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Orange Soda and the FBI

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            The bar on 18th Street is the sort of place where regulars can be found at all hours and tourists rarely venture.  It’s tucked away behind a thrift shop that never quite got the message that thrifty is trendy now.  It’s got a layer of grime that isn’t so much dirt as it is age, but the beer’s the perfect temperature and the bartender is good at remembering drink orders.  

            Among D.C’s alphabet soup of agencies, the bar (and no one really remembers what it’s actually called) is the perfect place to knock back a cold one and gripe about work troubles without worrying about civilians overhearing.

            It’s been one of those days at work, where the cases pile up and no answers are forthcoming.  Hannah nearly skips going to the bar, but it is a bit of a Friday tradition, and she thinks her friend from the DEA might be able to offer some help.  That’s how she ends up sitting in a booth covered in cracked vinyl and nursing a decidedly not-craft beer.  

            “You know what’s most frustrating?”  Michaels asks.  “He doesn’t even use a code name.  I mean, we know who the hell he is.  But we have no clue what he looks like.  We just can’t touch him.”

            “Who?”  Hannah asks, tuning into the conversation.

            Michaels looks over at her.  “Who else?”  He grimaces.  “Alec Hardison.”

            A groan goes up around the table.  Who else indeed.  Hannah’s only run into the hacker a few times, but he’s caused enough problems to make her bosses want her to bring him in.  

            “What’d he do this time?”

            Owen, the FBI’s top computer security agent, shrugs.  “What hasn’t he done?”  He asks.  “But most recently?  The Albuquerque field office just called in a commendation for one Special Agent Alec Hardison.  He brought in one of our most wanted.  Just showed up and handed the guy over.”

            “They’re giving him the commendation, too.”  Owen’s friend Charlie says.  She tucks a piece of hair behind her ear and takes a swig of beer before adding, “Him and his partner.  Parker something.”

            Hannah shakes her head along with everyone else.  “That’s his third commendation from the FBI alone.”  She says.  

            “Have you heard about the first time he got on Homeland Security’s radar?”  Ashley asks the table at large.  

            “You mean the Iceland thing?”
            “No, before that.”  Ashley grins.  They gripe about Hardison so often that it’s rare for a new story to be shared.  They all love being the one to share one.  

            “What happened?”

            “He was fourteen.”  Ashley says.  “This was before me.  My boss told me about it the other day.  Said that Hardison hacked into our system and sent magazines to every single agent in the agency.”

            Michaels snorts back a laugh.  “At least he’s matured since then.”

            “Hardly.  Last month, he charged the DEA for a case of fifteen hundred bottles of orange soda.”  Erik says.  “And we couldn’t even prove it wasn’t us who ordered them.  Cost me my bonus.”

            A sympathetic silence falls over the table.  They all know what that feels like.  Alec Hardison has equal parts helped and hurt them.  And, to be honest, Hannah sometimes wonders if he’s really only one person.  It just doesn’t seem possible.  Maybe there’s a whole bunch of hackers pretending to be an FBI agent.  It would make just as much sense as any other explanation.  

            The bar door swings open, admitting a tall man that Hannah vaguely recognizes seeing him at the Bureau once or twice before.  He’s one of the rising superstars at the IRS - as boring as that sounds.  At least, that’s according to rumor, but Hannah’s experience of him is that he’s a  

            “Mind if I join you?”  The man asks.

            “Have a seat.”  Micheals says, shoving Owen further into the booth.  “Haven’t seen you around before.”

            “John Brody.”  The man introduces himself.  “I work for the IRS.”

            “IRS, huh?”  Hannah says.  “Have you had any run-ins with Alec Hardison?”

            The man looks briefly surprised before schooling his features.  “The hacker?  Are you kidding?  He’s still wanted in Iceland.  And nobody’s wanted in Iceland.”

            A laugh goes around the table.  “Yeah, tell us something we don’t know.”  Raj says.

            “This is what you guys do after work?  Gossip about Hardison?”

            “Only sometimes.”  Hannah answers.  “Why?  You have any good stories?”  They trade the best around like kids trade baseball cards on the playground.  Right now, Raj has the best story - a convoluted tale about an animal shelter in Tucson that somehow received huge amounts of money courtesy of a supposed bank error the President’s personal accountants made.  It has something to do with a dog named Megabyte.

            “Oh, do I.”  John leans back and knocks back his beer.  “That much money getting moved around - you think the IRS won’t notice?  He actually claims it all on his taxes like it’s perfectly legal.  No getting him on tax evasion, unfortunately.”

           “We tried that route, too.”  Hannah says.  “Nothing.  Just ridiculous amounts of money spent on orange soda.”

           John laughs.  “Man loves his orange soda.  Anyways, about six months ago, we decided to try another way at him.  We had some of our best agents working on tracing every single cent that went in and out of his accounts.  It actually felt like we were getting somewhere, you know?”

            “And that’s when things went wrong?”

           “No, that’s when we found out that the royal family of Denmark has been paying Hardison a monthly sum for the past seven years.”

           “Some sort of blackmail?”  Michaels asks.

           “That’s what we thought at first.  We contacted Interpol, and they actually sent agents to figure it out.  Then a representative of the King of Denmark shows up in my office, demanding to know why I was investigating a national hero.”

           “What?”  Several of them chorus.  Hannah nearly chokes on her beer.  

           “Yeah.  They have a parade in his honor every spring.  Look it up.  Giant orange soda float and all.”  John shakes his head.  “So anyways, I’ve got this screaming Danish woman in my office, lecturing me about the virtues of Alec Hardison.”

           A laugh goes up around the table.  Time passes quickly as they trade stories.  Eventually, people start saying their goodbyes and heading home.  Hannah ends up walking out with John.  

           “It was nice meeting you.”  Hannah says just before they part ways.

           John smiles and tips his head.  “Same.”  He says.  He hands her a card.  “If you ever need me.”  He says before turning on his heel and walking the other direction.  

           Hannah glances down at the card.  In orange ink, a name and number are scrawled across the back.  Alec Hardison.  

           Hannah turns, but John - Hardison - is already gone.