Deception Cove


By Owen Laukkanen

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A rescue dog, an ex-Marine, and an ex-convict are caught in the crosshairs of a ruthless gang in remote Washington state in this "first-rate thriller" (Associated Press) for "fans of CJ Box and Michael Koryta" (Booklist).
After fifteen years behind bars, Mason Burke owns one set of clothes, a wallet, and a photo of Lucy, the service dog he trained while in prison. Seeking a fresh start, he sets a course for Washington state, where the dog lives with Jess Winslow—widow, former US Marine, and PTSD survivor.

With one knock on Jess’s door, Mason lands in the midst of a standoff: Deputy Kirby Harwood has seized Lucy and threatens to destroy her unless Jess turns over the contraband that her late husband stole from under the deputy’s nose.

The last thing Mason wants is to be dragged back into the criminal world. The last thing Jess wants is to trust a stranger. But neither of them can leave a friend, the only good thing in either of their lives, in danger. To rescue Lucy, they’ll have to conquer their fears, forge an uneasy alliance, and fight back—before all three of them become collateral damage in someone else’s private war.


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Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.

—Ephesians 4:28


Certain moments came back to her, or maybe they never left. Images, sounds. Marshall fumbling around on some shale slope at daybreak, looking for what was left of his leg, trying his best not to scream and give away their position. Hawthorne, dropped by a sniper as he came out of the latrine, dead before he could fasten his belt, the sound of the shot coming across the valley a split second after he’d fallen.

It was Afia, though, whom Jess saw most of all.

Sometimes it was different. Sometimes it wasn’t so bad. Sometimes, when Jess saw her partner again, it was when the sun was still shining. No snipers, no RPGs, no Taliban ambush.

Sometimes it was Jess and Afia bonding over back issues of Betty and Veronica in Jess’s bunkhouse at the OP. Afia had confessed, teasingly, that she’d seen Jess as Veronica at first—the dark hair, sure, but she’d confused Jess’s quiet reserve for something more judgmental, condescending.

“Of course, you’re Betty,” she told Jess six or seven months after they’d started working together. “Kind, cheerful, hardworking. I see it now, but when we first met…” She winced. “I was scared of you, Private Winslow.”

“And you?” Jess asked. “If I’m Betty, who does that make you?”

Afia cocked her head, thought about it, frowning everywhere but her eyes. “Jughead Jones,” she said finally. “A good meal is more interesting to me than any romance, definitely.”

Sometimes Jess remembered Afia in a village down valley, sharing a joke in Pashto with a group of local women, then translating for Jess so she could laugh too—something about the gunnery sergeant in the platoon Jess was attached to, a southern guy named Atkins, his voice like a bleating goat when he got mad or excited.

And sometimes she saw Afia with those same local women, cradling a baby, six weeks old at the latest, smiling down at him, cooing and singing softly—and then passing the bundle to Jess, who’d been surprised at first, apprehensive, afraid the women would take offense at an American sharing such an intimate moment. But she’d looked up at the women, at the baby’s mother, and seen nothing but warmth and community there, women who knew next to nothing about one another sharing the one thing they all had in common.

It had been, perhaps, her favorite moment of that first deployment, of any deployment. She’d felt that little bundle in her arms long after she’d given him back, could picture his tiny hands, his scrunched-up face as he slept. She’d tried to write to Ty about it, in an email, but she hadn’t found the words, hadn’t been sure he’d understand anyway.

She’d shared that moment, instead, with Afia, and Afia alone. Afia, whose husband had died in a mortar attack before they could start a family; Afia, who in her grief had vowed never to marry again, and who had taken advantage of the sudden vastness of time spread in front of her to learn English, to volunteer, to work with the American marines, and with Jess in particular, her conduit to the women in the valley and the secrets they wouldn’t share with men.

Those memories of Afia were painful, sure, but it was a different pain: delicate, bittersweet. It was a pain Jess savored, no matter how much it hurt, because that was how she wanted to remember Afia. Those were memories she cherished.

But mostly it was the last memory, that final, bloody day, that stuck in Jess’s head and kept coming back. Afia was gone, but every night in her dreams Jess saw her friend’s face again, saw the blood in the dirt and heard the screams, the screams she’d later learned were her own.


Something had woken her. Just what it was, Jess Winslow couldn’t be sure, but she was awake now, wide awake and lightning fast, too, like she was back in that OP in the Hindu Kush, strapping on her body armor as someone triggered the alarm, listening to the sound of mortars launching, waiting for the boom.

Except she wasn’t over there anymore. She was here, America, home, sacked out on the couch under a Pendleton blanket, the TV blaring infomercials, and God only knew what time it was. Dark outside; no light but the moon.

Lucy whined. Lifted her head from the floor, looked around, those big black ears perked. She looked up at Jess and whined a little more.

Whatever it was, it had scared the dog, too.

“Never mind, you big baby. It’s probably just a deer.” Jess sat up, rubbed sleep from her eyes. Found the remote and turned down the TV. “For a big, scary guard dog, you’re kind of a wuss.”

Lucy grumbled like she wanted to contest the point, but decided better of it and laid her head back down. Kept her eyes fixed on the front door, though, and her ears at high alert.

Though Lucy might have looked the part, the truth was she wasn’t really a guard dog. There wasn’t much that Jess owned that needed guarding. “Companion animal,” the VA doc had called her. “Something to help you keep your mind over here.”

Lucy helped, sort of.

She was a mutt, probably pit bull but not entirely; she had that square, blocky head and that big, dumb pit smile when she panted, but her body was long and more lean than stocky. A boxer, maybe, or some kind of retriever. Her hair was short and fine, jet black save a white snout and a stripe up her forehead, a patch on her neck and one on her belly, white socks on all four paws, and another patch like paint on the tip of her tail. She was a rescue, the lady at the agency had told Jess, a refugee from somewhere back east, from some assholes who’d aimed to fight her.

The agency lady had sworn Lucy had never actually fought, the law having caught up to the assholes in question before they could actually chuck her into a pit. They hadn’t even snubbed her tail or clipped her ears, and for that Jess was glad. Lucy’s ears were her most distinctive feature: velvet smooth and floppy like a Labrador retriever’s, they channeled the dog’s mood better than her perpetually sad eyes or even her bullwhip tail.


Right now Lucy’s ears were standing rigid. There was something outside. Jess could sense it out there, was 98 percent sure she wasn’t stuck in her head again, hearing phantom Taliban creeping through her front yard. Lucy whimpered once more, stood up straighter, glanced over at Jess, and took a couple of tentative steps toward the front door, and Jess knew neither she nor the dog was imagining anything. Whatever was out there, it was real.

She pushed the blanket from her lap. Stood, the light from the TV casting a bluish glow around the small living room. She crossed the room to the window and peered out into the night, saw nothing but empty road and dark forest—and then she caught the glint of moonlight against American steel, thirty yards down the road and almost invisible.

Jess stepped back from the window. Felt her heart rate ramp up. Hers wasn’t a road that saw much traffic, especially this time of night. It dead-ended about a quarter mile in the other direction, petered off into second-growth fir and cedar. Weren’t many other houses, either, not close by. The road wasn’t close to the highway, or even the water; unless you lived nearby, you wouldn’t think to come this far down—and that truck outside didn’t look like the neighbors’.

Damn it, Ty. Her husband had promised her a new house when she came home from her tour, something closer to town, something better than this: one bedroom, one bathroom, and a patch of grass in the backyard, which she’d fenced in so Lucy could do her business without Jess needing to worry she’d run off after a chipmunk and never come back.

Ty had been full of promises. A new house. A better truck. Hell, a family. Instead, Jess had come home a widow, come home to a load of debt and the same shack as ever, come home with not much more than bad memories and no clue what to do with herself next.

She stole another glance out the window. The truck hadn’t moved. She squinted, looked hard, but it was too dark to see inside, look for a driver. Too dark to catch the make and the model, even. Maybe just some hunter got lost, she thought. Some kids hooking up or something.

Beside her, Lucy was still staring at the door. And Jess saw the way the dog’s hackles were raised, saw the way she stood stiff, square, like she really was a guard dog, and she knew this wasn’t just a couple of horny teenagers fooling around. This was something else, something worse, and though Jess wasn’t sure exactly what it was, she knew Ty must have had something to do with it.

Boot steps on the wooden porch interrupted that line of thinking. Heavy, slow, deliberate. Then a knock at the door, three knocks, the same measured pace. Like whoever was out there knew she was at home, knew she had nowhere to run.

Beside Jess, Lucy began to growl.


A man goes into a cage for fifteen years and he’s bound to change inside, though in the end it’s up to him whether that change is for the better or the worse. Sometimes even he won’t know until he’s let back out into the world again, and at that point, there isn’t much that can be done but to stand back and keep watch, hope he isn’t broken beyond fixing.

Mason Burke had been eighteen years old, a boy and a wild one, when he walked into the Chippewa state pen on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and when he walked out again, his time served and fifteen years passed, he was no longer a boy and no longer wild, but still a mile shy of manhood and not fully tame, either.

He’d served his sentence quietly and without complaint, and he harbored no grudges. He was guilty of doing what the law said he’d done, what the courts had determined deserved fifteen years’ penalty, and in consequence he’d spent nearly half of his life a prisoner—though as far as he was concerned, he’d been treated fair.

But he hadn’t enjoyed prison. He’d learned how to survive, and how to pass the time, but just surviving fifteen years had forced him to stifle parts of himself he’d once thought were fundamental. He’d walked into prison a human being, albeit a flawed, reckless one, and as he stood outside those gates for the first time in one full decade and another half, buffeted by a chill November wind that swept across the barren parking lot, Mason couldn’t even be sure of his own humanity anymore, couldn’t be sure his time incarcerated hadn’t reduced him to something lesser, something base, something unfit for the world that awaited him.

He didn’t want to leave. That was the sickest part, the part that told Mason maybe something was broken inside him that could never be fixed. He wasn’t the first prisoner to have panicked at the first breath of free air, and he wouldn’t be the last, but as he stood gazing across that parking lot to the flat, dull land beyond, the whole world seemed impossibly large and alien, no walls and no boundaries, no structure, just a suffocating expanse of empty space and a lifetime’s worth of codes and social norms he’d missed out on learning.

He wanted to turn around and walk back in through the gates, return his civilian clothes to where they’d stored them all this time, go back to his old cell and stretch out in that bunk and let the prison walls envelop him, protect him from the outside just as much as they protected the outside from people like him. He’d have said he was scared to be out in this world, except fear was a reaction you learned to hide damn fast on the inside. You learned to push it down, ignore it, until it just went away and you didn’t feel scared anymore. The guys who got scared were the guys who didn’t survive.

But there was no turning back, and Mason wouldn’t have anyway, even if his sister hadn’t been standing leaned up against a dusty Dodge Grand Caravan, hands in her coat pockets, squinting across the lot at him, studying her younger brother as he took his first steps back out into the world.

She took her hands from her pockets, gave him a little wave, shy and stilted. “Hi, Mase,” she said, avoiding his eyes as he came across the pavement toward her. “Looks like you made it.”


“We thought you could live with us for a while, me and Glen and the girls,” Maggie said as she drove out of the parking lot and set the minivan on a two-hundred-mile course to the south. “There’s a spare room in the basement you can stay in, rent-free, just so long as you keep out of trouble.”

She was two years his senior, but it might as well have been twenty; she kept sneaking glances across at him like she was wondering who he was, wondering if he was still capable of doing the things he’d done long ago. Mason sat in the passenger seat and felt her eyes on him, and he looked out at the world as it passed his window. His stomach churned with the first stirrings of motion sickness.

“Glen said he could line up a job for you too.” Maggie’s voice was all forced cheer and fragile hope. “He says they’re always looking for good, hardworking men.”

Mason cleared his throat. “What does he do again?”

“Glen?” Maggie blinked. “Well, he’s a real estate agent, Mase.” She looked at him again. “Anyway, it wouldn’t be like you were working for him, exactly, just they sometimes need people to clean the houses they’re selling, do minor repairs, that kind of thing.”

“Clean houses,” Mason said.

“I mean, it wouldn’t have to be forever, just until you got on your feet, right?”

“I thought I might stay at Mom’s old place,” he said.

Maggie’s look was half pity, half wishful thinking, like she and Glen had probably had a hell of a fight about giving Mason that spare room, and familial duty had only barely won out.

“Oh, Mase,” she said. “We sold Mom’s place after she died, didn’t we tell you?”

“I guess I must have just forgot,” he replied, more for her sake than his. Maggie hadn’t done much to keep him filled in on the family news while he’d been inside, and they both knew it.

“It was all falling apart anyway, needed so much work. Glen got us a good price, and—well, anyway. You didn’t want to be fixing a bunch of plumbing and redoing a roof first thing after you got home, right?”

There was only one right answer to that question, and that was to lie, so Mason just didn’t say anything. And Maggie waited long enough that his silence became an answer in itself, and then she sighed and reached for the radio, and Mason knew she was thinking the same thing that he was, that they’d driven just ten miles and they still had one hundred ninety more to go.


The first thing Mason did at Maggie’s house—after he’d set his bag down in that basement spare room, after he’d enjoyed a cold beer and a scalding hot shower, scrubbed as much of that fifteen-years-in-captivity stink as he could from his skin—was to find a picture in his bag of a big black-and-white dog, set it on top of the nightstand beside his new bed.

Then he borrowed Maggie’s phone and placed a call, to a Ms. Linda Petrie at the Rover’s Redemption agency.

He’d kept Ms. Petrie’s number since the last time he’d seen her, about six months before his release, had spent that whole stretch of time plotting this phone call. But Mason still felt the nerves as he listened to the ringing, drummed his fingers on his thigh and couldn’t help pacing, knew this was probably against some kind of regulation, knew he should hang up the phone.

But Linda Petrie picked up before Mason could make that decision, and then there was no sense in anything but moving forward.

“Rover’s Redemption.” She sounded the same as Mason remembered: tough, take no shit.

“Ms. Petrie.” The name came out rough, like he was out of practice. Like it took something extra to speak as a free man. “It’s Mason Burke calling you.”

Silence. Then, “I’m sorry, Mason…Burke? I don’t—”

“I figured you might not remember,” Mason continued. “You probably work with a lot of guys like me. I was up in the Chippewa pen this last go-around. Lucy was my dog.”

“Oh, Lucy,” Linda Petrie said. “Yes, I remember now, of course.”

Mason waited, but she didn’t say anything else, and he could sense by her tone that she wasn’t exactly comfortable hearing his voice. He wondered if this was how he was going to feel for the rest of his life, like he was asking a huge favor just hoping people would look at him straight, have a conversation.

“Well, I was calling because I’m out now,” he said. “And I got that postcard picture you sent of Lucy, and I wanted to check in and see if you knew how she’s doing.” He paused. “You know, how she’s adjusting to her new home, and such.”

Another pause. Then Mason heard Linda Petrie suck in her breath. “I really can’t discuss what happens to the dogs after they leave the program, Mr. Burke—”

“Mason please, ma’am.”

“Mason,” she said, but there was still that something else in her voice. “I’m afraid I just can’t give you any information,” she said. “It wouldn’t be appropriate; I’m sorry.”

“Did she find a good home?” Mason asked. “I don’t need to know where she is or anything, just that I set her up okay for when she went out into the world.”

That long silence again. “I can’t be talking about this,” she said. “Not with you. They’d pull the program if they found out I’d given this information to a—to a…”

She wanted to talk. Mason could tell. Something had happened, something was wrong, and the trainer was itching to talk to him about it.

“Is she alive, at least, Ms. Petrie? Tell me she’s still alive.”

But she couldn’t even do that.

“There was an incident,” she said. “Your dog attacked someone. From what I understand, she had to be destroyed.”

“Destroyed.” The word hit Mason like a roundhouse punch.

Petrie breathed out. “Listen, whatever happened, it wasn’t your fault. Sometimes a dog just goes bad.”

“Not Lucy,” Mason said. “I know that dog. Something must have provoked her.”

Petrie didn’t say anything, and Mason realized he was pacing, his body tense, muscles clenched tight. He wasn’t willing to believe it, not his dog, not Lucy. Not the dog he’d trained.


“Yes, ma’am?”

“You just have to forget about this,” Petrie said. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out, but these things, you just have to move on.”

She sounded scared. Like she thought she’d made a mistake telling him, like he was going to run off and do something crazy now.

“It’s okay,” he told her. “You don’t have to worry about me.”

He ended the call. Replaced the handset and went back down his sister’s stairs to his basement bedroom. Found the picture of Lucy he’d propped up on the nightstand, and sat on the edge of the bed and stared at it for a while.


The dog wasn’t much to look at, the first time Mason saw her. Just a scared little black-and-white thing crammed up against the back wall of her crate with her tail between her legs, shaking, not making eye contact with Mason or anyone else.

She was a pit bull—at least partially, anyway—but she didn’t look like the pits Mason had seen growing up: solid, rough-looking dogs jacked front to back with heavy muscle, collared in chains, and boasting foul dispositions. The pit bulls Mason had known had been mean animals, goaded into aggression by owners who used the dogs to intimidate and impress—and, occasionally, to punish.

This creature, she wasn’t impressing anyone. And she sure wasn’t intimidating.

“That ain’t a dog,” Bridges Colson said, laughing, looking in at the little runt. “That there is fucking bait.

Bait. They all had a laugh at that, the lot of them—hell, Mason included. Laughed all the way until Ms. Linda Petrie pointed him over to that crate, told him the little runt dog was his dog, no two ways about it.

Mason looked over at the other guys, their own dogs—puppies, yellow Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, a couple of gangly, hairy mutts—all of them strong, all of them happy as a TV commercial, big pink tongues lolling out, chasing balls, shaking paws, the whole doggie dream, and he looked in at his own little wretch and felt damn cheated.

But Linda Petrie was talking again, and there was something about when she talked, you wanted to pay attention. Like she didn’t give a shit, like she’d march right into the Chippewa pen and stand up in front of a couple of dozen hardened felons and not even worry if the two guards behind her would have her back if the whole show went sideways. And that’s pretty much how she did it.

“This won’t be happy hour,” she was saying. “And there’s nothing that says we have to keep you here, with these dogs. This is a privilege the warden has extended you, and if he or these two gentlemen behind me come to believe you’re abusing that privilege, well, hell, they’ll find someone else who appreciates the opportunity a little more. Are we clear?”

She looked hard at the men, each of them in turn, and when she looked at Mason, he nodded like the rest. Wanted to ask what happened if your dog washed out before you did, but Ms. Linda Petrie had moved on.

“This isn’t the start of some lifelong friendship, either,” she said. “You’ll work with your dog for six months, train them up, and then we’ll place them in homes with people who’ll care for them. You won’t get to see them again, so don’t bother asking. Anyone have a problem with that?”

Nobody had a problem. The trainer went over some other stuff, like from a script, how the Rover’s Redemption agency was truly grateful for their time and effort, and how if they let them, the dogs might just teach them something about themselves in the process, but Mason was kind of tuning the whole spiel out; he peered back into the crate at the pitiful creature within and wondered what in the hell this dog was supposed to teach him; it couldn’t even come out and say hi.

Wouldn’t last an hour on the yard, he thought. These hard boys would mess you straight up.

Beside Mason, Bridges Colson’s dog—a big, dumb golden retriever—was all over him, a real sight to behold; the meanest guy in the room, and he was giggling like a child as his dog gave him the most slobbery face wash Mason had ever seen.

Meanwhile, the little black-and-white runt at the back of the crate stared out at him, with big brown eyes that looked away fast when she caught him looking back. Must have weighed thirty pounds, tops.

The name on her crate said LUCY.

“Bit of a fixer-upper, that one,” a voice said beside him, and Mason looked up to find Linda Petrie standing there, didn’t even realize she’d finished her lecture. “Come out of a dogfighting sting down in Muskegon, about thirty dogs on the property, most of them too far gone to be saved.”

Mason looked at her. “They killed them?”


  • "Tender . . . Deeply sympathetic"—New York Times Book Review
  • "SUPERB... A FIRST-RATE THRILLER with plenty of action that Laukkanen masterfully controls while also delving deep into the personas of Jess and Mason."—Associated Press
  • "LAUKKANEN HAS NEVER BEEN BETTER. A crackerjack plot enhances the moving portrayals of the leads' inner lives."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  • "Laukkanen is a damn fine storyteller."— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
  • "A promising beginning to a new series . . . Fans of C.J. Box and Michael Koryta will enjoy the authenticity of this gut-wrenching story."—Booklist
  • "I could write pages singing the praises of Deception Cove's vivid characters and ruthless pace--but here's the short version: Owen Laukkanen sure as hell knows how to tell a story. Read this one, you won't regret it."—Nick Petrie, national bestselling author of The Drifter
  • "Owen Laukkanen is a powerhouse writer, and Deception Cove cements that fact. Sharp, compelling, and loaded with a thriving setting and a conflicted, relatable protagonist -- this is a harrowing story of redemption that feels intimate and cinematic at the same time. A must-read."—Alex Segura, author of Blackout
  • "In Deception Cove, Owen Laukkanen gives you everything you could want in a thriller -- rich setting, breakneck pacing, thrilling action, a ton of heart, and a great dog. This is a cancel-your-plans-so-you-can-stay-in-to-read book."—Rob Hart, author of The Warehouse

On Sale
Jul 21, 2020
Page Count
384 pages
Mulholland Books

Owen Laukkanen

About the Author

Owen Laukkanen’s Stevens and Windermere novels have been nominated for the Anthony, Barry, Edgar and Thriller Awards. A graduate of the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing program, Laukkanen spent three years in the world of professional poker reporting before turning to fiction. He currently lives in Vancouver with his dog, Lucy.

Learn more about this author