THE MARMALADE CONTINUUM
It was the body of a young woman, possibly in her twenties, though the exact age was difficult to determine given her current state. She was completely naked and covered from head to toe in a viscous orange substance that left a sweet citrus scent lingering in the air. Her strawberry blond hair trailed across the cobblestone in sticky tangles, extending outward from her head in all directions like a syrupy halo. Her arms were at her sides, palms up, and her eyes were closed as if she were sleeping. Her expression was peaceful, the hints of a smile visible beneath the sticky orange film.
Yellow and black police tape blocked foot traffic through the crime scene. It was only an hour after dawn, so the campus was still relatively quiet. A light fall mist filled the air with a damp chill. Most of the students and faculty walking along nearby footpaths chose to avoid the broad open space at the center of the quad where the body was still plainly visible. However, a crowd of about a dozen people was forming along the outer edge of the tape. Several more campus and city police were approaching on foot to help maintain the perimeter.
A young man in a red T-shirt and blue jeans ducked under the police tape and quietly studied the scene. As he took a long look around, one of the uniformed officers near the body walked over and stood beside him.
“Thanks for coming down here. So what do you think?”
Isaac Malachi stared at the body. “What I think is that I’ve never seen a dead body before. At least not in real life. I keep expecting her to wake up, but she’s obviously not breathing.”
“I’ve seen three dead bodies. Nothing like this.” The officer shoved his hands in his pockets and sighed. “So you think it’s a cult? Harrison thinks it’s some kinda serial killer, but I think it’s a cult.”
“I haven’t decided yet.” Isaac started walking around the body in a slow circle, keeping his distance from the deceased. “Aside from the nudity, the victim isn’t sexualized. She looks surprisingly peaceful.”
“Yes.” The officer pointed at the forensics team that was busily taking samples and snapping photos. “They’re going to run some tests to see if she was drugged. If she drowned in that syrup. she wouldn’t look so peaceful.”
Isaac took a few slow steps toward the body. He bent down and touched the orange substance. After sniffing it a few times, he licked the tip of his finger.
The officer winced, looking around to see if anyone had noticed. “Is that even edible?”
“It’s sweet and citrusy. It reminds me of my grandmother’s marmalade. I’d say it’s either marmalade or preserves.”
“Marmalade.” The officer shook his head. “Of course it’s marmalade. A body covered in marmalade in the middle of campus. What’s next? Tea and scones falling from the sky?”
Isaac noticed something out of the corner of his eye.
“Look.” He pointed to an object at the base of a tree a few dozen yards away. “Is that a jar?”
“A jar? You have got to be kidding me.”
The officer took a step toward the jar, but Isaac raised a hand to interrupt him.
There was another barely visible jar a few dozen yards away under a park bench. As they both spun around slowly, they noticed several other jars tucked in various spots around the quad. The jars were all partially hidden and all about the same distance from the body.
“It’s a circle. Whatever this is, it’s definitely ritualistic. You may be right about the cult angle, although serial killers tend to be ritualistic too.”
“I knew it. I knew it was a cult.” The officer pulled out his notebook. “Any ideas on where to start looking?”
“Not yet.” Isaac took another look around the scene. “I’ve got to get to class, but I’ll definitely look into this for you. Take as many pictures as you can. I’ll contact Dr. Tobias and maybe a few other people. I’ll let you know if I find anything.”
“Alright. Thanks, Isaac.”
The officer walked over to the forensics team and started asking questions. Isaac took one last look at the dead woman before turning away with a shudder. As he ducked under the police tape and headed to class, the sweet citrus scent of marmalade lingered with him along the way.
Isaac sat in a quiet corner of the library staring down at his tablet. His advisor, Dr. Tobias, was on sabbatical and wasn’t responding to phone calls. So Isaac had decided to do some of his own research into this real-life mystery.
What he had found so far was nothing new. As a graduate student in religious studies, he had taken and even taught courses on the subject of religion and violence. Violent crimes involving religious cults were exceedingly rare, at least in the United States. Aside from a handful of mass suicides, most of the examples included various forms of domestic abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse, or hate crimes on the basis of race or sexual orientation. Ritualized murder, however, was virtually non-existent.
At least according to most sources.
After several hours of skimming abstracts for scholarly articles related to religious cults and ritualized violence, Isaac found exactly what he was looking for. Twelve years ago, a man named Reginald Quince had published a doctoral dissertation on a seemingly unrelated topic:
“Many Worlds, Many Ends: Eschatological Narratives and the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.”
Like all of the other theses and dissertations Isaac had examined, there was no mention of marmalade in the abstract or keywords. However, a search of the full text revealed a single paragraph containing the word he was looking for.