SYDNEY - It is one of the most popular cafes on a thoroughfare that is thronged at this time of year with festive shoppers, in addition to everyday office crowds and tourists.
But on Monday, a pre-Christmas nightmare played out inside the Lindt cafe on Sydney's Martin Place, while outside the crowds had evaporated, replaced by police lines and tension, as businesses shut early.
"It's kind of shocking for everyone," said local worker Goldie Jamshidi near the chocolate-themed cafe where a gunman had taken several people hostage, brandishing an Islamic banner above a Lindt store sign and the words "MERRY CHRISTMAS".
"I came to work and then I found out that this incident had happened," she said.
By the evening five people had fled the building, two of them young women wearing Lindt aprons who raced out and into the arms of police officers.
Officers wearing black SWAT-style uniforms had earlier taken up position, eyes staring down rifle sights. Some onlookers took photos to post on social media, others shook their heads in disbelief.
Australia had long seemed far removed from the hubs of Islamist extremism. But the Lindt hostage-taker's use of the Islamic banner lent weight to suspicions that the threat had come home to roost despite a stepped-up security posture of late.
The government in September raised its terror threat level and police conducted raids across the country, as authorities fretted that dozens of Australians who have fought alongside jihadists in Iraq and Syria could return home radicalised and inflict "lone wolf" attacks.
"It's kind of overwhelming, especially after the drama a few months ago about the talk of a beheading at Martin Place," said office worker Rebecca Courtney.
That referred to an order purportedly issued by the most senior Australian recruited by Islamic State for "demonstration killings" in Australia, including beheading a random member of the public.
Afghan-born Mohammad Ali Baryalei, reportedly a former nightclub bouncer and aspiring actor, was said by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in October to have died in fighting overseas.