Skip to main content



The Zero Game

Read a Review



I DON'T BELONG HERE. I haven't for years. When I first came to
Capitol Hill to work for Congressman Nelson Cordell, it was
different. But even Mario Andretti eventually gets bored driving
two hundred miles an hour every single day. Especially when you're
going in a circle. I've been going in circles for eight years. Time
to finally leave the loop.

"We shouldn't be here," I insist as I stand at the urinal.

"What're you talking about?" Harris asks, unzipping his fly at the
urinal next to mine. He has to crane his neck up to see my full
lanky frame. At six feet four inches, I'm built like a palm tree
and staring straight down at the top of his messy black hair. He
knows I'm agitated, but as always, he's the perfect calm in the
storm. "C'mon, Matthew, no one cares about the sign out

He thinks I'm worried about the bathroom. For once, he's wrong.
This may be the rest room right across from the Floor of the House
of Representatives, and it may have a sign on the door that says,
Members Only—as in Members of Congress . . . as
them . . . as in not us—but after all this time
here, I'm well aware that even the most formal Members won't stop
two staffers from taking a whiz.

"Forget the bathroom," I tell Harris. "I'm talking about the
Capitol itself. We don't belong anymore. I mean, last week I
celebrated eight years here, and what do I have to show for it? A
shared office and a Congressman who, last week, pressed himself up
against the Vice President to make sure he didn't get cropped out
of the photo for the next day's newspaper. I'm thirty-two years
old—it's just not fun anymore."

"Fun? You think this is about fun, Matthew? What would the Lorax
say if he heard that?" he asks, motioning with his chin to the Dr.
Seuss Lorax pin on the lapel of my navy blue suit. As usual,
he knows just where the pressure points are. When I started doing
environmental work for Congressman Cordell, my five-year-old nephew
gave me the pin to let me know how proud he was. I am the
Lorax—I speak for the trees,
he kept saying, reciting
from memory the book I used to read to him. My nephew's now
thirteen. Dr. Seuss is just a writer of kids' books to him, but for
me, even though it's just a trinket . . . when I look at the tiny
orange Lorax with the fluffy blond mustache . . . some things still

"That's right," Harris says. "The Lorax always fights the good
fight. He speaks for the trees. Even when it's not fun."

"You of all people shouldn't start with that."

"That's not a very Lorax response," he adds in full singsong voice.
"Don't you think, LaRue?" he says, turning to the older black man
who's permanently stationed at the shoeshine chair right behind

"Never heard of the Lorax," LaRue responds, his eyes locked on the
small TV that plays C-SPAN above the door. "Always been a Horton
Hears a Who
guy myself." He looks off in the distance. "Cute
little elephant . . ."

Before Harris can add another mile to the guilt trip, the swinging
doors to the rest room bang open, and a man with a gray suit and
red bow tie storms inside. I recognize him instantly: Congressman
William E. Enemark from Colorado—dean of the House, and
Congress's longest-serving Member. Over the years, he's seen
everything from desegregation and the Red Scare, to Vietnam and
Watergate, to Lewinsky and Iraq. But as he hangs his jacket on the
hand-carved coat-rack and rushes toward the wooden stall in back,
he doesn't see us. And as we zip up our flies, Harris and I barely
make an attempt to see him.

"That's my point," I whisper to Harris.

"What? Him?" he whispers back, motioning to Enemark's stall.

"The guy's a living legend, Harris. Y'know how jaded we must be to
let him walk by without saying hello?"

"He's going to the can . . ."

"You can still say hello, right?"

Harris makes a face, then motions over to LaRue, who raises the
volume on C-SPAN. Whatever Harris is about to say, he doesn't want
it heard. "Matthew, I hate to break it to you, but the only reason
you didn't throw him a Hi, Congressman is because you think
his environmental record is crap."

It's hard to argue with that. Last year, Enemark was the number one
recipient of campaign money from the timber, oil, and
nuclear power industries. He'd clear-cut Oregon, hang billboards in
the Grand Canyon, and vote to pave over his own garden with baby
seal skins if he thought it'd get him some cash. "But even so, if I
were a twenty-two-year-old just out of college, I still would've
stuck my hand out for a quick Hi, Congressman. I'm telling
you, Harris, eight years is enough—the fun's long

Still standing at the urinal, Harris stops. His green eyes narrow,
and he studies me with that same mischievous look that once got me
thrown in the back of a police car when we were undergrads at Duke.
"C'mon, Matthew, this is Washington, D.C.—fun and games are
being played everywhere," he teases. "You just have to know where
to find them."

Before I can react, his hand springs out and grabs the Lorax pin
from my lapel. He glances at LaRue, then over to the Congressman's
jacket on the coat-rack.

"What're you doing?"

"Cheering you up," he promises. "Trust me, you'll love it. No

There it is. No lie. Harris's favorite turn of
phrase—and the first sign of guaranteed trouble.

I flush my urinal with my elbow. Harris flushes his with a full-on
grip. He's never been afraid to get his hands dirty. "How much will
you give me if I put it on his lapel?" he whispers, holding up the
Lorax and moving toward Enemark's coat.

"Harris, don't . . ." I hiss. "He'll kill you."

"Wanna bet?"

There's a hollow rumble of spinning toilet paper from within the
stall. Enemark's almost finished.

As Harris shoots me a smile, I reach for his arm, but he sidesteps
my grip with his usual perfect grace. It's how he operates in every
political fight. Once he's focused on a goal, the man's

"I am the Lorax, Matthew. I speak for the trees!" He laughs
as he says the words. Watching him slowly tiptoe toward Enemark's
jacket, I can't help but laugh with him. It's a dumb stunt, but if
he pulls it off . . .

I take that back. Harris doesn't fail at anything. That's why, at
twenty-nine years old, he was one of the youngest chiefs of staff
ever hired by a Senator. And why, at thirty-five, there's no
one—not even the older guys—who can touch him. I swear,
he could charge for some of the stuff that comes out of his mouth.
Lucky me, old college friends get it for free.

"How's the weather look, LaRue?" Harris calls to Mr. Shoeshine,
who, from his seat near the tiled floor, has a better view of
what's happening under the stall.

If it were anyone else, LaRue would tattle and run. But it isn't
anyone else. It's Harris. "Bright and sunny," LaRue says as he
ducks his head down toward the stall. "Though a storm's quickly
approaching . . ."

Harris nods a thank-you and straightens his red tie, which I know
he bought from the guy who sells them outside the subway. As chief
of staff for Senator Paul Stevens, he should be wearing something
nicer, but the way Harris works, he doesn't need to impress. "By
the way, LaRue, what happened to your mustache?"

"Wife didn't like it—said it was too Burt Reynolds."

"I told you, you can't have the mustache and the Trans
Am—it's one or the other," Harris adds.

LaRue laughs, and I shake my head. When the Founding Fathers set up
the government, they split the legislative branch into two sides:
the House and the Senate. I'm here in the House, which is in the
south half of the Capitol. Harris works in the Senate, which is all
the way over on the north. It's a whole different world over there,
but somehow, Harris still remembers the latest update on our
shoeshine guy's facial hair. I don't know why I'm surprised. Unlike
the monsters who walk these halls, Harris doesn't talk to everyone
as a political maneuver. He does it because that's his
gift—as the son of a barber, he's got the gift of gab. And
people love him for it. That's why, when he walks into a room,
Senators casually flock around him, and when he walks into the
cafeteria, the lunch lady gives him an extra ladle of chicken in
his burrito.

Reaching Enemark's gray suit jacket, Harris pulls it from the
coat-rack and fishes for the lapel. The toilet flushes behind us.
We all spin back toward the stall. Harris is still holding the
jacket. Before any of us can react, the door to the stall swings

If we were brand-new staffers, this is where we'd panic. Instead, I
bite the inside of my cheek and take a deep gulp of Harris's calm.
Old instincts kick in. As the door to the stall opens, I go to step
in front of the Congressman. All I have to do is buy Harris a few
seconds. The only problem is, Enemark's moving too quickly.

Sidestepping me without even looking up, Enemark is someone who
avoids people for a living. Leaving the stall, he heads straight
for the coat-rack. If Harris is caught with his jacket . . .

"Congressman . . . !" I call out. He doesn't slow down. I turn to
follow, but just as I spin around, I'm surprised to see Enemark's
gray coat hanging lifelessly on the coat-rack. There's a sound of
running water on the right side of the room. Harris is washing his
hands by the sink. Across from him, LaRue rests his chin in his
palm, studying C-SPAN with his fingers covering his mouth. See no
evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

"Excuse me?" Enemark asks, taking his coat from the rack. The way
it's draped over his forearm, I can't see the lapel. The pin's
nowhere in sight.

I glance over at Harris, who's wearing a calm that's almost
hypnotic. His green eyes disappear in a soft squint, and his dark
black eyebrows seem to take over his face. Japanese is easier to

"Son, did you say something?" Enemark repeats.

"We just wanted to say hello, sir," Harris interrupts, leaping to
my aid. "Really, it's an honor to meet you. Isn't that right,

"A-Absolutely," I say.

Enemark's chest rises at the compliment. "Much appreciated."

"I'm Harris . . . Harris Sandler . . ." he says, introducing
himself even though Enemark didn't ask. Leaving the sink, Harris
studies the Congressman like a chessboard. It's the only way to
stay ten moves ahead.

The Congressman extends a handshake, but Harris pulls away. "Sorry
. . . wet hands . . ." he explains. "By the way, Congressman, this
is Matthew Mercer. He does Interior Approps for Congressman

"Sorry to hear that," Enemark jabs with a fake laugh as he pumps my
hand. Asshole. Without another word, he opens his coat and slides
an arm into the sleeve. I check the lapel. There's nothing

"Have a good day, sir," Harris says as Enemark slides his other arm
in. Enemark rotates his shoulder blades and pulls his suit jacket
into place. When the other half of the jacket hits his chest, a
tiny flash of light catches my eye. There . . . on his other lapel
. . . there's a tiny American flag pin . . . a little triangle with
an oil well on it . . . and the Lorax, whose big Dr. Seuss eyes
smile at me.

I motion to Harris; he looks up and finally grins. When I was a
freshman at Duke, Harris was a senior. He got me into the
fraternity and, years later, got me my first job here on the Hill.
Mentor then, hero now.

"Look at that," Harris says to the Congressman. "I see you're
wearing the logging mascot."

I turn toward LaRue, but he's staring at the ground to keep himself
from laughing.

"Yeah . . . I guess," Enemark barks, checking the Lorax out for
himself. Anxious to be done with the small talk, the Congressman
leaves the bathroom and heads across the hallway to the House
Floor. None of us moves until the door closes.

"The logging mascot?" I finally blurt.

"I told you there's still fun going on," Harris says, looking up at
the small TV and checking out C-SPAN. Just another day at

"I gotta tell Rosey this one . . ." LaRue says, rushing out of the
room. "Harris, they're gonna catch you sooner or later."

"Only if they outthink us," Harris replies as the door again slams

I continue to laugh. Harris continues to study C-SPAN. "You notice
Enemark didn't wash his hands?" he asks. "Though that didn't stop
him from shaking yours."

I look down at my own open palm and head for the sink.

"Here we go . . . Here's the clip for the highlight reel . . ."
Harris calls out, pointing up at C-SPAN.

On-screen, Congressman Enemark approaches the podium with his usual
old-cowboy swagger. But if you look real close—when the light
hits him just right—the Lorax shines like a tiny star on his

"I'm Congressman William Enemark, and I speak for the people of
Colorado," he announces through the television.

"That's funny," I say. "I thought he spoke for the trees . .

To my surprise, Harris doesn't smile. He just scratches at the
dimple in his chin. "Feeling better?" he asks.

"Of course—why?"

He leans against the inlaid mahogany wall and never takes his eyes
off the TV. "I meant what I said before. There really are some
great games being played here."

"You mean games like this?"

"Something like this." There's a brand-new tone in his voice. All

"I don't understand."

"Oh, jeez, Matthew, it's right in front of your face," he says with
a rare glimpse of rural Pennsylvania accent.

I give him a long, hard look and rub the back of my sandy-blond
hair. I'm a full head taller than him. But he's still the only
person I look up to in this place. "What're you saying,

"You wanted to bring the fun back, right?"

"Depends what kinda fun you're talking about."

Pushing himself off the wall, Harris grins and heads for the door.
"Trust me, it'll be more fun than you've had in your entire life.
No lie."

Excerpted from THE ZERO GAME © Copyright 2003 by
Forty-four Steps, Inc.. Reprinted with permission by Warner Books.
All rights reserved.


The Zero Game
by by Brad Meltzer

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Warner Books
  • ISBN-10: 0446530980
  • ISBN-13: 9780446530989