A grimace spreads across his face as he glances down at his watch. It's half past six, and he meant to meet Cecelia thirty minutes ago. Harold's eyes dart out of the window and then back to his wrist. He hopes if he stares at the watch long enough, the hands on the clock might start moving backward.
The number six bus skates downtown. Harold closes his eyes and sighs as he bumps along.
"This bus never runs late," Harold thinks, opening one eye to glance outside again.
The street lights flicker on and give the brisk autumn dusk a warm hue. He purses his lips and sees a single raindrop hit the bus window and slide across the pane.
"Oh great," he grumbles to himself.
The crisp evening starts out bright, but a thick puff of stormy clouds begins to crowd the high rises. Harold pulls the bell cord and peers out of the window. His eyes squint up into the clouds, and he jolts forward as the bus comes to a stop. Fat raindrops start pelting the windshield as the driver releases the door.
Harold laughs to himself and pulls the collar of his jacket over his head as he descends the bus stairs, his feet land with a squelch on the newly slickered sidewalk.
He starts to make his way down the block as a crash of thunder breaks overhead. The gray autumnal sky turns green with the hue of lighting. Up ahead, he spots an awning and jogs a few steps until he is safely out of the storm.
The storefront is permanently closed, its windows blacked with butcher paper, and the hand-painted logo has been razored from the clerestory of the door. Harold hears quickened footsteps in the distance. The sound grows further from him and the world fills with the heavy thrash of rain.
The rainwater rushes the storm drains on Sixth Street. He stands alone under the awning, squeegeeing cold water off his arms with stiff hands.
"Just my luck," he thinks as he shakes out the collar of his jacket.
"A lucky man you are," he hears a voice say.
He turns suddenly and sees a figure standing behind him in the doorway of the vacant storefront.
"I'm sorry," he says with a start.
Rain pounds against the canvas awning creating a dull drone as Harold stands silent under the corner of the shelter. The figure sways from side to side in the darkness of the doorway. Harold jolts upright with a sharp inhale as he sees the figure move forward.
A flash of lightning illuminates the storefront and Harold sees that he is eye to eye with a strange man.
"It is lucky that you found this awning in the storm," The man states.
"Also, lucky that you have someone to keep you company," he grins ghoulishly. His breath is warm against Harold's ear.
Harold stumbles backward and looks at him suspiciously through slitted eyes. The man is wearing a stiff gathered hat and a black cloak. Harold's eyes shift along the surface of his slender frame. He looks down to the man's soft leather shoes, back past the shiny metal buttons on his double-breasted cloak, and his eyes land on the young man's striking face.
"What's your name?" Harold asks.
"Filipo Beneventi," The young man replies.
"Strange name," Harold states.
"Who says I am not a strange man?" Filipo says with a wink.
His eyes are hazel and gleam in the watery light of the damp street lamps. His face is sharp and angular. His nose meets his top lip at almost a 60-degree angle, sloping up toward his deeply arched eyebrows. Both features help frame out his almond-shaped eyes. His sunken cheeks are rosy with the brisk evening air, and his thin lips are slightly upturned into a smug grin. He raises his pointy chin toward Harold.
A bellow of thunder sounds in the distance and Filipo raises his right hand as if conducting an orchestra. His left hand points delicately as a wiry flash of lightning cracks through the clouds.
Harold furrows his brows and stares at Filipo, who still stands with one hand raised toward the sky, eyes closed.
"I really should…go," Harold murmurs, pointing over his shoulder down the street.
Filipo's eyes snap open, "But we are just getting started," he says with a grin, his hand still raised in an orchestral gesture.
"No, really, I am running late," Harold says.
"Is that so?" Filipo questions as he raises his dark eyebrows and flitters the long pale fingers on his outstretched hand.
He glances down at Harold's left wrist and then looks him in the eye with a slight bob of his head.
Harold turns his wrist toward his face without moving his body. His eyes shift down toward his watch. The off-white face glows in the evening light, and the brass hands point delicately at almost a 90-degree angle—a quarter to six.
Harold hears the steady drip of water off the awning, hitting the cement sidewalk with a dull thud as the rain slowly recedes. He blinks at the face of his watch.
"This can't be," he whispers, his breath turning to a puff of steam in the cool evening air.
Harold looks at Filipo, who raises his chin toward him. Filipo stares back at Harold, his bright eyes glaring down the slope of his angular nose. He transforms his open hands into strained fists and the rain stops.
"But the bus was late..." Harold says as a rush of cold air fills his lungs.
There's a faint rumble of thunder in the distance.
Harold bolts from under the awning and skitters quickly down the shiny sidewalk. He runs toward the museum, his fists pump at his sides as his footsteps quickly echo like tiny firecrackers. He can see the white façade of the museum glistening in the reflective light from the wet street. He knows Cecelia will be waiting for him inside.
He rushes up the limestone steps and into the warm, bright museum entrance. Harold hears the low-grade mumbles of the evening crowd as he shoulders his way through the main foyer.
His eyes dart amongst the faces that fill the entry as he looks desperately for Cecelia. His vision begins to blur with worry until he finally spots her across the marble floor. He swells will relief. She's chattering with a curator, gesticulating wildly. She spots Harold's rosy face and excitedly waves.
Cecelia stands within the threshold of gallery six. Harold strides across the room, his clothes still soaked from the sudden storm. The sound of his damp squeaky footsteps fills the hall.
"Cecelia," He says breathlessly.
"I made it. At first, I was running late and then I wasn't, and…." He leans in and hugs her, his chin hastily draped over her shoulder.
"And then I met the strangest…." He trails off as his eyes become fixed on a painting across the gallery.
"Harold! I'm so happy to see..." Cecelia's shrill voice sputters off as Harold releases her from his embrace and she stares at his contorted expression.
Soft rain begins to patter the leaded glass atrium. On the opposite wall of the gallery is a single painting and within its frame, illustrated in bright tempera, is the expression of a slender man with an angular face and almond-shaped eyes.
Harold blinks twice. His eyes grow wide in disbelief as his chest fills with dread.
"You don't look so well," Cecelia says.
Harold's full cheeks, once rosy from the chilly night, lose all color. He floats across the parquet floor of the gallery as if the portrait possesses a gravitational pull.
He stares up into the figure's face, the angular nose, and chin, unmistakable, eyes gleaming from beneath a black stiff gathered hat. Harold's eyes move down the shiny metal buttons on the cloak, past the soft leather shoes, and come to rest on the small brass title plate at the bottom of the frame.
Il ritratto dello stregone is etched across the scratched plaquette.
He swears he sees the hazel eyes in the painting wink as a symphony of thunder cracks beyond the walls of the museum and lightning illuminates the atrium overhead.