Lights. Magnificent lights.
Martin Becker paused before descending the stairs of the bank and gloried in the sea of glowing pearls. The length of the Bahnhofstrasse was festooned with row upon row of Christmas lights, strands of yellow bulbs falling from the sky like warm, electric rain. He checked his watch and with dismay noted that only twenty minutes remained before the last train to the mountains left for the evening.
And still one errand to run. He would have to hurry.
Clutching his briefcase, Becker joined the bustling throng. His pace was brisk, fast even for the dourly efficient executives who, like him, called Zurich their home. Twice he stopped and looked over his shoulder. He felt certain no one was following him, yet he could not help himself. It was a reflex born more of guilt than any perceived threat. His eyes scanned the crowd for a flurry of activity that might justify his apprehension -- a guard yelling for him to halt, a determined face forcing its way through the crowd -- anything out of the ordinary. He saw nothing.
He had done it and now he was free. Yet already his exuberance was waning, the triumph of the moment replaced by a fear of the future.
Becker reached the silver doors at the entry to Cartier as the manager was locking up. Frowning good-naturedly, the handsome woman opened the door and ushered him into the store. One more harried banker buying his wife's affection. Becker hurried to the counter. He had his receipt ready and accepted the elegantly wrapped box without ever losing hold of his briefcase. The diamond brooch was an extravagant gesture. A token of his fierce love. And a glittering reminder of the day he had decided to listen to his soul.
Becker slid the box into his pocket and, thanking the jeweler, left the store. Outside a light snow had begun to fall. He set off toward the railway station at an easier pace. Crossing the Bahnhofstrasse, he continued past the Chanel boutique and Bally, two of the city's numberless shrines to luxury. The street was filled with last-minute shoppers like him: well-dressed men and women rushing home with presents for their loved ones. He tried to imagine his wife's expression when she unwrapped the brooch. He could see her lips pursed in anticipation, her skeptical eyes squinting as she removed it from the box. She would mumble something about the cost and saving for the children's education. Laughing, he would hug her and tell her not to worry. Only then would she put it on. Sooner or later, though, she would need a reason. Marty, why such an expensive gift? And he would have to tell her. But how could he reveal the extent of his treason?
He was pondering this question when a foreign hand found the lee of his back and gave him a violent shove. He stumbled forward a few steps, his knees buckling under him. At the last moment, his outstretched arm found a nearby streetlamp, and he averted a nasty spill. Just then a city tram rushed by, passing no more than two feet in front of him. A blast of wind tousled his hair and spit grit into his eyes.
Becker sucked in a lungful of cold air, calming himself, then spun to locate the culprit. He expected an apologetic face eager to lend him a hand or a leering maniac ready to toss him under the next tram. On both counts, he was disappointed. An attractive woman passing in the opposite direction smiled at him. A middle-aged man dressed in a loden coat and matching hat nodded sympathetically and walked by.
Standing straighter, Becker ran a hand over his jacket, feeling the bulge that was his wife's present. He looked down at the pavement, then at his leather-soled shoes. He breathed easier. The snow. The ice. He'd slipped. No one had pushed him into the path of the tram. Then why could he still feel the imprint of another person's palm scalding his lower back?
Becker looked into the stream of oncoming pedestrians. Frantically, he sifted their faces, not knowing what or whom he was looking for, only that a voice deep inside him, some primal instinct, was screaming at him that he was being followed. After a minute, he resumed his course. He had seen nothing, yet his anxiety remained.
As he walked he assured himself that no one could have discovered his theft. Not yet, anyway. He had, after all, taken measures to avoid detection. He had used his superior's access code. To be safe he had waited until the imperious little man had left the office and used his computer as well. There would be no record of an unauthorized request. Finally, he had chosen the quietest day of the year, Christmas Eve. Those that weren't already in the mountains skiing with their families had left the building by four. He'd been alone for hours. No one had seen him printing the files in his superior's office. It was impossible!
Becker tucked the briefcase under his arm and lengthened his stride. Forty yards ahead the tram was slowing as it approached its next stop. A swarm of passengers pressed forward eager to board. He moved toward the gathering, attracted by its promise of anonymity. His walk turned to a trot, and then to a run. He had no idea from where this sense of desperation had sprung, only that he was full in its grip and had no choice but to obey its commands. He closed the distance quickly, sprinting the last few yards, and arrived as the tram groaned to a halt.
Air whooshed, the doors opened, and a pair of steps extended from the undercarriage of the car. Several passengers descended. He forced his way into the rear of the crowd, rejoicing in the crush of bodies against him. Step by step, he neared the tram. His heart rate slowed and his breathing calmed. Secure in the jostling mass, he managed a short dry chuckle. His worry had been for naught. He would make the last train to the mountains. By ten o'clock he would be in Davos, and for the next week there he would remain, safe in the bosom of his family.
The restless crowd climbed one by one into the tram. Soon it was his turn. He placed his right foot onto the metal step. He leaned forward and grasped the iron railing. Suddenly, a firm hand fell onto his shoulder and arrested his movement. He struggled against it, using the railing to pull himself into the tram. Another hand snatched a fistful of his hair and yanked his head back. A cool ball traversed his neck. He opened his mouth to protest, but no sound emerged. He had no air with which to cry. Blood sprayed from his throat, painting the passengers around him. A woman screamed, and then another. He stumbled backward, one hand groping at his ruined throat, the other mindful of its grip on the briefcase. His legs grew numb and he fell to his knees. It was all happening so slowly. He felt another hand on his, prying the briefcase from his grasp. Let go, he wanted to cry. He saw a flash of silver and acknowledged a tear in his stomach, something gnawing at a rib, then breaking free. His hands lost all feeling and the case dropped to the ground. He collapsed.
Martin Becker lay still on the cold pavement. His vision was blurry and he could no longer breathe. A stream of blood touched his cheek, warming him. The briefcase lay on its side a few feet away. He wanted desperately to retrieve it, but he could not will his arm to move.
Then he saw him. The man in the loden coat, the dapper fellow who'd been walking just behind him when he had stumbled. No, dammit, the man who had pushed him! His murderer bent over and picked up the briefcase. For a second their eyes met. The man smiled, then ran into the street, Becker couldn't see where.
Stop, he yelled silently. But he knew it was too late. He rolled his head and stared above him. The lights were so beautiful. Magnificent, really.