The bus was driving up the hill, with thirteen passengers, men and women, all dressed in business suits. Most of them were chatting excitedly.
The driver was the only person not dressed in a corporate outfit. Instead, he wore a blue uniform, and a baseball cap on his balding head. Already in his fifties, he was much older than his passengers.
For a brief moment, he took his eyes off the road ahead to glance at the passengers in his rear-view mirror. He caught sight of one of the women. She was standing very close to him. Alarmed, he turned around to look at her.
The woman smiled and sat down in the empty seat by his side. “I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t startle you.”
“You almost did, miss.”
“I’m tired of sitting in the back. Do you mind if I join you?”
The driver shook his head. “No, of course not. Though I must warn you I might be a bit boring, unlike your colleagues back there.”
The driver looked at her. She was dressed in a dark-blue trouser suit and had long dark hair.
“I’m taking my driving test next week. It should have been this week, but I had to postpone it because of this office retreat.”
“Is that so? What was the retreat like? Lots of singing and dancing, or what?” the driver asked.
Her laughter was warm and sincere. “You’re funny, you know that? I work at a bank. Every once in a while, the regional office decides to organize training sessions for staff in that region. Each branch is expected to nominate who will attend. This time around, the nomination fell on me and a couple of others.”
“I see. And you couldn’t have opted out?”
The woman shook her head. “It’s not easy to get taken off the list once your name has been submitted. Besides, it really can be quite insightful and educational, you know? You get to learn so many new things that you wouldn’t have known otherwise.”
“In that case, you shouldn’t have any regrets about missing your driving test. I mean, what you did was for the growth of your career.”
“Yes, you’re right about that. And I got to make some new friends. It was interesting.”
“And yet you don’t want to sit with your colleagues in the back?”
“No, my colleagues decided to return by train. I don’t know anyone here.”
“I see. But why would you decide to take a bus instead of travelling with your friends?”
“You mean take the train? No. I love to watch the road and see the moving traffic. Besides, I had an assignment to carry out. And I can only carry it out when I’m on the road.”
“An assignment? What kind of assignment would that be?”
The woman looked at the driver and smiled broadly. “Don’t worry. You’ll see.”
By now, the bus had reached the top of the hill and was about to begin its descent. The driver turned to look at the woman as she opened her handbag and took out two bottles of water.
“You must be thirsty. Care for some water?” she asked, offering him one bottle.
“Thanks, that’s very thoughtful of you,” the driver said with a big smile.
“So, the bank you work for. Is it like a savings bank or something different?” the driver asked, after taking a sip.
“What do you know about banks?”
“Well, I know some save money for folks like us, and others give money out as loans,” the driver remarked as he took another sip from the bottle.
“That’s basically it. You can save and borrow from our bank.”
“In that case, maybe I’ll open an account with your bank so you can lend me some money.”
“Really? What do you need to borrow money for?”
“There are many things that a man of my age could do with extra money.”
The woman looked at him as he took another sip. “Is that so? Like what?”
“There are a million things I could do. I mean, I could start my own transport business instead of driving for this company. Maybe I could finally take a vacation with my wife, go and see the Bahamas.”
“So, you want to start your own business and go travelling?”
The driver nodded and took another sip. “Who wouldn’t want that? I’m fifty years old and I feel that I deserve a real vacation. I hear the Bahamas is lovely to visit this time of year.”
“Is it? And what makes you think that you’re going to visit it in this lifetime?”
The woman’s last remark sounded like a bombshell. At that same moment, the driver felt the steering wheel slip away from his hands. He struggled to steady the bus, letting it slip off the road, its tyres picking up dust and gravel.
The driver blinked and shook his head. He turned to look at the woman by his side. “I’m sorry about that. I must have lost my focus back there. But what was that you said about my vacation?”
The woman was watching him through eyes that seemed unusually cold. “I asked you, what makes you think that you’re going to visit the Bahamas in this lifetime?”
The driver was dumbfounded. “Why would you say such a thing? Why do you think I won’t visit the Bahamas?”
“That’s very easy to answer, old man. Because I know you won’t make it out of this bus alive.”
The words struck the driver’s eardrums like rocks falling from a cliff high above. Then he noticed that he was feeling extremely tired and dizzy. His vision was beginning to blur and he could barely make out the objects ahead.
He felt sweat break out on his forehead and struggled to loosen his shirt. Instinctively, he glanced at the bottle of water in his hand. It was still half-full. As he looked closer, he observed that there were small bubbles rising from the bottom of the bottle. The bubbles were coming from a small white tablet that was still dissolving.
Then it hit him. He had been drugged.
He turned to look at the woman. He was not bothered by the cold expression that was still on her face. But he finally noticed that even though she had opened her own bottle of water, she had not yet taken a drink from it. How could she? he wondered to himself. After all, he could see the same small bubbles inside her bottle too.
“What did you give me?” the driver asked, his voice slurring.
The woman patted his hand. “Something to make my assignment much easier, old man.”
“Why? Why are you doing this?”
“Shhh. We don’t want to alert the passengers, do we? And besides, you really don’t need to know the answers to your many questions. Just relax. In a matter of minutes, everything will be over,” the woman whispered.
The bottle of water slipped from his hand and fell to the floor, just as his leg slipped off the accelerator. The woman stood up and pulled the driver off of his seat. His body fell down in a heap on the floor.
The woman expertly slid into the driver’s seat, grabbed the steering wheel and rammed her foot down on the accelerator, forcing the bus to lurch forward and begin to pick up tremendous speed.
By now, the other passengers had begun to express alarm.
“Hey, what’s going on?”
“Why is the driver on the floor?”
“Hey, lady! What are you doing in the driver’s seat?”
“Why is the bus moving so fast?”
The woman glanced at them over her shoulder. “Don’t worry, folks. Just relax. The driver isn’t feeling too well, so I’m taking control for the next few minutes.”
“Is this a joke or what? What do you mean a few minutes?” someone shouted.
“I just need a few minutes to complete my assignment,” the woman replied, holding her foot down on the accelerator.
“Are you insane? What assignment? Stop the bus right now!”
By now, the bus was racing down the hill. All the passengers were shouting and screaming. Some had fallen off their seats, while others were clutching onto each other, too scared to move.
“That woman is insane!”
“We’ve got to stop her before we crash!”
“Quick, let’s get her away from the steering wheel!”
The woman looked through the rear view mirror and saw three men advancing towards her. She did not need a seer to tell her that they were going to try to wrestle the steering wheel out of her hands.
She smiled and began to twist and swerve the steering wheel. As she did, the speeding bus began to rock violently, destabilizing the men in the process. They were forced to grab the nearest seats to avoid falling over.
The bus was rocking too much, and it was moving too fast. I already was approaching the bottom of the hill. The woman could see some of the men struggling to get up. Others had been able to steady themselves and were slowly coming towards her.
She glanced at the floor beside her. The driver was beginning to stir. He shook his head, trying to sit up.
The woman knew that the odds were no longer in her favour. She had to do something quickly.
The driver on the floor had regained consciousness and was struggling to sit upright. He looked behind and saw the three men advancing towards him.
“Driver! Stop that madwoman before she kills us all!” one of them shouted.
The driver turned to look at the woman. But she was no longer driving.
Rather, she had let go of the steering wheel and had folded her hands across her chest. Her eyes were closed and her head was lifted upwards. It was as if she was in a trance and was oblivious to the impending danger.
How could she let go of the steering wheel after letting the bus reach this speed? the driver wondered.
The driver cursed and struggled to get to her. As he did, the most bizarre thing happened.
The other men were just a couple of seats behind when suddenly, the woman became engulfed in thick, black smoke. Everyone’s visibility was temporarily obscured.
When the smoke cleared, the driver’s seat was empty and the woman was nowhere to be found.
One of the men shouted and pointed. Everyone’s attention focused on the road ahead.
The driver, who was still feeling groggy and dizzy, got into the driving seat and struggled to gain control of the bus.
The bus ran off the road at a very high speed. It shot through the air and began to somersault several times. The screams of the passengers were drowned out by the crashing of the bus as it kept flipping.
By the time the bus had stopped somersaulting, it landed upside down and far from the road, deep inside the rocky plains. There was a lot of smoke emerging from the wreckage.
The driver tumbled off his seat and landed hard on the roof of the upturned bus. He turned, and as he did, he winced in pain.
He looked behind but could not make out much in the smoke. Neither could he hear any sound. He turned to look in front of him. He could see the shattered windscreen. I have to get out of the bus, he thought.
He began to crawl towards the windscreen. There were cuts and bruises all over his body. He coughed and struggled to push through the space in the cracks, but it was difficult. His right leg was numb and felt as if he was dragging a dead weight. It must be broken, the driver thought. But he was determined to get out of the wreckage.
As he continued to struggle, his eyes caught sight of the environment outside. It was still very bright, and he could clearly see the rocky plain. And that was when he saw her again.
He could not be mistaken. It was the same woman who had been on the bus a while ago. She was standing in the distance, watching the upturned bus, watching him struggle to get through the windscreen.
She did not move. She was watching him. Watching and waiting.
What could she be waiting for? the driver wondered. He knew that she was not normal. Something was not right about her. After all, she had caused this accident, she drugged him, and then disappeared in the most bizarre of ways. Now, she was simply watching him, without bothering to help.
The driver heard the crackles before he saw the hungry flames begin to leap from the back. Suddenly, he could understand why there had been so much smoke earlier. The fire had already been smouldering. Now it had become a burning inferno.
Alarmed, the driver made a last effort to pull himself through the shattered windscreen. But his lifeless leg was working against his efforts to crawl to safety.
If only I could get rid of this damned leg, the driver thought.
By now, he had managed to push out the windscreen. He had even succeeded in pulling himself halfway through the wreckage.
But he was too late.
He could see the mysterious woman looking at him. He reached out his hand, as if to beckon for help, help he knew she was not going to give.
Then he screamed as the hungry flames engulfed the lower part of his body and began to crawl up his chest. He caught one last glimpse of the woman and a thought occurred to him: she made mention of an assignment.
But the driver never got to find out what that assignment was. The bus suddenly exploded and was engulfed in a blaze of fire, smoke and heat.
From afar, the woman watched as the bus continued to burn. There was a coldness in her face.
It was not long before she heard the approaching sound of sirens, as emergency services hurried towards the scene of the accident.
The woman calmly folded her hands across her chest and looked upwards to the skies. Black smoke engulfed her then she disappeared.
There were three women inside the room. They were seated around a circular table. There was one empty seat.
The only illumination in the room was provided by some sconces on the wall. Black smoke suddenly filled the room. When it cleared, a fourth woman was in their midst. The woman from the bus.
She walked up to the table and sat down on the empty seat. “I greet you all, my sisters,” she said, with her head bowed down.
“Greetings, Sister Lucy. Why are you late for our meeting?” one of the women asked.
“I apologise, Sister Sarah, I just completed my assignment. I came right from the scene.”
“I see. So, what were you able to accomplish, Sister Lucy?”
“Thirteen souls, all dead and burnt to ashes.”
“Yes, just as you requested. Thirteen.”
Sarah clapped her hands together and a hologram appeared on the wall. It looked like a widescreen television, and it played a recording of all that had transpired in the bus.
The four women watched the entire footage from the beginning, when Lucy had first approached the driver and began to talk to him.
“You said you were a banker?” Sarah asked laughing.
“Yes, he even wanted a loan,” Lucy said laughing too.
“That was impressive, Sister Lucy. I’m sure that Sister Adriana and Sister Phoebe here would agree with me.”
The other two women nodded. “Yes, we agree,” they chorused.
“Nevertheless, we still need to review it again. You see, first of all, the potency of the drug in the water was too weak. You should have made it much stronger. That way, the driver would not have recovered easily,” Sarah said.
“Yes. I thought so myself when I discovered that he was recovering while we were still in motion. I will increase the concentrate next time.”
“Yes, you need to do that. Another thing—you need to make sure that the victims are all completely vanquished so that when the fire comes, it consumes them all whole and dead. I hope you can see that the driver almost got away back there. Had he been completely subdued by the drink, he would not have been able to make an attempt to escape.”
“I understand. I will take note of these points and apply them to my next assignment.”
“But that will not be happening anytime soon. For next week, it will be Sister Phoebe’s turn to carry out her assignment. Sister Phoebe, are you ready?” Sarah asked, looking at one of the other women.
Phoebe nodded. “Yes, I’m prepared to undertake my assignment.”
“Very well then. The usual, thirteen souls, all in one incident.”
The following week, a bus slowed to a halt at a designated bus stop. The driver opened the electronic door and three passengers came on board. As they looked for empty seats to sit down in, the driver drove out of the bus stop.
Phoebe, who was seated at the back of the bus, counted the passengers. There were now thirteen of them. She smiled, picking up the bag beside her. She opened it and brought out small boxes of chocolate. She stood up and began to pass the boxes around.
“Please take some free samples of my homemade chocolates. You can try some and let me know what you think of the flavour. My contact details are on the back if you want more,” Phoebe said with a sweet smile.
The passengers smiled at her in return, happily accepting the chocolates.
When she reached the front seat, the driver smiled and took two boxes. “Sorry for being a little greedy. From the looks on everyone’s faces, I’m sure that these chocolates are very sweet indeed,” the driver said.
“That’s okay, you can take more if you want,” Phoebe said as she sat down on the seat next to his.
The driver nodded enthusiastically. “It’s for my little granddaughter. It’s her birthday today. I think I’m going to surprise her with this special homemade chocolate.”
Phoebe smiled. “Really? How sweet of you. I’m sure she would have loved to have some.”
“What was that you said? She would have loved to have some or she would love to have some?”
“Loved, not love, old man.”
The driver stopped chewing the chocolate. “Loved, not love?”
“Yes. You don’t think you’re going to make it to her birthday alive, do you?”
The driver caught sight of the rear view mirror. Through his fading vision, he could see that the rest of the passengers were unconscious, and there were half-eaten chocolate packs littered all over the place.
He turned to glance at the woman by his side. He suddenly lost his sight. Then his consciousness departed.
Phoebe looked down at the unconscious driver, who was now slumped over the steering wheel. She glanced at the road ahead. There was a traffic hold-up which had built up and blocked the road. Phoebe turned and looked back at all the unconscious passengers. An idea suddenly came to her.
“No one ever said that it must be only thirteen souls,” Phoebe said, stamping her foot down on the accelerator. She smiled as the bus suddenly lurched forward and began to speed towards the traffic hold-up ahead.