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The Zero Game
by Brad Meltzer
Warner Books, 2004


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1


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.”

Excerpted from The Zero Game by Brad Meltzer. Copyright © 2004 by Brad Meltzer. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of TWBookmark.com. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.











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