The men with guns never stayed out too late in the woods round Jaundice Hill. Jaundice Hill was an old, old manor house, with fading yellow brickwork and a sliding slate roof. The house was hidden deep in the middle of the woods, and the estate belonged to Charles Malkovich. Charles Malkovich was old, old man, with fading yellow skin, and thinning slate grey hair.
‘Stay late and try your luck with the birds and the deer and the rabbits,’ Mr Malkovich said. He spoke with a growl and an accompanying twitch. ‘Stay late and shoot them all. They aren’t doing me any good.’
Like the inevitability of death, Mr Malkovich took comfort in the punctual sound of birds wings and gunshots. He hated the animals and the way their legs worked. He hated the animals in their youth an innocence. He was reassured by the men with guns and their basic instinct to hunt.
All day they’d come up from the village, and desecrate his forest. From sunrise to sunset there was always half a dozen men with guns peppering the air with shots. Then darkness would fall, and they’d all pack their things and leave, quarry or no quarry.
‘Stay as late as you want,’ Mr Malkovich would tell them. ‘Stay all through the night if you want to. I don’t care.’
But they never did. Stay out too late, and Janet Wilcox would come down through the trees in her indecently short skirt. With her sultry pout and her eyebrows plucked like a turkey.
They didn’t know the first time. She walked down as they built a campfire and laid down their guns. She walked down and she saw what they’d done; and she put her hands on her hips, and stuck her chest out.
‘Hello, men with guns,’ she said. Innocently the first time. ‘I’ve come to collect your fee.’
Nobody minded the prospect of a fee, because Mr Malkovich’s land was rich with game, and the girl that asked them was attractive in a dark and dangerous way.
Nobody minded except plain Suzy Crawford with her rabbit fur scarf; rocking her baby by the fire. Her husband had a look in his eye.
‘Mr Malkovich never mentioned a fee,’ she sniffed. ‘Never mentioned nothing of the sort.’
‘Didn’t he?’ Janet said, and there was a gleam in her wickedly dark eyes. ‘That’s because he’s gone in the head. Has trouble with the memory. But I remember.’
She looked at the dead rabbits and the dead birds, in a pile by their feet.
‘Well, it’s simple. Kill and eat our animals, and we take your children.’ Janet Wilcox made a grab for the baby. ‘Pay up!’
‘What?’ screeched Suzy Crawford, who tended to overreact. ‘You’re a madwoman! I’m not giving you my child!’
‘Don’t look so scared,’ Janet Wilcox said. ‘I only want to look after it.’
‘You’re crazy!’ Suzy Crawford insisted. ‘Don’t come anywhere near us! John, do something!’
‘You must be mistaken,’ John Crawford said dumbly. ‘Mr Malkovich never said anything about this. You can’t be serious.’
Janet Wilcox’s mouth set bitterly, and she snatched Suzy’s rabbit fur scarf.
‘Disgusting,’ she spat, and she dropped it on the fire. ‘To kill and wear something so innocent. I wouldn’t trust you around children with that kind of behaviour.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Suzy shrieked hysterically. ‘You’re crazy, you’re mad!’
‘Get out!’ Janet Wilcox yelled directly in her face. ‘Go back to your village, woman. You’re raving like a lunatic. I can’t understand a word you’re saying.’
‘Hang on now,’ John Crawford said calmly. Janet Wilcox was too captivating in her tight clothes, with her dark hair; and they couldn’t be angry with her. ‘That’s my wife you’re talking too.’
‘Poor you,’ Janet Wilcox said. ‘Watch she doesn’t skin and your baby on the way home. I’d start hiding the carving knives if I were you.’
Suzy screamed something at her, and Janet Wilcox turned and marched back up to the old manor house. The men with guns still hunted in the woods round Jaundice Hill, but they knew when Janet finished working, and they never stayed after dark again. Never long enough to speak to her. But sometimes they’d watch as she walked down the front steps to ask for their children.
Janet Wilcox was mad, they all said. But Janet Wilcox was not mad.