(EDITOR'S NOTE: The people and events depicted in this story are entirely fictional. Any resemblance to anyone, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Not everything is about you.)

After her meeting with ownership, Jackie Foster left the stadium via the Historic Music Hall exit onto McLaughlin Park. She grabbed a Berding Hover Scooter, heading north. She zipped across Liberty Street – drivers know that she always has the right-of-way – and didn’t stop until she reached the old River Ghost building, newly re-opened as Die Pridengard Beer Hall. She turned to her trusted lieutenants, known affectionately as “Ope” and “Change.”

“Wait here.”

She dismounted from her scooter and entered the building. Good, the banners are up, she thought. She gazed high up the walls, appreciating each championship, reflecting on the journey that took Cincinnati FC from bottom of the league to its recent, unprecedented run of eight championships in a row, plus five Champions Leagues and three Club World Cups. She thought about how the club’s rise mirrored that of her own group, which grew from a few chalk-covered marketing interns into an empire, whose influence was everywhere, but now had a place to call home.

She started to walk toward the back room, pausing when she reached a glass case commemorating the group’s history. She laughed to herself as she looked at an aerial photograph of the small, 26,000-person stadium that the club had opened so long ago. She scanned across the picture to Music Hall, at the time not yet integrated into the stadium, and what was previously known as Washington Park. Die Pridengard had gained its influence in the city, in part, in leading the campaign to remove the names of slaveholders from public landmarks, including that park. Elsewhere in the beer hall – if it had been unpacked yet – was the framed letter from President Megan Thee Stallion thanking them for their efforts.

She snapped back to reality, remembering why she was there. She looked at the door to the back room – the door marked “Executive Committee” – and sighed. Maybe if she closed her eyes, and counted to ten, it would go away. So she did; it didn’t. She sighed once more, took a last look at the glass cabinet, and moved on.

When she opened the door, those assembled – Vice President Brenner Standish, Club Secretary Khaleesi Jenkins, and Member-at-Large (in reality, the group’s chief bag person) Pat Brennan III – stepped aside, leaving her a direct view of what was in the center of the room: A blindfolded man, badly beaten, tied to a chair. She got close to him, to make certain he could hear her, despite the blood pooling in his ear.

“Tell me about the book.”

****************************************************************

“Yo, Prent, you sure about this?”

Prentiss Foster, independent Cincinnati FC supporter, was damn sure. Cincinnati FC had just completed an embarrassing run of form, and a crucial game against its chief rival – Austin Crew SC – was looming. The team needed a dramatic gesture, and it needed it now.

He'd raised these same concerns at a meeting of The Recline, the council of Cincinnati FC supporters’ groups, but was dismissed. 

“What the team needs now is our unconditional support.”

That was what they told him, along with their excuses. We just signed a new coach. Our team has been plagued with injuries. There is a global pandemic. Redundancies aside, the message came to Prent loud and clear: He couldn’t look to the feckless supporters’ groups – much too cozy with the front office – for answers. He had to take action himself.

Before answering, he jotted a note in his journal (he was on his sixth? seventh? since childhood), tied an orange ribbon around the black book, and put it in the glove compartment. “Yes, Landon, I’m damn sure.”

He and his best friend and brother-in-law, Landon Williams-Taft, pulled down their ski masks, turned off the car, and walked out into the nearly empty Corry Garage.

Even a college campus is dead at midnight on a Wednesday in July. No one around except for a few security guards and some graduate students cramming for summer exams. And them, Prent and Landon. At least, it should have been that way.

As they approached Nippert Stadium they were surprised to hear yelling. It turned out that a few members of the supporters’ groups had stayed longer than usual. On the field, they were engaged in a marathon session of pickup soccer. Prent couldn’t believe it.

“How are they still playing?”

“Beats me,” Landon said. “You’d think they’d have stopped for drinks by now.”

“Or a heart attack.”

There couldn’t have been a BMI under 30 in the lot of them. Eight men between the ages of 23 and 46 calling their own fouls, giving each other thumbs up for errant passes vaguely in the direction of a player making a “run,” and no one ever, ever getting back on defense. Just above them, Prent’s targets: The banners hung up by the supporters’ groups the night before every match.

“What are we going to do?”

Prent thought a moment before he answered. He looked from the players to the banners and back again. He wanted to avoid a direct confrontation if at all possible, but nothing was going to keep him from completing his mission. If he had no choice, he wanted to be damn sure before doing anything drastic. Prent liked being damn sure about things.

He turned to Landon. “We have to get them out of there. And I think I know how.”

Twenty minutes later, they were back in the car. Landon pulled up his mask so that he could read his phone better, clicked on the account for “Will Warren Buffett,” and sent a direct message from one of his burner accounts he keeps for just such an occasion: “You didn’t hear it from me, but Cincinnati FC has reached a pre-contract with Serbian second-division winger Jaro Milosevic.” Will didn’t respond, but Prent knew what would happen next. He leapt from the car and ran toward the stadium.

Down at the field, the play stopped. Having received a Twitter alert in unison, the supporters all pulled out their phones. Prent flashed his phone flashlight on and off three times to Landon, who was stationed across the concourse at the stadium’s Wifi router – that’s right, Nippert Stadium’s Wifi is powered by a single router, unsecured, easily accessible to anyone. Landon unplugged the router just as each of the players was about to retweet the latest signing rumor. 

Without Wifi, and with the field at Nippert a total dead zone, the supporters scrambled. They hustled up the stairs as fast as they could – they walked, taking breaks on the way up – desperate to find service. Once they were safely out, Prent again flashed his phone at Landon, and the two of them began to sprint to the banners. “I’m Shipping Up To Boston” by the Dropkick Murphys started to play as they ran. From where, no one knows to this day.

When they reached the supporters’ section – Prent on one side and Landon on the other – they began to strip down the banners as quickly as they could and stuffed them into trash bags.

Just as they were finishing, a voice shouted at them. One of the supporters’ group members had returned to pick up the goals, and the man was closing in on them. Landon and Prent looked at each other and ran right at their pursuer. Landon swung the bags wildly as he ran. The man turned his head and swatted at the bags, preventing himself from seeing Prent’s fist. The man went down, hitting his head on a bleacher and landing in a slump on the ground. There was no time for them to check if he was still breathing. 

Damn it, thought Prent, this never would have happened if we had safe standing. The bleachers would still be folded up!

He motioned for Landon to follow him out of the stadium. When they reached the car, they stashed the banners in the trunk and sat silently in the dark. Prent thought about the man they had left, lifeless in the stands. Probably a high-level board member of a supporters’ group, but which one? Prent hadn’t gotten a good look. Not that it mattered anyway. Whoever it was, it was a near certainty that Prent knew the man personally, had bought him a drink at a bar, had called him a friend. The only thing that kept Prent from crashing, then and there, was the blank space over the man’s face in Prent’s mind. Once that space was filled, there would be no going back. There would be consequences.

They stayed there for a few minutes. All was quiet. No sirens. No one in the garage. No indication of anything unusual happening outside. They drove off.

The next day, bannerless, Cincinnati FC beat Austin 3-1.


****************************************************************

Jackie had known the blindfolded man would crack as soon as he saw her face. She had won standoffs against referees, mayors, commissioners, and, once, an ISIS member who tried to taunt the supporter’s section at a Club World Cup semifinal against Sporting Raqqa. (Editor’s Note: Yes, ISIS still exists decades from now. Blame Bush.) One old timer, already beaten into submission, was always going to be a piece of cake.

What had surprised her, however, was that the book was right under her nose.

She rode the elevator down to the old lagering tunnel under the building and went into a room full of dusty boxes, stacked on top of each other, much like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Items in Die Pridengard’s custody that no one had bothered to touch for years. She scanned the sides of the boxes until she found the symbol she was told about:

She walked over to the next aisle and hopped into the forklift. She moved aside the boxes she didn’t need, turned the machine off, and climbed down.

When she opened the box a cloud of dust hit her in the face. Wait, is that dust? She dragged a finger across her cheek and looked at it. Orange and blue. She tasted it – chalk powder.

Her curiosity piqued, she dug in. She rifled through scarves, paperweights, rocks glasses, plastic sunglasses, and one hopefully unused branded vibrator from the ill-considered “Pure Romance Stadium” era. Then she found it: A black book, with an orange ribbon tied around it. She untied the ribbon and opened the book to the title page:

Rise Together, Fall Together: How Die Pridengard Lost Its Way

- By Prentiss Foster