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Just before twilight on a balmy September New York evening, Dr. Maslow Atkins set out for a jog in Central Park and never came back. He calculated that he had just the right amount of time to run south along the path closest to Central Park West to Fifty-ninth Street and back. Dr. Atkins was a man of regular habits. He timed himself on each outing, knew his speeds and his muscles. And the denizens who claimed the park as their own knew them, too.
Like many compulsive runners, Maslow felt edgy when deprived of his exercise. That day he’d watched a silvery morning turn to angry afternoon thunderstorms, and he’d been preoccupied by the threat of possibly having to run in the rain. The nagging irritation caused the slightest dulling of his senses, and, unthinking, the young psychiatrist made a blunder in his work.
Maslow Atkins, MD, five foot six inches tall, slender build, strong features muted only slightly by the perpetual beginnings of a beard, straight medium brown hair just long enough on top to occasionally break free of its crest and fall forward to tickle his brow. Not large or classically handsome, Maslow was most notable for his eyes, which were, in turn, light brown, dark brown, and green, depending on his mood and the color of his shirts. His eyes were the most arresting aspect of his person, piercingly sharp in all his humors.
At thirty-two Maslow was a man not quite finished. He was a fully licensed psychiatrist, but not yet a father, not married, and not even fully certified to practice his chosen subspecialty of psychoanalysis. Throughout the years of his training he had kept his head down and worked hard. Coming and going from his building every morning in his suits and ties, and every evening in his running clothes, with the water bottle hanging on his hip, he looked like one of the thousands of affluent people of his age who flocked to New York City from all over the country and the world to build a career, to make a name for themselves, and probably not go home again
He could have been a banker, a doctor, a lawyer, an advertising executive, a money manager. In any case, he had the appearance of a serious professional on the rise. In fact, Maslow was a thoughtful person eager to do some good in life. And he was not from somewhere else. He was a New Yorker, born and bred just across the park on the East Side. Park Avenue, to be exact. He’d been a city brat and thought he knew all the angles. As a doctor, his guiding principle was the physician’s oath: First, do no harm. And his personal rules about his own conduct were so strict that he would not take a drink even in a social situation lest it make him stupid or spin him out of control.
All through the moody afternoon, he’d brooded about his patient Allegra. Her name was lovely and light. The word conjured quicksilver in his mind. In music, Allegro meant fast. In Italian, happy. In Spanish, Allegria meant joy. Allegra, the petite raven-haired young woman of twenty, should have been as spirited and confident as she was beautiful. But she was not spirited and joyful. She was very troubled. Maslow felt an unusually deep connection with her and didn’t know why. Sometimes he thought she was copying his mannerisms. Her smile and the way she expressed things were oddly familiar. So were some of the stories she told, familiar even though she had not come from here. The way she crossed her legs and pursed her lips when she was angry were particularly disturbing to him. But most disturbing of all, was the fact that sometimes she starved herself and sometimes she cut her own flesh.
In their session that day, Allegra had told Maslow that in the first moments after she went to work on herself with a razor and watched the blood bubble up out of the cuts on her belly, she felt bliss. Then, nonchalantly, she’d lifted her blouse for him and showed the scars. The sight of so many even rows of red notches scored across her slender torso had made him even queasier than anything he’d seen in medical school. She was his charge, his patient, and he was not working quickly enough to stop her. He was particularly chilled by the fact that whole rows of the red seams on her belly were recent, occurring without his knowledge after she’d started seeing him. A few were brand-new. The idea that she hurt herself after sessions with him disturbed him deeply.
That day after showing off her scars, she’d expressed confusion about sometimes caring for her father despite the horrific things he’d done to her. Maslow remarked that children loved their parents no matter what they did. She’d become enraged at him and had left his office in tears. Ever since, he’d been in a panic about what she might do to herself.
He was still worrying about it at seven o’clock when he returned home from work. He lived in a huge sixty-year-old co-op that took up a whole block on Central Park West.
"Some evening, huh, Doc." The heavyset evening doorman called Ben stood under the canopy, watching him approach.
"Sure is," Maslow agreed.
Ben stepped forward to open the heavy glass door for him.
"Thanks." Maslow waved, then crossed the cavernous lobby, newly decorated in mauve and cream. The elevator took him to the fifth floor, where his one-bedroom apartment faced the side street. Hurrying now, he peeled off his clothes, grabbed socks, Nike Airs, shorts, T-shirt from a shelf in the closet and pulled them on. In the kitchen he filled his water bottle from the tap and put into his fanny pack a couple of granola bars, his apartment keys, and the slender canister of pepper spray that looked like a pen. He didn’t take his wallet. He didn’t need money to run, and he certainly did not consider the problems of identification should something happen to him. He was a New Yorker and thought nothing could possibly happen to him. He was in and out of his apartment in less than six minutes.
In the lobby, Ben opened the front door for him again and scanned the sky. "I don’t know," he said shaking his head. "Watch out for that rain. They say there’s more to come."
"Not tonight," Maslow replied confidently. He picked up his feet and trotted across the street toward the park, his heart lifting at the prospect of an activity that always eased his distress.
Twilight was his favorite time of day in the park, and voices on the other side of the wall indicated he was not alone. Them, just before he entered the park, he saw his patient.
She jumped up from the bench and came over. "Hi."
"Hello, Allegra." He wanted to say no more. He wanted to slip by, but she wouldn’t let him pass.
"I want to tell you something."
"Why don’t you tell me in session tomorrow," he said gently.
"Fine," she replied angrily. "Whatever." Angry again, she took off down Central Park West.
He stopped for a moment to catch his breath and compose himself. Immediately to his left was the playground. To his right was Eighty-first Street. He crossed and entered the park, heading downtown. That evening it had an eerie quality, almost as if he were entering a land of remote rain forests and steamy, sun-basted jungles. At Seventy-ninth Street the canopies of huge old oaks arched over the sidewalk, high above the manmade arbor, which itself was densely covered with wisteria. Rain droplets clung to the leaves and glittered like diamonds in the last of the daylight that filtered through the layers of branches. The air was moist and smelled of earth. Maslow inhaled deeply, willing calm into his soul. He worked with very sick people in the hospital. There, staff was around him, and he knew how to protect himself. With patients in private practice it was different, and he didn’t always know the right thing to do. He felt he’d handled this wrong and was glad he would be able to consult with his supervisor in an hour to talk about Allegra, to get perspective and advice.
The sidewalk split. He took the route to the east and moved deeper into the park, heading toward the bridle path where he liked to run. The ground would be wet, but there wouldn’t be any horses this late.
A high-pitched scream of surprise and pain stopped Maslow mid stride. The cry came out of nowhere and was over in a second. Maslow spun around, searching for the source. He hadn’t even picked up his pace yet. The bridle path was ahead of him just out of sight. Behind him, he could hear cars splashing though the puddles as they headed across the park to the East side. He knew he was up at the very northern tip of the rowboat lake, but it was still deep summer and the fully leafed trees hid the view on the other side of the railing that served as a barrier between the safe, paved path and the swampy slope that led down to the water’s edge. In other seasons the lake and a footbridge were visible in the distance, appearing unexpectedly like some magical place in a fairy story. Today nothing could be seen through the mist.
The cry came again, this time a sustained wail.
Maslow leaned over the split-rail fence and peered into the curtain of dripping leaves. "Where are you? What’s happened?"
"Someone’s down here! She fell." An excited voice came from below him.
Maslow pushed some dripping branches aside. The fallen tree that spanned a small ravine in a clearing came into view. Long ago the log had been stripped of its bark and deeply carved with designs like a totem pole. Maslow had seen kids sitting on it many times and guessed whoever had fallen had fallen from there.
For many people the first rules of New York City were, don’t make eye contact with strangers and don’t stop for anything. But Maslow was trained to move toward pain, not away from it. He climbed over the railing, pushed through the bushes, and stepped into the clearing. Down in the crevice beneath the carved log bridge he saw blue-jeaned legs skewed awkwardly from the body attached to it. The face was pressed down into the wet grass, but he had a chilling feeling that the crumpled body was Allegra’s.
"I think she’s dead," screamed the voice, now identifiable as male and filled with adrenaline.
"Hold on, I’m coming. Don’t touch her, I’m coming," he cried. He scrambled over the carved log, lost his footing, and half-slid, half-plunged down the hill. The man at the bottom reached down to help him up, but the arm that snaked around his neck was surprisingly strong. It jerked him back. He staggered and lost his balance. He couldn’t reach his mace or his cell phone, couldn’t land a good kick to the person behind him. He panicked and started yelling, then the rock hit his head and he went down. After that, he didn’t feel the branch hitting him, or the feet kicking him, or that he was lifted up, slung over someone’s back, and hauled away like a large piece of garbage.
On Park Avenue, Central Park West, and in Long Island City, three sets of parents didn’t know where their kids were.