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The Zero Game by Brian Meltzer



Rating: (Recommended)


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Brian Meltzer’s new novel, The Zero Game, presents a behind the scenes, fast-paced thriller set in Washington, D.C. that provides great entertainment. Meltzer is a master of detail, and he discloses just enough of them to create real scenes and situations, but not so many that readers get bogged down. Instead, the tension builds quickly, and readers will flip pages rapidly in pure enjoyment. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 2 (pp. 10-20):

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 reception~ 1st, 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.

“So what’s happening?” he asks. There it is. As a lobbyist at Pasternak & Associates, Barry knows he’s got two things to offer his clients: access and information, Access is why he’s sitting here. Now he’s focused on the latter.

“Everything’s fine,” I tell him.

“Any idea when you’ll have the bill done?”

I look around at the three other desks in the room. All empty. it’s a good thing. My other three office mates already have their own reasons to hate me——ever since Cordell took over the Interior Approps subcommittee and replaced their former colleague with me, I’ve been the odd man out. I don’t need to add to it by letting them catch me back here with a lobbyist. Of course, Barry may he the sole exception.

Sitting just below the Grand Canyon lithograph that hangs on my wall, Barry leans an elbow on my desk, which is packed with volcanoes of paperwork, including my Conference notes of all the projects we’ve funded so far. Barry’s clients would pay thousands, maybe millions, for those. It’s sitting four inches to Barry’s left,

But Barry doesn’t see it. He doesn’t see anything. Justice is blind. And due to a case of congenital glaucoma, so is one of the Hill’s best-known young lobbyists.

As I cross around to my desk, Barry’s vacant blue eyes stare into the distance, but his head turns as he traces my steps. Trained since birth, he absorbs the sounds. My arms swinging against my body. The in-and-out of my breath. Even the crushed hush as my foot hits the carpet. In college, he had a golden retriever named Reagan, which was great for meeting girls. But on the Hill, after being slowed down by strangers who were constantly asking to pet the dog, Barry branched out on his own These days, if it weren’t for the white cane, he’d be just another guy in a snazzy suit. Or, as Barry likes to put it: Political vision has nothing to do with eyesight.

“We’re hoping October first,” I tell him. “We’re almost done with the Park Service.”

“How ‘bout your office mates? They moving as happily along?” What he really wants to know is, are the negotiations going just as well? Barry’s no fool. The four of us who share this office divvy up all the accounts—or sections—of the Interior bill, each doing our own specialty. At last count, the bill had a bridget of twenty-one billion dollars. When you divide it by four. that means we’re in charge of spending over five billion dollars. Each. So why’s Barry so interested? Because we control the purse strings. Indeed, the whole purpose of the Appropriations Committee is to write the checks for all discretionary money spent by the government.

It’s one of the dirtiest little secrets on Capitol Hill: Congress­men can pass a bill, but if it needs funding, it’s not going any­where without an Appropriator. Case in point: Last year, the President signed a bill that allows free immunizations for low-income children. But unless Appropriations sets aside money to pay for the vaccines, the President may’ve gotten a great media event, but no one’s getting a single shot And that, as the old joke goes, is why there’re actually three parties in Congress: Democrats, Republicans~ and Appropriators. Like I said it’s a dirty se­cret---but one Barry is all too aware of right about now.

“So everyone’s good?” he asks.

“Why complain1 right?”

Realizing the clock’s ticking, I flip on the TV that sits on my fil­ing cabinet, As C-SPAN blooms into view, Barry turns at the sound. I once again check the vote count.

           “What’s the tally?” he asks.

I spin around at the question. “What’d you say?”

Barry pauses. His left eye is glass; his right one is pale blue and completely foggy. The combination makes it near impossible to read hic expression. But the tone in his voice is innocent enough. “The tally,” he repeats. ‘What’s the vote count?”

I smile to myself1 still watching him closely. To be honest, if he were playing the game, I wouldn’t be surprised. I take that back. I would be. Harris said you can only invite one other person in. Harris invited me. If Barry’s in, someone else invited him.

Convinced it’s just my imagination1 I check the totals on C-SPAN. Al! I care about are the yeas and nays. On-screen, the white letters are superimposed over a shot of the still mostly empty House Floor: thirty-one yeas, eight nays.

“Thirteen minutes left. Thirty-one to eight:’ I tell Barry. “It’ll be a slaughter:’

‘No surprise:’ he says, focused on the TV. “Even a blind man could’ve seen that:’

I laugh at the joke—one of Barry’s old favorites. But I can’t stop thinking about what Harris said. It’s the best part of the game—not knowing who else is playing.

“Listen, Barry, can we catch up later?”! ask as! grab my con­ference notes. “I’ve got Trish waiting...”

“No stress:’ he says, never wanting to push. Good lobbyists know better than that. “I’ll call you in an hour or so.”

“That’s fine——though I may still be in the meeting.”

“Let’s make it two hours. Does three o’clock work?”

Again, I take it back. Even when he doesn’t want to, Barry can’t help but push. It was the same way in college. Every time we’d get ready to go to a party; we’d get two calls from Barry. The first was to check what time we were leaving. The second was to recheck what time we were leaving. Harris always called it overcompensa­tion for the blindness;! called it understandable insecurity. What­ever the real reason, Barry’s always had to work a little harder to make sure he’s not left out.

“So I’ll speak to you at three:’ he says, hopping up and heading out. I tuck my notebooks under my arm like a football and plow toward the door that connects with the adjoining hearing room. Inside, my eyes skip past the enormous oval conference table and even the two black sofas against the back wall that we use for over­flow. Instead, like before, I find the small TV in the back and—

“You’re late,” Trish interrupts from the conference table.

I spin midstep, almost forgetting why I’m here. “Would it help if I brought hot dogs?”! stutter.

“I’m a vegetarian.”

Harris would have a great comeback. I offer an awkward grin. Leaning back in her chair, she’s got her arms crossed, com­pletely uncharmed. At thirty-six years old, Trish Brennan has at least six years more experience than me, and is the type of person who says you’re late even when she’s early. Her reddish hair, dark green eyes, and light freckles give her an innocent look that’s sur­prisingly attractive. Of course, right now, the hottest thing in the room is the small TV in the back. I have to squint to see it. Forty-two yeas, ten nays. Still looking good.

As I pull out the chair directly across from her at the conference table, the front door of the hearing room swings open and the last two staffers finally arrive. Georgia Rudd and Ezra Ben­Shmuel. Already prepped for battle, Ezra’s got a sparse poor­man’s-environmentalist beard (my-first-beard, Trish calls it) and a blue dress shirt rolled up to his elbows. Georgia’s the exact op­posite. Too much of a conformist to take chances, she’s quiet, wears a standard navy interview suit, and is happy enough fol­lowing Trish’s lead.


Each armed with an oversized redwell accordion file, they quickly head to different sides of the table. Ezra on my side, Geor­gia next to Trish. All four horsemen are here. When it comes to Conference, I represent the House majority; Ezra does the House minority. Across the table, Trish and Georgia do the respective same for the Senate. And regardless of the fact that Ezra and I are in different political parties, even House Republicans and Dem­ocrats can set aside their differences for our common enemy: the Senate.


My pager vibrates in my pocket, and I pull it out to check the message. It’s from Harris. You watching? he asks in digital black letters.


I glance over Trish’s shoulder, toward the TV in the hack. Eighty-four yeas, forty-one nays.


Crap. I need the nays to stay under 110. If they’re at forty-one this early in the vote, we’ve got problems.


What do we do? I type back on the pager’s tiny keyboard, hid­ing my hands under the desk so the Senate folks can’t see what I’m doing. Before I can send it, my pager shakes with a new message.


Don’t panic just yet, Harris insists. He knows me too well.


“Can we please get this going?” Trish asks. It’s the sixth day in a row we’ve been trying to stomp each other into the ground, and Irish knows there’s still plenty to go. “Now, where’d we leave off?”

Cape Cod,” Ezra says. Like speed-readers in a race, all four of us flip through the hundred-page documents in front of us that show the spending difference between the House and Senate bills. Last month, when the House passed its version of the bill, we al­located seven hundred thousand dollars to rehabilitate the Cape Cod Seashore; a week later, the Senate passed its version, which didn’t allocate a dime That’s the point of Conference: finding the differences and reaching a compromise-—item by item by item. When the two hills are merged, they go back to the House and Senate for final passage. When both bodies pass the same bill, that’s when it goes to the White House to be signed into law.

“I’ll give you three hundred and fifty thousand~’ Trish offers, hoping I’ll he satisfied by half.

“Done,” I tell her, grinning to myself. If she’d pushed, I would’ve settled for an even two hundred.

“The Chesapeake in Maryland,” Trish adds, moving to the next item. I look down at the spreadsheet, Senate gave it six million for stabilization; we gave it nothing.

Trish smiles. That’s why she was kissing tush on the last one. The six million in here was put there by her boss, Senator Ted Apelbaum, who also happens to he the Chairman of the subcom­mittee-----the Senate equivalent of my boss, Cordell, In local slang, the Chairs are known as Cardinals. That’s where the argument ends. What Cardinals want, Cardinals get.

In quiet rooms around the Capitol, the scene is the same. For­get the image of fat-cat Congressmen horse-trading in cigar-smoke--filled backrooms, This is how the sausage is made, and this is how America’s bank account is actually spent: by four staffers sitting around a well-lit conference table without a Congressman in sight. Your tax dollars at work. Like Harris always says: The real shadow government is staff.

My pager again vibrates in my lap. Harris’s message is simple:


I take another look at the TV. One hundred seventy-two yeas, sixty-four nays.

Sixty-four? I don’t believe it. They’re over halfway there.

How? I type back.

Maybe they have tile votes, Harris replies almost instantly.

Can’t be, I send back.

For the next two minutes, Trish lectures about why seven mil­lion dollars is far too much to spend on Yellowstone National Park. I barely register a word. On C-SPAN, the nays go from sixty-four to eighty-one. It’s impossible.

“…don’t you agree, Matthew?” Trish asks. I stay locked on C-SPAN.

“Matthew!” Trish calls out. “You with us or not?”

Wha?” I say, finally turning toward her.

Tracing my gaze back to its last location, Trish looks over her shoulder and spots the TV. “That’s what you’re so caught up in?” she asks. “Some lame vote for baseball?”

She doesn’t get it. Sure, it’s a vote for baseball, but it isn’t just any vote. It actually dates back to 1922, when the Supreme Court ruled that baseball was a sport—not a business—and therefore was allowed a special exemption from antitrust rules. Football, basketball, all the rest have to comply—but baseball, the Supreme Court decided, was special. Today, Congress is trying to strengthen that exemption, giving owners more control over how big the league gets. For Congress, it’s a relatively simple vote: If you’re from a state with a baseball team, you vote for baseball (even the Reps from rural New York don’t dare vote against the Yankees). If you’re from a state without a team—or from a district that wants a team, like Charlotte or Jacksonville—you vote against it.

When you do the math—and account for political favors by powerful owners—that leaves a clear majority voting for the bill, and a maximum of 100 Members voting against it—105 if they’re lucky. But right now, there’s someone in the Capitol who thinks he can get 110 nays. There’s no way, Harris and I decided. That’s why we bet against it.

“We all ready to hit some issues?” Trish asks, still plowing her way through the Conference list. In the next ten minutes, we allo­cate three million to repair the seawall on Ellis Island, two and a half million to renovate the steps on the Jefferson Memorial, and thirteen million to do a structural upgrade on the bicycle trail and recreation area next to the Golden Gate Bridge. No one puts up much of a fight. Like baseball—you don’t vote against the good stuff.

My pager once again dances in my pocket. Like before, I read it under the table. 97, Harris’s message says.

I can’t believe they’re getting this far. Of course, that’s the fun of playing the game.

In fact, as Harris explained it when he first extended the invita­tion, the game itself started years ago as a practical joke. As the story goes, a junior Senate staffer was bitching about picking up a Senator’s dry cleaning, so to make him feel better, his buddy on staff snuck the words dry cleaning into a draft of the Senator’s next speech:. . . although sometimes regarded as dry, cleaning our environment should clearly be a top priority. . . It was always meant to be a cheap gag—something that’d be taken out before the speech was given. Then one of the staffers dared the other to keep it in.

“I’ll do it,” the staffer threatened.

“No, you won’t,” his friend shot back.

Wanna bet?”

Right there, the game was born. And that afternoon, the distin­guished Senator strolled onto C-SPAN and told the entire nation about the importance of “dry, cleaning.”

In the beginning, they always kept it to small stuff: hidden phrases in an op-ed, an acronym in a commencement speech. Then it got bigger. A few years ago, on the Senate Floor, a Senator who was searching for his handkerchief reached into his jacket pocket and proceeded to wipe his forehead with a pair of women’s silk panties. He quickly laughed it off as an honest mistake made by his laundry service. But it wasn’t an accident.

That was the first time the game broke the envelope—and what caused the organizers to create the current rules. These days, it’s simple: The bills we bet on are ones where the outcome’s clearly decided. A few months back, the Clean Diamond Act passed by a vote of 408 to 6; last week, the Hurricane Shelters Act passed by 401 to 10; and today, the Baseball for America Act was expected to pass by approximately 300 to 100. A clear landslide. And the per­fect bill to play on.

When I was in high school, we used to try to guess if Jennifer Luftig would he wearing a bra. In grad school, we made bingo cards with the names of the kids who talked the most, then waited for them to open their mouths. We’ve all played our games. Can you get twelve more votes? Can you get the Vermont Congress­men to vote against it? Can you get the nays up to 110, even when 100 is all that’s reasonably possible? Politics has always been called a game for grown-ups. So why is anyone surprised people would gamble on it?

Naturally, I was skeptical at first, but then I realized just how innocent it really was. We don’t change the laws, or pass bad legisla­tion, or stroke our evil goatees and overthrow democracy as we know it. We play at the margins; that’s where it’s safe—and where it’s fun. It’s like sitting in a meeting and betting how many times the annoying guy in your office uses the word “I.” You can goad him and make your best attempts to alter it, but in the end, the re­sults are pretty much the same. In the world of Capitol Hill, even though we’re split between Ds and Rs, 99 percent of our legisla­tion is passed by overwhelming majorities. It’s only the few con­troversial bills that make the news. The result is a job that can easily lapse into a repetitive, monotonous grind—that is, unless you find a way to make it interesting.

My pager once again shudders in my fist. 103, Harris sends.

“Okay, what about the ‘White House?” Trish asks, still working her list. This is the one she’s been saving for. In the House, we al­located seven million for structural improvements to the ‘White House complex. The Senate—thanks to Trish’s boss—zeroed the program out.

“C’mon, Trish~’ Ezra begs. “You can’t just give ‘em goose egg.”

Trish raises an eyebrow. “We’ll see. .

It’s typical Senate. The only reason Trish’s boss is playing the jerk is because the President has been pushing for a settlement in a racial discrimination lawsuit against the Library of Congress. Trish’s boss, Senator Apelbaum, is one of the few people involved in the negotiation. This close to the elections, he’d rather stall, keep the lawsuit quiet, and keep it out of the press. This is the Sen­ator’s way of pushing back. And from the smug look on Trish’s face, she’s loving every minute of it.

“Why don’t we just split the difference?” Ezra says, knowing our usual mode of compromise. “Give it three and a half million, and ask the President to bring his library card next time.”

Both plot and dialogue are well-crafted in The Zero Game, and the pleasure of reading this thriller will remain with you for some time.

Steve Hopkins, March 23, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the April 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Zero Game.htm


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