The Assassin Who Gave Up His Gun

The Assassin Who Gave Up His Gun

by Howard Fast
A target’s wife makes a cold-hearted assassin question his work
The hitman adjusts his rifle sight in an apartment across the street from his mark. For thirty minutes he peers through his scope, watching the man he is about to kill. He waits patiently, for assassinations demand focus. One bullet is all he needs. When the job is done, he


A target’s wife makes a cold-hearted assassin question his work
The hitman adjusts his rifle sight in an apartment across the street from his mark. For thirty minutes he peers through his scope, watching the man he is about to kill. He waits patiently, for assassinations demand focus. One bullet is all he needs. When the job is done, he disappears. This is an ordinary working day for Richard Breckner, a hired gun on the payroll of one of America’s enemies. He kills for the money, holding no allegiance to his country and no scruples about murder. He will kill anyone, no matter whom, from an American reverend in Miami to his superior at the department. But then, on a job in Geneva, he kills a target who dies unafraid. Unnerved by the dead man’s steely confidence, Breckner turns on his employers. If he wishes to survive, the world’s finest assassin must remember how to care. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Howard Fast including rare photos from the author’s estate.

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The Assassin Who Gave Up His Gun

By Howard Fast


Copyright © 1969 William Morrow and Company, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-3527-0


The first one was a long shot, with a Doppler, which is our own weapon and perhaps the best rifle in the world for long-distance shooting. Even the Swiss make nothing to match it. We stopped making it thirty years ago, and for that reason they're as rare as hen's teeth. A man I knew found one in Tangiers two years ago, and he paid twelve hundred dollars for it. He was a rich sportsman; and I am neither rich nor a sportsman, and while they gave me the gun, they didn't leave it with me for an hour after the job was over.

The distance was eight hundred meters, eight hundred and thirty-two—to be exact—a figure they supplied for me. There is an uncannily accurate distance gauge on the telescopic sight of a Doppler, and when the distance is measured and supplied, half the job is done for you. The Doppler is not a repeater; it has no magazine; it was conceived as a sporting weapon for marksmen who did not miss and I suppose that if you are of that frame of mind and kill for pleasure, a single shot adds to whatever the pleasure is. I don't know. I don't kill for pleasure. But I am a good shot, and it made sense for them to give me a single cartridge. The gun and the sighting stand were in a violin case, and I remember their poor joke about my thinking of it as a Stradivarius.

The place was a woman's apartment on the twenty-sixth floor. Who she was I don't remember, if indeed I knew at the time. I think they removed her name from where it might be, and I imagine she was connected with The Department in some way, as I was. The place was full of her smell and the smells of the various perfumes she used, and to this day I will pass a woman, smell perfume, and be put back there, doing it again with her pinks and purples and cheap opulence all around me, and the white carpet—slightly stained—and in the bathroom a nightgown and a robe. There was nothing to delineate her; the pictures on the walls were wretched German imitations of Renoir and Degas, and in the bathroom there was a picture by some Dutch artist in the style of Beardsley of a fat man with an enormous penis.

The virtue of her place was that it put me on a level with my mark, and people who are not marksmen cannot imagine the difficulties of a very long shot off the horizontal, high up or far down. He was on the twenty-fifth floor, in a corner room, and he sat facing the harbor. After I set up the sighting stand and fixed the rifle, I adjusted for almost a half hour. They gave me the wind velocity and direction over the telephone. It rang three times, and each time a thin, apologetic voice said something like, "North by northeast, one point seven knots." I was not too concerned; I had used a Doppler before, and the wind would not bother me, and anyway, it was hardly a wind at all. But I spent a half hour sighting and watching him through the telescope, and he did nothing but sit very quietly facing the harbor. That put his left side to me, and I put the cross hairs under his left arm. Then I squeezed the trigger. He slumped forward and lay with his face on his desk, his gray hair covering his features. Then I unscrewed the sighting stand from the window, packed gun and stand into the violin case, went into the bathroom and then into the kitchen looking for some milk. She had no milk. Then I left.

When I returned to The Department, they had me sit in one of the board rooms for almost an hour. I asked no questions of anyone I met, which was the way it was done. You didn't ask questions, and no one volunteered information. It was getting dark when Cleaver came in and said that I might do best to talk to the psychologists now. I suppose they were really doctors; to call them psychologists was to maintain one of the many small fictions in The Department. I nodded and followed Cleaver through the long corridor with its bright lemon-yellow paint.

"No one told you?" Cleaver asked me as we walked along.

"You know that."

"Of course. You do want to know?"

"I know. I saw him fall across the desk."

"He could have been wounded."

"Not the way he fell."

Then Cleaver thought about it for a moment and said, "You have an instinct for death, don't you, Breckner?"

"Don't we all?"

"I never really thought about it," Cleaver said pleasantly. "But you are quite right. He died instantly. That should please you."

"Drop dead, you filthy bastard," I thought, but said nothing aloud; and then we were at the elevator and took it up to the roof, where the three psychologists were drinking tea and munching sweet cakes in The Department's garden restaurant. Everyone else had been cleared out. The five of us had it to ourselves.

"Tea? Coffee? Or a brandy?" Cleaver asked me. "Do sit down. These are the doctors." No one was introduced by name.

"I'll have some warm milk if you don't mind."

"Oh?" He poured from a pitcher on the table.

"A sour stomach."

"Of course. The milk is boiled, you know. A bit of coffee will take the curse off it."

"No, thank you." He was dwelling on the milk, and the psychologists were watching. "Just as it is." They were all bearded. It was the style in the mental institutions; I suppose it was expected. But these were people on the inside; whatever they did with their spare hours, they were as much of The Department as Cleaver and myself, and I imagine that was the reason for calling them psychologists.

I drank my milk and asked Cleaver what I should call them.

"Why don't you ask us?" one of them said.

"Call us doctor," said another.

"You don't have to call them anything," Cleaver said, "and don't be snotty, Breckner. Being a wiseass doesn't endear you to The Department. They will ask you questions. Just answer."

"How do you feel?" asked a doctor. They began, they were asking questions.

"I don't know."

"That's odd. Why don't you know how you feel?"

"I mean, I can't say I feel good. I don't feel good."

"What does good mean? Do you often feel good?" This was another psychologist, but it makes no point to try to remember who asked what.

"Not often."

"But sometimes?"

"Yes, sometimes."


"I can't say when. I mean, it's not something you write down in a book."

It was getting dark, and the lights in the roof garden came on by themselves, controlled, I suppose, by some sort of light-sensitive cell, and the lights were coming on in the high buildings across the river. From where we were, I could see the building where he had his office, but not the building where I had been. The doctors watched me.

"Do you feel good when you have a woman?"

I looked at Cleaver.

"I told you to answer questions," Cleaver said. "Any questions. What the hell kind of scruples do you have about talking about getting laid?"

"Let us do it our way," a doctor said gently, patiently.

"Sometimes I feel good," I said. "Sometimes I don't."

"And with men?"

"What do you mean with men?"

"When you have sex with a man, how do you feel?"

"I don't have sex with men."

"I think you're lying," said one of the doctors.

"Let him lie," said another. "People should lie when they have to. Lies are also a part of the truth. Have you ever killed a man before?"

"One yes—others maybe."

"What do you mean, maybe?"

"I can't be sure. It was in the war. You're not sure in a war unless you do it with a bayonet or a trench shovel or a grenade. I mean the way war is now."

"How do you think about that?"

"I don't mostly. It was a long time ago. It was like a dream—I mean it doesn't seem real any more."

"What seems real?"

"I don't know what you mean. Real is real."

"Does it seem real to you that you killed a man a few hours ago?"

I thought about that for a while.

"Real or unreal?"

"I don't know."


"You keep asking me how I feel. I can't say how I feel."


"God damn it, I don't watch myself. I do what I do."


"Why does anyone? For money."

"There are other ways to make money. You choose this way. Why?"

"I told you."


"That's all I know. What I told you."

"How long did it take you to fix your sight?"

"About half an hour."

"What did you think about during that half hour?"

"Finding the mark."

"Nothing else?"

"What else? It's precise. Did you ever watch a diamond cutter study a diamond? What does he think about?"

"Very good," said a doctor.

"And after you pulled the trigger. Did you know that you killed a man?"

"I knew."

"What did you feel?"


"You went into the bathroom and you vomited."


"You did, didn't you?"



"I don't know why. I felt nauseous."

"Do you have ulcers?"


"Did you want a woman then?"

"No, I wanted a glass of milk."

"But you said you didn't have an ulcer?"

"I have a sour stomach."

"What you did today—are you sorry you did it?"




"Would you do it again?"

"For the money."

"You are convinced that you do this only for money?"


Then they were silent for a few moments, and I glanced at Cleaver, who was watching me. A plane was coming into the airport, and it caught my eye; as it got lower, I recognized it as one of the C-46s that the Americans had given us during the war.

"Are you a patriot?" one of the doctors asked suddenly.

"A patriot?"


"I don't know what you mean. What's a patriot? Every lousy crumb you meet is a patriot. Was it Clemenceau who said that patriotism is the last resort of scoundrels?"

"A patriot is someone who loves his country," a doctor said pleasantly. "Do you love your country?"

"I was born here."

"Let me pose it a little differently," said another doctor. "I pose a hypothetical situation. You are aware of the widespread influence and the power and the wealth of the American CIA. Suppose a CIA agent were to approach you and make you an offer—an enormous offer. You say you are in this for the money only. Would you accept such an offer?"


"No hesitation now?"


"Why not?"

"You can't spend money if you are dead."

"Who kills you?"

"The Department. Maybe Cleaver. Maybe someone else. Do you think a CIA man operates here without a tail on him? Do you think I do?"

They were noncommittal. It was their business to ask the questions, not mine. Only Cleaver watched me thoughtfully.

"What about loyalty, Breckner?"

"What about loyalty?" It was the first time they had called me by name.

"I don't know what loyalty is. I'm no damn good at definitions."

"All right," they said. "That's enough."

The next day Grupperman called me up to his office. His office had been decorated by Sistine, who had a big reputation as a designer and a bigger one as a faggot. Cleaver would not have used Sistine if his lousy life depended upon it; that was part of the difference between Cleaver and Grupperman. Cleaver could never in a hundred years sit there facing a mauve wall, with a lemon-yellow wall on his left and a white wall on his right, with a single chrome modern piece of a man and a woman having intercourse hanging from the mauve wall and a chrome-plated desk big as a house on a circular black rug on a white marble floor. No austerity for Grupperman, who was like an enormous toad, three heavy chins. He smiled a lot; he was consciously jovial.

He chuckled at me and told me he had liked my answers. "Patriotism, Breckner, is for the politicians. Don't ever get to think like a politician."

"No, sir." He rated a sir, not Cleaver.

"I like your style," he said.


The black man was in the United States, so it was my first trip out of the country as a professional. It meant that they trusted me, even though Grupperman said otherwise. "We don't trust people, Breckner," Grupperman told me. "Trust is an outside word, a civilian word, a small word for small people. Respect is something else entirely." But I did not want Grupperman's respect; for some reason I preferred to feel that I was trusted, not by Cleaver, not even by Grupperman, but by someone else; and that was a part of the religion of The Department, because you had to have a religion of some kind, and deep, down in the deepest hole in the brain, there was some kind of a fancy that there were nameless people of wisdom and vision in The Department. You never saw them, but they were there and they knew what they were doing.

Not men like Cleaver. He still gave me my assignments, and whenever he called me in for briefing, he examined me as if I were someone he had never seen before. He had blue eyes, and the ability to stare for a long time without blinking—a long time in seconds, but still a long time. Now he told me about the black man in Miami Beach.

"Have you ever been there?"


"Well, it's an interesting place—very pleasant, beach, hotels, good restaurants and clubs and girls. The Department is very generous on these trips, and you will have five hundred dollars a day for the two days you are there. You will have two days to acquaint yourself with the place. You will stay at the Athena Hotel, where Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith will meet you. Those are common American names, of course."

"Of course," I agreed.

"The black man will speak at the Rock of Ages Zion Church on Sunday morning. Ordinarily, the regular pastor, Kyle Seeman, would deliver the sermon; but on this Sunday the black man will substitute. It is the largest church in Miami, but there will be an overflow crowd—we are certain of that—and perhaps several hundred people out on the street. They may set up some sort of loudspeaker system; they have been denied a permit for public address, but they may do it anyway. The blacks in America, you know, are highly emotional people. If they do set up this system, there could be over a thousand black men on the street and that would mean police on the scene as well."

"Miami police?"

"Of course. We have no intentions of sending a detachment of our own police with you."

"I was aware of that." I never allowed myself to become angry with Cleaver, and generally speaking, I allowed myself less and less anger. It was not good for my professional competence.

"The presence of the police will change nothing. You will be in a car a block away from the church. The front entrance to the church is raised nine feet off the ground. The black man will come out immediately after the sermon. That's a habit of his. Naturally, there will be people around him, but you must find a target."

"That's a rotten target. Why must it be then?"

Cleaver's cold blue eyes rested on me.

"I'm sorry," I said.

"You've come a long way, Breckner, haven't you? Now you offer opinions. You ask questions."

"I told you that I am sorry. I forgot myself. I apologize."

"Don't be humble. Humility is not becoming anyone who works for The Department."

"That's well put."

"Just believe it. Now as to the matter of the black man, it's a difficult target. That's why you are being used. You have been very successful, very clever, very dependable. This should be a thing of pride, not of humility. In the case of the black man, you will use an Amalfi carbine with an Opel silencer."

"They don't match."

"Excellent. You have a remarkable knowledge of weapons. Quite right. The Amalfi is a twenty-two and the Opel is thirty-four. The shop has redesigned the Opel, and they match well enough. At best the Amalfi gives off a whip crack, which the Opel can turn into the breaking of a twig, and on automatic, you can get off a full magazine, nineteen shots, in less than five seconds. They'll hardly hear it in the front seat."

"If they are crowded around the black man, others will be hit. That's impossible to prevent. You can't fix an Amalfi into any gun rest that will fire true at a hundred yards. The vibration of the gun will spread the target."

"We know that. Also, you will have no gun rest. Does that disturb you?"

"Nothing disturbs me, Cleaver."

"Bravo!" he acknowledged without a smile. "You are a most competent man, Breckner."

"Who will drive the car?"

"Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones will take care of that. From the church they will drive you to Fort Lauderdale, where you will take a train to New York City. They will keep the Amalfi and the silencer and destroy them. In New York, you will go directly to Kennedy Airfield and take Pan Am Flight 7A to London. You will be booked on the flight as David Knowland. From London, BEA to here—same name. Here is an American passport and fifteen hundred dollars, and of course your tickets. You will leave this evening and return on the fourteenth."


Excerpted from The Assassin Who Gave Up His Gun by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1969 William Morrow and Company, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Howard Fast (1914–2003) was one of the most prolific American writers of the twentieth century. He was a bestselling author of more than eighty works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and screenplays. The son of immigrants, Fast grew up in New York City and published his first novel upon finishing high school in 1933. In 1950, his refusal to provide the United States Congress with a list of possible Communist associates earned him a three-month prison sentence. During his incarceration, Fast wrote one of his best-known novels, Spartacus (1951). Throughout his long career, Fast matched his commitment to championing social justice in his writing with a deft, lively storytelling style.

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