Paul Lonardo is a freelance writer and author of more than twenty books, both fiction and nonfiction. He has placed short fiction and nonfiction articles in various genre magazines and ezines. Paul is an active HWA member.


by Paul Lonardo


Carrying only a small backpack containing a few provisions, Parker took the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Yamagata, where he was supposed to meet his guide at the bus terminal for the ride to the Zaō Onsen ski resort.

Looking around the station, he didn’t see anyone who fit the description of the person who was supposed to lead him on the journey.

“Sumner Boyd?”

At first Parker didn’t remember the fake name, then it registered and he turned around to face the person calling him. The man standing there was tall, with blond hair that was receding and thinning, and spectral gray eyes that looked down at him with a scrutinizing gaze.

“Are you Aoto?” Parker asked the stranger.

“No. Aoto couldn’t make it. I’m filling in for him. I’m Charlie Baker.” He offered a toothy grin and his right hand. “Nice to meet you.”

Shaking hands with the man, Parker took notice that, though the man’s grip was firm, his hands were soft and smooth, not rugged or chapped as would have expected.

“Is Aoto ill?”

“The agency didn’t say,” Charlie told him. “They send me in his place. Is that a problem?”

“I was just expecting Aoto. You American?”

“Virginia native. Charlottesville. Been in Tokyo for the last eight years. When I first came out here on vacation, I fell in love with the country and decided to stay. How about you? Where are you from?”

Parker didn’t want to answer for some reason. “I’ve been just about everywhere in the world,” he began. “But I’m really looking forward to this excursion.

“So, you want to summit Zaō and see our snow monsters?”

“Yeah,” Parker said. “Let’s do it.”

Parker was aware that Charlie was curious as to the reasons why he chose to come here, but he wasn’t about to admit that he had been traveling the world using his uncle’s money. He had always wanted to see exotic places and experience extreme adventures, and now he was able to accomplish his dreams.

Parker had been all over the world the last three years, visiting some of the most exclusive and exotic locations on the planet. He had vacationed at Musha Cay and the Amalfi Coast. He trekked through the Indian paradise in Leh, Ladakh. He had been on safari in Kenya, parasailed on the open waters off Bentota on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, and hiked the fresh lava fields of Sundhnukagigar in Iceland.

He had done all of these things under the assumed name of his dead uncle, an uncle whom he had killed and disposed of so adroitly that nobody was the wiser. He saw to it that his uncle’s body would never turn up, and he was confident that no one would ever suspect a thing. There was a clear paper trail of Parker’s travels as he lived the life of a tycoon, drawing from his uncle’s offshore bank accounts, and not an inkling of suspicion had been raised. As far as he was concerned, he had gotten away with numerous crimes, including murder, scot-free.

They boarded a Yamako bus bound for Zaō Onsen, saying very little to one another. Parker—unlike Sumner Boyd, whose name and identity he had assumed—was a naturally gregarious person, but he was hesitant about engaging in conversation with Charlie. The man wasn’t at all what he expected. Besides not being Japanese, he was a good deal older than Parker thought was optimal for the undertaking they were about to embark upon. Parker was no young buck himself at fifty-five, but a guide was responsible for the health and safety of others. This guy didn’t appear qualified, and from the start Parker didn’t trust him.

Parker came prepared for an immediate hike. After all, this wasn’t Mount Everest.

When they arrived, the mountain loomed just ahead, and they wasted no time beginning their ascent. The hiking trail was clearly marked as they made their way up toward the alpine area at a gradual incline. There was barely an inch of powder over the pack, making it a relatively easy trek. They passed a sign proclaiming the summit of Mount Zaō to be 1,841 meters above sea level, where Okama Crater Lake sits.

“Okama Crater Lake is also called Goshiki Numa, which means the ‘Five-Color-Lake,’” Charlie said, like he had memorized a travel brochure. “With its thousand-meter perimeter, from high above the lake appears like a giant green eye looking out of an otherwise moon-like landscape.”

Parker displayed no interest in the commentary. He walked on, pulling the edges of his ski cap down over his ears.

The sun was shining, but there was an ominous wall of gray clouds closing in from the west. It was a tolerable twenty degrees, but it was getting increasing colder as the Siberian winds began to pick up. Parker wasn’t worried. He had dressed warmly enough and knew it wouldn’t take long to reach the juhyo field.

This trip would not take very long and they would be back well before the snowfall started. He would take a few selfies in front of the snow monsters and a couple of hours from now he would be warm on comfortable inside the Bullet Train headed back to Tokyo.

Charlie led the way and Parker kept several paces behind. The only exchange between the two men was the guide asking how things were going, with Parker providing only one-word responses.

Ninety minutes into their hike, there was still no sign of the snow monsters. The grade had become steeper, the climb more strenuous, and it became increasingly difficult to breathe. The clouds were now directly overhead, and darker. Parker was staring up at the looming weather that threatened the expedition as he moved forward when he had to stop suddenly to keep from plunging over the edge of a barren ridge with a steep drop off.

“Be careful,” Charlie said in a casual, parental tone from a safe distance about fifty feet away.

“What kind of guide are you?” Parker screamed, his patience frayed to the breaking point. “I almost walked off a ledge! Do you have any idea where the hell we are? We should have been there by now and we don’t seem to be anywhere close.”

Charlie removed a glove and checked their location using an app on his phone, then he looked up to survey the surroundings. “We must have gone off track a little.”

We! You’re supposed to be the fucking guide! All you had to do was follow the trail.”

“It’s no big deal,” Charlie said. “We just have to double back and head up the north flank. From there, you’ll be able to see Mt. Zaō’s wondrous snow monsters.”

Parker was seething, his chest heaving as his lungs strained for oxygen. He didn’t want to admit to himself that he was a little bit scared. Snow began falling, large flakes drifting down like dying moths.

“Oh, this is great,” Parker complained. He shook his head and approached his guide, his eyes narrowed with malice. “This doesn’t look like a passing flurry, and it’s almost dusk. You’re trying to get us killed. Just get me off this damn mountain! You hear me?”

Charlie peered back at Parker with a defiant expression, his jaw firmly set. He didn’t look away from Parker, meeting the adversarial gaze even as he nodded in reluctant acquiescence. Then he turned away without saying anything and started down the windward side of the range. Parker followed him at a distance that slowly widened.

They didn’t get far before the snow started to come down heavier, falling faster as it mixed with the moisture in the air. A turbulent wind whipped the icy flakes directly into the faces, finally making it impossible for them to continue.

“We’d better take shelter,” Charlie called out.

Although Parker wanted to push on, he thought about the ridge he almost walked over and stopped in his tracks. “Shelter where?”

Charlie reached into his backpack and pulled out a small pouch that contained an emergency tube tent. It was easy to construct, and Charlie practically had it set up before Parker could go over to lend a hand.

The shelter was teepee-shaped, made of orange waterproof Mylar, with an interior that had an aluminum coating to retain heat. It came with twenty-five feet of nylon rope and four grounding pegs. Parker helped anchor the tent, pushing the nine-inch steel spikes as far as he could into the packed snow. When all four sides were secure, they climbed inside and Charlie zipped up the opening. It was cramped and quiet. Unspoken tension filled the unoccupied space between them as they exhaled swirling mist of condensed water vapor with each breath.

When Charlie took out his phone to check the weather radar, Parker took a peek at the imagery. It showed a long, slow track of heavy snow in the area.

“Looks like where going to be stuck here until morning,” Charlie said.

“We can’t stay here all night!” Parker protested.

“What choice do we have?”

“We can call for help.”

“We can’t ask someone to risk their life by coming out in this storm,” Charlie explained. “We’re not in any immediate peril. We can wait it out.”

Parker winced, his head swooning with anger. He felt trapped. And foolish. He wanted to beat this guy senseless for getting him in this predicament, but he kept his mouth closed and just sat there with his knees pulled up against his chest. He kept one eye on Charlie, looking for something that might give away the man’s true identity as Parker began to wonder if he, himself, might not be the only one pretending to be someone he was not.

This guy can’t be been a real guide, Parker thought. He certainly didn’t appear to know what he was doing. He had little knowledge of the mountain, getting them lost and nearly allowing Parker to walk off a steep ridge. Not to mention that he had no idea that a major storm was tracking directly behind them as they began their ascent up the mountain.

Parker had to consider if this guy might be a federal agent posing as a guide.

It occurred to him that the feds may have been tracking him all along, though not as a murder suspect, but for all the federal crimes he has been engaging in for the past couple of years, such as identity theft, forgery, bank and wire fraud.

Luring him up there could have been a trap, Parker realized, and there might be other agents outside right now, preparing to capture him and take him into custody.

It would explain Charlie’s lack of skill as a mountain guide, and Aoto being replaced at the last minute.

Charlie Baker, Parker thought. Even his name sounded made-up.

The winds gusted outside, battering the flimsy shelter and whipping the material so violently that Parker thought it was going to be ripped apart.

He tried not to think about how cold it was getting. The tent was lifesaving, keeping their bodies from being exposed to the subzero wind-chill, but the temperature inside had dropped significantly since they first entered. His fingertips and toes were throbbing and itchy.

“Do you have any matches or a lighter?” Parker asked, having to shout over the sound of the wind and rustling of the tent.

Charlie, if that really was his name, just shook his head. After a pause he said, “We have nothing to burn, anyway.” After another pause, he added, “Besides the clothes on our backs.”

Parker thought he saw a calculated smile flash across the man’s face. He couldn’t help reading the underlying meaning into the comment that only one of them was going to be alive at the end of this. Parker took it as a veiled challenge, one in which Charlie seemed to believe he had the upper hand. And maybe he did, Parker thought.

Charlie’s phone was resting on the thigh of his outstretched left leg. Parker noticed that a small red light was flashing like a beacon, perhaps pinpointing their exact location to the other members of his team.

“So, you travel a lot,” Charlie stated. “You must be quite wealthy.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Parker responded. “But I do okay.”

“What do you do?”

Parker paused as a gust of wind ruffled the peak of the tent. “I’m retired,” he said when it quieted down. “I was fortunate to make some good investments. The market has been good to me.”



“Me either,” Charlie said. “I’m divorced. I guess you could say, I’m married to the mountain.” He laughed, but Parker’s face remained stoic.

The snow was coming down heavier than ever as the last wedge of the sun disappeared behind the western ridge of Mt. Zaō and Charlie closed his eyes.

“I think I’m gonna rest for a while,” Parker said.

“That’s a good idea, Parker.” Charlie had spoken softly, and the wind noise made it impossible for Parker to hear the words clearly, but he thought he heard Charlie call him by his real name.

All but certain that his guide was an undercover agent, Parker knew the feds were onto him. He kept his eyes closed and didn’t let on that he knew. He even ignored the tingling in his legs and pretended he was falling asleep. He didn’t know how much time he had before he lost his freedom forever to a six-by-nine prison cell, but once the storm passed it would be all over for him. He’d have to make his move and escape when the time was just right, in that small window of opportunity when the snow was tapering off and before the other agents could make it up to their location.

The last thing Parker needed now was to alert “Charlie” that he was aware of the setup. If Charlie thought Parker was sleeping, the fed would likely be more inclined to relax and doze off. When that happened, Parker could escape. That was the plan.


Parker didn’t realize he had nodded off until he woke shivering, pulled from a dream state in which he heard the provocative voice of a woman repeatedly calling his name.

“Parker. Parker. Parker.”

When he returned to full consciousness, the prevailing silence and darkness left him confused. He didn’t know where he was. His teeth began to chatter uncontrollably and he felt the sting of the cold, becoming aware that he was inside an emergency tent somewhere on Mt. Zaō.

He couldn’t be sure how long he’d been asleep, but it was pitch-black and obviously full night. He struggled to remove his gloves and blew on his fingers to loosen the stiff joints. He couldn’t feel his breath on his skin. With hands that could barely function, he fished his cell phone from his jacket pocket. The battery flashed 2% but the screen was bright enough to illuminate the small space well enough for him to realize that he was alone.

He noticed that there were several ragged tears in the tent, and through those holes, he saw piles of snow all around him.

A wave of anxiety swept over him and his heart rate surged as he imagined a dozen men in tactical gear with long rifles standing outside the tent at that very moment, their weapons pointed directly at him.

The light on his phone dimmed before going out completely. Parker knew he had to get down the mountain as soon as possible, and not just to avoid the federal agents who were likely searching for him at that very moment. It was a matter of survival now. The tent was practically entombed by the storm, and he knew that if he stayed on the mountain much longer with no food or water, he would die there.

He didn’t know how he would navigate down the mountain with no guide, but he knew he had no choice but to try.

Parker struggled to get to his feet, but his legs did not respond. They remained defiantly still, the pins and needles feeling having long since given way to numbness. Massaging his legs and striking them with as much force as he could muster did little good. His flesh felt rigid and unfamiliar to his touch, like the branch of a tree or some other extraneous object. He had to concentrate on what he was doing, and when he managed to get his limbs moving it was with limited strength and dexterity.

He blindly dragged his body forward and found the tent’s zipper. Pulling it up slowly, inch by inch, revealed only snow, which was piled up against that side of the tent in a large drift. There was a small gap at the very top of the tent that was free of snow. Parker could see that the storm had passed. The night sky was clear, with starlight pinpricking the vast canopy of space. The light from the full moon and the multitude of distant stars cast an eerie grayness on the freshly fallen snow.

He had to crawl up through several feet of drift snow to go outside the tent. He finally forced his body to somewhat function and was able to stand up outside. What he was confronted with when he looked up caught him by complete surprise, causing him to choke on the frosty air.

Directly in front of him were trees encrusted in a thick shell of ice and frozen snow, bent grotesquely forward as though screaming silently for relief.

Were these the “snow monsters” that had eluded him and his guide? He felt frustration and enormous disappointment. These things were only the result of windblown ice covered by snow in repeated cycles that built grotesque, lumbering shapes on the mountain slopes. 

Although he had known beforehand that the snow monsters were not real creatures and merely a frightening-looking trick of nature that tourists adored, he had somehow convinced himself they were more.

Parker coughed, a dry hack that hurt his lungs. “Arrrrhh,” he grumbled to clear his throat, confused by what he was seeing. He knew the arboreal monsters were not there when they tented up. Perhaps they had been indeed been created by the storm…but he felt that he was missing something. Something important.

The snow-blanketed hulks shimmered in the predawn light like icy golems awaiting command. The notion occurred to Parker that they were not juhyo after all, but cleverly disguised federal agents.

He turned away from them slowly and plodded through the thigh-deep snow, hoping to get away unnoticed. He found himself moving down the slope with surprising ease, his legs working normally. He no longer felt the cold. He wasn’t even shivering. His chances of getting out of this predicament improved with each step he took.

In the distance, he saw an object that appeared to be a solitary snow monster; a small tree covered in a sheet of ice. The closer he got, the more it began to take on a human form, with stout legs, torso, and the unique shape of an anthropoid head.

Stopping in front of it, the reality became undeniable. Frozen, in a standing position, was a naked man. The extreme cold had drawn every ounce of water from the body to the surface of his skin, encasing him in a layer of ice and grotesquely distorting the features. On the ground, folded neatly, was a complete set of clothes, including socks, underwear, and shoes.

Parker stared curiously at the desiccated figure, trying to identify it. He was unable to recognize Charlie. The hair appeared a lighter shade of blonde, almost white, and he now had several days’ growth of facial hair, whereby Charlie had been clean shaven the day they met. What Parker saw looked like his elderly uncle with his familiar white hair and beard standing before him, entombed in ice. The dead man’s eyes were open, irises blanched of color, the stare vacuous and empty.

Parker took a step backward in horror, shaking his head in denial.

“This can’t be!” he cried out. “That’s not my uncle! He’d dead.”

Reaching his right hand up to his own face, Parker touched his chin. Even through the thick, insulated gloves he felt the course whiskers. His breath caught in his throat and he stifled a scream as the sudden shock triggered dreamlike images he did not immediately recognize as memories. He suddenly remembered his guide. They were in the darkened tent when something came inside and took Charlie in the middle of the night.

A snow monster?

No. Something else.

A woman.

He had heard Charlie scream. It’s her. It’s Yuki-onna! The Snow Hag. Don’t let her get me! She’s come to take my soul.

These were the last words Charlie spoke before he was taken by force from the tent.

Parker couldn’t be sure it wasn’t all a dream. He didn’t know what was real. He couldn’t remember what Charlie looked like. He wasn’t sure Charlie had ever existed. Parker was starting to believe that the tent had been his own.

He looked back up at the mountain and at the agents camouflaged as ice tress, waiting there, motionless. Suddenly he saw someone moving out from a cluster of snow monsters. It was a woman. She had long dark hair that contrasted with her pale skin and flowing white kimono. She drew closer to him, though she did not move her legs. It was not quite floating, either. Every time Parker blinked, she appeared closer.

Charlie’s words echoed in his head, and Parker was certain now that the Feds had sent this ghost-woman to feed on his soul. It’s her. It’s Yuki-onna!

His entire body flushed, and he suddenly felt extremely warm. He resisted the urge to remove his outer layer of clothes to cool off. Turning away from the woman, he continued down the mountain slope, afraid to look back and see her right behind him. The snowy landscape became a blur as he descended as quickly as he could.

The woman’s soft voice called out to him.  “Parker. Parker.”

Somehow, he found himself back at the tent, approaching it from above.

“This isn’t real!” he called out breathlessly, girding himself with the courage of his conviction as he continued traveling toward the half-buried tent without hesitation. “It’s not real.”

Like confronting a phantasm in a nightmare, he was convinced it could not hurt him. But the image did not dissolve like a mirage before he reached it. He stepped inside the tent and stopped near the entrance.

The woman was there waiting for him.

She was beautiful, with strikingly deep, violet eyes. The kimono she wore was thin, almost translucent yet she didn’t appear to be cold. She was on the opposite end of the tent one moment, and in the next instant she was standing directly in front of him. Parker didn’t flinch or back away. Her lips were almost touching his, and when they parted she drew his breath into her mouth, sucking out his life-force with it.

Parker’s body turned white by degrees and stiffened as every cell in his body froze, his muscles locking and turning to ice.


Two weeks later, his remains were found at the bottom of a ravine by a skier. It was speculated he walked off the edge in the midst of the blinding snowstorm that trapped him and his guide. His body, which was presumed to be that of Sumner Boyd, was never claimed because no person by that name existed who was alive at the time the body was found. The body was eventually cremated and the ashes scattered on Mount Zaō near the exact spot where he met his end.

The rumors of the mysterious Yuki-onna persisted among the tourists who came to photograph the snow monsters. Periodically a tourist would die an unexplained death after a storm, but that only heightened the interest of the visitors who came to Zaō Onsen to experience the mountain’s enigmas.