After an online game's bank is robbed a programmer, a cop, and an insurance investigator all find themselves involved in a global conspiracy. Sue Smith is a sergeant in the Edinburgh police department in near future post-independence Scotland. She is called in on a burglary call from a company called Hayek Associates.
When the police arrive the panicked Marketing Director confusingly starts describing a scenario involving orcs and dragons and soon it is revealed that Hayek runs security for a gaming company and that the robbery in question took place within an online roleplaying game.
The game is called Avalon Four, and in it players can purchase items with real world money. In order to facilitate gameplay Hayek Associates runs a central bank for the game where players can store their valuables to avoid losing them to bandits or character death. However since the items have real world value someone has devised a way of stealing them. There is some hacking involved, and there is a suspicion that the real motive behind the theft is to devastate the stock price of Hayek Associates.
Elaine Barnaby is an forensic accountant with the insurance company that covers Hayek. She gets assigned the case by because of her background as a gamer. Her bosses suspect the robbery was an inside job and want someone to audit the in-game bank. Elaine points out that although she knows her way around games, she is not a technical person and will need a programmer to help her access the data.
The police look into the Hayek employees and find that one of them, work-at-home programmer Nigel MacDonald is not answering his phone. They check his apartment and find it sanitized, so they start a missing persons investigation on him and he becomes a primary suspect in the robbery.
Elaine gets partnered with a down on his luck programmer called Jack Reed, they are given one week to investigate since the CEO of Hayek is not thrilled at being audited. They log into the game together and go looking for information on the missing Nigel MacDonald. Soon Jack starts receiving some threatening phone calls, which seem to be trying to get him to leave the case.
One of the games Elaine plays is called Spooks and is a real world role playing game in which people play as spies. She receives a mission to collect a package and as she does so she thinks she is being followed, unnerved she returns to her hotel.
While trying to track down someone who might be trying to fence the stolen items Jack has a run in with a Chinese hacker who asks him for asylum under the apparent assumption that Jack works for the government, when he realizes his mistake he vanishes leaving Jack confused.
Jack and Elaine are in a taxi when Elaine receives a Spooks call telling her that the cab driver is working for a Chinese group and trying to kidnap her, and that this is not a game but a real thing. Jack and Elaine escape the cab and Jack gets a call. He used to play Spooks as well but hasn't in years, the operator is from the game, she also tells him the game is real and they are both told to go to a specific location.
As they work together Jack and Elaine become close, and eventually start a relationship and open up to each other about their pasts.
It turns out Spooks is run by a real intelligence agency, using civilians as unwitting agents. The agency is also using Hayek as a front to monitor online cybercrime. They are currently trying to stop an attempted hack of the internet backbone routers by Chinese agents. They suspect that they have a mole at Hayek who is working for the Chinese.
They set a trap for the mole, who turns out to be the CEO of the company. Although it is a government front, the main employees where hired from outside the agency, since they needed real experts to run the company. It turns out that Hackman, unaware of who he was really working for, is behind the robbery and stood to gain millions from some tricky stock options.
Best part of story, including ending:
The basic premise(s) are pretty neat, from the in-game heist to using civilians as unwitting agents. However the whole thing has far too much technical explanation of hacking, gaming, programming, and internet infrastructure. Additionally it becomes very convoluted with multiple individuals who don't really exist and too many conflicting interests acting with motivations that ultimately don't matter enough to warrant the time spent on them in the narrative.
Best scene in story:
I liked when Elaine and Jack go online together for the first time, it's funny and interesting and you start seeing their chemistry.
Opinion about the main character:
It's hard to say who the lead is in this, since Sue, Elaine, and Jack all get about the same amount of screen time. But since Sue is the first one on the page; she's smart and no-nonsense, and does a great deal despite the fact that she is terribly unqualified for this particular assignment and knows it.