There was a jingling of ornamental brass bells at the front of the shop. Mae Lin, made paranoid by decades of persecution, amplified by her skincrawling addiction to Black Orchid, looked startled. Ready to flee, she pulled the dangling cord to the lightbulb and left us in dark obscurity. Then like a frightened child, I heard the old woman hide uneasily behind the bead curtain that divided the backroom from the shop.

"Who is it," I whispered, similarly spooked, glowing eerily beneath the bulky clothing I'd earlier borrowed from a laundromat.

"Shussss," was the reply from the redeyed women across the room, ordering my silence.

It was still dark in the shop, just before dawn when the pitch black of foggy San Francisco hung deep. We could see almost nothing. The only other light came from a single Chinese red neon sign across the street the gave the storefront a cherry tint.

"Grammy Lin!" we heard a lilting voice from the shop. "Turn on the lights before I kill myself mon!"

I turned on the bulb myself just as Sapphire James groped her way through the herb shop. Mae Lin was caught in mid-swing with a bulky baseball bat twice her size that would have rung Sapphire's chimes. Mae miraculously held up.

"You are such a crazy woman!" Sapphire gave her grandmother a hug, though it was obvious the term granma was only used with affection. It took a moment for Sapphire's eyes to adjust before catching sight of a bedraggled man sitting in the corner of the small back room.

"You!" Sapphire spat. "I should have killed you, you know!"

Sapphire's eyes were slits, an almost instantaneous change from human to animal. Yes, she could have killed me at the Melissa Alano party, but that seemed aeons ago.

"What's stopping you now," I returned coldly.

Sapphire made a motion toward me, as if to attack, but Mae Lin saved us both from our folly.

"You both need each other," she spoke in her most authoritative Hong Kong British accent. "Come Sapphire, we must show Dr. Heller some of our secrets."

Sapphire wanted to protest, but instead motioned for me to follow. The three of us walked up rickety stairs that took us through a hundred years of history of the old Chinatown structure. Like a crooked time machine, we broke into a wide open shop floor that had a bed and kitchenette in one corner, crates of herbs in another, but otherwise was filled with computers, and an unholy arsenal of contraband weaponry. RPGs, M-4s, ancient AK47s and a table devoted to bombmaking equipment.

"This is our headquarters," Mae Lin spoke first.

"Hush granma, we can't trust him," Sapphire protested.

"Headquarters??" I asked, but was ignored.

"And where is Dr. Heller going to go?" Mae Lin asked Sapphire. "Who is he going to tell? He has no friends. He is a hunted man!"

"She's right, Sapphire" I admitted. "Other than Laura, I don't think there's too many people on my side."

"Laura's fooled you too?" Sapphire's eyes narrowed again.

"Come, Sapphire, we have much to tell Dr. Heller." Mae Lin interrupted. "Sit and I will finish the story."

Sapphire sat uncomfortably in a beaten rattan chair and began to squirm. I found the chairs broken twin and sat down. I was tired but the story that was unfolding was too mesmerizing to drift off now.

"This is our headquarters, an underground railroad, as you call it in America, to save the Mahdi's victims, the ones he's addicted to Black Orchid."

"But how did the Mahdi come to America?" I asked naively.

The Mahdi brought us all to America," Mae Lin continued, pacing, puffing on another contraband cigarillo. "I hoped we could start again cleanly, forget all this nonsense about conquering the Americans. But the Mahdi had other plans. He brought his Jihadist followers and set up his retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains. He brought the Jamaican concubine, Rachel, with whom he'd fathered two children, Sapphire and Deelon."

"Deelon?" I began to make connections.

"You knew him as the orderly, Deelon James."

"So Deelon's death ties into all of this? So many webs, woven so many ways," I marveled.

"Poor Deelon," Sapphire seemed on the verge of tears. "I loved my brother very much. They wanted him to addict you to Black Orchid, they wanted him to - "

Mae Lin interrupted Sapphire's emotional outbreak. "The Mahdi's dream was to ingratiate himself with the American political machine. Fundraising became a game to him, and with his impeccable British accent, learned from me, he became popular on what you call the rubber chicken circuit.

"That's when father met Qin Huang at one of Governor Williams fund raisers," Sapphire broke in.

"I know Qin Huang all to well," I confessed ruefully.

"But you know nothing at all," Sapphire smirked. "Qin Huang is an agent."

"The hell you say."

"Show Dr. Heller what you've found Sapphire," Mae Lin urged.

Sapphire got up lankily from the rattan chair and sat at a computer. I was envious.

"Not bad for a stupid comedienne," Sapphire gloated, taking satisfaction that she had fooled me into underestimating her skills. She navigated a few twists in the Internet to pull up records that generated from Interpol police reports. After a keyword search for illegal drugs AND Russian Mafia, she pulled up a list of names. She clicked on a file for one Qin Huang.

"Born in 1960 while the Soviets still in power, Qin Huang was fast tracked through science programs and Young Pioneers into university work in biological sciences. Part of the Russian biological warfare program, Huang was recruited into clandestine activities to monitor American biological warfare as an exchange student. As a doctoral candidate, he worked briefly with the viruses that the Americans brought back from the Gulf War, (see Gulf War Syndrome). Huang recognizes it as an anti-viral variant of a virus the Soviets had created and given to the Iraqis and was instrumental in both warning what was left of the Russian disinformation apparatus and in throwing American investigators off track.

"When Huang returns home to St. Petersburg, the Soviet Union had collapsed and he was unaccustomed to living on $30 a month. A shadow of his former glory as the pride of the clandestine Soviet underground establishment, he began to selling diluted home-brew AIDs vaccine to the schoolchildren of Moscow. The illicit vaccine crippled many of the youngsters and he was pursued vigorously but the legitimate Russian authorities. Avoiding prosecution, Huang fell in with his old bosses from the KGB, a group who had evolved into part of the Soviet Mafia, running the rackets in St. Petersburg. Qin Huang's present whereabouts are unknown."

"But how can you be sure this is really Qin Huang's bio you're looking at," I asked in denial.

"Is the Doctor in?" Sapphire deadpanned, knocking on her head as if to imply my noggin was made of wood. "And when the St. Petersburg Mafia needed a man in America, Alexei Huang was the perfect choice."

"Even though I dislike Huang personally, he's now the head of a respectable pharmaceutical firm. I just can't believe. . ."

"Qin Huang was sent to America to start Ultima Pharamaceuticals, to be a backdoor to the black market in opiates," corrected me like a child. "Ultima needed a front drug, so Huang picked a little known anti-AIDs vaccine similar to the one he was peddling in Russia. Only he was damn lucky this time, this strain turned out to be an incredible success."

"And based on a lucky guess, Qin Huang became a hero for saving America from the COVAIDs ?" I asked incredulously.

"There was just one small problem. There were still occasional deformities and deaths, the vaccine wasn't perfect. But there were huge government contracts at stake ever since the federal government took over the children's immunization system. With the deaths and occasional paralysis, Huang needed political help to hush up the atrocities."

"He needed to buy a bureaucrat," I thought out loud. "America is no better than a banana republic anymore."

"And I thought you were Einstein," Sapphire dissed me. "That's where then governor Clint Williams came in with his close ties to the FDA. Governor Williams wife, Elizabeth, was a lawyer for the Children's Fund, a program providing inoculations in coordination with the Red Cross. Huang and Governor Williams used her as a conduit."

"So where does Mahdi Ahmadi come into this?" I asked naively.

"Alexei met Ahmadi at a Williams' fundraiser at the governor's mansion. After a period of feeling each other out, they found they were both megalomaniacs on same course to world domination. That should have made them enemies."

"Let me explain," Mae Lin broke in. "Tri and Alex both hold part of the key, Tri supplies a euphoric, Black Orchid that subdues humans giving them a sense of peace and well being, but also docility. Tri also has the muscle and street smarts to protect their concerns."

"And Qin Huang knows how to construct a virus that can infect the central nervous system," Sapphire broke back in. "Now they just need to put the two drugs together. And they needed someone smart enough, or dumb enough, to steal the genetic tools they needed, gene sequences. Enter Doctor Steve Heller."

I almost fell out of my rattan chair. I'd become enmeshed in the bizarre schemes of madmen.

"So how does Laura Silvan, fit into this?" I asked apprehensively, not wanting to know whether the woman I loved had played me for the ultimate fool.

"That bitch. Are you sure you can handle the truth?" Sapphire asked.

"Yes," I began to respond, but we were interrupted by a talking avatar on the computer screen repeating the words "NEWS flash! NEWS flash!" as repetitiously as an alarm clock.

"It's your friend again," Mae Lin looked at Sapphire. "Your computer friends are so strange!"

"Ell!," I recognized her animated face immediately.

"You know this woman too?" Sapphire asked seeming surprised. "I get animated reports from the web all the time from her. Conspiracy theories about President Williams mostly."

I could see what they thought of as an avatar, an animated talking head used to deliver audio-visual information in a humanistic way, was in reality my computer program run amok. Ell obviously was meddling in affairs far afield from the procedures which drove my lightsuit.

"This is more than I can handle right now," I confessed, in part so I wouldn't have to confront Ell. In reality, I was also exhausted, the strain of the last days had reached a peak and I looked bewildered. Mae Lin, bless her soul, sensed I was at the edge of my senses.

"You can sleep here now," she motioned to a mattress propped up against the wall. "But you cannot stay long. They will be after you."