Catherine Asaro

Award Winning Science Fiction & Fantasy Author

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The Jigsaw Assassin

Book 4 in the Major Bhaajan Mysteries

A serial killer stalks a star empire

Selei City is the capital of the Imerialte and one of the most desired locales in all of the Skolian Empire. But its thin veneer of civilization is cracked when a series of brutal crimes implicates those in political power in a vast conspiracy. Three prominent scientists have lost their lives to a serial killer—and notes at the scenes of the crimes lead to a connection to the Royalist political party.

Major Bhaajan, former military officer turned private detective, is called back to Selei City to solve the crime. Bhaaj and her crew of Undercity Dust Knights plunge into the Byzantine world of Imperial politics, a jigsaw world where no pieces seem to fit. As the assassination plot becomes more and more convoluted, Bhaaj is kidnapped, threatened with death, and must fight for her life against those trying to stop her investigation—by any means possible. Bhaaj has faced tough cases before, but now she must deal with something far deadlier—interstellar politics.

About the Major Bhaajan series:
“. . . riveting. . . . The world is rich and vivid, with two distinct cultures in the Undercity and the aboveground City of Cries. This exciting novel stands alone for anyone who enjoys science fiction adventure.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Asaro plants herself firmly into that grand SF tradition of future history franchises favored by luminaries like Heinlein, Asimov, Herbert, Anderson, Dickson, Niven, Cherryh, and Baxter . . . They don’t write em like that anymore! Except Asaro does, with . . . up-to-the-minute savvy!”—Locus

“I‘m hooked, both on her writing and her Skolian universe. This book had everything I wanted: strong characters, a new and unique world, and a plot that isn’t as simple as it first appears.”—TerryTalk

The Jigsaw Assassin

Book 4 in the Major Bhaajan Mysteries

The Jigsaw Assassin


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I rode the glass-enclosed lift down the side of the co-op, enjoying the glow of sunlight that filled the car. It took me from the twentieth floor to the ground, offering a glorious view of the surrounding parks. Nestled among the trees and paths, a small café offered round tables and wicker chairs. Even from so far away, I could see that Xira had already arrived, taking her seat at the table where we always met. It was hard to believe more than three years had passed since the last time we got together. I so looked forward to seeing her. Thinking about it, I felt relaxed for the first time since I’d arrived on Parthonia yesterday. The lift reached the ground and I stepped out into the sunshine—

A huge force hurled me forward while thunder roared. I sailed through the air and slammed into the ground so hard that the world darkened around me.

Combat mode toggled, Max thought.

My internal libraries took over, controlling the bio-hydraulics in my body even though I was only half-conscious. I scrambled to my feet and sprinted away from whatever had just happened. All around me, people shouted and alarms screamed.

While my head cleared, I gulped in air and slowed down, turning to walk backward. People all over were also backing away, gaping at the co-op. In my heightened mode, everyone seemed to move in slow motion. Only ruins remained of the building I’d just left. Its left side had exploded, leaving no more than a bare framework standing, the reinforced beams that supported the structure.

Max, what the hell happened? As the EI, or Evolving Intelligence, implanted in my internal biotech systems, he lived in the leather and tech-mech gauntlets I wore on my lower arms. He sent signals along threads in my body to bio-electrodes in my brain, which fired my neurons, turning his signals into thoughts.

I think a bomb went off inside the co-op where you live, he answered.

People are in there! We have to go back, get them out. I swung around, looking toward the nearby bistro, searching for Xira, the friend I’d intended to meet there. Too many people blocked my view.

The rest of the building is about to collapse, Max thought. You can’t go back.

Chaos surrounded me. Chunks of casecrete and the blunted shards of supposedly shatterproof windows lay everywhere like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle strewn across the ground. Dust swirled, filling the day with an acrid, scorched stench and turning the sunlight gray. People called out names of friends or loved ones, shouted for help, checked their wristbands.

A flyer wheeled over the crumbling remains of the building. “Clear the area,” an amplified voice boomed. “Move away from the building.”

As people scattered, the flyer set down in a nearby plaza. The wail of sirens vibrated in the air. Several hovercars whirred into view from behind buildings and settled in a park near the co-op.

“Bhaaj!” a woman yelled.

I turned to see Xira standing outside the barrier the rescue workers were setting up. I closed my eyes, hit with a relief so intense it felt visceral. Looking again, I waved and shouted, “I’m fine.”

“You aren’t fine,” Max said. “You’re in combat mode, so you can’t feel your injuries because your nanomeds are pumping you with stimulants and painkillers.”

I took a breath, trying to steady my pulse. “Did I take any serious damage?”

“I don’t believe so. But you should get checked by a medic.”

“Can you reach Highcloud, the EI for your co-op apartment?” Max paused, and that in itself answered my question. After a moment, he said, “I’m sorry.”

I bit my lip, telling myself copies of Highcloud existed. Then I remembered: we kept the server that did backups in the basement of the co-op, which right now lay in ruins. I’d been meaning to back up Highcloud elsewhere, too, but I’d been gone for years, so I hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

“Damn,” I whispered.

“Help, please!” The faint shout barely reached even my enhanced hearing.

“Max, that came from inside the detonation zone.” I walked around the perimeter of the worst debris, searching for the source of the cry.

“Help!” The call came from up ahead, deeper within the wreckage.

“Ma’am, you have to leave,” a woman said at my side. “You must get behind the perimeter set up by our emergency response teams.” I turned with a start, my adrenaline jumping. A woman in an ER suit was walking at my side.

“You must go now,” she repeated, her expression firm behind the clear screen of her hood.

Combat mode off, I thought to Max. I didn’t want my reflexes to kick me into an attack. Send her my ID.

To the woman, I said, “I’m trained to assist in emergencies. Major Bhaajan, retired, Pharaoh’s Army. Can I help here?” I motioned toward the debris. “Someone in there is calling for help. I have biomech sensors that will help locate them.”

“I’m verifying your ID.” Her gaze took on the inwardly directed look people got when they accessed their EI. She wore full tech-mech gauntlets similar to mine and carried herself with a reassuring sense of authority. Gray streaked her curly brown hair, creating a distinguished look, and she had smooth, flawless skin with just a few lines of age. It looked natural, not the too-perfect creation of bodysculpting or overzealous nanomeds. I liked her straightforward attitude, so refreshing after the politics I’d dealt with recently.

The lieutenant was also giving me the once over, taking in my gauntlets and clothes. “You look like you got blasted with dust from the collapse.”

“I was on the edge of the explosion.” I actually wasn’t sure about that, but I’d survived, so I couldn’t have been much closer. Thank the saints no one else rode down with me in the lift. Someone without biomech and combat training wouldn’t have walked away from that blast.

“You have solid credentials, Major.” She considered me. “Normally we don’t involve civilians unconnected with our units. With something this bad and this sudden, though, we could use qualified help. My CO is checking—yes, she says you’re cleared.” She nodded to me. “Welcome to the team.”

“Whatever I can do.” The full emotional impact of the explosion hadn’t yet registered on my brain. I needed to move, to help, to do something to handle the swell of shock and disbelief.

She pulled a packet off her belt and shook it until the square expanded into a reinforced helmet with a face screen. Handing it to me, she said, “Wear this at all times. And you have on smart clothes, yes? They look combat ready, in fact.” She raised her eyebrows. “That’s a high level of protection for someone walking in a residential area.”

“I’m on a case.” She’d know from my ID that I worked as a PI, which would explain why I wore clothes with reinforced intelligent cloth.

“I’m Lieutenant René Silvers.” She looked out over the wreckage. “Where did you hear the calls for help?”

I donned the helmet, then motioned toward an area where none of the building remained. “Over there.”

We walked forward, picking our way through jagged chunks of casecrete. We probably weren’t close enough to the remains of the co-op to get hit if more debris fell, but we couldn’t take anything for granted. In the more unstable areas, they’d bring machines to do the clearing.

Max, ramp up my hearing, sight, and reflexes. Not full combat mode, though. Keep the battle libraries in standby. I don’t want to attack anyone.


My hearing amplified, picking up the whisper of dust particles blowing across the rubble. We neared a wall of the building that still stood, about one story high, its broken edges jagged against the sky. I could hear the low groans of stressed materials, but no human voice.

I stopped. “That wall up ahead isn’t stable. I can hear it creaking.”

Silvers nodded as I moved back. “Can you still hear the calls for help?”

I strained to catch the sound. Nothing.

I’m getting life signs ahead to the left. Max sent me coordinates. The signals are weak but steady.

“Something is there.” I motioned toward where the lift had formerly exited the co-op. Nothing of the building there remained standing. Wind blew eerily across the wreckage, stirring gray and blue swirls of dust. It looked like something in a horror holo-vid, where ghostly creatures might coalesce out of the gritty haze.

“It’s ahead by about four meters,” I said. “And to the left.” No creaks or groans came from the debris there, either structural or supernatural. Nothing remained of the building to moan.

Silvers flicked her fingers across her gauntlet. “I’m not getting a warning for that area. If that changes, we move away fast. Got it?”

I nodded. “Understood.”

We made our way through mounds of rubble heaped in what used to be a plaza fronting the co-op. I stepped over a long bar, some half- melted beam that had once supported a wall. I couldn’t take it in yet, that only moments ago, I’d walked through a graceful exit arch here into sunshine.

“Please . . .” The voice faded into a whisper.

“There.” I motioned to a heap of rubble a few meters ahead, where debris had piled into a hill taller than either of us. “Can you hear us?” I yelled. “Can you speak?”

No answer.

“Heya!” Silvers shouted. “Call out so we can find you.” As we picked our way toward the heap of blasted rubble, she spoke to me in a low voice. “If that fell on someone, I don’t see how they survived.”

“You never know what people have in their body. My enhanced skeletal structure can endure far more weight than a normal body.” I raised my voice and shouted, “Call out if you can!”

Silvers walked around the mound, scrutinizing the jagged casecrete and wood. A scatter of debris rattled down the pile and clattered across the ground. Breezes stirred our hair, and dust blew against my face screen, which cleaned away the dirt.

“I’m here.” The voice came a little more strongly this time, with a hint of hope.

“I hear you!” I called. “But I can’t see you.” I didn’t dare move the wreckage, not without equipment to stop the mound from shifting or collapsing. “Can you call out again?”

“Here . . .” The voice faded.

Silvers came up next to me. “They’re inside all that rubble. If we try to dig them out, it could collapse and crush them. And us.” She spoke into her gauntlet comm. “Silvers here. We have someone buried under an unstable load of debris. We need nets, safety-rails, and hazard drills.”

“All the equipment on site is already in use,” a voice answered. “We have more on the way. I’ll send it over as soon as it arrives. Keep your gauntlet beacon active.”

“Will do,” Silvers said.

Max thought, Bhaaj, the life signs from whoever is under that debris are weakening.

“I don’t think we have time to wait,” I told Silvers.

She studied the rubble, her gauntlets flickering. “Maybe we could move the larger blocks.”

“The pile will collapse if you move the wrong pieces,” Max said.

Silvers started. “Who is that?”

“My EI,” I said. “I’ve been communicating with him via neural threads. He probably spoke so we could both hear his updates.”

“Yes,” Max said. “I am analyzing the debris for points of stability.”

“Good.” Silvers walked to the right around the mound, and I went in the other direction.

“Are you there?” I called.

No answer.

“Max, what vitals are you getting?” I asked.

“Not much. I’m not sure they’re breathing anymore.”

Silvers rounded the pile and came over, her face creased with strain. “I can’t see them.”

“We need to start digging,” I said. “Whoever is in there will die if we don’t.”

“I’m pretty sure they’re closer to the other side.”

I went with her to the place she believed placed us nearest to the survivor. “Max?” I asked. “Can we get any closer?”
“A few steps to the left, but according to my scans, the wreckage is less stable there.”

“We need supports.” She tapped her comm. “Silvers, here. Can you get any equipment over here at all? Anything that could support unstable debris?”

“Sorry, ma’am,” a man said. “Not yet. It should only be a few more minutes, though.”

“We need supports.” She tapped her comm. “Silvers, here. Can you get any equipment over here at all? Anything that could support unstable debris?”

“Sorry, ma’am,” a man said. “Not yet. It should only be a few more minutes, though.”

I looked at Silvers. She looked back at me. We both knew whoever lay buried in that wreckage couldn’t last long enough for the supports to arrive.

“We’ll try here,” Silvers told me.

We started to dig, so very, very carefully. I took large pieces from higher on the pile, since the lower parts supported the upper sections. As soon as we removed even a few boulders, however, the pile shifted.

“Gloves out,” I said in a low voice. “Activate spikes.”

Gloves snapped out of my gauntlets and molded around my hands, strong and flexible. They extruded their spikes that glinted in the dusty light. I braced my shoulder under an edge in the rubble, with the hill above pressing down on me. My muscles strained as I took the weight of casecrete chunks onto my arms and shoulders.

I regarded Silvers. “Now you have a support beam.”

“What? No.” She scowled at me. “You can’t support that much weight. You’ll be crushed.”

“Got biomech,” I grunted. “Enhanced skeleton and muscles. I’ve supported worse.” Not much, but I’d manage. Max, monitor my biomech. Let me know if you get any danger signs.

You’re fine for now. I’d suggest you move your support slightly to your left.

I edged over, using the spikes from my gloves to anchor my body more firmly into the pile. “Go,” I told Silvers. “Dig under me.”

“You’ve got guts, I’ll say that.” She went to work, moving with care. The pile shifted, and I held up the blocks, supporting them as Silvers cleared a cavity beneath my body. The rubble slid on my body, then caught as my smart clothes changed texture, creating more friction.

“I see someone!” Silvers called. She kept going, with excruciating care.

I said nothing, concentrating on the debris I was holding. It shifted, and I pushed against it, leaning so I could bear the weight of a large piece on my back.

“Can you hear me?” Silvers asked, most of her body under mine as she cleared more blocks.

I didn’t answer. She wasn’t talking to me. I gritted my teeth, straining to keep the debris from shifting again. If I lost control now, it could smash all three of us.

“Here,” Silvers said, her voice muffled. “I’ve cleared a tunnel. You need to crawl out.”

A groan came from under the rubble, followed by the scrape of stone against stone. More debris shifted, and I gasped as a heavy chunk dug into my shoulder.

Bhaaj, you can’t do this for much longer, Max said. Your shoulders could break.

“Silvers,” I rasped. “I’m just about done.”

“Almost there.” Debris scraped under me. “Come on,” she coaxed. “Only a little more.

The casecrete felt like drills bearing into my shoulders. My arms burned. I leaned into the weight, bending over, protecting whatever was happening below me. I didn’t dare look; the slightest wrong movement and I’d lose control of the pile.

“That’s it,” Silvers said. More scraping, and in my side vision I saw her pulling a youth out of the ruins, supporting his neck.

“You free yet?” I grunted.

“Almost,” Silvers said.

In the same instant Max said, You have to get out! I groaned and gave a great shove, heaving debris away from Silvers while I stumbled back. As soon as I lost my grip, chunks of casecrete thundered down, their collapse like the bark of a gun. It knocked me to my knees, and I threw myself forward, aiming for Silvers and her rescued patient, protecting my head with my arms. I landed on the two of them as rocks fell around us, pounding my legs. Something large tumbled across my back like a freight car that had plunged off its track.

Smaller chunks rained down, rattling on the broken ground. More pebbles fell, scattering.


After a moment, when nothing else happened, I muttered, “Are we alive?”

“Major?” That came from someone beneath me, Silvers it sounded like. “Can you move?”

I shifted my weight, edging out from under the block that lay across my back. It rolled off and thumped across the ground.

“Ah!” That groan came from someone else.

With great care, I turned onto my side, checking my surroundings. Both Silvers and a young man lay next to me. Debris had fallen all around us and half the mound had collapsed.

“Ungh,” I said, ever articulate.

Silvers lifted her head to look at her patient. “We have to get him medical help.”

“And fast,” Max said. “His life signs are faltering.”

I struggled to my knees, slow and cautious, aware of the unstable debris. “We need to get away from this stuff.”

With her body braced on her palms, Silvers looked down at the youth she’d saved from the wreckage. He lay on his back, his eyes closed, his face pale, dust covering his body and hair. Blood stained his clothes everywhere, particularly his torso and limbs.

“Can you hear me?” Silvers asked the youth. “We’re bringing help.”

He opened his eyes to look at her. That was enough. He still lived.

“Ho, Lieutenant Silvers!” That shout came from out in the plaza.

“We’ve got nets for you.” A flyer hummed above us, and a net fell across my back. We managed to wrap it around the young man, fastening him into the smart web of the mesh. It shifted, making its best estimate for how it needed to cradle his body. Silvers grabbed a hook that came down with the net, so as the flyer lifted out the survivor, it pulled her upward as well.

I didn’t try to hold on; I doubted it could hoist all three of us out without bouncing around the boy. Instead, I crawled away from what remained of the pile, aware of debris shifting. When I deemed it safe, I jumped up and sprinted away, jumping over blocks of casecrete, headed for the clear areas beyond the main collapse. Behind me, the mound thundered as the rest of it collapsed.

Advise deactivating combat mode, Max thought. It’s straining your body, especially where you held up that pile of casecrete.

I slowed down, heaving in deep breaths. Toggle me out.

As my adrenaline eased, I realized I’d reached the edge of the plaza. Although I’d left the most dangerous area, rubble and shards of glass lay all around. Dust caked my entire body.

I’d find who had done this. When they attacked my home and my community, they’d made it personal.

end of excerpt

The Jigsaw Assassin

Audio book will be available from Recorded Books/Audible

Jul 5, 2022

ISBN-10: 1982191961

ISBN-13: 978-1982191962