two healthy, happy kids; a cherry-red Corvette; a big boat anchored on the San Diego docks; and four prize-winning horses that roamed the expansive back acreage of his rambling, Scottsdale home--complete domestic nirvana.

But he also had an incurable desire to fool around with women who looked like Cheri.

"I always did lose control when it came to hot redheads," Sam admits. "There was a certain type of babe who just made me want to do the wild thing."
An articulate, well-to-do businessman who has a master's degree from the University of Arizona, Sam says that although he had several brief affairs during his 15-year marriage, he managed to remain "generally faithful" to Karen by keeping his distance from that "certain type" of woman.

"I would never hire my type as a secretary," Sam says. "If I was on a business trip, I would make a point of never talking to a girl like that in a bar. I tried. I mean, I really tried to be good.

"But when it came to Cheri, I really couldn't resist. She was so beautiful. And so accessible."
He planned the scene of the seduction meticulously. They would eat at a posh, East Valley bistro and then he would suggest a late-evening trip to a Paradise Valley resort--where he had prepaid for a room and stocked it with caviar and a bottle of imported champagne.

The rendezvous began perfectly. Cheri, dressed in a skimpy outfit, blew kisses at him from across the table. She massaged his knee beneath the white tablecloth. She told him again how handsome and well-built he was.

"It was like something out of a dream," Sam says. "This was every man's fantasy."
But when Sam invited her back to the hotel, she suddenly turned cold. Conversation halted, and Cheri's hand pulled back from his leg. When he returned from a trip to the rest room, she had mysteriously disappeared.

"I thought maybe she had gotten sick," Sam says.
But she wasn't sick. She was just through working.
When Sam arrived home that night (to find his clothes in a heap on the front lawn), Karen explained that Cheri was actually an undercover private investigator, hired to find out if Karen's longtime suspicions about Sam's infidelities were rooted in fact.

He feebly tried to deny his amorous intentions toward Cheri. But when Karen turned on the living-room tape deck, he heard his own voice urging the young woman to spend the night with him. Cheri had secretly recorded the entire dinner.

Known as a "decoy," Cheri is a member of what local private investigators say is a small corps of perhaps a dozen Valley women who run "sting" operations against men suspected of cheating on their wives or their girlfriends. After interviewing the suspicious wife in detail, they dress and act like the man's "ideal woman"--and then go on a sexual fishing expedition, with themselves as bait.

To women like Karen, a decoy is a godsend, a quick and easy way to find out if their husbands are loyal life mates or duplicitous, philandering runabouts who should be dumped at the earliest possible opportunity. Karen praises Cheri as "someone who enabled me to finally get the truth after years of doubts."

"Decoys let women have some peace of mind," Karen says. "And if men are honest and true to their vows, then they have nothing to worry about. Those who aren't get what they deserve.

"It's just a little test."
But Sam and other men who have failed these marital pop quizzes naturally view decoys a bit differently. To them, the injection of undercover operatives into the marriage relationship is a new low in the battle of the sexes--a distrustful, cynical tactic that smacks of entrapment and that is, well . . . downright un-American.

"This country was founded on the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty,'" Sam says, "not 'let's work overtime to trick the guy into committing a crime.'

"Cheri didn't do anything different than a whore would do, teasing and touching and giggling, trying to make a sale and get me to slip up. It isn't fair."
Fair or not, "decoying" has become the fastest-growing segment of the sleuthing industry. Chalk it up to fear of AIDS or a resurgence of old-style jealousy as a backlash to the "open relationships" of the sexual revolution--the fact is, around the country and around the Valley, women are flocking to sign up for the service.

But Sam says a contentious divorce left him broke. He insists that the popularity of decoys doesn't justify what they do. His horses, car, home, boat and wife are gone now, and in desperation, he makes a plea for understanding--if not from his ex-wife, then at least from other married men.

"I'm not a bad person. I was trying to be faithful," he says. "But it takes a mighty strong man to walk away from something like that.

"I would just like you to ask your readers: Come on. Be honest with yourselves, guys. Would you turn down a fabulous babe coming on to you?"
@body:Like most decoys, Mary (all of the decoys and spouses mentioned in this story have been given fictitious names) is drop-dead beautiful. With long, curly, blond hair, sparkling blue eyes and a cover-girl figure, she attracts long stares from the men in the Scottsdale restaurant.

An Arizona State University graduate and former contestant for Fiesta Bowl queen, Mary says she has always wanted to be a private investigator.

"My hero, as a kid, was Angie Dickinson on Police Woman," she says, smiling broadly and revealing a line of perfect, capped, white teeth. "But being a cop can't be nearly as much fun as working where the lifestyle is a little less . . . how shall I put it? . . . demanding."
A popular and well-known decoy in local private-investigation circles, Mary "freelances" for several detective firms, handling perhaps 30 man-trap cases per year, and making about $20,000 for her trouble. She works 20 to 30 hours per week meeting with clients and "targets"--successfully obtaining damning evidence, she says, against more than 70 percent of them. The rest of the time is spent working out, keeping herself in peak physical condition.

"You have to be smart to figure out how to best deal with these guys, but my body is the instrument that makes it all possible. Fat on these," she says, slapping her thighs, "is a ticket straight to a boring, 9-to-5 job."
Boring this certainly isn't. Mary deals daily with changing scenarios that require her to constantly alter her personality, her appearance and even her accent. She is an actress who plays to a small but demanding audience of one--and she is highly conscious that her performance determines not only her continued livelihood, but, quite possibly, the fate of a marriage.

"This is serious business," Mary says, "and to accurately gauge whether or not this guy is a slime ball who cheats on his wife, I first have to look like his type. That's why I spend time with the wife, listening to her impressions of what turns him on."
Mary has several stock personas and costumes designed to appeal to the men she targets; the girl-next-door cheerleader; the prim-and-proper, suit-clad businesswoman; the leather-and-rhinestone motorcycle "bad girl" (for which, on at least one occasion, she has rented a motorcycle). To get the role just right, she has dyed her hair, altered her voice (Southern and French are the two most popular," she says) and printed removable tattoos on her back and arms.

The rules for being a decoy vary from case to case, and, in general, can be summed up as whatever the wife-client wants--as long as it doesn't cross the line into out-and-out solicitation. Some wives merely ask Mary to "hang around" their husbands, never approaching or even making eye contact unless the man makes the first move. But many others, she says, favor more overt tactics.

"Most married women clients I talk to tend to have blocked out what it was like to not be married," she says. "They think all single women are aggressive sluts on the make, and that men are tempted by that kind of thing every day. So they usually want me to act like that."
Mary calls this oft-requested persona the "dumb blonde," an eyelash-fluttering, constantly giggling little slattern who spouts hormones and inanities in equal abundance. Accessories include a no-chip layer of rock-hard makeup, several gallons of hair mousse, impossibly high spiked heels and a tight, black dress.

"It's really kind of a caricature," Mary says, giggling girlishly and slipping into her "blonde" falsetto. "But you would be surprised how many wives say that is what their men want."
It's definitely what Brian's wife says he wants. And it is exactly what he is about to get.

@body:Brian greets Mary with a smile and a light kiss on the hand, and settles easily into a chair beside her. He is tall and lean, with a receding hairline and a dab of gray on each temple. Clad in shiny, new wing tips and a well-tailored suit with a bright, red tie, he moves confidently, a rakish grin on his lips.

The restaurant is bustling at the height of the Friday lunch rush, but Brian's eyes focus exclusively on Mary, ignoring the rattling plates and the buzz of conversations around him. There is no wedding ring on his hand.

Brian's wife met with Mary two weeks before, saying she believed her husband was looking for love in all the wrong places. For more than a decade, their marriage had been a happy one, she said, but lately, he had seemed distant, and was spending many nights and weekends away from home. Teary-eyed, she asked the decoy to check him out.

The first contact was made at a health club, where both Brian and Mary were doing aerobics. Mary says she smiled at Brian during the workout, and he approached her afterward. After 15 minutes of chitchat, he asked her to lunch.

Clearly smitten with Mary, who is dressed in full "dumb blonde" regalia, he apparently has no clue that she is a decoy--or that his conversation with her is being monitored by a reporter sitting at an adjacent table.

The lunch starts innocently enough. They both order and engage in a little light talk about the weather (too hot), their jobs (too stressful), their hobbies (hiking for Mary, hang gliding for Brian). Mary is pleasant, laughing at all of his jokes, smiling adoringly and touching his hand affectionately--but she is clearly waiting for Brian to make the first move. He doesn't make her wait long.

Before the entrees arrive, he has made a point of mentioning that he is divorced, but spends "quite a bit of time" around his ex-wife's house, because he "likes to see the kids."

"It feels so good to be free of her," Brian says of his wife. "Our love and life together was dead."
Strike one for Brian. During some decoy operations, Mary would break off the contact with the "target" immediately, on the basis of that statement alone. After all, he has been caught in a lie--he is still married to his wife, who says they haven't even talked about divorce. But Brian's spouse has instructed Mary to obtain more concrete evidence of his willingness to cheat. So the game continues.

Mary nods sympathetically at his account of his broken marriage. Seemingly encouraged by her attentiveness, Brian plunges forward. He shifts in his seat, his leg extending under the table to touch her calf. He puts his hand on hers.

"It's so hard to meet someone who seems like a really good person these days," he says. "I know we haven't known each other too long, but I think you're a very special woman, and I would like to spend more time with you. I am very attracted to you."
Strike two. But Mary remains in character. Brian's confession of interest is simply a verbalization of what almost every man in the restaurant is probably thinking; a furtive admission of lust at the sight of a lovely woman is not what Mary has been sent to retrieve. It is action she is looking for. She smiles sweetly. "I'm glad you feel that way," she says.

A look of relief passes over Brian's face. He squeezes her hand and lowers his voice conspiratorially. "Good. I'm going to San Diego this weekend for a business trip," he says. "I want you to come with me. I want to get away with you," he implores earnestly, reaching over and kissing her quickly on the lips.

Strike three.
Mary replies that she would "love to go," and Brian leans back into his chair, awash in a triumphant glow.

Mary suddenly becomes quiet, looking down at her plate and eating quickly.
Brian doesn't seem to notice her mood change, prattling on about the merits of West Coast beaches compared to those in the East. He is exuberant, animatedly describing the oceanfront hotel, the nearby bars and restaurants, the fun that awaits.

A few minutes later, Mary turns ashen and mutters that she doesn't feel well. "I'll call you later," she tells Brian, who rises to peck her cheek. "I hope you feel better," he says as she turns away. "San Diego will be great!" She smiles weakly in reply and bolts for the door. The performance is over. But Brian is blissfully unaware that the curtain has come down; that the object of his desire, the sweet, young thing who only moments ago had willingly allowed him to kiss her lips, is wired, wearing a sensitive recording device under her perfumed blouse. And that she is, even now, on her way to play a tape of their conversation--smooching sound and all--for Brian's wife of ten years.

Brian sits at the table and finishes his lunch, smiling dumbly. When he's done, he tips generously, rises, happily taps his knuckles twice on the table and strides jauntily out of the room. You can almost see him thinking--yes, San Diego will be really great.

@body:"It's unethical, plain and simple," says Charles Dennis, executive director of the 1,000-member World Association of Detectives, a Maryland-based group that is the closest thing there is to a private-eye union. "In our book, sending out an agent or decoy, or whatever you want to call it, is entrapment."

Despite such official condemnation, rank-and-file investigators are offering decoy services to clients under euphemisms such as "marital deviance inquiries" with increasing frequency. Clients of all ages and socioeconomic status--from poor housewives who must pinch a bit each week from the laundry money to Mercedes-driving former debutantes who pay in crisp $100 bills--are dropping by detective offices to request decoys.

A New York detective agency has garnered national publicity by advertising its decoys all over the Northeast and into Florida and Tennessee. In Phoenix, local private investigators say business couldn't be better.

"It's happening all over town," says Scottsdale PI Steve Aguirre, whose agency runs decoy operations. Aguirre recently sent his assistant, Colleen, to check out a man whose fiance was suspicious that he could be easily wooed away.

"The guy ended up telling me all through dinner what a lousy person [his fiance] was," Colleen says. "Needless to say, that is a marriage that didn't get started."
Aguirre, who has also gone undercover to sting women at the request of their husbands--a service he says is requested with far less frequency--makes an impassioned case for hiring a decoy, describing it as almost a necessity for a successful modern relationship. "People want and need to know what their spouse or fianc is up to when they aren't at home," he says. "Through certainty comes trust."

To be sure, hiring a detective to follow a spouse or a lover isn't exactly a new idea. But in the penny-pinching 90s, a long-term surveillance contract can be pricey. Hence, the primary appeal of decoys--they're economical.

Most wayward husbands are not unsatiated superstuds, cavorting daily from bed to bed. Nationwide sexual surveys show that the prototypical dalliance is just that: an occasional event--an affair here or an affair there, over the course of years. That reality means that a wife could spend tens of thousands of dollars having her husband followed by a PI for six months and never once catch him in the act.

The solution, professional detectives say, is to spend one lump sum--most agencies charge between $250 and $300 for an average decoy operation--and settle the matter once and for all. "Why not do it and be done with it?" Mary says. "The guy doesn't have to go for the decoy. If he does, he's going to cheat eventually with someone else, if he hasn't already. It's better he's exposed now, in a quick, easy and efficient way."

Exposure is even more important, Mary points out, in the age of AIDS. "These days," she says, "infidelity isn't just a betrayal. If you sleep with a man who has been sleeping around, it can kill you."

While it all makes sense from the doubt-ridden wife's point of view, there is still something that sticks in the craw about making it so easy for a man to transgress. Budgetary and health issues aside, there does seem to be an element of the "sting" concept that offends one's sense of fairness.

One former husband who made the mistake of telling a decoy that, all things considered, he would prefer to die in her bed, compares decoy tactics to "giving a man a bag of potato chips and then condemning him because he asks for a drink of water."

Detractors say decoys put suspect husbands at an unfair disadvantage from the very beginning. Since decoys approach their targets in places like restaurants or health clubs--away from people who know the target and could tattle on him--and seem to offer themselves unconditionally, they create a convenient, fantasy-drenched atmosphere that pushes a man nearer to the precipice of infidelity. It seems low-risk, high-reward; the man might even find comfort in the belief that it could be a no-strings, one-night stand. The Penthouse Forum nature of the encounter circumvents traditional social constraints--important ones tend to be logistics and fear--that prevent affairs between family friends and co-workers.

The former husband claims it is actually the wife who "breaks the trust" of the marriage when she hires a decoy, not the hapless man--who is the real victim:

"We've all seen this kind of thing a million times," he says. "A man is getting older, and the spark in the marriage is gone. Diapers, kid vomit and the other hassles of daily life have rubbed the luster off the shiny wedding band.

"You feel unappreciated, burnt out and a little less passionate for your wife than you used to. As a result, you're spending more time at work or at the gym or office.

"Contrary to what your wife thinks, no young, pretty girls ever give you a second look, until suddenly, one day, along comes a woman--just your type--who seems very interested in you.

"She's friendly, full of smiles, and you can't help but notice that she's young and a hard body, full of life. It makes you think of your own younger days, the first blush of love and lust and all that.

"She treats you like your wife used to, and you like it. You're flattered that she's coming on to you. You figure there is no way anybody is ever going to find out about this. So you suck in your paunch and go for it.

"Sure, it's wrong. But it's understandable. I mean, any man who tells you he wouldn't at least think about it is a liar or a fool."
@body:All of which, of course, amounts to the feeblest of rationalizations in the minds of wronged wives and their decoys. The wedding vows, they are quick to point out, don't make allowances for "understandable" infidelities. "I don't care if Miss America jiggles naked in front of my husband," says Karen, Sam's ex-wife. "He should have the intestinal fortitude to take a pass."

Decoys vehemently reject the idea that the men they target are well-intentioned, misunderstood yet honorable souls who are sucked into the trap of infidelity by a cunning vixen-for-hire.

The decoys insist that most of the marriages they become involved in are pretty badly diseased well before the wife puts a call in to a detective agency. Almost by definition, they say, such a relationship has already been torn by suspicion and mistrust.

Jan, who has worked as a decoy in Phoenix and in Los Angeles for two years, says that 99.9 percent of the men she sees on the job have undoubtedly been unfaithful before.

"These aren't just a bunch of dopey milquetoasts having midlife crises," she says. "They are semipro philanderers, and hearing them whine about how they were tricked by their mean wives and a bunch of decoy sluts makes me sick."
Decoys, Jan says, aren't out to mislead or to engage in high-pressure solicitation. When a husband doesn't show any interest in an affair or makes a point of mentioning his love of hearth and home--which, according to Jan, is the case with about 10 percent of her targets--the operation abruptly ends.

Mary also downplays the notion that what she does is entrapment--she is careful, she notes, never to touch a man's buttocks or his groin--but in the next breath, she seems to imply that it wouldn't matter if she did.

"Hey, I feel pretty good about what I do," she says proudly. "If the guy doesn't want me, all he has to say is 'See you later.'"
The bottom line, she says, is simple: Even if the decoy behaves like a whore, does that excuse the man for behaving like a john?

@body:Mary figures that once the word about decoys gets around, business is bound to drop off. "After all," she says, "husbands will never know if it's a real girl looking for a man, or me looking to send them to divorce court."

That, she says, is all right with her. After a few more years in the decoy biz, Mary wants to open her own detective agency, handling a variety of cases.

In the meantime, tales of the world of targets, decoys and sexual espionage haven't yet been able to put blinders on the wandering eyes that lead men to stray from the marriage bed.

Sam, now remarried, says that even though all of his friends know about his encounter with Cheri, one recently got nabbed by a decoy who was running a similar scam. Men, he notes, continue to think not with their head, but with another organ, located below the belt.

Even Sam admits that, despite his own experience, he still catches himself thinking about the occasional one-night stand.

"But then I start getting flashbacks," he says, shaking his head mournfully, "and I head for home.

"Hell, you just can't trust women, and that's a fact.


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