The old station was the loneliest place in the city at midnight. Its cracked tiles and gritty walkways were lit by lamps whose light was so weak it might have leaked down from an ancient star.
On the main platform, winds blew from the blackened countryside beyond the furthest suburbs, bringing with them a foul whiff of old scores being settled, while thick mists rose up from the ruined sewers that still ran beneath the city's oldest districts.
The man - known as Herr H to his clandestine paymasters in the barracks district - looked around him nervously. The station was deserted. It was no place to be, for anyone. But he was always here at this time because he had to be. It was the time when they came out.
He smoothed down his moustache and waited, occasionally shrugging against the cold. From time to time he tugged defensively at his hat brim.
The station walls bore a few select advertisements alongside images of past leaders, meant to inspire and uplift. The portraits reminded him of the great days before the Franco-Polish betrayal. How very different from the streets, he thought, plastered with hundreds of posters representing the dozens of tiny political parties vying for temporary power. It made him sick.
Only a few ghostly freight trains clanked through at this time of night. During the day the platforms hummed with soldiers waiting for their trains. God alone knew where they were going. To ask would have been to invite suspicion of being a spy, which might end in an appointment with a firing squad. He shuddered at the prospect.
Far away he could hear the low drone of a Zeppelin making a rare night departure, heading for brighter, safer places. Everybody left the city now. Nobody arrived, it seemed to him. And who could blame them. If he had his way...
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of uneven footsteps. He held his breath for a moment, wanting to be sure. Then the sound came again: half limp, half shuffle. Someone was coming up the stairs to the platform.
It had to be his first 'customer'. The first he saw of the man was a mop of black hair and two bright, venal eyes that glittered despite the poor light. A few more steps and the figure's bent, misshapen form came fully into sight. He looked as if he was being eaten away from the inside. Unmistakably an addict.
He didn't like the look of the man. He never did.
Dirty, ragged clothes wrapped his half-starved limbs and his hollow eyes searched for something that should never be allowed. The pathetic creature limped through pools of shadow towards him, scratching at something in his dark greasy hair.
The face with its stubble and dirty skin was just below his chin now. "Can you help?"
He cleared his throat. "Ja. What is it you... need?"
The owner of the unpleasant face looked around, wishing his gaze could penetrate the creeping darkness surrounding the platform. "You have 'F'? I need 'F'!"
He looked down into the bloodshot eyes. "Freedom? It is dangerous, you know that?"
"Look at me," hissed the man, grabbing his own clothes in sudden anger. "What can it possibly do to me that it hasn't already?" Rooting around inside his clothing, he pulled out a sheaf of filthy paper. "How much is it? Money. I have money."
He pushed the notes under Herr H's nose. "I don't want money. Put it away," he said and reached inside his coat pocket. Pulling out a small paper packet, he held it out to the desperate figure before him.
The man was taken aback. "No money? Why not? What ..?"
"I work for a charity," said Herr H, doing his best to smile at the revolting wretch. He knew that desperation would make people believe even the most ridiculous lie.
The man nodded and began to unwrap the packet with shaking fingers, unable to wait any longer. Herr H caught a glimpse of the grey powder within and coughed loudly. The man looked up.
Herr H stretched his arm out and pointed back down the platform steps. "Please. Not here."
The shabby figure nodded before shuffling off into the gloom. Some addicts disappeared into the surrounding streets, to wherever they slept before. Others, those too far gone to care, merely sought out the station lavatories. He hadn't witnessed such obvious suffering since his time in the trenches when he'd watched men drown in the boiling clouds of acidic gas, barely managing to save himself. But he knew he had to harden his heart to what was around him now before these scum dragged everyone else down with them.
Over the course of the next four hours, Herr H dispensed his bounty to nearly a dozen human wrecks.
One of them was a young mother clutching a tiny baby, its head lolling as if half dead. At first, Herr H thought the infant might already be dead - and probably better off for it - before it made a feeble sound that the mother ignored. He felt only the slightest pang of remorse as he doled out his usual warning with the packet of poison.
The first light of false dawn was creeping over the city when he decided to seek his bed. He hoped sleep wouldn't be as elusive as it sometimes was.
What he did turned his stomach, but how else could he achieve the necessary ends? This was his job, after all. Only he could do it. He often felt as if it was his destiny.
Now that the Bismarck Boys were back in town, spilling their hate into the streets and the ballot box, the battle lines would be re-drawn, the political sands would shift, the old order would crumble. Again.
He remembered the last time. All addicts were forced to report to treatment centres. He never saw any of them again, but there were always new ones to take their place.
As Herr H approached the entrance of the cold station, he noticed a pile of old clothes just inside the door. Stopping, he recognised the ruined shoes of the first addict he'd seen that night. Apart from the shoes and a few rags, there was nothing left of him.
His flesh and bones had been reduced to a reddish-grey powder by the drug. It spilled out of his clothes in an untidy heap. This was the way they always ended. Maybe this was the way it was supposed to end. Sometimes he was almost sure that it was. Better an end with horror than horror without end, he thought.
They were addicts, after all: always craving something stupid and dangerous.
I did try to warn him, thought Herr H, my conscience is clear. He scuffed his shoe through the pile of powdery stuff. By morning even this would be gone, absorbed into the fabric of the old station, helping cement its permanence in this city of temporary allegiances.
The station entrance hall always seemed to have an odd atmosphere, he thought. It was as if hundreds of people were rushing past him, as if he could feel their movement as they disturbed the still air around him.
Pulling open the glass and metal door, a wind tugged at him, reminding him that he would be here again tomorrow. And the next day. And every other cold day that followed it.
There was nobody about. The peace was disturbed only by the purr of an armoured car crawling along the end of Himmlerstrasse. He got ready to produce his papers, as he did most days to some meddling 'official' or other, but the vehicle ignored him, heading instead towards the fires burning in the old Jewish quarter.
He looked up at the dismal grey facade of the station, with its fake classical columns and long vertical windows. Dimly lit atop the building was the old Imperial German eagle, a symbol of former glories, sold too cheaply. At this time of the morning the building looked like a long face, groaning in agony; it made him shiver.
He turned away and headed home, tugging up his collar and pushing his hands deep into his coat pockets in a futile attempt to warm them.
The city might shift around him. New districts would spring up to replace the rubble of old dreams, the ashes of hope soaking up the toxic rain and the deceit. The colours of the flags flying over the streets and the names of the rulers would also change.
But the station would always be here. And so would he. For eternity.