The night was now blacker than black, as only the soup fog of San Francisco can make it. It was darker than the deepest corner of your mind, broken only by a point of rainbow light that wandered the alleyways, zigging and zagging into the heart of China Town.

Once a small enclave of Chinese immigrants, China Town had encroached on the other ethnic enclaves, sprawling over the hills to become an ever more vibrant fraction of the City. Chinese descendants of workers brought to build the railways in the 1800's mixed with those newly smuggled off freighters in a wonton soup of social and political affinities. A sense of intrigue hung in the air, you could never tell whether you were dealing with a family member of old-line American patriots, or a mainland China Tong member, hot off the boat and ready to slit your throat.

A furtive walk, turned to a trot, turned to a full race as I began to feel the presence of eyes watching me. Eyes hanging in the air, making my every computer sense shiver with paranoia.

Pounding feet, mine followed by those of a light-footed pursuer, lead to an alley without an exit. I turned to face my attacker, my heart racing, ready to kill, only to find a gray old shriveled Chinese woman, agile and standing straight as a rod, her eyes blazing red in the light like a bad photo.

"Perhaps Dr. Heller, you would like to talk," she spoke in an impeccable British accent, not even winded. "I think we have much in common."

"I have nowhere else to go," I admitted. "I have nowhere to hide."

It mattered little whether my diminutive pursuer were friend or foe, I couldn't remain hidden on the streets any longer, glowing like a buglamp wherever my hood or clothes had seams.

Around a corner, uphill one block through old China Town and past a jade store, then through the gilded entrance to a Chinese herbal apothecary. Thick with the odor of a hundred ancient remedies and quackeries, I was assaulted by the olfactory oddness.

We passed through a beaded doorway to a back room filled with packing herb boxes and a single table lit by bare bulb.

"Sit," the old woman motioned to an old wooden chair that must have been pre 1900. I sat quietly, exhausted.

"I am Mae Lin. I run the underground railway," the woman spoke resolutely, the British accent evident, her eyes still ruby red. "I rescue people from the Mahdi!"

"What?" I responded suspiciously. "Why would anyone need to be rescued from a man who represents the religion of peace?"

"Ahmadi is no savior of lost souls," her voice rang with contempt. "The mother of a thief and murderer can have feelings for her son. But Ahmadi's own mother disowned him long ago."

"But he leads a Sufi retreat. I wouldn't expect anyone to feel that intolerant of a spiritual leader."

"Religion can hide a thousand evils, Dr. Heller," Mae Lin lectured. "The Mahdi's retreat is nothing more than a reeducation center. He holds his subjects, his serfs, through addiction to Black Orchid, not through moral persuasion. But you have been with him, how can you not know who Mahdi Ahmadi is?"

"I am obviously naive," I spoke truthfully. "So many of the things I have been taught, in school, in the NCSF cadres, in the University, have all turned out to be lies." I was too tired to lie to anyone. "I have suspected that there were powerful currents beneath his religion of peace movement But you are the first who has told me he might be some kind of Jonestown cult leader."

Mae Lin looked at me, long, hard, her beady rat-red eyes glowing with fear. Could she trust me? Her eyes made a decision.

"Then I will tell you who Mahdi Ahmadi really is, Dr. Heller," Mother Mae began sadly. "Ahmadi was born to elite Iranian engineer parents," she spoke stiffly, then focused. "They were of the ruling class of Imams."

"The Mahdi told me he was born of poor parents, his father was a blacksmith . . . ."

"Bah," Mae Lin scoffed. "And you think a blacksmith's son could have his education and finances? You may not be so smart after all."

"So, how do you know so much about the Mahdi? I asked, not sure whether I could believe the old woman at all.

"I am a Hong Kong born, British educated electrical engineer. A beauty in my youth, I made a fortune in the electronic toy craze of the 60s that raised Hong Kong from despair. Cheap little yellow electronic ducks, I made thousands of them. Capitalism at its best!"

She smiled at her little joke, then paused remembering the past for a moment. I fashioned an image of a beautiful Mae Lin in desperate times, overseeing the production of cheap battery toys for spoiled American Baby Boomers.

"Ahmadi's father, Mahmoud Najad, was a civil engineer and architect who worked on many of I.M.Peng's skyscrapers," Mae continued. "Before Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997, he played the Beijing card in the background, traveling often to the capital to make backroom business deals with the communist technocrats. After the takeover, those same humble technocrats and public servants came to own much of Hong Kong's infrastructure through political corruption and bribery. Ahmadi learned from his father, how to play both sides of the political and commercial chess game. Even as a young man, he was prosperous."

"Unfortunately, father Najad had a return of conscience and participated in the Iranian democratic uprisings. He helped lead the marchers, shouting democratic slogans through a bullhorn as if being right made him invincible. The attack by the mullahs made the Tienamen Square bloodbath look like a tea party.

"I remember the uprising," I commented. "The video footage was chilling, and the aftermath perhaps worse."

"Yes, his family was ousted from their gleaming chrome office buildings. The Red Plum Land Development Company we owned was taken from us, we had worked so hard for so long and now we had nothing. It was all put in the hands of Mr. Wu of the People's Consultative Congress. The PCC gave economic and business advice to the Communist Party as well as the Chinese government. But Wu was nothing but a thief, a street hoodlum who made the bureaucrats rich by confiscating the property of protesters."

Mae Lin paused to light a contraband cigar, she could go to prison for that alone.

"We were forced to live in the slums. Ahmadi was forced to watch father Ng brutally beaten by the Hong Kong police many times. Ahmadi would stand across the street from the Red Plum construction conglomerate and watch how it was run by the Chinese bureaucrat Mafia. Charlie Wu would enter with his mistresses on his arm into our business. Mahdi Ahmadi swore revenge. At first, I even supported him."

"I would have done the same," I admitted.

"Ahmadi wandered the corrupt streets of Hong Kong, he became a Zen master, learning Chinese Kung Fu, and the blade. Firearms are illegal in Hong Kong, always have been under the British, and even more so under the paranoid Beijing regime. The only way to fight back against the bureaucrat Mafia and Charlie Wu was through hand to hand combat."

"I have experienced Ahmadi's fighting ability myself," I remembered his swordplay ruefully.

"I also learned to fight," Mae continued, "I was much younger then," she giggled, an old woman remembering youth. "But to play the game, Ahmadi had to become the leader of his own Chinese Mafia. First he fought with brutal street violence, but it was ineffective, too many deaths. The Hong Kong police, the military cracked down hard on his Tong."

"The purges," I nodded in remembrance.

"Then one evil day, deserted by his comrades, Ahmadi running from the police, came to hides in a Chinese apothecary shops, my family's shop. Just a hole in the wall, like this one here, my mother started it after World War two. Old man Stanley, my hero, my husband, he was sick in his heart. He introduced Ahmadi to Black Orchid. Stanley said it would make Ahmadi strong, invincible. Just like him."

"I've heard of Black Orchid, it isn't common in the United States. What is it?" I broke the sadness, knowing well that Laura had also mentioned the drug.

"Black Orchid, an ancient euphoric known scientifically as Amanita muscaria, a fly-agaric used in ancient Siberian shamanistic rites," Mae Lin recited scientifically. "No one can resist it, it steals the soul. At first, Ahmadi was like everyone else, like Stanley, he fell under its spell. I knew better, but there was no hope, even I fell to its despair. But Ahmadi was in the end different, stronger than the rest of us. Through force of will, he alone kicked the habit."

"So a cure is possible?" I had a glimmer of hope.

"No, Ahmadi's soul, my son's soul, was gone. He started a Buddhist cult, Summa Ching Hai, to attract followers and addict them to Black Orchid. The members so revere the Master Ahmadi that they drink his bath water and take vows of poverty. In contrast, Ahmadi Ng wears fine clothes, stays at expensive hotels and travels the world."

"How could anyone in their right mind fall for Ahmadi's empty world," I preached unknowingly.

"I fell for his promises," Mae Lin confessed alarmingly. "You have also fallen under his spell," she added even more alarmingly. She was right.

"Ahmadi's revenge over Charlie Wu was near," Mae continued. "Ahmadi subjugated the bureaucrat warlords of Hong Kong through prostitution, gambling, street warfare, but most of all Black Orchid, becoming rich beyond compare. There were times when I convinced myself that this was a just revenge, but Ahmadi had visions of grandeur: What better way to conquer the city-nation of Hong Kong than through Black Orchid?"

"Many a man has been consumed by a lust for power."

"You don't understand, Dr. Heller. Mahdi Ahmadi doesn't want power, he wants to become the Mandarin from eleventh heaven. He wants to become a god."

I did understand, at least a little.

"Now Ahmadi had really made the bureaucrats mad, the stability of the whole Chinese nation was at stake, especially its patronage system. Profits were hurting. The political powers captured Ahmadi as he is leaving his limousine in Kowloon. I was with him, I saw it all."

"I thought you had given up on him."

"How could I then, I was his right hand man," she laughed, her red eyes glinting in the light of the 60 watt bulb.

"We were taken to Beijing and given an ultimatum. Mr. Wu from the People's Consultative Congress, the organization that took over Red Plum told us, 'Leave Hong Kong, or leave your heads on the street'. Wu swore at us, he wanted us gone so he could continue the trade in Black Orchid."

"That's how you came to America?"

"Ahmadi still did not want to go. He begged to win his way back into good graces."

'The Kwailo brought on the Boxer rebellion through the subjugation of the Chinese with opium.' Ahmadi argued with Wu. 'The result was a hundred years of rule of Hong Kong. So little risk, so much gain.'

"Charlie Wu saw that Ahmadi was right, soon the other Chinese leaders asked Ahmadi to help them control all of China. 'If you marketed Black Orchid to our people,' they said. 'We could sleep well at night."

'Why control Chinese, you stupid fools,' Ahmadi raged at them, insulted them. 'Don't you remember the opium wars and how they debilitated our race? Why not control the riches of America instead of the poverty of our farmers? What better way to conquer the world than to addict the Americans?'

"They thought for a while about this, then they asked how Ahmadi proposed to carry out such an ambitious plan. So Ahmadi told them, 'It is little remembered, but the Japanese ran biological warfare experiments in China. Remember the Japanese used of germ warfare against the Chinese. One can admire their ruthlessness, they used vivisection of Chinese to test their product."

"At the end of the war, they hoped balloons would carry pathogens to the United States. First they sent test balloons with bombs and killed six people in Oregon. But it was the end of the war, Tojo felt the risk of retribution on the Japanese was too great. If America had its cattle infected with anthrax, or its people devastated with cholera, they might kill all the Japanese.'

"Wouldn't the Americans annihilate us if we tried similar experiments?" The Beijing warlords asked.

"Not if their own President suggested them. " Ahmadi told them, and I knew we were saved then."

"But who would we sell our goods to?" They were still blind to the scope of Ahmadi's ambition.

"We don't kill the Americans, we addict them!" Ahmadi explained, treating them like they were children. 'like the British did to the Chinese with opium,' he played on their race conscience, the Achilles heel of the Chinese

"You've got to hand it to Ahmadi, he's ambitious," I understated. I'd been caught up in a web so many times more complex than a spider's.