The Flight Watchmen

By Laura Blumenfeld
Sunday, June 22, 2008

0645 Hours: Peanut Butter and jelly, or ham and cheese?

Chan Browne is standing in his girlfriend's kitchen, making a sandwich for his girlfriend's daughter's lunch. He wants to get it right. Strawberry jelly, not grape, creamy peanut butter, not crunchy, spread thin, not thick, on wheat bread, not Italian, cut in rectangles, not triangles. The crusts are trimmed.

It is dark out still, but Chan's girlfriend, Kathy, has left for work. Chan, a thickly built federal air marshal from Alabama, an expert marksman wearing flip-flops and jeans, picks up a pen: Jamie, Have a good day. Do well in school and mind your manners. Mom and Chan. He folds the note and closes the 7-year-old's Hannah Montana lunchbox. He hopes it's good enough. He hopes he's good enough. He opens the lunchbox and adds Oreos.

For Chan, it has been nine months of second-guessing, of tucking in his shirt, of checking his tie, nine months of dating Kathy White. He has dated pretty women before. In high school he went out with the entire cheerleading team, one set of pom-poms at a time. But his enchantment with Kathy is unlike anything he's known, more exciting than her spark-red hair, more soothing than her Irish cream skin. When she walks into the room, his palms sweat.

Chan first saw Kathy three years ago at work, rushing past him in the hall. At the Freedom Center, a counterterrorism compound in Northern Virginia where Chan is an assistant special agent in charge, the employees always seem to rush. They hurry from the Huddle Room to the Emergency Conference Room, to the coffee refill room, to the Pentagon rubble memorial of 9/11 at the entrance, to the signs on the double door -- "Restricted Area," "Authorized Personnel Only" -- leading to the Watch Floor.

It is here that the officers stand watch round-the-clock with one assignment: Stop another 9/11.

From the time Kathy blurred past Chan until their first drink, two years had gone by. "It was boy sees girl. Boy wants to ask girl out. Boy's too nervous and doesn't," Chan recalls. He felt thrown by her, tumbling back to adolescence. Once, he wandered back to her office, pretending to look for a file. He had planned to ask for a date. When she looked up at him, though, with those clear, blue-sky eyes, he froze. "I almost felt like writing her a note: 'I like you. Do you like me? If so, check yes.' " But Chan is 44 now, achy-kneed, balding and divorced, his days and nights punctuated by the vibrations of a BlackBerry issued by the Department of Homeland Security.

Standing in Kathy's kitchen at dawn in Charles Town, W.Va., glancing at his BlackBerry on the counter, enveloped by the aroma of Jamie's toasting cinnamon Pop-Tart, he thinks about how much harder it is to fall in love a second time.

"You've got all the knowledge of your past failures," he says. You're always on alert. When the first time ends in disaster, the second time you have to do everything right.

Chan's BlackBerry begins to dance, vibrating across the counter. Something is wrong.

0650 Hours: Improper Selectee Screening at Chippewa (CIU)

On a runway at Chippewa County International Airport in northern Michigan, on Mesaba Airlines Flight 3042 to Detroit, a man is sitting in seat 4C, waiting for takeoff. He shouldn't have been allowed on the plane.

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