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The mile up Amsterdam Avenue from 83rd Street to 106th is about the longest in America. It begins in the hip, comfortable Upper West Side, land of Zabar's and the Museum of Natural History and winds up in a shabby crossroads where drug dealers wait for cabs bearing yuppies.

Richard and Patricia Marback lived at this mile's southern terminus, in a nice apartment in a nice building with two nice children.She was the kind who'd hold the elevator with a smile while you got your mail. He was the kind who'd get you something if he was going to H&H, the famed bagel emporium on Broadway.

But when he stepped out the lobby door on Saturday, Aug. 5, Richard Marback was not crossing Broadway for bagels. He was heading north for heroin.

Twenty-four hours later, the love of his life was dead.

Everyone who knew the Marbacks - from the sister who slept in the bed next to hers for 15 years to the neighbor who knew him only by sight - describes their family the same way: picture-perfect.

She was 36, a stockbroker with red hair and a knack for names, dates and numbers.

Richard, founder of a medical journal, remained an avid in-line skater and biker despite the approach of his 40th birthday. At over six feet tall, with light, salt-and-pepper hair, he cut a strikingly athletic figure.

They had two children: Natasha, 8, a little blonde known to all as "Tashi" who had thrilled her parents by getting admitted to a public school for gifted students; and John, 2, who spent days at home with a baby sitter.

You'd always see them together, loading the car for weekends in the Hamptons, or cycling to Central Park, or walking Henry, their tail-wagging golden retriever.

They lived in a 16-story brick apartment house on West 83rd Street. Richard had moved in some 15 years ago, and Patricia had joined him.

Just before noon on Sunday, Aug. 6, the police were called to the building. Detective Joseph Waters took the elevator to the 14th floor, where he was met at the Marbacks' door by Richard and the children.

It was a beautiful place, a spacious contrast to the apartments that were subdivided after the war. The walls were covered with dozens of family photographs. There was a living room overlooking Broadway, and three bedrooms. In one, Patricia was dead of a heroin overdose.

Marback gave Waters two small bags of heroin. Then he led him to his dresser drawer, where the detective found a rolled up dollar bill that had been used to snort another three bags' worth the night before.

As word spread through the building, the reaction was something like this: The Marbacks seemed like the perfect family, but we are not unsophisticated; we could understand what happened if it was marijuana or cocaine, or if the Marbacks had been at a party, or if they had no children.

But heroin? Copped at the edge of Harlem? Snorted in the apartment while the kids were home?

"It's inexplicable to everyone," said a neighbor, Maxwell Yerger.

Not to the police, who have been watching heroin, once the poor man's drug, make its way up the social ladder.

In the past decade, world opium production has quadrupled, driving heroin's price down and its purity up.

The white stuff now on the street is so strong that those leery of needles can inhale it, instead of injecting it. It's pure enough to intoxicate even veteran junkies; pure enough to lure recovering addicts; pure enough to kill a young mother at home in the safety of 222 W. 83rd.

Patty Winston was 15 the summer she met Richard Marback. They were both doing odd jobs at an optometry shop in Great Neck, N.Y., where Patty's family had moved when she was 6.

It was, they said, love at first sight, and their relationship endured - through high school and college, even though she studied psychology at Boston University and he went west to study business.

Both came back to New York, and married in 1985. Patty rose to associate director at Bear Stearns & Co., selling stocks and bonds to what the firm describes as "high net worth individuals." They were, her sister says, "people you've heard of, people in Who's Who."

Richard told neighbors he'd been so successful selling ads for medical publications that he started his own.

They were well off, but not rich. Their income went into his business and to pay the usual Manhattan tariffs: the $3,000 monthly rent, baby sitters, garages and all sorts of classes for Tashi, including horseback riding at an academy on Long Island.

Their personal lives seemed as successful as their professional ones.

Richard struck acquaintances as happy and uncomplicated. "He loved being married," said Robert Sawyer, who moved into the Marbacks' one-bedroom apartment when they moved upstairs. "Some married men seem to envy me because I'm single, but Richard would say, `Robert, it's time you got married.' "

On the Upper West Side, with its cast of singles and loners, eccentrics and nonconformists, the Marbacks seemed almost absurdly wholesome, "the sort of people with whom Newt Gingrich would like to repopulate America," as one neighbor put it.

The family attended Friday nights services at Temple Rodeph Shalom, where Tashi sang in the choir. They took Henry to visit nursing home residents. Patricia helped out with Tashi's Girl Scout troop.

On the Thursday night before she died, Patricia and Richard met her parents for dinner at a restaurant on Long Island. Afterward, Patty led her father over to a 1995 Cadillac parked outside. "Why don't you sit in this car, Dad?" she said, and handed him the keys. It was a gift.

In a busy, self-centered city, Patty always kept in touch.

"She never let a relationship die out, and she liked to help people," recalls her 34-year-old sister, Claire Behar. "Doing that was the calm in her day, in her very frenetic life."

Like many other city couples with big jobs, young children and small apartments, their lives were interesting but anxious, exhilarating but arduous. Richard was nurturing his new business, and Patty sometimes had to be in the office at 7 a.m., yet back in time to cook dinner. It seemed they were always working or with the children, or racing in between.

"They lived a very stressed lifestyle and did what they could to get through," Patricia's sister recalls. "They worked nights and weekends just to make ends meet and to build a future."

That included their special dream, a house of their own in the Hamptons.

Despite the pace, Behar adds, "They had a romance and they kept it alive. They'd send each other letters, even though they lived together. They lit candles. They called each other all day long."

And they planned a special celebration for Sept. 29, their 10th anniversary.

On Monday, Aug. 7, Richard Marback was arraigned on charges of drug possession and endangering the welfare of minors. Thejudge postponed his case and released him on his own recognizance; he probably will get no more than probation.

His relatives and friends had filled two rows in the courtroom. As Richard walked out, he put his head on one of their shoulders and cried.

Outside, his lawyer was reduced to telling reporters that the Marback family, once picture-perfect, "has no prior record," and that the parents had used heroin only once or twice.

Two days later, Patricia Marback was buried.

Several hundred people attended her funeral in Great Neck, including Tashi, who held a white rose.

Her six brothers and sisters helped compose this eulogy:

"She was generous and loving and quick to laugh. Her glorious red hair, which seems now to us like a radiant halo, illuminated her life. Our darling Patty was too kind, too beautiful and much too young to die. Her death is an unbearable loss; our family, still so vast, will never again be whole."

They did not blame her husband.

"We love him and we will stand by him," said Claire Behar. "He is our parents' son, and we will help him raise his children."

Her voice faltering, she added: "He's no villain; there's no blame here. Patty loved Richard, and we're keeping that love alive."

Last week, the widower and his children stayed at Behar's home on Long Island, sleeping in the same bedroom. "They wanted to be together," she explained.

Were Richard and Patty Marback merely novices at drugs?

Claire Behar runs through her mental thesaurus: "It was an accident, an aberration . . . an isolated incident, just experimentation. Unfortunate, yes; senseless, yes. But beyond that, there's no story."

In an afterthought, she adds: "They did not do things for kicks."

But the Marbacks' case comes at a time when some young professionals who once sniffed cocaine to speed up are sniffing heroin to slow down.

The New York Daily News quoted an unidentified source in the district attorney's office as noting that when he reached 106th Street, Richard "bought three glassines (envelopes) of heroin from one guy, then crossed the street and bought two more from another guy. Does this sound like a novice who doesn't know what he's doing?"

Sawyer, a neighbor who rode the subway with the Marbacks, who drank coffee in their kitchen, who let them store Tashi's holiday presents in his apartment, says he never thought they used drugs.

But he is not shocked that they did.

"There's always a curtain of anxiety in New York, and people do things to cope," he says. "They take the risk. It's like Roller-bladers on the street. They know what could happen if a cab stops short, but they do it anyway."