SURREAL TRAPDOOR: Abandoned Buildings in Your Neighbourhood- Part 2

In January I blogged about the ivy-drowned mansion near our cottage  which was later salvaged…sort of.

Small town “haunted” mansion

But do such houses exist in Toronto? Yes, they do! And I’ve learned to spot them.

The obvious clues are boarded up or broken windows, wildly overgrown gardens, leaking roofs and guttering.  Though occasionally these signs can apply to a fully inhabited, sadly neglected house!

More subtle signs appear for vacant homes: usually the overgrown garden is a giveaway. No obvious cars, a sheen of dust on the windows, a dispirited ambience…Though someone somewhere is keeping up the basic maintenance to avoid destruction.

Water, sun and nature move swiftly to claim back the planet.

What fascinates me are the reasons why the house stands deserted. There are stories there. Did the owner grow too elderly or infirm? Turn away from the world because of heartbreak? Was there a family dispute? A lingering estate problem?

And what of this strange sight, spotted on a winter walk?

 

Has the hoarding become so extreme that it’s spilled onto the veranda? Or did someone clear it out for the junk removal service?

Definitely a story here!

 

 

 

EAT THIS BOOK: Forgotten Writer #5 – Lia Matera and Star Witness or UFO’s and Me

As a kid I was space mad. I longed to become an astronaut or an astronomer. And while I was growing up, sightings of UFO’s were prominent in the news.  I became convinced that space aliens were visiting  our planet.

Maybe that’s why I have fond memories of Lia Matera’s thriller, Star Witness, the fifth book in her Willa Jansson series. The book opens with a hit-between-the-eyes description of a horrific road accident: a sporty Fiat has dived into the roof of an old Buick, squishing the driver. The owner of the Fiat, Alan, has vanished. When the police locate him, he claims he was abducted by aliens. They’re the ones who dropped his car on the Buick!

It falls to grumpy lawyer, Willa Jansson to defend Alan and his incredible alibi. But delving into reports of UFO’s and encounters of the third kind, her skepticism dissolves. Holy Cartman’s anal probe!

Matera did a deep dive into UFO’s and weird encounters and included a listing of books and videos at the end of Star Witness. In her foreword  she describes how  her personal skepticism took a journey much like Willa Jansson’s.

Even today in Canada, we have firm believers in UFO’s. (Check out the meet-ups in Toronto alone!) Many years ago, I met and chatted with one of BC’s leading UFO believers thanks to my friend, retired filmmaker, Chris Windsor.

Chris had studied film making at UBC while I slogged away at my doctorate in organic chemistry. His student film, Roofman, was a huge hit with audiences at the university. That success and his talent landed him a job making industrial training films in Alberta. Mind-numbing and soul-destroying to be sure, but at least he was earning a living in his chosen profession.

In his spare time, Chris began working on a documentary about UFO’s.  By then I was living in Victoria and writing my PhD thesis. Out of the blue one afternoon, Chris phoned. Would I help him out on a film shoot? He and his cinematographer were in town to interview the President of BC’s UFO Society.

Boy that was a hard choice – cranking out dry scientific prose or skiving off with two friends  to explore UFO’s. Hell, yes!

The three of us headed off in Chris’s car to interview the UFO President at his house in a rural part of Vancouver Island. He turned out to be a  kindly middle-aged man who lived in a tidy, respectable middle class home: he looked and acted like our dads though if memory serves, he did don a tinfoil hat.  And his belief in UFO’s was absolute.

I’ll always owe Chris for that amazing life experience. I don’t know what happened with his UFO documentary, because shortly after that I handed in my thesis, graduated and moved back to Ontario.

So what happened to Lia Matera and Chris Windsor? Lia Matera , herself a  lawyer, was chief editor of the Constitutional Law Quarterly and a teaching fellow at Stanford Law School, when she took up crime writing. She wrote the Willa Jansson and Laura Di Palma series of crime novels, twelve books in all, plus a dozen short stories. Her work collected several nominations for leading awards: the Edgar, Anthony and Macavity. She won the Shamus award in 1996.

Matera wrote from 1987 to 1996 then very little thereafter though Ellery Queen Magazine published her chilling tale, “Snow Job” as recently as 2019. Did she go back to law? Did she retire? The crime writing world is poorer for it!

Chris did go on to make a feature film, Big Meat Eater, a horror comedy that was released in 1982.  It got favorable reviews and was a finalist at the 1983 Genies  for Best Original Screenplay, but it never became a huge hit.  Chris told me that unfortunately, as a Canadian film it was eclipsed by the American film, Eating Raoul, another horror comedy about cannibalism.

Andrew Gillies, Chris’s star in Roofman and Big Meat Eater went on to have a long career as a stage and film actor, with roles in The Virgin Suicides and Orphan Black. 

Sadly, Chris left the film business. He may simply have burned out. To learn about the arduous art of film making, read his excellent article in the Georgia Strait here. He now lives in Asia where he has worked for many years.

VALUE: So what’s my used paperback copy of Star Witness worth on Abe Books? About $2 to $8US.  It doesn’t appear to be available in Canada

BOTTOM LINE: Keep. In honour of UFO’s!

 

 

 

 

 

 

SURREAL TRAPDOOR: Abandoned Buildings in Your Neighborhood – Pt. 1

ABANDONED

I’ve always been fascinated by abandoned buildings. Arrested in time, they are living ghosts, hoarders of stories.  I’ve always imagined them to be located on windswept hills, next to crumbling seashores or hidden in industrial wastelands, not lurking in my neighborhood.

To my surprise, I’ve now run across several abandoned buildings close to home. I’ve even learned how to spot them. (Stay tuned, that’s for Part 2.)

About a year ago, a visitor to our cottage told us that they’d discovered a “haunted house” on their walk through town. Following their directions,  I found it on my next morning run.

On first approach…

The house at first glance seemed to be an older Victorian whose owners loved ivy-covered walls.  But a closer look revealed a seriously deteriorated roof and a badly overgrown garden. The kingdom of plants had taken over.

Definitely some problems

 

 

What is hidden upstairs?
Vandals

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A danger in  being abandoned is vandalism – those who seek to destroy for the pure pleasure of destruction. Worst of all is the onslaught of natural elements, water being the most lethal.

I couldn’t help being curious about the reasons behind the house’s deterioration. An official notice was posted close to the “no trespassing” sign. Perhaps the inhabitants grew too elderly or too poor to maintain the house. As per COVID, one day would slide into the next, each as unremarkable as the other until decades had passed.

I spotted signs of an attempted clear-out. Was there a forced eviction? Two of these sad signs below.

Sad carpet
Lonely chair and bed spread

 

 

 

 

 

Over the summer, I observed  attempts to clear and/or repair the house, apparently by someone working singlehandedly.  Not much progress as you might expect for such an overwhelming task.

This summer, a year later, curiosity led me past the haunted house again. Massive changes had happened: the ivy was gone, the extension had been demolished and the entire garden had been ripped out. Nothing was left but an empty purged shell.

Which is the real ghost?

Before and after

 

SURREAL TRAP DOOR: Attacked by a Grouse!

Grandma’s garden and grouse lair

It’s been a cold spring in Ontario, but time to open up the cottage for the season.  This means gearing up to battle the field mice invasion and/or emptying our bank accounts to repair winter damage.

At first, Anno Horribilis aka 2020 seemed to have thrown us a break. A mature pine tree had cracked in half over the winter but the tree top landed clear of our roof.  No structural damage – whew!

As for the mice, well, remember Walter White’s respirator in Breaking Bad? Good thing we had one, because an ocean of rodent poop was waiting for us in the cupboard under the sink. More feces sprinkled over the counters, stove, you name it.  And a favorite quilt chewed to pieces. Sigh.

It’s necessary to take extreme precautions when cleaning up because Huron County deer mice  harbour the hantavirus. (Nasty info via the Ontario Government publication here.) But my love for animals was about to be further tested…

Outside in my late mother-in-law’s garden, we spotted a pretty bird about the size of a chicken. Not wanting to scare it away, I sneaked closer with my camera.

Grouse well-camouflaged. Probably ruffed grouse species.

 

The bird wasn’t afraid. In fact, it exhibited so little fear that we worried it was someone’s pet. Not a safe environment around our cottage for bunnies and birds – lots of hawks and the occasional carnivore…

While taking the protective plastic off our young fruit trees later on, I noticed the bird again. Quite unafraid, still following us. Worried now, I wondered, should we feed it? Ask our neighbours who it belonged to?

Turning my back to it, all of a sudden, WHACK! Something hard struck me between the shoulder blades. It was the damn bird! Too cowardly to attack fact to face apparently.

OK, I thought, obviously a territorial dispute happening here. For some unknown reason, the grouse had settled on our cottage property for mating and breeding purpose.

Now the grouse was much smaller than me, so its attack was merely disconcerting. Still as a long-term animal rights supporter, I couldn’t help feeling a tiny bit betrayed.

More was to come though. Grouse-zilla kept a beady eye on us as we cleared the yard every so often gathering itself for a rush. By now I was visualizing predators at the top end of the food chain. Where was a fox, muskrat or hawk when you needed one?

“Let’s take a walk to the beaver pond,” Ed suggested. “We’ll lose it in the woods.”

The beaver pond lies about half a kilometre east of our cottage.  You reach it via a trail through the woods.  As we made our way along the trail, we heard it rustling through the undergrowth beside us – all the way to the pond.

“Let’s walk around the pond. It’ll give up,” I said.

So round the pond we went – a fair distance over  ditches, narrow foot bridges, looping round on trails that aren’t easy to find. Did it follow? Of course it did.

It followed us all the way back to the cabin, a distance of at least one kilometre through dense trees and brush. In a (very) grudging way, I admired it. The little f**ker had grit.

After a quick search on the internet, I turned up other tales of grouse attacks. Here’s one of the funniest, Yellowstone Grouse Attack! on video.

We drove off but sadly it wasn’t under our tires. I hear grouse roasts up nice….

 

I’M IN THE MOVIES: FAB DOCUMENTARY OF THE MESDAMES OF MAYHEM

Back LtoR: Rosemary McCracken, Jane Burfield, Lisa De Nikolits, Donna Carrick, Lynne Murphy, Melodie Campbell, Sylvia Warsh Foreground: Marilyn Kay, M. H. Callway

Greetings Readers and Happy New Decade!

In business school, I learned that my job-survivalist strategies in the bureaucracy had a name: NETWORKING. To push through the inertia of the Ministry, I had to call on my friends for help.   And trade favours for favours.

It took years to build my network, to gain friends from shared job successes, catastrophes or bosses from hell. But business profs urged a more active approach: Get out there, meet more people, throw your business card to the winds, attack and build your NET.

So I did – and discovered that gold, when it landed, always came from an unexpected direction.

In 2018, we Mesdames of Mayhem were winding up another great panel at the Beaches Library. A young woman approached the table. She turned out to be Cat Mills, an award-winning documentarian – and she thought we’d make an engaging film.

Me? In the movies? NO WAY! Unlike the Ellen Burstyn character in Requiem for a Dream the last thing in the universe I want is to be on TV. Radio is fine (and I had a fab time as Alison Dore’s guest on Sirius) but the shock seeing of myself as others see me – GACK!!

Cat and my dear friend and author extraordinaire, Lisa De Nikolits, connected right away. They invited me for coffee and I thought, why not? Coffee and company, what’s a better way to spend an hour NOT writing!

The hour turned into three hours of lively and thought-provoking discussion. And after I viewed Cat’s wonderful documentary, Biker Bob’s Posthumous AdventureI knew I had to make the Mesdames film happen.

The first hurdle: money! Cat planned to approach the CBC. Oh, well, I thought. I have several friends and my own daughter, Claire Callway, is in the film biz: the chances of a film ever getting financed are really low. BUT CBC came through.

Over the next several months, Cat and crew filmed miles of footage, interviewing many Mmes individually, including myself. How would Cat distill all this material into a coherent 15-minute film?

We had a lot of fun, including a garden party at my house where the weather cooperated beautifully. The atmospheric picture above is from the footage shot at the wickedly macabre Darling Mansion decorated mostly like a Victorian bordello. Here are some pics: a visit is highly recommended.

Taxidermy
Friend Jane in the “boudoir”
Friend Lynne and a bear

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my former life as a management consultant, I grew comfortable with chaos. When you walk into a work place experiencing problems, you’re overwhelmed by the trees of a prickly forest: the client’s urgency, too much or too little of the right data, human emotions, office politics. Fortunately, I liked to dive right into the metaphorical shark pool and swim around until patterns emerged. And soon I’d hear a phrase that crystallized those patterns into a solution.

Ironically, for our film, the person who uttered the key phrase was me.  Cat had asked me why I liked writing crime fiction. To me, I said, it’s spiritual comfort food. When I open a mystery novel, I know that no matter how horrific the crime, by the end of the story justice will be done. And we all know life isn’t really like that.

In Cat’s film, The Mesdames of Mayhem, she shows that early life traumas propelled us to create crime fiction. There we can serve up justice to those who so richly deserve it! Cat focused on four of my friends:  Jane Burfield, Melodie Campbell, Donna Carrick and Lisa De Nikolits.  I’m there, too, flitting in and out: I even get to show off our latest anthology, In the Key of 13.

Word was that Cat’s film would make you laugh – and make you cry. On October 25th, I opened up the YouTube link and watched The Mesdames of Mayhem alone in my studio. It was a brilliant, emotionally intense experience, the work of a gifted professional.

I laughed, I cried! And you will, too, dear readers. HERE IT IS:

 

 

 

 

 

SURREAL TRAPDOOR: The Occult and K2

12742381_10156530658650150_2448979545047805041_nGreetings Readers!

My blog today is a combined Surreal Trap Door and Eat this Book.51pGxMGswNL__SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

Books about outdoor adventure and survival are my great favourite. At Bear Pond Books, Stowe’s wonderful book store, Ghosts of K2   by Mike Conefrey  caught my eye. It reads like a thriller!

K2 is the world’s second highest mountain. Though 800 feet shorter than Everest, it is a far more challenging technical climb. As one injured climber famously said: “K2 is a savage mountain that tries to kill you.” 

It has a nasty track record. It has the second highest climber mortality rate for mountains over 8000 feet: 77 deaths for 300 summits or roughly 1 in 4 climbers die. The dubious title of ultimate killer belongs to Annapurna at 61 deaths for 191 summits or 1 in 3. Everest gets more publicity for its deaths but in fact, its fatality rate is relatively low: 54 deaths for 3000 summits.

K2 got its name during the The Great Trigonometric Survey of British India. Thomas Montgomerie, perched on Mt. Haramuhk  200 km south of the Karakoram mountain range,  sketched two prominent peaks and labelled them K1 and K2. K1 had a name, Masherbrum, but K2 didn’t, probably because of its remote and inaccessible location. Local people simply called it “Chogori” or Big Mountain so the name K2 stuck.

Now for the opening of the surreal trapdoor! The first serious attempt on K2 was a 1902 British expedition led by the infamous occult leader, Aleister Crowley! At the time Crowley was a mop-headed, British gentleman of independent means, channelling his inner Alan Quartermain. Despite being hampered by lack of roads, modern equipment and an understanding of the devastating effects of high altitude on human physiology, his team managed to reach 21,407 feet. Miraculously no one died in the attempt despite the frigid temperatures and gale force winds.

Aleister Crowley - 1st bath in 85 days
Aleister Crowley – 1st bath in 85 days

The team suffered considerable hardships. Crowley went 85 days without bathing and was plagued by malaria, lice and snow blindness. He was too ill to attempt the summit, which probably saved his life. 

Unlike his friend, Oscar Eckenstein, who was a careful, methodical climber, Crowley attacked mountains the way he approached sex, drugs and other pleasures in his life – with wild, mad intensity

He attempted one more big climb, Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world and third worst killer of mountaineers: about 22% die summiting its peak. After three of his team died in an avalanche, he gave up  climbing over 8000 feet for good.

Crowley’s interest in the occult and “magick” began in 1898 when he joined the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn. The occult and mysticism became the focus of his life. In 1905, he founded his own religion, Thelema. Throughout his life, he remained controversial because of his multitude of male and female lovers and his appetites for opium, heroin and cocaine. Some biographers believe that his libertine ways covered up the fact that he worked as a spy for British intelligence throughout his life.

K2 was finally summited by an Italian team on July 31, 1954, a little more than a year after Hillary and Tenzing topped Everest on May 29, 1953.  More understanding of the dangers of high altitude and bottled oxygen made these ascents possible.

Mike Conefrey, the author of The Ghosts of K2, is a documentarian who has worked mostly with the BBC. His passions are mountaineering and exploration. He approaches writing non-fiction as a dramatist, which makes Ghosts of K2, a page-turner that stays with you.

So, dear readers, EAT THIS BOOK!!

 

SURREAL TRAPDOOR: Marihuana in Legoland

Life does indeed imitate art – but, hey, Windigo Fire did it first!

ce3489971f4d58cd34e8614f532a7312In Windigo Fire, my villain, Santa is the owner of a seedy roadside attraction, Santa’s Fish Camp. Of course, he has a large crop of marihuana plants flourishing in the “service area”. 

I got the idea after we visited  Santa’s Village  in Bracebridge, Ontario with our then 4 year old  daughter. She absolutely loved Santa’s Village, but as a mom chasing after an active kid, well, my thoughts turned dastardly.  As I tell aspiring writers: ask the “What if” question. What if this clean, family-friendly attraction masked a grow-op?

Thus the seeds of Santa’s Fish Camp were planted so to speak. But now Legoland UK has followed suite! th2

2861129_2PgBfsPCZrJOlDrPa-M4Q3NzNHABmxp15VDg2rgUaG4Recently, a grow-op was discovered at Legoland UK. Two enterprising b*stards planted 50 thriving marihuana plants inside a cottage at the boundary of the theme park. Even cheekier, the ambitious  herbalists accessed the cottage through Crown Estate lands –  at Windsor Castle where the Queen lives!

Read the full story in the Huffington Post here. As they say, man, Legolize It!

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SURREAL TRAPDOOR: What’s Under Niagara Falls?

Greetings, Readers!

I’ve been offline for much of January doing what writers do: writing! Finished up two short projects and now I’m re-attacking Danny Bluestone’s next adventure, Windigo Ice.

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13 Claws coming soon!

Lots to look forward to in 2017: the launch of the Mesdames of Mayhem’s third anthology, 13 Claws; Left Coast Crime in Hawaii; Limestone Expo in Kingston; Word on the Street; and Bouchercon right here in Toronto!

But of course my fingers strayed over to the internet from the time to time and I came across this retro gem though: what happened when engineers stopped Niagara Falls in 1969?

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The American Falls before…
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American Falls after

 

 

 

 

 

When I was a kid in school, my science teachers were preoccupied with the demise of Niagara Falls. If Something Wasn’t Done, the Falls would deteriorate post-haste into a series of rapids and precious tourist dollars would evaporate. Rock slides in 1931 and 1958 had dumped a sh*tload of rubble at the base of the American Falls.  The Niagara Falls Gazette created a fervour by predicting the Death of the Falls and the cause was taken up by a zealous senator and congressman.

And so on June 12, 1969, the US Corps of Engineers did the unthinkable: they stopped Niagara Falls for the first time in 12,000 years. (Well, not exactly. A half a dozen ice jams have blocked the flow over BOTH sets of falls, most significantly in 1848, but only for a few days each time.)

Once the water dried up, what a desolate and unattractive site it became!

article-1338793-0C7DB7DE000005DC-707_634x417

To dry up The Falls, the US army dumped 27,800 tons of rock upstream across the Niagara River, creating a 600 ft cofferdam that diverted the water away to flow over the (to my mind) far more beautiful Canadian Horseshoe Falls.  Over the next six months, army engineers mechanically bolted faults and drilled holes in the riverbed in hopes of delaying further erosion. 

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As a crime writer, I was curious to know what workers found UNDER the falls once the water dried up. Well, at first, lost coins drew a ton of fortune seekers. Eventually tourists stayed away in droves, because the falls had become, quite frankly, ugly.

Sadly, two bodies were recovered: the first a man, a recent suicide. The other, the skeletal remains of a woman wearing a red and white striped dress and a narrow gold wedding band with the inscription “Forget Me Not”. There’s a story there certainly.

Experts soon realized the enormous cost of removing all the rubble from the base of the Falls. On November 24, 1969, the workers dispatched the coffer dam in front of 2500+ spectators, restoring the flow of water, the Falls’ beauty – and collective sanity all at once.

For more details about this engineering oddity, follow this link.

SURREAL TRAPDOOR: Santarchy 2016!!

Greetings Readers!

20161222_073127Thank you for making 2016 a fabulous year – with even more to look forward to in the New Year.

After a quick family visit to London, England, we are back home to celebrate Christmas and to perform our sacred rituals – like nom-nom-noming the Festive Special at Swiss Chalet with Ed’s car club!

Santarchy ruled again on Dec 17th.  Costumes were especially creative with an emphasis on naughty. No need for a big budget as you will see in the following pics!

 

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Ed at the Imperial Pub
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Naughty elf!
Naughty Mrs. Clauses
Naughty Mrs. Clauses
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First stop: The Black Bull

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rudolph always a fav with kidx
Rudolph always a fav with kids

This year went off without a hitch. The weather was mild and perfect for marching down Queen Street. Gathering at the Imperial Pub, we stormed Dundas Square then invaded the Eaton Centre to  give out candy canes and treats to kids.

Group photo on the steps of Old City Hall, then after a long wait for the Zamboni, an impromptu slide across the skating rink at city hall dodging security guards and skaters on blades.

Get turned away at The Rex – check. Wave to Christmas-spirited cab drivers and cops – check.  First stop, The Black Bull – check. The bartenders serve 50+ customers without missing a beat. Amazing!

Some great costumes below.

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Tinsel & a string of lights make a Christmas tree!
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No Santa beard? This handy bag got our friend a lot of positive attention!
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Real antlers! Hairstyle and crown remain this partyer’s secret

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On to night clubs, Crocodile Rock and The Ball Room, where like the Big Lebowski, you can go bowling. At 1 pm, Ed and I called it a night and walked through the rain to the perennial late night fave, Fran’s on Shuter street. We survived and look forward to Santarchy 2017.

Happy Holidays, folks.  As a special treat, I leave you with one of my big favs, Cats vs Christmas trees!!

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Your tree – I eated it!

SURREAL TRAPDOOR: Santarchy Rules!

Every year on a Saturday mid-December 100+ Santas storm through Toronto’s Eaton’s Centre and head down Queen Street west. Flagrant rebels in search of BEER! This is a world-wide movement from Hanoi to Helsinki to Tokyo to London and beyond. Read about Santacon here.

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100+ rampaging Santas!

Ed and I have been part of this rampaging mob for several Christmases now, thanks to our friend Eric. (Read more about Eric and his Grand Guignol clowning in my most popular blog ever, Charlie the Lonely Sentinel. Charlie’s a stuffed dog BTW.)

We’re polite rebels with several rules of decorum, including being nice to kids and obeying police officers and security guards. After all, we’re Canadian! A Santa suit is a must, but one’s imagination may run wild from racy to saucy Mrs. Claus. We’ve even had a Thor Santa! (Sorry, ladies, no photo). And we are led by Old St. Nick in resplendent bishop’s robe and staff.

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Racy Santa
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Saucy Santa

Typically, we meet up at the Imperial Pub on Dundas St. East then march through the Eaton Centre, giving out candy canes to kids. Then on to Nathan Philip Square for a rampage through the skaters. Group photo at the war memorial on University Avenue then on to The Rex to be refused admission. (Hey, it’s tradition!) The Black Bull though is usually our first and favorite watering hole.

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Getting tired as evening wears on

We wend our way down Queen Street, invading the pubs that will let us in. (To be fair, they’ve been pre-warned.) The Academy of Spherical Arts is a fav as well as the late, great Hideout.  This is a way to get in to clubs who would never otherwise let you in because you’re obviously middle class and O-L-D. We’ve even witnessed Fetish Night. (Great material for crime fiction, but who would believe me?)

By 2 am, Ed and I are ready for food (poutine anyone?) and home. Many times the subway has gone sleepy-bye for the night so we’ve relied on the notorious Zoo Bus of our youth. The Yonge St. night bus is a whole quantum level more surreal  and never fails to disappoint. 

Interested? The info isn’t up on the website yet but word is that if you come to the Imperial Pub at 6 pm, Sat Dec 17th, you may find something to your advantage…