Chapter One

Had Talia Alvarez known she was going to die today, she probably would have worn nicer underwear. As it stood, the granny panties that were the only clean thing she had left to wear in the single drawer dresser inside her tiny, nearly empty studio apartment, would just have to do. If only she could have known that the tiny splash of coffee that had slipped from the lid of her soy mocha latte from the barista around the corner from her apartment building on the West side of Lincoln Park was going to be the least of her worries for that day, she might have gone into the office much less stressed. Alternatively, knowing she would be dead before lunch probably wouldn't have helped much, either.

As she approached the massive concrete stairs leading up to the impressive glass and steel structure that was regally adorned with futuristic lettering down the side proclaiming it to be SYNERGY, Talia noticed a bedraggled, grizzly looking bum sitting on the edge of the bottom stair, huddled inside an oversized housecoat with a dingy, mangy faux-fur lined collar that looked to be infested with fleas. The man had long, greasy, grey-black hair and cracked spectacles smudged with dirt and grime.

Not entirely unaware of the growing homelessness problem in the Chicago city streets, Talia felt bad for the poor man who was obviously just struggling to survive the hustling and bustling streets of the Windy City, but at the same time, she was running late and wanted to see if there was something she could do to get rid of that damned coffee stain on her shirt before her boss saw it and made yet another condescending comment about how Talia couldn't seem to be able to do anything right, let alone put herself together nicely.

"It's coming," the homeless man said as she began to scoot past him, clutching her handbag tightly against her waist. She paused, turning her head down to see him better, pushing a cascading wave of mahogany colored hair from her face as she did so. The damn wind was wreaking havoc on her hair out here in the street, and she didn't need one more thing to add to the list of critiques to her boss's inspection. And yet, something about the way the man spoke gave her pause. "It's coming, sooner than you think."

"What?" she asked, wrinkling her nose. Partly due to the overwhelming smell of urine and cheap Scotch emanating from the man, but also partially because she was sort of genuinely curious, despite the fact that she was quickly going from running late to actually being late. What the hell, she figured. Mr. Freeman was going to give her a hard time no matter what, so she might as well give him some material to work with when he decided to bust her chops.

"The end," the haggard bum intoned, looking right into her soft, brown eyes. He seemed to stare right through her, and for all Talia knew, perhaps he was. The guy looked like his blood-alcohol level was a lot heavier on the alcohol part rather than the blood. His troubled eyes swam in a sea of tiny red flecks and heavy, dark circles hung like antique drapes beneath them, trembling and twitching. "The end is coming. Not just for you. For all of us."

Talia wasn't completely unused to hearing about the end times and fire and brimstone and all that happy, wonderful garbage. Her abuelita used to tell stories when she was a young girl about how the world would go up in flames one day and only the good people would get to go to Heaven. Cheery stuff for a six-year-old, but it had always stuck with her somewhere in the back of her mind. Not so much the flames part, but more about being a good person. So with that in mind, she decided she had better play along and began to rummage through her knock-off designer bag for some spare change to give the poor guy.

"Hang on a sec," she murmured, shoving aside a half-used lipstick, some travel hairspray and an empty container of Altoids she kept meaning to throw away but hadn't gotten around to it. "I think I might have some, uh…maybe a quarter, or a dime, or…or something." The booze-soaked whacko stared up at her with a glazed expression, as if neither of them had spoken any words to one another. He then abruptly reached out his hand with lightning quick reflexes, gripping Talia's wrist so quickly that she didn't even have time to gasp.

"The end is coming," he said, his voice choked and watery. With a grunt, Talia pulled her arm back, freeing herself from the old man's grasp. He tumbled backwards, catapulted by her movement, where he sprawled against the stairs, looking up at her with wide, gleaming eyes. She rubbed her wrist gently, closing her handbag with a huff. She was pretty sure she didn't actually have any loose change to give the guy anyway, but now even if she had, she sure as hell wasn't going to part with it after that little exchange.

"Hey man, what's your problem?" she exclaimed. She hoped that perhaps an onlooker might stop and inquire as to what was going on, maybe offer her some assistance, seeing as she was just practically assaulted in broad daylight right out on a busy street. But no one stopped, no one cared. Everyone in the city was too busy with their own lives and their own issues to stop and care about one silly girl's trivial problems.

"There's no hope for you," the man whispered, his bottom lip quivering. He began to shake his head slowly back and forth, his matted, greasy hair flopping back and forth across his shoulders like so many overgrown cobwebs. "No hope for you, and no hope for any of the rest of us, either."

"Well, this has been such a pleasant experience," Talia said, flashing the homeless man a seething, sardonic grin, rolling her eyes. "But I have to go get yelled at by my boss, now."

As the man slumped back down into his ratty housecoat, Talia bounded up the stairs towards the Synergy building, another billowing gust of wind tousling her unruly hair in all directions. She wondered if that crazy guy might have actually known something. Maybe there was something to all that mumbo-jumbo people like him and her abuelita were always droning on and on about. Maybe the world was going to come to an end, and soon.

With a sigh, Talia pushed through the revolving doors leading into the building, preparing herself for what was surely going to be another boring, tedious day filled with mundane tasks, grueling small-talk and not-so-subtle barbs from her boss about her performance. Today is going to be a new day, she thought to herself. A new day, and a new me.

Outside, down at the bottom of the steps, the man in the flimsy, hole-covered and worn housecoat pulled a tiny microphone attached to a wire out from the collar, smartly hidden within the mangy fur lining.

"Status report," he said softly into the microphone. "We've found her."