Frank Baldwin stared out the window of his office. The lights of downtown Eversham shone before him. Usually, the mayor smiled when he looked out at those lights. A lifelong resident who had been the city’s mayor for twelve years, Frank was pleased and proud with the work he had done to improve the city. Tonight, though, he gazed out at them and sighed.
It was looking like twelve years was enough for the citizens of Eversham. Frank was now well behind Sonja Prentice, a popular local business leader and women’s advocate, in the polls. With municipal elections only days away, Frank could see no way of turning the tide in time. Not after the events of the past couple days.
“Oh well,” he said quietly, “It’ll give me more time with the grandkids and Emma.”
And, he thought, the city could do far, far worse than having Sonja Prentice for mayor.
It had begun the previous day with a visit from Jerry McLean, his campaign manager. Jerry was new on the team, an overly enthusiastic young guy fresh from working on a successful provincial election campaign. He had worked wonders with that campaign. However, with Frank trailing Sonja badly in the latest polls, Jerry had been under the gun to revive and re-energize this campaign.
“This could be it,” Jerry had said as Frank read over the file of information Jerry had given him.
Frank quietly flipped through what Jerry had found. None of it was news to Frank, but he was not going to admit that. He also did not like making political campaigns negative or personal.
“So, you’ve got solid evidence that Sonja Prentice worked as an escort,” he finally said, looking over at Jerry.
“Bingo. Something that could cast some doubt on her character. Why is she hiding this? What else lurks in her background? This could be a wedge issue,” Jerry responded, grinning.
“Or it could be the kiss of death for us,” the mayor pointed out.
“Come on, man. This is a fairly conservative town. A whiff of sex and scandal could turn some votes,” Jerry responded, practically bouncing on the couch in the mayor’s office.
“Or boomerang against the campaign that planted it, Jerry,” Frank rumbled, “Sonja’s well-respected, even by me. She’s pretty savvy and could easily find a way to turn this in her favour.”
“We’re down 5 points going into the final stretch,” Jerry reminded Frank, “Getting a few up-tight conservatives to turn could be what shifts that. No one knows we planted it. I used a friend of a friend thing. You let the media run with it a couple days, then come out and make a speech about the importance of transparency and morality in city hall.”
“You really are not listening to me, are you?” Frank asked, shaking his head, “What if she turns this around for sympathy votes? Or her team counters by digging up dirt on me?”
“You have dirt in your past?”
“Who doesn’t? Anything can be dirt if you spin it right.”
“Look, man. It’s too late,” Jerry told the mayor, “It’ll hit the paper and news radio in the morning, probably. So why not just run with it?”
“Never, ever pull anything like this again without consulting me first, okay?”
“But I’m your campaign manager. This campaign is supposed to be my…”
“Not if you’re going to play this way,” Frank snapped, “I win my elections clean. None of this fucking negative politics bullshit. If we’re lucky, it blows over. She brushes it off and we move on.”
Sonja responded late in the afternoon of the next day.
“The rumours being spread in the local media for the past few hours are totally, one hundred percent true,” she began.
Frank was tense as he listened to her news conference on the local news radio station, already fearing the worst. Discussions about who was the source of the rumour and how it would affect the election had spread like wildfire. But Frank knew that Sonja had a card of her own. But would she play it?
“I was young and close to broke,” she went on, “So I turned to escort work as a way to carry me through. And it worked. For almost three years, I supplemented my other meager sources of income with revenue from being a professional escort.”
She probably still could, Frank mused. At forty-three, Sonja Prentice was a lovely woman. His rival was, perhaps, a bit heavier than in those days, with a few more lines in her face, but still quite a sexy lady. Suddenly, Frank felt a pang of longing.
“I am not ashamed of that,” Sonja told the assembled media and onlookers in a strong, confident voice, “I do not regret it. Would I advise anyone else to do it? Of course not. Not even my younger self. It’s a difficult, dangerous way to make a buck. But I did it and it gave me opportunities that I was at risk of losing otherwise. I got the money to finish school and had my first lessons in running a business.”
Frank sighed. Her swift and confident response had surely sunk any chance that this was going to help him gain ground.
“It also taught me about life in the sex trade, both the good and the bad,” his rival continued, her voice softening, “It gave me great respect for the women who do that work. But it also gave me great respect for how difficult it can be to get out of it. For the past decade, five percent of my profits have gone to the Eversham Women’s Advocacy Centre and their programs for helping women transition out of the sex trade.”
Sonja had been a philanthropist almost since her first business became profitable. Frank knew that much. He had not known about this particular cause, but it did not surprise him.
“So that’s the whole, unvarnished truth,” Sonja finished, “The rumour is true. I was a paid escort. Men gave me money; I went on dates and had sex with them. But that is not the whole story. And I hope that whoever put this information out there is satisfied with my answers. I trust the people of Eversham. I know that you will vote based on the whole, true story, not just some rumour.”
Frank was relieved that Sonja had at least not mentioned his role in the “whole, true story.”
The phone’s ring made Frank jump. His thoughts about recent events scattered. Frank was not expecting any calls. Still, the mayor picked it up and answered.
“Mayor’s office,” he said, “How may I help you?”
“You could vote for me,” said a familiar woman’s voice.
“Might just do that, Sonja,” Frank replied with a chuckle, “Brilliantly played this afternoon.”
“Thank you. It was not totally spontaneous. I had anticipated that my past could come up.”
“Always thinking two steps ahead, eh.”
“Want to meet for a beer, Frank?” Sonja asked, “Might as well clear the air now that this is out.”
“Where? We can’t just walk into a bar together. The press would be all over it,” Frank responded.
“Fifteen twenty-two Old King’s Road,” Sonja suggested, “It’s a small office building I own. I have a suite there that most people don’t know about. It’s kind of my secret hideaway.”
“Okay. It’ll take maybe twenty minutes to get down there.”
“I’ll be waiting. Just call my cell when you’re in the parking lot and I’ll come let you in.”
“Just like old times, eh,” Frank said with a wry smile. He resisted adding a crack about bringing cash in an unmarked envelope.
Sonja was chuckling as they hung up.
There was a six-pack of Eversham Gold on the table in Sonja’s office when she let Frank in. His rival twisted the cap off one and passed it to him, then took one for herself.
“To the new mayor of Eversham,” Frank toasted, holding out his bottle.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Frank,” Sonja responded, but still clinked bottles with him.
“Well, it is going to be one of us. That flaky professor doesn’t stand a chance,” Frank retorted.
Sonja laughed and they sat down in the plush leather couches that flanked the table.
“That leak about my escorting was a low blow, Frank,” Sonja pointed out, “I mean, it obviously came from your camp. I don’t see how Doctor Carse could have found out.”
Frank sighed and took a swig from his bottle.
“I was not the source. Jerry dug up some evidence and had already leaked it before he told me. He is no longer on my campaign.”
“You fired your campaign manager this close to the election?” Sonja asked, raising an eyebrow.
“He didn’t seem to be helping much and this play was just not my style,” Frank explained, “I fully expect to concede to you on election night in any case, Sonja. This is all but over.”
Sonja rose and wandered to the window. She stared out at the street for a moment, silent save for breathing.
“I wanted to hate you back then, Frank,” Sonja finally said in a near whisper.
“For leaving without a chance to say goodbye,” she answered, “Men come and go when you’re an escort, so leaving was no big deal. But I really felt different with you and hoped we could have one more time. A chance to end it properly.”
“It couldn’t be. Emma was too close to finding out.”
“I figured as much. That was a glorious four months, though. The only time I really, honestly enjoyed my life during those years.”
“You let me cuddle and cry on you like a real boyfriend would. I could forget the envelope of cash on the dresser and just pretend…” Sonja choked up, wiping away a tear, “Pretend we had something more than sex and money between us.”
Frank felt himself starting to tear up. He rose, thinking to go to her, but froze.
“I took a long time to get over it, too, Sonja,” he said, his voice quiet and quavering, “Exactly like you’re saying. It felt real and I missed that feeling more than I did the sex.”
Sonja grabbed a tissue and dabbed at her moist cheeks, then smiled and told him, “I still haven’t got over it, I guess. When the rumour came out and I had to revisit my past, memories of our affair came back at me like an out-of-control freight train.”
She walked up to Frank. He held out his arms. To his surprise, Sonja accepted the embrace. She hugged him back, her tears dampening his shirt.
They were silent for a few minutes, then Sonja slipped free.
“I guess tonight is the goodbye we never had,” she said.
Frank picked up his bottle and took a last swig of beer.
“Should get going,” he muttered as he put it down.
“The election’s yours, Sonja,” Frank told her, “It’s too late to get off the ballot, but I will step back and let this happen. And that’s not because of tonight. I had already made the decision this afternoon.”
“I kind of hate to win this way,” Sonja replied, wiping away another tear.
“Don’t,” Frank admonished, “You fought a good battle and deserve it. I have always wanted to leave that office to someone I could trust to care about Eversham like I did. You’re the one, for sure.”
“Until inauguration day, then,” she said, managing a smile.
“Yep. Good luck, Mayor Prentice.”
“Good luck to you, too, Frank. I’m glad we finally had this moment. I just wish it had been a lot sooner.”
Before Frank could turn to go, Sonja moved in. Her arms circled his neck and her lips brushed his. Unable to resist the wave of emotion, Frank hugged her back. He returned the kiss with a passion that surprised even him.
“We can’t,” Sonja said when it ended.
“I know. I just wanted to remember how it felt,” Frank responded, “Goodbye, Sonja.”
Sonja watched as Frank got in his car and drove off. It was something she had done many times back then. Once the mayor was out of sight, Sonja locked the door and went back to her office.
Unlocking a drawer, Sonja drew out a manila envelope. She opened it and dumped the contents on her desk. Ads for her escort business, photos of her younger self in lingerie and less, and other mementoes of those days slid out.
From the pile, Sonja retrieved two cards, both from Frank. One was a Christmas card, the other a birthday card. A few other regular clients had given her cards, but none of them remained, only his. After quietly reading the affectionate notes Frank had written in them, Sonja fed them into the shredder by her desk. The rest of the material followed.
“What’s past is past,” she said aloud once all the mementoes of that time were just strips of paper in her blue box.
Sonja opened another beer and slumped on to one of the couches.