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‘The Zero Game’: Quick thriller points to shady doings in D.C.

By Deirdre Parker Smith
dp1@salisburypost.com
“The Zero Game,” by Brad Meltzer. Warner Books. 2004. 469 pp. $7.99 paperback.If you struggled through “Divided America,” then “The Zero Game,” will be a breeze. It’s the second fiction selection in the Summer Reading Challenge.
The plot’s easy to follow, the suspense pretty taut, and our heroes likable, if a little standardized. In a thriller, you need to stick to the formula. The point, after all, is the pace and the, uh, thrill.
I got a little lost as the plot’s Zero Game was introduced ó a gambling scheme by Congressional staffers to guess the outcome of votes or sneak legislation into big bills. That’s why I don’t go to Vegas. Too much math.
The body count starts early, and people you care about ó at least a little ó are among the victims.
As with all good thrillers, you’re never sure if friends are friends and how many foes are against you.
Harris, and his best friend, Matthew, join in the game. The key is you only know the person who invites you and none of the other players. The first bet is on number of votes. Not too shady. But when the stakes get higher ó can Matthew sneak approval of the transfer of an old mine to the government into a big appropriations bill? ó the scheme gets more dangerous.
We end up with not one body, but two, and meet the ultra-sinister assassin, Janos. His little black box is perfectly deadly and untraceable. He’s relentless and strong as the Hulk. He wears Italian shoes, drives classic cars and never stops his pursuit.
When Harris is left in shock at the first deaths and starts asking questions, he discovers the name of a Senate page and wants some answers.
But Viv Parker is just the victim of Senate ID card theft, and Harris soon asks her to help him unravel the mystery of this seemingly harmless bet.
Immediately, they’re both in trouble. And Viv, a 17-year-old, tall, African American girl out to prove herself is trapped. At first it seems exciting, and then, all too soon, the danger descends on her and Harris.
Harris is the clean cut, formerly idealistic chief of staff for a senator. And he’s only 29. Talk about an over-achiever. He’s already jaded, but the consequences of the bet propel him to action.
Add extra-credit points when he feels bad about drawing young Viv into this deep, dark, deadly secret.
The little old mine in South Dakota is the key to all the deadly intent, and as Harris and Viv run from Janos, they both realize the only escape is information. They quickly find they can trust no one ó not even Harris’ buddy in the Department of Justice.
Add another body ó Harris’ mentor, the lobbyist Pasternak, and another questionable friend, Barry, Pasternak’s blind associate.
Viv’s the only woman who gets any character development and there’s absolutely no hint of romance, thank goodness.
Harris uses his position to get them into all sorts of places and sometimes it’s a bit of stretch to believe no one ever asks to see their IDs and that the U.S. government is so loosey-goosey that dropping a senator’s name can get you a private jet.
Anyway, when they get to the mine and have a heart-stopping trip to the lowest level ó more than 8,000 feet down ó what they find is certainly not gold in the metallic sense. No, they find nuclear particles and a sophisticated set-up that only a government could pay for.
Is their own government financing this questionable, potentially dangerous project? Why? How? And who was pulling the strings to get the OK for the land transfer hidden in a huge appropriations request?
Again using his position, Harris finds out more than he wants to know ó and Viv puts it all together. Then they know they can’t run from Washington any more ó they’ve got a huge responsibility and they’ve got to find out who’s clean and who’s not.
What follows is chapter after chapter of cat-and-mouse, plenty of blood and near despair. The ultimate fight goes on a bit long, but it sure keeps those pages turning.
It’s perfect for conspiracy theorists and a fast-paced, fun read. Where John Grisham’s “The Appeal” was depressing because of its depiction of electoral deception, “The Zero Game” is not. But it’s an interesting look at Washington insiders.
Coming up: “Black Men Built the Capitol” ó maybe we’ll find out about those tunnels Harris discovers in his final confrontation!
Don’t forget the panel discussion Oct. 16 at Waterworks Visual Arts Center and F&M Trolley Barn.

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