• Sam Quentin

Room Zero

Updated: Jun 1, 2020

Joe Merchant found room 3. He chose optimism over nerves, told himself he deserved the promotion and knocked.

“Come in.”

He opened the door onto a large office. From behind an expensive desk a woman with perfect short grey hair and a sharp black suit looked up from her laptop. Her blue-green eyes indicated a chair opposite her then returned to reading something on the laptop. Behind her the whole back wall of her office was a 15th floor window that looked out over London’s financial district, The City.

The window offered a good view of the morning’s clear blue sky and some of London’s more famous landmarks. It was a power office. The interview set up was designed to be different. It was for one of the ‘quieter’ parts of the Foreign Office.

It was just a mile or two from the actual Foreign Office. The beautiful old building just off Parliament Square that Joe went into every day. In mind set it was far more distant. Joe was okay with the location, he had heard this kind of thing could be weird.

The stern looking woman pushed her laptop away and looked at him. “Have you ever considered suicide Mr Merchant?”

“As an opener ma’am, that’s an interesting question.”

“To which that isn’t an answer.” The woman’s piercing expression gave her the air of someone senior at a law firm.

“True.” Joe had been at the Foreign Office for four years and this was his first sniff of anything close to ‘high security’. If he was honest it was his first sniff of any kind of advancement. All the advice he had ever heard about these kind of things said two things. They’ll ask you questions that try to throw you and honesty was the only way ahead.

“I suppose like quite a few people I have considered what it might be like to step in front of the train rather than get on it. Beyond that, no, I don’t think I have.”

She set her face a little harder and looked to the file on her desk. “That seems odd.”

Joe choked a laugh, “That I haven’t considered suicide? Well perhaps now that you’ve made that point I’ll give it a little more thought.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Well in the context of your situation I’m surprised you haven’t considered the option.”

“My situation? Well I’m here, so obviously I’m interested in moving on from my current post but you did invite me. I’m not dissatisfied, just ambitious. I think considering that I don’t have the same background as a lot of people who’ve worked in the Foreign Office, actually I’m doing okay.”

She seemed to want him to stop talking. “Yes well, in career terms your background does seem to be holding you back a little doesn’t it? You are, at best, stalled but actually I meant your personal situation.”

Joe Merchant’s stomach rolled over. The word ‘stalled’ seemed to have been delivered like a threat to his career but the reference to his personal life fractured his composure. He looked hard at the woman who had not introduced herself. “I’m sorry I didn’t actually get your name when I came in?”

“No. I didn’t give it. So Mr Merchant, your girlfriend? Has she decided to keep the baby?”

Joe’s head got much lighter.

He wanted to deny it but she spoke with certainty. “Well, is that something you’ve discussed?”

He wanted to get up but knew his legs would not carry him. “I’m not sure that’s anything to do with you. But no, we haven’t.”

“Really? We thought that might have been something you would have, chatted about. I’m assuming if you haven’t had that discussion with her then you haven’t told your wife either? Perhaps she’s too busy with your other two?”

Joe fought to get himself back on track. He had come to a government office for a job interview. He was wondering how the hell this woman had got in. The building was secure. Someone would have to work hard to get in from the outside and it seemed nuts that someone who worked here would try it.

“I take it this job interview is over? I don’t have any money to give you.” He started to stand up.

The woman looked up. “I’d be very disappointed if you left Mr Merchant. I do have a role that might suit you, and really, don’t worry about blackmail. I know you don’t have any money.”

She nodded at her screen. “I’m fully aware of the credit card issues all three of your online bookmakers accounts have caused."

Anger started to burn away his surprise. “What department, exactly, is it that you work for? It’s not the Foreign Office is it?”

“Actually Mr Merchant it is. I’m a contractor for a small, lesser known part of the F O. I have to be honest at the moment thought I’m slightly perplexed. Your assumptions seem to have prevented you from asking a different question.”

“What do you want?”

A hint of a smile lived and died on the woman’s face. “The kind of work we do is often in partnership with our allies…”

“The Americans then.”

She looked a little annoyed to be interrupted but carried on. “That’s not inaccurate. Anyway, we specialise in problem solving. Not the big picture, slow moving issues that are dealt with by the wider department but individual crises.”

A pause stretched for what would have been way too long in a normal job interview. They exchanged looks. Hers questioning, his annoyed. Joe gave way. He raised his shoulders, palms and eyebrows. “Could you elaborate?”

She touched her ear and looked down then looked back up. Joe realised she had an earpiece in that was tiny. He couldn’t see it but from her body language he knew it was there.

“No I can’t elaborate, not really Mr Merchant, but what I can do is make you an offer.”

“Considering how this chat has gone and the fact I’ve been in here less than five minutes I have to admit I’m surprised.”

“Oh our decision was made when we looked into you and your life. Today was simply about checking that you didn’t panic when put under pressure. And I’m delighted to say that you’ve shown some nerves and are perhaps a little quick to anger, but no panic.”


“No need for a tone Mr Merchant. Although I do work for the Government, technically I work for an insurance company called Trelford Risk. Do you have your phone with you?”

“Yes.” Joe wanted to leave the room but felt anchored to his chair.

“I wonder if you could take it out and log into your bank app?”

Joe was uncomfortable but did as he was asked. He pulled his phone from the inside of his suit. He tapped in his access code and then went to his bank app and logged in. Once he had done it he looked up at the woman.

“Now look for two payments made to Trelford every month.”

Joe span through his acount and found them. Each month for the last six he had been paying Trelford Risk Int. PLC. “This doesn’t make sense. I’ve been checking my bank account regularly and I’ve never seen these before.”


Somewhere deep in his head the alarms began to get a lot louder.

“Mr Merchant. Given your unaffordable mortgage, 80 thousand pound gambling debt, 42 thousand pound salary in a dead end career, your two children, your wife’s desire to give up work and your now pregnant girlfriend, what do you think of your situation?”

Having his chaotic life summed up in a little over ten seconds by a complete stranger made him sick with panic but he was used to the sensation. It surged up every time he couldn’t force his brain to think of something else. Staring at the bedside clock at 3am with his head spinning had become normal. He had hoped this interview would lead to a promotion and a pay rise. “My situation… Well… It’s difficult.”

“Trelford Risk is a very unusual insurance company Mr Merchant. We make a huge loss every year, mainly because we insure risks that we know we’ll have to pay out on.”

She opened a drawer and took a couple of documents out. “Why don’t you have a look at these?”

He took the documents. They were life insurance summaries. One had his wife as the beneficiary, the other had his girlfriend. Both were insurances for £2.5 million pounds that he had never seen before.

“Now Mr Merchant, our allies have an issue with a group in Washington. They think that group pose a significant risk but they are finding it challenging to gather evidence. If someone were to walk into that group’s building with a bag of something explosive and that group ceased to exist, our allies could relax a little. It would suit them to have a non-US citizen at the heart of the matter and we owe them a favour. Do you have any questions?”

Joe had lots of questions but none of them would quite form. He was sweating and had slid down in his chair a little. Below glassy eyes his mouth was a little open. He stared beyond the stern grey haired woman and out of the window behind her.

She stood up but his eyes didn’t follow her. She put a few papers in a smart leather bag, put the strap on her shoulder, walked around the desk and then leant back on its edge. “Mr Merchant, if you turn left when you walk out the door you will find there is a Room 0. In it a colleague of mine will give you a ticket to Washington, your passport and arrange transport to Heathrow for you. If you turn right I wish you luck in whatever you do next now that your personal situation has forced you to resign from the Foreign Office.”

The woman stood up straight, smoothed her expensive suit and brought him from his shocked stare through the window with a wave of her hand. “Did you hear me Mr. Merchant?”

Joe nodded.

“Excellent. Now we’re in no rush. You can stay for a moment or the rest of the day. This room is yours and my colleague will remain where he is until the end of office hours. All I would ask is that you don’t contact anyone. Stories of tearful farewells might complicate our ability to pay out on those,” she waved a hand at the insurance policies that remained in front of him on the desk.

She walked from the room.

Joe Merchant stared out at the clear blue sky over London.

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