It was a hot day. Ridiculously hot. I climbed into my open-top car waiting outside Sarajevo Station. I touched my hands to the leather steering wheel and immediately pulled them back.
“God, that’s hot!” Even in the shade of the station, the steering wheel burned my hands. I continued to curse quietly to myself and gently placed my cap on the wheel to try and make it a bit cooler for later when I would have to drive. I eyed the cap with disappointment as it slid slowly down. It refused to stay put and help me with the overheated steering wheel, so I grabbed it and shoved it back on my head. Sighing, I glared across the hood at the shimmering view of the taxi in front of me.
After what seemed like an eternity, I watched the royal couple wander out of the station and down the steps toward the line of cars waiting for them.
I overheard a snippet of their conversation.
“. . . and then the waitress tripped, spilling the tea all over my lap!” the archduke exclaimed furiously to the mayor.
The couple continued to where the police chief and the mayor were waiting next to the big, black double phaeton I sat in. My nerves caused my breathing to accelerate. It was the first time I realized I would be the royal pair’s driver.
“Well, I’m sure the spill was just an accident, your highness,” said the police chief with an ingratiating tone.
“Well, I do not want any more mistakes today.” The archduke glared at the chief.
The chief nodded vigorously then turned to the row of police officers and officials, his expression dark. “Come on people. Let’s get moving!”
I adjusted my rear-view mirror, ready to go.
“You there! You’ll ride in this car.” The police chief ordered three officers nearby to get into one of the cars.
“What’s this? Where’s my special detail?” the archduke said, chewing out the police chief.
“I sincerely apologize your highness, I will fix this immediately.”
“Less than two minutes ago, I specifically requested that no more mistakes were to be made, but here you are, with your ordinary policemen, making yet another foolish error!” the archduke bellowed, red in the face. The chief’s expression darkened more as he directed the correct officers into the cars.
I tried not to show my annoyance at being summoned to drive on a Sunday. I thought to myself that, like me, there weren’t too many of these officers who wanted to be here today, but there was a job to do and we would do it, in spite of our discomfort and feelings.
The delegates and the royal couple made their way to the waiting vehicles. They climbed in, trying to avoid the hot metal and leather.
The archduke marched towards the car I waited in. Before I could hop out and open the door, he yanked it open and threw himself in, ignoring the hot surfaces. His wife, however, elegantly lifted the hem of her dress, tiptoed in and delicately lowered herself to the seat. Her embarrassment at her husband’s appalling behaviour was obvious. As the mayor stepped in and sat in the front passenger seat, I started the car. Rolling forward, I noticed none of the other cars were following so I slowed to a stop.
“What now?” the archduke queried impatiently.
“Your highness, my humble apologies for the delay. I think the car behind us has a flat tire,” replied the mayor.
“Hmmph!” The archduke crossed his arms and stared into the distance with a deep frown.
“Sir, I’ll tell them to use the other cars. We can always collect them later,” I said to the mayor, and ran to tell the driver of the vehicle with the flat what to do. Then I dashed back and started my car again. The mayor nodded at me and we drove off, leaving the useless car behind at the station.
Our first stop on our itinerary was the military barracks that the archduke was to inspect. I climbed out and opened the door for the still-angry aristocrat. He brushed past me dismissively. His attitude did not surprise me, but it still made me angry. He’d done nothing but yell at all of us since he arrived and now I wasn’t even worth a simple greeting or a, “Thank you.” The delegation walked away from the cars and I let out a deep sigh. I started rolling a cigarette. I needed it to calm my nerves.
Jakov, the driver of the police escort vehicle, sauntered over to me. “The audacity of that Austrian swine! Comes here and lords it over all of us like he’s God, or something.”
“Hey! Watch it!” I said, blowing out some smoke. My eyes darted to the police officers. “Those kinds of words will land us both in prison.”
“But I’m not wrong. The man is an entitled pig.” He lowered his voice and added, “Someone should shoot him.”
I choked on a lungful of smoke. “Christ, Jakov! Do you want us to get shot?” I glared at him. I finished my cigarette and stomped it out under my boot. “Go back to your car, they’re coming, and don’t let me hear another traitorous word come from your ugly, peasant face.”
Jakov gestured rudely at me and stormed off. I opened the door and waited, my back stiff with annoyance. A trickle of sweat rolled down my spine. I blinked against the bright sun shining relentlessly on the row of black cars.
Jakov’s statement haunted me for the rest of the morning. I didn’t care that we had been annexed in 1908. I was a love-sick teenager then, with one thing on my mind, and it wasn’t politics. It annoyed me that people still whined about it six years later.
The old prince shoved past me again and my dislike grew. A small voice began to niggle, saying it wouldn’t be the worst thing if someone taught this self-important peacock a lesson. I scowled and climbed back into the hot car.
We drove further into the city, the crowds clogging sidewalks, spilling into the roadways ahead. I slowed and honked at children running in the street next to us.
“Get out of here!” I waved them off.
They ran back under the arm of a policeman, disappearing into the throng. A man with his arm raised caught my attention. His intense stare unnerved me. Before I could react, he lobbed something at the car and I instantly knew something was wrong. I jammed my foot on the accelerator, causing a gasp and cry from the couple in the back seat.
An ear-splitting boom rocked the car and the crowd dissolved into chaos. My head hurt and I sped around the corner. The archduke yelled, but I paid no attention. I looked back in the mirror to see a scene of destruction. Myself and the royal couple were unhurt.
“What on God’s Earth was that?” demanded the distressed duchess.
“I believe it was a bomb, your highness. It bounced off the car and exploded behind us.” My voice was unsteady. I swallowed hard. “Is anyone hurt?”
“No. We are fine. Carry on to City Hall.” The archduke’s voice was flat. He seemed unimpressed by the attempt on his life, but otherwise there was no sign of emotion.
At City Hall, we parked in front of the great building and waited as dignitaries gathered.
I held the door open for the couple once more. As the old man stepped down to the sidewalk, I caught the whiff of sweat on him, and the corner of my mouth tipped up. So, the blast had affected him. I don’t know why this made me happy, but it did.
It didn’t take long for things to get worse. The true state of the archduke’s emotions revealed themselves when he interrupted the mayor to yell at the crowd with disdain, “I come to your city and you greet me with bombs!” He shook his head, the feathered plume on his helmet bouncing.
The mayor winced, apologising repeatedly. I lowered my gaze, my opinion of the archduke in shambles. I just wanted this day to end.
The formalities concluded and the couple once again arranged themselves in the sweltering car. They spoke in hushed tones and I concentrated on driving away from the city hall.
“Driver, my wife would like to see the injured people hurt in the blast earlier. Take us to the hospital.”
“Do NOT argue, young man!”
I glanced in the mirror, colour creeping up my face. “My apologies, your highness. Of course. I will take you to the hospital.”
I pulled the car to the curb and jumped out to speak to the driver behind me. He agreed to pass on the message and I ran back to the car, climbing in and grabbing the overheated steering wheel.
I looked for somewhere to turn around. The car was big, unwieldy and difficult to steer in small spaces. The next car in line pulled into the alley behind us, blocking my way. We were stuck.
“No! I want to reverse. Move out of the way,” I yelled out the window.
The driver nodded and reversed slowly to make room for us. I swung the car out and turned to drive back past City Hall. The rest of the cars made the move and we were soon underway again. I relaxed into my seat, tired but relieved we’d soon be stopping for lunch.
I tried to recall the quickest way to get to the hospital. The streets were already filling with traffic and people getting back to normal. I turned right at the Latin bridge and drove down Franz Joseph Street. It wasn’t long before I realized my mistake. The street was clogged with traffic, making it difficult to move more than a few inches at a time.
A man approached the car, glaring at me. I honked and yelled, “Move back. I need to turn around. Get out of my way!”
Pedestrians and bicycles closed in around the big, black car. The man continued to advance and at the last minute, pulled a gun from under his coat and aimed with deadly calmness over my shoulder.
The duchess screamed at the same instant the gun fired next to my ear. I squeezed my eyes shut at the alarming bang, my ear ringing painfully.
Another shot went off and I jumped. I came to life as the duchess’s scream was cut off. Silence replaced the ringing in my ears and a cold chill made me suddenly shiver. As if in slow motion, I turned to see the bloody scene in the back seat. I felt nauseous and shook my head, trying to think of what to do next.
But there was nothing I could do. An ice-cold fear crept over me, despite the excessive heat of the day.
The world would never be the same again.