In the stifling heat of a London summer, private investigator Catherine Berlin is suddenly faced with a ghost from the past who calls in a favour: her ten-year-old daughter is missing. Berlin agrees to help.
Whilst dealing with her own troubles, Berlin embarks on a hunt for the young girl.
But the search soon becomes far deadlier than she could ever imagine, drawing her deep into a murky underworld of corrupt detectives, ruthless drug dealers, and a child catcher...
She was ten years old, but knew enough to wipe clean the handle of the bloody kitchen knife. The night was stifling. The windows were closed, sealing in the chaos: a table upturned, shattered crockery. Her distraught mother, bare shoulders raw with welts, knelt beside her motionless father. A taint seeped through his faded black T-shirt, staining the worn boards beneath him. A leather strap lay at his side.
The child dropped the knife as the sobbing woman rose and reached for her. She slipped through the grasping hands, snatched up her backpack, and ran.
It was early but the dust was already rising from the concrete, suspended in shimmering thermals. Curtains of diesel fumes hung in the fetid air. Cars boiled, tempers frayed, ice-cream vans were mobbed and robbed. There were reports of pigeons dropping from the sky, stone dead. It was the hottest spell on record, with no end in sight. London was parched.
Catherine Berlin's scars didn't sweat. The red-raw tissue banding her throat felt like a tourniquet, sealing in her agitation. She wanted to scream. She sipped her tea.
She sat in the café and watched the procession of women flowing into the mosque for morning prayers. Some wore simple headscarves, some a veil, others were swathed in black burqas. The woman she was waiting for entered the mosque in her nurse's uniform with only her hair covered. She would emerge an hour and a half later. In that time she could come and go fully veiled and no observer would be any the wiser.
Berlin paid for her tea and left. She was scraping the bottom of the investigative barrel with this job: matrimonial. And there was only a drink in it for her.
The bell rang as she walked into the shop, still referred to locally as 'the Indian' although it had been run by a Turkish family for the past eighteen months. The proprietor, Mr Demir, sat on a high stool behind the counter, his eyes dulled by sleepless nights. His inhaler always in his hand.
Mr Demir shifted his belt, which was buried in the rolls of fat around his middle, and turned to a young man flicking through the magazines. 'Murat, please attend to the crates at the back,' he said, each word punctuated by a wheeze.
Murat stared at Berlin, but didn't move.
'Please, son,' repeated his father.
Murat took his time. He ducked under the counter and emerged, still scowling, on the other side, then slunk through a beaded curtain and disappeared into the back of the shop. Mr Demir waited until the curtain was still, then greeted Berlin in the same way he had done for almost a month.
'Any developments, Miss Berlin?'
Berlin could see a shadow falling across the plastic beads. Murat was lurking within earshot. She shook her head in response to Mr Demir's query. 'She kept to the usual routine.'
'It's very unusual, very worrying. She was never religious,' said Mr Demir, bemused. He took a hit from his inhaler and held it deep in his chest. 'We have never been strict. About anything.' He cast a rueful glance at the back of the shop; this had clearly been a mistake with respect to their son's upbringing.
Sighing, Mr Demir handed Berlin a bag containing bread, milk and a cheap bottle of Scotch. It wasn't Talisker but it would do in an emergency. Which occurred at five o'clock most days.
'Perhaps she'll get over it,' offered Berlin, aware how weak this sounded.
Mr Demir gazed into the middle distance, perhaps seeking an answer to his own prayers. There wasn't one that held any joy. Mrs Demir's religiosity began and ended at a nearby apartment in a smart new conversion. Discreet enquiries had yielded the name of the occupant: a doctor who worked at the hospital. A burqa protected the nurse's, and no doubt the doctor's, reputation.
It seemed Mrs Demir, working in the shop during the day and caring for twenty psycho-geriatrics by night, knew paradise each morning. Berlin couldn't bring herself to tell poor Mr Demir. Besides, she needed the groceries. And the Scotch. It was unethical and unprofessional. How low could she go?
'Thank you so very much, Miss Berlin,' said Mr Demir. 'You will continue with the, er ... enquiries until you reach a conclusion about these events?'
Berlin nodded. There was her answer. Pretty low.
Amanda C M Gillies, Euro Crime
"...absolutely fantastic. It is so well written that you can smell the fear and almost taste the desperation. A truly beautifully written piece of work...If you like dark crime that isn't too gory but messes with your head anyway then this is for you."
Stephen Davenport, Adelaide Independent News
"...an often-surprising, multi-layered triumph. Expertly crafted, with a tremendous build-up of tension and a satisfying ending...a terrific novel that never relaxes its powerful grip."
Karen Chisholm, The Newtown Review of Books
"The plot is strong, complex and clever, where absolutely nothing is as it seems and the character of Berlin has a sort of car-crash fascination that is oddly hypnotic. "
Cameron Woodhead, Pick of the Week, The Age
"...you fly through chapters effortlessly while appreciating the complexity and realism of her flawed characters."
Fiona Hardy, Night Manager, Readings Bookshop
"A Bitter Taste is an example of how excellently painted characters and thrilling action that doesn’t resort to cheap tricks can plunge you directly into a world. I hated putting this one down."
Sassy Book Lovers
"It was easy to become invested in the story and that's largely because of Hauxwell's ability to create an addictive story that is easy to read. She has a knack for writing dark, individual and original stories. "
Mary Dalmau, Books & Publishing
"Hauxwell’s characters are desperate people...I found myself caring about Catherine and impressed by the narrative. This book will appeal to general crime readers, and I would recommend it to fans of Jeffrey Deaver and Gabrielle Lord’s earlier books. "
Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out
"A Bitter Taste is a dark, gritty crime fiction novel. Annie Hauxwell’s unique heroine and intriguing plot ensures this is an engrossing read and I am looking forward to the series continuing."