It's 11:10 a.m. Friday and Martha Taylor, a senior tax adviser at H&R Block in Hampden, is ready to see Mike Morris, one of several hundred clients Taylor would help by tax season's end.
Morris picks up piles of paperwork from off the floor and sits down with Taylor. They talk income, mortgage payments, real estate profits and rental property.
For an hour and a half.
"It's behind me until next year," said Morris, 32, of Glen Burnie, as he left H&R Block with a completed tax return. "I'm going to go home and celebrate."
Just days before Tuesday's midnight deadline for Marylanders to mail their federal income tax returns, the H&R Block office in Hampden was an unusually calm oasis. There was no agitated client in sight, ready to pull his hair out, no crowd of last-minute filers waiting their turn.
It didn't hurt that a quirk in this year's calendar gave Marylanders three extra days to file, with April 15 falling on a weekend and with Massachusetts, the processing point for Maryland federal returns, having a state holiday tomorrow.
"To an outsider, it doesn't look crazy because there aren't a lot of people in the office, but the work is crazy," said Taylor, who has worked at the Hampden office for 14 of her 15 years with H&R Block.
The appointment book for Taylor and her four colleagues this day is booked solid. They use brief interludes to accommodate walk-in clients and finish returns.
Last year, the Hampden H&R Block office completed nearly 1,100 returns, said Will Critz, the office manager and tax preparer.
"We may look like we're not noisy or appear calm, but we're reaching our limit," Critz said. "All of us are working overtime. We are open Easter Sunday, 9 to 5. I'll be here. If you put that in the paper, I'll have 300 people out the door."
For tax preparers, there's a rhythm to the season. The rush starts at the end of January, when workers begin receiving W-2 forms that detail their income for the past year.
Business becomes steady in February and March and picks up again in April, Taylor said. And tax season isn't complete without the procrastinators.
"The January people have simpler returns and are more likely to get big refunds," she said. "People who have more to put together tend to wait and people who know they owe typically wait."
But the Internal Revenue Service and tax preparers say electronic filing has transformed the frenzy associated with mid-April. Each year, more people file their returns via the Internet. As of April 7, about 87.7 million taxpayers out of about 133 million had filed their returns, according to the IRS. About 66 percent of them, or 57.7 million, used e-file, the IRS said.
Up until three years ago, Lewis L. Kubiet, manager of the IRS tax assistance center in Baltimore, remembers sending 15 to 20 IRS representatives to the city's central post office in the hours before the midnight deadline to help last-minute filers with their returns.
"The crowds are not there anymore," he said. "The mad rush has been dramatically reduced ... which is fine with us."
Just after 12:30 p.m. Friday, two clients walked into Block's Hampden office, while another dropped by to pick up a completed return.
One of them is Ellie Beziat, who explains she needs professional assistance this year because - sigh - she didn't file her 2004 taxes.
"I'm here to catch up," said Beziat, 31, of Baltimore. "I kept requesting extensions until it became another year."
Beziat can't wait until her appointment is over so she can celebrate with a margarita, she said.
"What's fun about talking to a stranger about money, your money specifically?" she said. "It's like going to the dentist."
Beziat finally completed her 2004 tax return, but she ran out of time to file this year's return and wasn't sure when she would do it. Would she consider filing an extension?
"It doesn't seem like a bad idea," she said.
Taylor said some clients want to sit with her through the hours it may take to finish a return. Others could care less; they just drop off their forms and leave.
"The interesting part of the job is when I have to tell a client you owe $6,000," she said. "Some have cried. Others say, `Thank God, it's not $10,000.'"
For the most part, Taylor said she has gotten to know her clients well and has helped them with financial matters over the years. About three-quarters of her client base is returnees, she estimated.
"Last year, unfortunately, I waited until the very last day," said Glen Burnie's Morris, who has had his taxes completed by Taylor for the past six years. "Martha called me this year and said, `Let's not wait until the last day.'"
So it was, four days before the end of another tax season.