The Zero Game


By Brad Meltzer

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The New York Times bestselling author of The Millionaires and The First Counsel returns to Washington, D.C., with the story of an insider’s game that turns deadly.

Matthew Mercer and Harris Sandler are best friends who have plum jobs as senior staffers to well-respected congressmen. But after a decade in Washington, idealism has faded to disillusionment, and they’re bored. Then one of them finds out about the clandestine Zero Game. It starts out as good fun-a simple wager between friends. But when someone close to them ends up dead, Harris and Matthew realize the game is far more sinister than they ever imagined-and that they’re about to be the game’s next victims. On the run, they turn to the only person they can trust: a 16-year-old Senate page who can move around the Capitol undetected. As a ruthless killer creeps closer, this idealistic page not only holds the key to saving their lives, but is also determined to redeem them in the process. Come play The Zero Game-you can bet your life on it.


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THERE'S ONE NAME on the cover of this book, but I've always maintained it takes far more than that to transform an imagined idea into reality. For that reason, I'd like to thank the following people: always first, my love Cori. To paraphrase someone far smarter than myself: The words aren't real until Cori reads them. She's always been my first editor and adviser, but for this book, in her real-world position as a lawyer in Congress, she was also my eyes and ears into the complex world of Capitol Hill. What she doesn't know is how humbled I was to watch her do her job. Forever the fighter of the good fight, she thought she was teaching me political mechanics. What she really did was remind me what idealism is all about. I love you for that and so much more. There are endless reasons I couldn't do this without you, C. Jill Kneerim, my agent and friend, whose insights and intuition challenge me to bring honesty to the forefront of my writing. Her guidance is among the first I seek, but it's her friendship that I treasure (even more than she knows). Elaine Rogers, for the amazing work she's done from the very start. Ike Williams, Hope Denekamp, Elizabeth Dane, Seana McInerney, and all the other incredibly nice people at the Kneerim & Williams Agency.

Now more than ever, I'd also like to thank my parents, whose unflinching love brought me here today. They keep me grounded, support me, and forever remind me where home really is. Everything I am, everything I have—it started with them. My sister Bari, one of the strongest people I know, for sharing that strength whenever I need it. Thanks, Bari, for everything you do. Dale and Adam Flam helped brainstorm the game, while Bobby Flam and Ami and Matt Kuttler read early drafts. Their love and support helped me throughout. Steve "Scoop" Cohen, fellow dreamer, brother in creativity, and all-around mad genius, for the eureka moment that led to this entire book. The ideas are fun; the friendship is far more valued. Thanks, Cheese! Noah Kuttler, without whose help I'd be insanely lost. Noah's the first sounding board I go to after my wife. He's that talented. He knows he's family—I just hope he realizes how blessed I feel to have him in my life. Ethan and Sarah Kline helped develop the game, and Ethan has fearlessly pushed me as a writer since my very first manuscript. Paul Brennan, Matt Oshinsky, Paulo Pacheco, Joel Rose, Chris Weiss, and Judd Winick, my alter egos, whose reactions and unwaveringfriendship are an endless source of inspiration.

In every novel, the goal is to make a complete fabrication sound like absolute fact. The only way to pull it off is to arm yourself with details. I owe the following people tremendous thank-yous for making those details available: Without question, when it came to explaining how the government actually works, Dave Watkins was my congressional senseian incredible teacher who was patient enough to answer all my inane questions. From initial brainstorming to final chapter gut-checking, I trusted him with every detail. He never let me down. Scott Strong was the Indiana Jones of the U.S. Capitol, guiding me through unexplored passageways and abandoned tunnels. His friendship and trust were indispensable to creating this reality. Tom Regan took me eight thousand feet beneath the earth's surface and reminded me exactly how this country was built. I just hope he knows what an impact his kindness had on me. Sean Dalton, for spending days explaining every tiny detail of the appropriations process, which is no small feat. His mastery of the minutiae was vital to this book. Andrea Cohen, Chris Guttman-McCabe, Elliot Kaye, Ben Lawsky, and Carmel Martin, for making themselves available whenever I needed them. The best part was, since they're among my closest friends, I could ask them the stupidest questions. Dick Baker is an institution unto himself. His generosity and historical insights brought the institution of the Capitol to life. Julian Epstein, Perry Apelbaum, Ted Kalo, Scott Deutchman, Sampak Garg, and everyone from the House Judiciary Committee are just the greatest. They made introductions, gave explanations, and came to my aid at every turn. Michone Johnson and Stephanie Peters, for being wonderful friends who helped bring Viv to life. Luke Albee, Marsha Berry, Martha Carucci, Jim Dyer, Dan Freeman, Charles Grizzle, Scott Lilly, Amy McKennis, Martin Paone, Pat Schroeder, Mark Schuermann, Will Smith, Debbie Weatherly, and Kathryn Weeden took me into their respective worlds and answered question upon question. Their help cannot be overstated. Congressman John Conyers, Congressman Harold Ford Jr., and Congressman Hal Rogers were generous enough to invite me inside—those were some of the best days of the process. Loretta Beaumont, Bruce Evans, Leif Fonnesbeck, Kathy Johnson, Joel Kaplan, Peter Kiefhaber, Brooke Livingston, and Chris Topik gave me a firsthand look at the incredible work that's done in Interior Appropriations. Mazen Basrawi, for letting me see through a blind man's eyes. Lee Alman, David Carle, Bruce Cohen, George Crawford, Jerry Gallegos, Jerry Hartz, Ken Kato, Keith Kennedy, David Safavian, Alex Sternhill, Will Stone, and Reid Stuntz for painting such realistic pictures of life on the Hill. Chris Gallagher, Rob Gustafson, Mark Laisch, William Minor, and Steve Perry were my experts in the art of lobbying. Michael Brown, Karl Burke, Steve Mitchell, and Ron Waterland of Barrick Gold, for all their help in getting me down into the mine. Michael Bowers, Stacie Hunhoff, Paul Ordal, Jason Recher, Elizabeth Roach, and Brooke Russ took me back to my youth and shared the excitement of being a page. Bill Allen, David Angier, Jamie Arbolino, Rich Doerner, and James Horning filled in the Capitol's physical details. David Beaver, Terry Catlain, Deborah Lanzone, John Leshy, Alan Septoff, and Lexi Shultz, for helping me with mining issues and land exchanges. Dr. Ronald K. Wright, for his always amazing forensic advice. Keith Nelson and Jerry Shaw taught me all the fighting skills. Dr. Ron Flam and Bernie Levin shared their hometown. Edna Farley, Kim from L.A., Jon Faust, Jo Ayn "Joey" Glanzer, Harvey Goldschmid, Bill Harlan, Paul Khoury, Daren Newfield, Susan Oshinsky, Adam Rosman, Mike Rotker, Greg Rucka, and Matthew Weiss, for walking me through the rest of the details. Brian Lipson, Phil Raskind, and Lou Pitt, whose hard work and friendship are immensely appreciated. Kathleen Kennedy, Donna Langley, Mary Parent, and Gary Ross, for their tremendous faith, sight unseen. Rob Weisbach, for being the first to say yes, and the rest of my family and friends, whose names forever inhabit these pages.

Finally, let me say thank you to everyone at Warner Books: Larry Kirshbaum, Maureen Egen, Tina Andreadis, Emi Battaglia, Karen Torres, Martha Otis, Chris Barba, the nicest and hardest-working sales force in show business, and all the other incredible people who make me feel like part of the family. They're the ones who do the heavy lifting, and they're the reason this book is in your hands. I also want to send a tremendous thank-you to my editor, Jamie Raab. From the moment we met, I've been under her care, but this is our first book where she's the sole editor. I'm the lucky one. Her insights about the characters forced me to delve deeper, and her suggestions left these pages far better than she found them. Every writer should be as blessed. Thanks again, Jamie, for your friendship, your endless enthusiasm, and most of all, your faith.


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 front."

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 in 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 matter.

"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 us.

"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 gone."

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 lie."

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 unstoppable.

"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 open.

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 read.

"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, Matthew?"

"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 Cordell."

"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 there.

"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 work.

"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 shut.

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 chest.

"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 serious.

"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, Harris?"

"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."


Six Months Later

I USUALLY HATE SEPTEMBER. With the end of the August recess, the halls are once again crowded, the Members are frozen in preelection bad moods, and worst of all, with the October 1st deadline that's imposed on all Appropriations bills, we're clocking hours twice as grueling as any other time of the year. This September, though, I barely notice.

"Who wants to taste a food item less healthy than bacon?" I ask as I leave the polished institutional hallways of the Rayburn House Office Building and shove open the door to room B-308. The clocks on the wall shout back with two loud electronic buzzes. The signal for a vote on the House Floor. The vote's on. And so am I…

Wasting no time, I make a quick left at the hand-woven Sioux quilt that hangs on the wall and head straight for our receptionist, a black woman who always has at least one pencil sticking in the bun of her prematurely gray hair. "Here you go, Roxanne—lunch is served," I call out as I drop two wrapped hot dogs onto her paperwork-covered desk. As a professional staffer for the Appropriations Committee, I'm one of four people assigned to the subcommittee on Interior. And the only one, besides Roxanne, who eats meat.

"Where'd you get these?" she asks.

"Meat Association event. Didn't you say you were hungry?"

She looks down at the dogs, then up at me. "What's up with you lately? You on nice pills or something?"

I shrug my shoulders and stare at the small TV behind her desk. Like most TVs in the building, it's on C-SPAN for the vote. My eyes check the tally. Too early. No yeas, no nays.

Following my gaze, Roxanne turns around to the TV. I stop right there. No… there's no way. She can't possibly know.

"You okay?" she asks, reading my now-pale complexion.

"With all this dead cow in my gut? Absolutely," I say, patting my stomach. "So, is Trish here yet?"

"In the hearing room," Roxanne says. "But before you go in, someone's at your desk."

Crossing into the large suite that houses four separate desks, I'm thoroughly confused. Roxanne knows the rules: With all the paperwork lying around, no one's allowed in back, especially when we're in preconference—which means, whoever's back here is someone big…

"Matthew?" a voice calls out with a salty North Carolina tinge.

… or someone I know.

"Come give your favorite lobbyist a juicy hug," Barry Holcomb says from the chair next to my desk. As always, his blond hair is as perfectly cut as his pinstriped suit—both of which come courtesy of bigshot clients like the music industry, the big telecom boys, and, if I remember correctly, the Meat Association.

"I smell hot dogs," Barry teases, already one step ahead. "I'm telling you, free food always works."

In the world of Capitol Hill, there're two kinds of lobbyists: those who swoop in from the top and those who burrow in from below. If you swoop in from the top, it's because you have direct connections to the Members. If you burrow from below, it's because you're connected to staff—or in this case, because you went to the same college, celebrated your last two birthdays together, and tend to see each other out for a beer at least once a month. The odd thing is, since he's a few years older, Barry's always been more Harris's friend than mine—which means this call is more business than social.


On Sale
Jan 20, 2004
Page Count
480 pages

Brad Meltzer

About the Author

Brad Meltzer is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Inner Circle and ten other bestselling thrillers. He is also the author of the Ordinary People Change the World series of picture book biographies—which includes I am Harriet Tubman—and is the host of the History Channel television shows Decoded and Lost History, in which he helped find the missing 9/11 flag. He lives in Florida. You can find out much more about him at You can also see what he’s doing right now at and on Twitter @bradmeltzer.

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