"Whatsamatta, Lieutenant? You look bummed out. Aincha got any clues yet?"

The well-meaning police officer, who had just leaned his head into the tiny office, reddened when he saw the reaction to his question written in angry tones across the face of the man behind the desk.

"No, Sargeant Domkowski," said Lieutenant Watkins, slamming a thick folder down on that very desk. "I have not found any clues yet. If you have none to offer, I suggest that you get on about your business!"

"Yes, sir, Lieutenant," the sargeant said, abashed. He had only meant to lighten the mood. The Lieutenant had been on such a downer lately. "Sorry, sir. I didn't mean -"

"I know," Watkins interrupted. "I know you mean well, Sargeant, but it's been a very frustrating day, and I'm not in the mood. I'm sorry."

"Yes, sir," the sargeant said as he retreated back into the swirl of policeman and detectives buzzing through the main room like an army of agitated ants.

Watkins sighed and held his head in his hands for the fiftieth time that day. Useless, he said to himself. Totally useless. There's absolutely nothing of any value in this entire folder. Just scraps of meaningless trivia and pictures of dead people. Pictures of innocent dead people. He did not dare open the folder to look at them again. They were already burned into his mind's eye.

Subject: Eve Wilson
Sex: Female
Age: 28
Address: 1422 15th Street Apt 12B
Occupation: Exotic Dancer
Description: Victim was found wrapped in a bathroom shower curtain in a dumpster on 18th Street behind Gillette's Dance Club with multiple stab wounds (see attached photos). Coroner's report indicates death due to massive blood loss. No signs of struggle.
Witnesses: None
Status: Unsolved

He wondered again why he stayed here in the City. It wasn't for the pay, it wasn't for the atmosphere, and it certainly wasn't for the peace of mind. This place was a nightmare, and getting worse. Thieves, muggers, rapists, drug addicts, homeless vagrants, and murderers. There were so many of them. How could there possibly be any innocent people left to prey upon? Yet he knew there were - and they were all depending on him to clean up the streets and get this City back to the way it was before, a clean, smoothly-operating metropolis full of joy and optimism and vibrancy and hope.

Even though he knew, as did everyone else, that this City - no city - had ever been like that. They were all magnets for the worst type of humanity, just as they were also magnets for the best.

He could use a little of the best right about now. Someone he could count on, someone with integrity and honor and loyalty and dependability. There was very little of that in the Department. Too much money was changing hands these days, too much influence from the politicians who paid for votes and the hoods who ran the illicit gambling houses and the businessman looking for special favors. Everyone was on the take, it seemed. Everyone but him.

And he didn't know how long it would be before it wore him down, before he started to accept that there was never going to be a happy ending, that the only way to survive was to swallow his pride and suck the teat of the bribing cows who really ran this town.

But not today. He was still in control of today. And today he was going to take a little walk to clear his head. He wasn't accomplishing anything anyway. And a little fresh air -- if that was even possible in the City -- would do him some good.

He eased out of his chair and grabbed his hat and coat and walked into the bullpen.  Sargeant Domkowski was chatting amiably with one of the detectives.

"Sargeant, I'm going out," he said. "I expect to be gone for a couple hours."

"Yes, sir!" the Sargeant said to Watkin's back as it moved purposefully towards the hallway.

"There goes a good man," he said to the detective as the Lieutenant disappeared around the corner.

"Yes," the detective countered, "but for how long?"

bat * man

the commissioner is angry with me because i won't tell him where the joker is hiding. but i know if he finds out he will try to capture the madman himself and then he will end up dead like the others. he doesn't understand yet just how dangerous the lunatic is. i'm the only one who understands. because i've seen his face, his smiling face. no man can see that face and remain sane.

Bruce watched from his hiding place as the police officer poked and prodded through the piles of garbage in the alleyway, looking for 'clues' to the sudden disappearance of the homeless man who only a few moments ago had been ambling drunkenly down the street. He would never think to look up; they never did. That was the problem with the beat cops. No imagination. No thinking outside the boundaries.

He was disappointed in the Commissioner. The man was smart, talented, at the top of his game. But even he couldn't imagine the depths of evil which dwelt inside that maniacal brain. It seemed as if only he, Bruce Wayne, possessed that ability.

Sometimes it was tough to be a super-hero.

He waited a few more minutes for the beat cop to get bored with the pointless probing and move on down the street, after a frustrated "harrumph" and a twirl of his nightstick. Then he dropped soundlessly to the ground and straightened up, rearranging his suit so that once again he looked like an ordinary, respectable citizen, and walked out to the street and turned in the other direction, back towards the corner where he had spotted his prey.

The Joker. The Man with the Deadly Grin. His Nemesis. The face had appeared all of a sudden in the lunchtime crowd as people filled the streets, stopping at the delis and the sandwhich shops and the hot dog stands to grab a quick bite before heading back to the endless drudgery of their hum-drum working lives. They all had hungry eyes, but there was one particular set of eyes whose hunger could not be satiated with food and drink. No, those eyes could only be satisfied by watching the demise of the innocent.

Like Katy.

Pretty Katy. Laughing Katy. A lithe, elegant dancer, with legs that wouldn't quit and a voice that angels envied. She had been found in a dumpster a few blocks away, wrapped in an old curtain like a rotten fish put out for the garbageman, her body covered in scarlet mouths that dripped blood like silent screams. He had seen her perform before - was it at the Met? Or on Broadway? He couldn't remember. But she had been wonderful, graceful, poetic in her movements. And her song had resonated with his soul, sending him back to the Years Before when he had been happy and full of optimism.

And he knew who had killed her.

He peered intently into the crowd, scanning, analyzing, checking the faces against an internal portrait that was seared into his brain. The Joker was not there. He had disappeared again. Vanished like a puff of smoke. Bruce felt a momentary flash of anger but quickly suppressed it. He was a professional. His emotions were under his control. He must be proactive, not reactive. He must maintain his composure, He must maintain his identity.

Besides, he knew where the Joker was going. Back to his Lair, back to his Hideout. Probably to plan yet another horrible crime.

But this time, Bruce would be right on his tail. To make sure that his plans did not come to fruition.

No more, he said to himself. No more innocent lives will suffer at this man's hands. I swear it.

He moved on down the street, just another nameless face in the crowd, just another busy, distracted citizen of the City whose guardian never sleeps.


Danny was a great guy, a real peach, and we all hated him.

You might've heard about Danny. He's a Righteous Dude. Looks smart, acts smart, does everything for all the right reasons.  Lives to serve, serves to live - you know the type. Loved by all. Well, mostly all. The boys and I, we had our issues with his lifestyle.

He has a great pad, living in a quiet room at the top of the tallest building in the city, looking out over it like a sentinel, seeing from that dizzy height what no one else can see, or wishes to see. Top of the world. Probably feels like it, too.

Truth is, he's a madman, a lunatic. Some say he's a visionary, but that's stretching a point. He's completely nuts. If it weren't for the fact that the political winds have always blown in his favor, he would have been gone long ago. Yet there he is, still watching over us all like a primordial vulture, living in his archaic dream-world, judging us, condemning us.

He's a god-fanatic.

The boys on the Council have tolerated him because the people love him. People! You know how they can be. Sentimental. Ignorant. Easily roused to anger. And no one wants to rouse the anger of the people. Too many politicians have ignored the sentiment of the people and found themselves swinging from the end of a rope. Or worse. So they tolerate him. And wait. Sooner or later, he's bound to do something completely insane, and then they'll have him!

But god. Religion. Invisible beings who meddle in human affairs, bending the laws of physics into random shapes in order to give precedence of one man over another. It would be laughable if it wasn't so ... dangerous. And the Boss knows this. He knows this.  How could he not know this?

The funny thing is, the Boss likes Daniel. It's like they're old college buddies or something. Daniel likes to come up to the office sometimes and just jabber mindlessly like some braying donkey, not even hearing the inanities that are coming out of his mouth. And the Boss listens.  Sure, sometimes he laughs and jokes around and rolls his eyes, but you can see that gets into it. I mean, he actually listens. It's like there's some magnetic pull that ol' Daniel has him, and even when he's spouting nonsense, the Boss can't turn away from him.

Now I'm not saying that the Boss is going to suddenly drop to his knees and start praying to some Invisible Being. He's not an idiot. But, like I said, he really likes Daniel.

The boys and I, well, we're a little worried that all that crap coming out of Daniel's mouth is going to start to have an effect on things. On the Boss. On us. So we came up with a little plan. We decided to put together a little proposal for the Boss, something that sounded like a great deal, something that would appeal to his vanity - he had quite a bit - and, at the same time, put Danny in his place.

The way things work around here, when the Boss says something, that's the way it is. The Law. And he doesn't back down from anything, because he has that much pride. One of these days, it'll be his downfall; but for now, that's the way it is.

So we came up with the Loyalty Oath. It really wasn't much of anything, just a stiff-arm salute to the Boss whenever he came into the room. Kind of like saying, Hey, we acknowledge that you're the Boss, and we'll die for you. Pretty cool gimmick, actually.

And we knew ol' Danny wouldn't go for it. See, he's got his priorities kind of mixed up. He says that this god of his comes first. But, hey, what are you gonna do when the Boss says one thing and this 'god' says something else? A man's gotta know which way the wind blows so he leans the right way, or else he gets blown over.

And it was time for Danny to get blown.

The boys and I talked it over with the Boss late one night after drinks, making sure he was in a really good mood, relaxed and mellow. He went for it, big-time. Thought it was a fantastic idea. In fact, he kind of went overboard on it, insisting that not just the boys on the Council give over, but everyone in the City. Well, it might take some doing, but we figured we could put the word out. Might have to bang a few heads to make sure there wasn't any problems, but it should work.

We had made sure the Secretary was ready. He wrote it up and got the Boss's signature, and from that point on, it was Law.

And for Danny, it was only a matter of time.

End of Days

So here it is now, just the two of us, sitting at the door of heaven. We have had a long life, you and I, a very long life. So many memories, so many stories, enough heartbreak and happiness for several lifetimes. And do you know what I think? I think if I had to do it all over again, I would do it exactly the same.

Ha! you laugh. And you are right. What a stupid thing to say. Of course I would do things differently! So many mistakes, so many regrettable things I have done! The nights you cried because of the horrible things I had said, the horrible things I had done. The days you spent hidden behind hurt eyes, avoiding me because of your broken heart. You know I would never want to put you through that pain, not again. The lessons have been learned, my heart has changed. I am not the young man you knew so many years ago, the man who seemed to have the world on a string.

Do you remember those days? Do you remember the hours we spent laughing and singing, blissfully ignorant of the future, thinking that everything ahead was going to be wine and roses, flowers and springtime? How light-hearted, how carefree we were! Every moment was a treasure, every hour a blissful eternity. Every touch of your hand was a precious gift, every glance from your eyes a shower of joy, every kiss of your lips a mountain of pleasure.

And yet here we are at the End of Days, looking back on a life gone by, wondering if it was, indeed, a life worth living, worth celebrating. Will anyone look upon us today and thank God that we were here? Will anyone calculate the sum total of the good we have done and declare it worthwhile? Or will our lives be deemed a complete waste?

We did what we could, you and I. We toiled under the sun, we ate our crusts of bread, we were good to our neighbors, we raised our children as best we knew how. We took care of our parents, we taught our children, we watched them pass on to other realms, other worlds, and then we turned around and faced ourselves, alone, back at the place we'd started, so much the same and yet so different. We had given up our youth, our vitality, our golden years for the sake of others, and now we had all the rest of our lives to spend together, at last, the happy couple at the end of their wedding day, driving off into the sunset with the future before them like a marvelously unwritten script.

But the script was written long before we came together. The play is done, the curtain has closed, the audience is long gone, the lights are slowly going out and there is nothing to anticipate but the final reviews. Will our little play be acceptable? Will there be a return engagement? It is hard to judge from the stage. We think we did our best, although each and every mistake is like a dagger in our heart. Oh, that this could merely be a rehearsal! And several more before Opening Night! To have the chance to practice, to get it right, to be so perfect in our delivery that even the harshest of critics might rise to his feet in glorious ovation!

Yet this is not to be. We have strutted and fretted our hour upon the stage, and all is done. Now there is only the removal of greasepaint, the discarding of costumes, the revelation of our true selves.

You think that you know me, you who have lived with me all these many years. You think you know me because we have shared the same bed, the same house, the same air -- but there are so many hidden layers to my mind which not even I can fathom, so many levels to my self which I have kept hidden from you. Not out of fear, but out of certainty, certainty that you would turn away in horror from the true person who lies at the core of my being. A multitude of masks covers me from view, and though you may have peeled some from my visage, you have never found the one true face which lies behind all those other faces. How can I be so certain? Because you are still here, you have not left me behind, racing for the sunlight from my dungeon of misery. If only you knew -

But you say that you have hidden layers as well. I laugh! For you are as likely to have unknown secrets as I to have wings. Why else would I have picked you? Your open, honest nature decries any evil complicity. Your faith and earnestness sits on your sleeve like a badge. You are above reproach. Yes, you have done things of which you are not proud; yes, you have ingrained habits that lead you down darker paths; yes, you have hurt others with unkind words and thoughts and deeds. But what of it? It is all you, all out in the open, all revealed for the world to see. There is no guile in you. You are who you are; I am who I am not.

You do not know me as I know myself. If you did, you would not -- could not love me. No one could. My mind has known the foulest sewage that ever coursed through the pipes of Bedlam. My thoughts have dredged through the putrescent swamps and clouded my vision with unmerited hatreds and murderous intents. My hands have clenched to perform unspeakable acts, held back only by the fear of discovery and retribution. I am a coward, a thief, a liar and an adulterer. My hands are not worthy to touch a blade of grass; my feet are not worthy to walk upon the earth.

So here I am at the End of Days, confessing to you my worth, admitting to you my self-hatred, my loathing, my desire to face the Judgement and be done with it. Not to curse God and die, but to simply say that I'm sorry I was not the man He needed me to be, not the man you needed me to be. If only there were a way to go back and do it all differently, do it rightly, to run the race well along the whole course instead of trying to make it all good in the end.

You smile -- oh, what a smile! Your face was ever your most appealing feature. With that smile, you slew me through the heart; with that smile, you entered my dreams; with that smile, you convinced me that I could share in the happiness that seemed to be yours. Oh, I would have died for that smile.

And, in a way, I did.

For when I promised to love you and cherish you to the End of Days, that part of me which was reprehensible was buried behind endless layers of falsehood, endless disguises of purity, so that you might never suspect the truth which lay like a corpse beneath a tomb of pearly white. You always saw the good in me, though there was very little to see; you always encouraged the better of me, though it was little better than the worst man had ever been. You smiled like the Daughter of Heaven, shining light into my life which took away all the darkness.

Now you lie in my arms and your brief candle goes out, flickering here and there in the wind of your final breath, still smiling, still shining, still trying to redeem the one whose corruptness you will never suspect. Your rhythmic heartbeat ceases; your skin grows ever colder as the moments pass; the stillness of your once-vibrant body becomes like marble. Tenderly, I reach up and close your eyes with my worshipful fingers, then kiss you on the forehead.

I have loved you to the End of Days, and now you are gone while I remain this little while longer. And the shadows long hidden within my soul come forward to make claim upon me, demanding recompense for the years wasted in the darkness. The light which once enveloped me is dimmed forever; your body lies still upon the bed, your spell of protection no longer in force. The layers of purity fall from my shoulders like rotting capes, revealing the true nature of the man I always was, the man I will always be from this day forward.

Until the next End of Days.

The First Day of the Rest of Your Life

The bed was soft like feathers against her skin; the pillow was a cushion of air, like floating on a cloud. It was warm and comfortable with the edge of the covers against her face and the scent of freshly-laundered sheets wafting up into her nose; she could stay here all day, ignoring the world and all its troubles. But there was school and chores and homework to do, and time was moving on, as her father used to say, and -

She opened her eyes. Her father was gone. He had been gone a long time. And there was no warm, comfortable bed and no freshly-laundered sheets. No school. No homework. Only a dirty old mattress on the floor of this dirty little room that was barely large enough for it. A tattered old blanket that was barely enough to cover her legs. A pair of red shorts, short enough to expose every curve of her body. A ratty yellow tube top, held together with safety pins. High-heeled shoes which made her feet ache after hours of walking the streets.

She slowly got to her feet, still groggy from the night's work. The room reeked of stale fluids, unmentionable and nauseating. She needed a smoke, but the last of the cigarettes was stubbed out on the floor, a soldier in an infinite army of the dead. She'd have to go out and get more. Did she have any money? Did she get paid last night? She couldn't remember. There was nothing in the pocket of her shorts, nothing in the top, nothing on the mattress. Had Jimmy taken it? She wouldn't put it past him to sneak in while she was sleeping and take it; he could be such a jerk sometimes. That's OK, she thought. He knows I'm good for it. I'll just go down and get it from him. Gotta have a smoke. A drink. Something.

In a minute.

She leaned against the grimy window and looked out into the mid-morning streets. People. Walking. Walking fast, as though they had somewhere to go. Where were they going? So many people, so many people with things to do. Important things? What did everyone else do with themselves? A fleeting wonder danced on the tip of her mind: What would it be like to be one of them? Just an ordinary person, with an ordinary life. Getting up in the morning, having a bowl of cereal and a glass of juice, hurrying off to work, spending the day laughing and talking about stupid things that don't really matter, coming home at the of the day to a clean house and a clean man, a man who tousled the heads of his mop-haired children instead of -

A spasm shook her throat, and she stopped the daydream dead in its tracks. Stop. It. Now. She had seen the flash of that man's face, and it wasn't the face of a man she ever wanted to see again. Never.

Smoke. She needed a smoke. And a drink. Why was there never anything to drink in this lousy room?

She dressed slowly, her head starting to ache. She really needed that drink. Her ankles were bruised and sore from the shoes, the walking. She should find a cheap pair of sneakers to wear. Jimmy wouldn't mind if she wore sneakers for a while, would he? No, he'd probably just beat her senseless. He could hear his voice in her head: "You don't need nuthin I don't give you. I gave you everything you need!" And he had. All she needed was shoes, shorts and a tank, and that was what she got. And she only needed those until some drooling businessman with a frozen wife and a boring life stopped long enough to drop a wad in the backseat of his car on his way home, or one of the locals got lucky and felt like celebrating with a little touch and tickle in the upper loft. It didn't matter, so long as they paid. And they paid. She was good; she was pretty. She brought in the business. Now it was time to get a little return on the investment. She'd ask Jimmy. He might be in a good mood today.

She clomped down the stairs not from anger or boldness, but because her head was still fuzzy and she couldn't really see straight yet. What had she drunk last night? She couldn't remember. One bottle was the same as another to her. At least the guy hadn't stuck around. She hated it when they were still there in the morning, stinking of sweat and beer and whatever else had leaked out of their body orifices. Those were the dregs, the ones who didn't even have the sense to take what they wanted and then get out. The ones whose brains had been burned out by drugs or drink or life. She had long ago learned to not be around when they woke up. They were crazy. And stupid. And sometimes dangerous when they realized she wasn't their little lost princess.

Funny. She wasn't hearing anything. Usually there was noise. Other people, other girls taking care of their morning business. She got down to the bathroom on the main floor and the door was open and there was no one there. Usually she had to wait a while for a turn. She didn't bother shutting the door. No pretense of privacy in a place like this, not after Jimmy had torn the doors off one of the rooms when one of the girls brought in an undercover cop. No secrets here. Just something you get used to.

She washed her hands when she was done, splashed cool water on her face, wiped it off with a paper towel from the roll on the floor. Felt a little better. Hope always felt better with a clean face. She adjusted her clothes. Shook off the fuzz. Tightened her ankles. Walked to the door and stepped out into the morning sunshine and stood on the stoop and felt the cool, clean air of the city swallow her whole. Closed her eyes and waited til the blinding brightness of the mid-morning sun faded to a comforting glow against her eyelids, then opened them. Slowly.

Jimmy lay in a heap at the bottom of the stoop, a neat little hole in the middle of his forehead, framed in a pool of shimmering red.

Letter to My Son

                                                                                                               28 October
                                                                                                               Bedford Falls

               My dearest son,

               Your compliments to me at the dinner table tonight were greatly appreciated. We have had our issues over the years, you and I, and neither of us is exceptional at communicating; but I believe we both know how much we love and care for one another whether it is spoke aloud or hidden in the heart. I want you to know that I treasure you not only as my loyal companion and fellow worker these past four years, but also because you are my son, my joy, the hope of my years and the comfort of my soul. You have given me such great pleasure over the years as you have grown into manhood, into a life of service, into a life that puts others' interests ahead of his own. You make me proud to be your father.
                Ah! My son, if I could impart the wisdom of the Ages to you, it would be a mere reiteration of the Scriptures you know so well. Love others as I have loved you. Keep my commandments. Show your faith by doing good works. All these things you know, and you do, and may I be forgiven for expressing some small hope that you might have learned some of that by my own example?
                I have tried to live a good life, tried to watch out for my fellow man, tried to give back from the bounty I have been given, tried to ease others' burdens, tried to make my fellow traveler's lives just a little bit easier. It has not been easy, and there were times when discouragement and pessimism nearly destroyed me; but through the strength God gave me, and the love and encouragement of your mother, I have persevered.
                Now we face yet another storm on the horizon, and something in me tells me that I may not be around to help you through it. My body is weak and tired, the headaches have been getting worse, and it feels as though I could lay down and sleep for a thousand years. I am afraid; not for myself, because I know where I am going when this body's time is done. But I fear for you, because you are young and ambitious and impatient and you have your whole life ahead of you, and with all that on your mind, with the endless mystery and enchantment of the world before you, what chance do the pitiful dreams of a few worthless souls have of being heard by your heart? They are not your blood, not your kin; and their dreams of a roof over their head and some bread on the table are nothing in comparison to yours. Yes, I have seen your dreams: in the way your eyes light up when you read those magazines of yours, when you look out across the valley and think of the challenges in the big cities so far away, when you hear the train whistle and that wistful look comes over you. You long to leave, to do things I cannot even imagine, and if it were in my power to grant you the wealth and opportunity necessary to see those dreams come true, you know that I would do it. You are my son, and my love for you is boundless. Yet -
                I would have you consider the worth of a man, the worth of every man, in comparison to the dreams of your accomplishments. The world is filled with people's dreams, people's aspirations; and while some are grand and amazing to our eyes, others are judged to be ridiculous simply because they are short-sighted, barely beyond the next day's dawning. This is more a fault of circumstance than the quality of their dreams. A hungry man can think of nothing else but his next meal; a sick man cannot plan his life more than a few moments in advance. You live in relative comfort, and that comfort grants you the ability to expand your dreams far beyond the immediate. As others live from hand to mouth, may they be forgiven for having pedestrian dreams?
                So when they come to you with their hands outstretched and their eyes pleading, do not dismiss them as incumbrences and burdens, but accept that your lot in life is to share what you have, to lift up those who cannot lift themselves, and consider all things to be gifts given of God, not for any one man in particular but for all Mankind in the collective. And if you do these things, no matter how high a goal you attain or how low a situation you find yourself, you will always be blessed by those whom you help, for they will call you a true friend.
                My time is short. I can feel things falling apart inside. Do not blame God for it; we are tasked to do with what we have, and I have had a good run here in this place. My wife is the glory of my days, and my children are the beacon of my hope. In you I place all my own dreams, not so that you can abandon your own to see my own fulfilled, but so that you may be their caretaker, their talespinner; in the years to come, you may speak of me to your own children and grandchildren, telling them who I was, how I was, what I was. And I would have you speak to them not of my glories or my failings, but of my dreams, the thoughts that captured my heart and drove me onward through this life disregarding the obstacles in my path.
                Do that for me, my son. Don't let the things for which I have stood be dismantled by those who would dismiss them as useless fantasies. Stand up for what is right and good, be strong when all around you are weak, help those who are in trouble, and be a blessing to the world no matter what you do.
                I love you, son.

                Peter Bailey

p.s. Please don't think too harshly of Potter; he's

Editor's note: 
This is the unfinished letter found beside Peter Bailey the night of his stroke; he died two days later without regaining consciousness

Old Man's Valentine

The old man in the tattered driving cap opened the door to his warm, comfortable little house and walked inside, placing his briefcase beside the door for the very last time and pulling the scarf from around his neck.   The radio was playing a lively waltz. The wonderful smell of fresh-baked cookies filled the air and he smiled, picturing his wifeby the oven, wearing an apron sprinkled with flour, her half-moon spectacles balanced firmly on her nose, her bright cheeks flushed with accomplishment, a smile spread across her face as wide and warm and inviting as the summer sun.  He paused, listening for the sound of her muffled footsteps.  There.  She was in the kitchen, of course.  By the oven.  He could see in his mind's eye the metal sheet filled with cookies as she laid it carefully on the cooling trays, her hands encased in green oven mitts, her nostrils flaring as she bent down and tested the quality of her work with a practiced sniff.

"Welcome home!" she called out.

"It's good to be home," he answered.  And it was.  He pulled off his coat as he walked to the closet and opened the door.  There were very few coats left in the closet, not nearly as many as there once had been.  Plenty of hangers from which to choose.  He picked one randomly and placed it inside his coat, then hung it back up near the center, slightly to the right.  Next to hers.  They looked so small in that huge empty space.  Lots of room.

He closed the closet door and walked into the kitchen.  She met him there and they wrapped their arms around each other, kissing one another affectionately - twice - and then stood still for a moment, feeling the warmth passing between them.

She giggled.  "You must really like that hat," she said mischievously.  "What?" He reached up and touched his head.  Yes, his hat was still on his head.  He grinned and pulled it off, tossing it carelessly onto the kitchen table.  "I do," he said.  "But I suppose I won't need it for a while."

"No," she said, released him from her arms and stepping back to look at him.  "But you will need to wash that sweater now.  It's got flour all over it."

He looked down.  His blue sweater was lightly dusted with with snowy whiteness.  "Oh, well," he said.  "Not the first time."

She turned around so that her back was to him, and he untied the apron strings, leaning forward so that his nose was just above her hair.  He breathed deeply.  "Thanks."  "My pleasure," he said, and meant it.  She slipped the apron over her head and draped it across the back of a kitchen chair, then walked over to the couch and sat down with a sigh.  "Busy day?"

"Quite," he said, remembering it.  He walked over to the counter and looked down at the red-and-white cookies on the trays.  "Lots of paperwork to do.  Forms to fill out.  Final instructions for the team.  That sort of thing."  He touched one of the cookies, felt its softness, its warmth.  Ten more minutes, he thought.  And a glass of ice-cold milk to go with it.

"Lunch was good, though," he said, turning back to her.  "Nearly everyone was there.  Some folks I hadn't seen for a long time.  From over at the old office.  Nice to see them again.  Hard to believe it's been so many years now.  So many gray hairs now.  Some all white.  Quite a few coming up for retirement soon."

He walked over to his comfy chair which faced the couch and sat down, then sighed, an echo of hers.  "Strange.  To be done with all that."

"Now you'll finally have time for all those things you've been wanting to do for so long."  She looked at him with that smile, that wonderful smile.  So many possibilities, so many good times ahead.  He had dreamed of this moment for so many years, this moment when all those possibilities lay ahead of them, with all the time in the world to take advantage of them.  He hoped there was time.

"Yes," he said, "and we'll be able to do some traveling now, like our parents did.  Go see the kids.  Spend time with the grandkids.  See a bit of the world."

"Yes," she agreed.  "But not just yet."

"No," he said.  "Not just yet."

They sat for a moment in silence, looking at each other.  He let his mind drift aimlessly, feeling in his mind the curve of her face, the tilt of her smile, the depth of her deep brown eyes.  He could lose himself in that face.  He could still remember her face from long ago, the young girl who had captured his heart with her smile, the playful brilliance of her eyes, her humorous wit, her raw energy for living.  That face was still there, changed somewhat by time, improved by a dignity and grace of a life well lived, of many hard lessons learned, but with an energy undimmed by the years.

She laughed suddenly.  "What are you grinning about?" she asked with a flush in her cheek.

"You're beautiful," he said in a reverent tone.

"That's why you married me," she said, teasing.

"Among other reasons."

"Such as?"

"Your amazing ability to turn ordinary food into gourmet dishes.  Your financial wizardry.  Your knowledge of Classic Literature.  Your grasp of world politics. Your amazing skills with needle and thread.  Your appreciation for good music.  The way your fingers dance over a piano keyboard.  Your infatuation with Jane Austen novels.  Your devotion to Biblical studies.  There are oh, so many reasons.  How could I possibly name them all?"

She laughed again.  "Well, you've certainly given it a good start.  How can I possibly thank you enough for those kind words?"

"Oh!" He sat up straight and patted his pockets as if looking for something.  "I know just the thing."

Her brow furrowed.  "What now?"

He patted his chest.  "I know they were here somewhere..."

"What are you talking about?"

He reached inside his sweater to his shirt pocket.  "Oh, here they are!"  He pulled out a small envelope and held it up.  Her eyes widened ever so slightly.

"Symphony tickets," he said.  "Tonight.  Eight o'clock.  Would you care to accompany me, my dear?  They're playing out song."  He stood up and handed her the envelope.  She took it and pulled the flap open and looked at the contents.  Two symphony tickets.  She read the name of the selections.  Then looked up at him, her eyes twinkling.

"I would be most pleased to accompany you," she said in her best Jane Austen voice.  "And what will we be celebrating this fine evening?  Your retirement?"

He shook his head.  "The beginning of the rest of our lives," he said, taking her by the hand and pulling her close once more.  "May it be long and glorious."

"Silly old man," she whispered in his ear as they began to dance to the elegant music which filled the room.