The Prince of Venice Beach


By Blake Nelson

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Robert “‘Cali” Callahan is a teen runaway, living on the streets of Venice Beach, California. He’s got a pretty sweet life: a treehouse to sleep in, a gang of surf bros, a regular basketball game…even a girl who’s maybe-sorta interested in him.

What he doesn’t have is a plan.

All that changes when a local cop refers Cali to a private investigator who is looking for a missing teenager. After all, Cali knows everyone in Venice. But the streets are filled with people who don’t want to be found, and when he’s hired to find the beautiful Reese Abernathy–who would do anything to stay hidden–Cali enters a new world filled with mysterious characters, dangerous choices, and his first chance at real love.


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They came from Minnesota and you could tell by the way they walked onto the court that they'd heard about Venice street ball. This was the big time, and they wanted to try their luck, to test themselves, to see how their midwestern white-boy game measured up in the palm-tree jungle of Southern California.

They were tall, with big shoulders and straight white teeth in their farm-boy faces. You could feel that midwestern pride, you could sense their focus and competitive spirit. For God and country and apple pie. Their unselfish, "team-first" approach probably won them the high school championship up in Lake Nahaka or Dingle Falls or wherever they came from. Ol' Coach Wankershank up there had taught them how to compete like men, how to buckle down and play defense and control the paint.

Now they found themselves on the legendary street-basketball courts of Venice Beach. Their first opponents of the day being: me, five feet nine, surfer white-boy, in old Vans and cutoffs… Jojo Hendrix, five feet eight, homeless and quite fragrant black dude of unknown age or origin… and Diego Rodriguez, six feet one, 235 pounds, the "Mountain of Mexican," who had just turned fifteen, and who desperately needed a belt to hold up his pants.

This was gonna be fun. Even the guys on the other courts could see what was coming. They gathered around to watch.

The Minnesota boys took the ball out first. They ran a play, a cross screen. One guy blocked out Diego; the other guy cut to the hoop. One quick pass and they scored an easy layup.

Jojo smiled and congratulated them. That's because Jojo loves everyone and wants each of us to self-realize and be the best person he can be, and also to find Jesus Christ if possible and be saved by his love, and ultimately disconnect from all this earthly stuff, like money and pride and even basketball. Jojo is like that, full of love and forgiveness and the Lord. He'd give you his last quarter, except he probably already gave it to somebody else.

The Minnesota boys were unsure how to respond to Jojo. They maintained their focus. They took the ball out again and ran a different play and got another layup. I suggested to Diego that he move toward the middle, because he's big and strong and unmovable, and at least they wouldn't get any more easy buckets.

The Minnesotans countered this strategy by shooting jump shots. With their practiced technique and perfect ball rotation, they hit four in a row. Jojo, meanwhile, was busy telling someone in the bleachers how beautiful a day it was, how it was "God's day." Diego, on his side of the court, struggled to hold up his pants.

It was 7–0 when they finally missed a shot. Diego wrestled away the rebound. He passed it to me. I passed it to Jojo. He passed it back. The Minnesota boys positioned themselves to play defense. They were grinning to each another, thrilled with how well this was going. They weren't just beating the locals, they were dominating. They tugged on the bottoms of their shorts and adjusted their sweatbands. You wondered if they wanted it to be harder. There was almost a feeling of letdown, of this being too easy.

"Jojo," I said, passing the ball back to him. "We're behind. We need to score."

So Jojo snapped out of whatever spiritual experience he was having. He dribbled once, sliced through the Minnesota boys, and elevated over everyone. The ball rolled off his fingers and into the hoop.

The boys' mouths fell open. Where did that come from?

They exchanged looks of wonder, but before they could react, I'd checked the ball and shot a bullet pass to Jojo, who was already in the lane. He went airborne and dunked it, right over their tallest guy.

That's right, he dunked it.

We took it out again. I passed it to Jojo, and in a blur of quickness he knifed through their defense, hung in the air for an impossible amount of time, and laid it in the basket.

The boys began looking at each other. How did you stop this? What strategy could they use?

I passed the ball to Jojo again, who faked a drive to the basket. All three Minnesotans scrambled backward in wild panic, two of them falling on their asses on the concrete.

Jojo stared at them a moment, refocused on the hoop, and shot an effortless jumper. Swish.

The local guys were cracking up. Someone in the bleachers offered directions back to Minnesota. Other comments were slightly racist but also pretty funny. The white boys were trying. They were learning. They'd had the cojones to come down here at least, you had to give them credit.

I passed the ball to Jojo again, who slipped a perfect underneath pass to Diego, who gently bounced the ball off the backboard and into the hoop.

Then I shot a jumper and made it. Then Jojo shot a jumper and made it. Then a quick pass to Diego and now we were the ones getting the easy layups.

The Minnesota boys stood staring at us in shock. They had never seen someone like Jojo up close. His talent level is, I would guess, somewhere around NBA starting point guard. Sure, he spent most of his time giving praise to the Lord or communing with the angels on a higher plane, but when he did come down to earth, he had special powers: mainly the ability to fly.

Jojo dunked on the Minnesota boys one last time to end the game. The three of them stood, baffled and humiliated in the middle of the court. A new team came on to replace them. There were no kind words. No one complimented them or said "good game." This wasn't the YMCA.

Still, their best guy came toward me. He was gonna say something, shake hands, whatever. But I just nodded like: Don't say a word. You guys showed us what you got, and it wasn't bad. Really, you did all right. But whatever little suburban bubble you live in is just that, a bubble. This is Venice. This is the real stuff.

Later, though, I did shake his hand. I guess I have that midwestern sense of honor in me too. Guys like that, I look at them and I can't help but think: That could have been me.…


By noon, it was too hot to play. People wandered off. Diego and I stood around, lazily shooting jump shots in the sun. That's when I noticed a guy standing at the edge of the court. He wore sunglasses and a coat and tie. It was an odd look in a place where most people wore board shorts and flip-flops.

Diego shot some free throws. I stood under the basket and tossed the ball back to him. I watched the guy. He was looking for someone. He kept checking out different people on the courts.

Then he settled on me.

He waited until I went to the drinking fountain and casually strolled over. "Excuse me," he said. "I'm looking for a young man named Cali."

I glanced up at him but said nothing. He'd have to take the sunglasses off if he wanted to talk to me.

I went back to the water, which tasted like chlorine. You needed bottled water down here, but that cost money.

He took off his glasses. I straightened up and wiped the water off my chin with the back of my wrist. "What do you want him for?" I asked.

"I need help finding someone."

I followed him back to his car. He pulled some papers out of a briefcase and spread them on the hood.

"This is him," he told me. He handed me a picture of a high school kid, probably seventeen. He looked like the Minnesota boys: clean, suburban, straight teeth. In the picture, he was wearing a red hoodie and a baseball cap hanging sideways off his head.

I didn't look very long, just a glance, really. I handed back the picture.

"And you are?" I asked the guy.

"My name is Bruce Edwards."

"Why are you looking for him?"

"I'm a private investigator," he answered. He handed me a business card. He also showed me an official-looking photo ID and then reached into his car to get a license from the state of California, which he kept in his glove compartment.

"Who told you about me?" I asked.

"A cop friend. Darius Howard."

I nodded. Darius Howard had busted me when I first got to California. Well, actually, someone else busted me, but I ended up in Detective Howard's office in the Venice precinct. I hadn't done anything, I'd just been stopped on the boardwalk and had no ID.

Darius had understood my situation. I'd been a foster kid my whole life, back in Nebraska. At fourteen, I'd struck out on my own. I'd landed in Venice and made a little life for myself, off the grid, of course. But I was doing okay and I wasn't causing any trouble for the police. So Darius had let me walk.

"His name is Chad Mitchell," said Edwards, showing me some more pictures. "He's from Seattle. Nice family. Good school. According to this, he should be in the area."

He handed me a printout of credit card charges. You could follow it like a trail. Seattle… Seattle… Seattle… then a gas station in Portland, Oregon… a mini-mart in southern Oregon… a gas station in California… food and a motel outside San Francisco… and then Santa Monica, where he'd bought some sandwiches at a grocery store.

His last purchase—a six-pack of Mountain Dew and a bag of Doritos—was from the Beach Mart half a block from where we were standing.

"Darius said you know what goes on down here," said Bruce Edwards. "He thought you might be able to help. There'd be a little money in it for you."

I nodded and looked at the pictures. I could always use a little money.

"His parents are very concerned," said Edwards. "Needless to say."

"All right," I said. "I'll keep my eyes open."

"Let me give you my number," he said, getting out his phone.

I took his number.

Cool as I acted, I was excited for this opportunity. Several months before, Darius Howard had asked for my help in another case, a local kid who stole bicycles. He'd steal them and throw them off the pier for fun. I didn't get paid or anything, but I did help find the kid. Darius had been impressed.

So maybe this could lead to something. A part-time job. Helping find people. I noticed people anyway. It was like a hobby. Especially kids my own age. Tourist kids, surfer kids, homeless kids: I'd check them out. I'd try to guess where they came from, what their deal was.

Ever since the bike stealer, I'd hoped Darius Howard might ask for my help again. And now, in a way, he had.

That afternoon, I cruised on my skateboard up and down the boardwalk, checking in with different people, not asking anything specific, more just dropping the name.

"Dude, this guy Chad's in town.…" I said to some local skateboarders. No response.

I told some other people about a Seattle guy named Chad who was gonna buy my surfboard. Had anybody seen him? No one had.

I cruised around. I thought about where I'd gone when I first arrived in Venice. But that didn't help too much. Chad Mitchell had a car, he had money, he wouldn't be sleeping in storm drains like I did.

Still, he had to be somewhere. And he'd bought Doritos at the Beach Mart. It was likely he was close by.

That night, I went home to Hope Stillwell's. She was a local woman who let me live in a treehouse in her backyard. She also let me use her computer sometimes, which was what I did now.

I found Chad Mitchell on Facebook. He seemed like a normal kid. His parents were well-off. He had nice clothes, an amazing bedroom. He liked skateboarding, snowboarding, video games. He'd taken surf lessons on a recent vacation in Hawaii. "Surfing is the best," he wrote under a picture of himself, standing awkwardly on a baby wave.

He also liked to party. And goof off. And do what he wanted. "I got a bad attitude!" he wrote under another picture of himself, flipping off a mall security guard whose back was turned.

Since he wanted to be a surfer, I rode the bus to Malibu the next morning and got off at Surfrider Beach. There wasn't much going on, the waves weren't great. Still, there were people out. I watched for anyone with rental boards or taking lessons. I showed the guy at the rental booth a picture of Chad. He hadn't seen him.

I walked down to Malibu Plaza. I checked out the grocery store, the surf shop, the frozen-yogurt place. I showed my picture to some girls who worked at a sunglasses store. Nothing. I rode the bus home and microwaved a burrito and sat in my treehouse and thought about Chad Mitchell. Where did guys like that hang out? What would they do at night?

Before bed, I rode my skateboard the length of the Venice boardwalk. It was dark and quiet, and the homeless people were settling in for the night. They had their dogs, their packs, their shopping carts. Some of them were just starting off their life on the street. They still had decent clothes and clean sleeping pads, and their hair wasn't all gnarly yet. I sniffed around the newer people as best I could.

"You guys from Seattle…?"

"I'm lookin' for my buddy Chad…?"

"Any new people around…?"

But nothing came of it.

The next day, I called Bruce. I told him where I'd been, what I was doing, and asked if anything new had turned up on his end. Nothing had. He seemed impressed with my activity, though, and told me to keep at it. He offered to send me a check for my time and expenses, which I told him to make out to Hope Stillwell.

When the check came, I told Hope to keep it, since she didn't charge me rent. She was psyched and went to Trader Joe's and made a big vegan feast and had a bunch of her woman friends over. Afterward, they had a little dance party in the backyard. They cranked up the music and I danced with Hope's friend Olivia, who's just about the most beautiful woman I've ever seen. She's thirty-two, though, and I'm seventeen, so she just laughs when I try to talk to her. I'm not really on her radar. Hope's friends think of me as a street kid, a charity case. I'm like their pet. I'm their good deed.

On Saturday a new southwest swell came in, so everyone went surfing. I had a new wet suit, which I was eager to try. I'd found it in the alley and cut off the arms and legs a few inches to make it fit.

I grabbed my board from Hope's garage and met Diego at the breakwater. The waves were big and we picked our way out through the gaps in the surf. Diego and I both got up on the same wave. Diego's a good surfer, but he's so big on his tiny board he looks more funny than cool. We started bumping each other, pushing each other, goofing around. But there were so many people I was afraid I was gonna hit someone. Or get hit.

That's a constant fear, when you're off the grid: getting hurt and ending up in the emergency room. Or worse, the dentist. One runaway kid I knew broke a bunch of teeth at the skate park, and while the dentist fixed him up, one of the nurses ran him through a national database.

Two hours later, all Novocained up and with a mouth of fake teeth, he walked into a waiting room full of cops and social services people. That was the end of his ride. Back he went to Pennsylvania.

So I let Diego take the wave and paddled back to the lineup.


After surfing, I went back to Hope's. I stashed my board and hung up my wet suit to dry. I rinsed the salt and sand out of my hair with the garden hose and then ate a couple oranges.

After that, I skateboarded back to the boardwalk to continue my search for Chad Mitchell. I cruised by the chess tables where Tommy Shirts and some of the older guys were sitting around. I stopped and sat with them and watched the thick crowd of people walking by. Everyone in Venice walks the boardwalk at some point during the day. So it's a good way to see who's around.

Tommy Shirts was telling a story about some recent trouble he'd gotten into with the cops. It was the same story Tommy always told: He was minding his own business, not hurting anybody, not trying to steal anything (Tommy was always trying to steal something), and then some cop comes along and starts harassing him.…

I was only half listening. I spun the wheel of my skateboard with my fingers. It was late afternoon now, and hot. I was in the mood for a nap. Or maybe a slice of pizza. I lifted my head up to see who was working at the Pizza Slice… and that's when I saw the kid.

My eyes went right to him, despite the crowd. He was by himself, on foot. I didn't see his face, but there was something about him. He had a strange energy. He wore red shorts and brand-new sneakers, but he also seemed a little ragged, a little out of sorts.

And his hair: That was the giveaway. He had rich-kid hair, layered and wavy, no sideburns, a real professional cut.

I kept my eyes on him as he moved along. Then I eased away from Tommy Shirts and his endless cop stories.

I hopped on my skateboard and slowly coasted along behind the guy, staying about twenty yards back.

He didn't seem too comfortable on the crowded boardwalk. Some local skateboarders sped by, weaving wildly through the tourists. He had to jump out of the way. Then he cursed them and flipped them off after they'd passed.

He was definitely not from around here.

He walked farther and then turned up one of the side streets. I let him go, staying on the boardwalk but keeping him in sight.

He walked up the hill, then pulled out a set of keys and beeped open a car. It was a blue Volvo, pretty new. It had ski racks. The plates were from Washington State.

I stayed where I was. I watched him get in the car. I couldn't see what he was doing inside. I assumed the car would drive off, but it didn't. It stayed parked where it was.

I decided to do a walk-by. I picked up my board and walked casually up the hill, right toward the Volvo. As I approached, I could see the obvious signs of someone living in their car. A bathing suit laid out to dry in the back window. Fast-food cups, hamburger wrappers. Rumpled clothes piled in the backseat. A crinkled map. As I passed, I glanced down and saw his face full on. It was definitely him. Chad Mitchell. He was just sitting there, bored. He was playing with the thick gold watch on his wrist.

When I was a block beyond the car, I casually stepped into a doorway and ducked out of sight. I called Bruce Edwards.

"I found him," I said.

"Where is he?"

"Sitting in a car on Rose Avenue. Just up from the boardwalk." I told Edwards the license plate number.

He wrote it down. "How's he look?" he asked.

"Fine. Far as I can tell."

"All right, stay with him. I'll call the parents and see how they want to proceed."

I hung up. I stood in the doorway, balancing the nose of my skateboard on the top of my foot. There was a lot of pedestrian traffic on the street. Mostly people coming back from the beach. A few going the other direction. I felt pretty invisible standing there. Nobody notices a kid with a skateboard. Except maybe another kid.

After about five minutes, Chad Mitchell got out of his car. I checked my phone—no word yet from Bruce.

Chad opened his trunk and got out a skateboard, an expensive longboard, brand-new from the looks of it. He shut the trunk and locked the car with the remote.

I stayed out of sight.

He headed down the hill toward the boardwalk, walking at first and then getting on his longboard. I stepped out of the doorway and followed.

It was evening now. The sun was going down. The crowd on the boardwalk had thinned out. Chad cruised on his longboard, pushing lightly, then coasting for long stretches. I cruised too, staying with him. With fewer people around, it was harder to stay out of sight, to stay inconspicuous. I had to hang back, pushing slowly against the concrete, my older, crappier board rattling along in the growing darkness.

Chad Mitchell wasn't much of a skateboarder, but his fancy board made up for it. It seemed to push itself, that's how smooth it rolled. He had skate shoes I'd never seen before, made of some hemp weave, it looked like. Maybe that was a rich-kid thing, or the latest trend in Seattle.

He rolled along. I got the sense, even from far behind him, that he wasn't having much fun. He'd probably enjoyed his new freedom for the first couple days. Away from authority, from teachers and parents. But then the freedom gets to you. And the isolation. No family. No friends. Not even a dog. How many times can you go to McDonald's and eat cheeseburgers by yourself? How many days can you spend on the beach? How many nights can you sleep in your car?

Not as many as you think.

Then something unexpected happened. Two guys appeared. They were a little ahead of us, and on foot, but I could see they had locked onto Chad. They must have spotted the longboard and known how expensive it was. They'd also sized up Chad and could see how little resistance he'd put up.

They didn't hesitate. One of them charged across the boardwalk and body-slammed him from the side. Chad went flying and hit the concrete with a heavy thud. One of the guys grabbed the board and then they both swarmed over Chad.

I started to run forward, then stopped myself. No, I thought. Better to let nature run its course.

I hung back and blended with the dozen or so tourists who had stopped to gawk at this sudden violence. The first guy grabbed Chad by his shirtfront, lifted him off the ground, and punched him in the face.

That was hard to watch.

The other guy yanked Chad's hemp-weave shoes off his feet. This was also hard to watch. But I stayed where I was.

They went through Chad's pockets. It happened so fast the people standing there barely had time to register what was happening.

I glanced behind me and saw a police car crawling along the boardwalk about a quarter-mile away. The cops couldn't see what was happening here yet. But things could get complicated if they did.

Chad, from the ground, made a feeble attempt to kick his attackers. They punched him in the face again. This time, the side of Chad's head bounced hard off the pavement.

"Where's my weed!?" said the guy loudly. This was apparently to fool onlookers into thinking this was a drug deal gone bad. It was a good strategy. Nobody wanted to get involved in a drug deal. It totally worked. Everyone moved back a step.

The second guy found Chad's wallet, attached to a wallet chain, which he tore off Chad's belt loop with one yank.

I always knew those chains were useless.


  • "Nelson (Recovery Road) combines a hardboiled first-person narrative and a languid Southern California setting to establish a seductive surf noir atmosphere...[A] moody, fast-moving novel."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Nelson's spare style and nuanced portrayal of street kids is strongly reminiscent of the classic work of S.E. Hinton. The gritty beach setting, compelling cast of sensitively drawn secondary characters and spot-on dialogue elevate the story beyond that of a typical genre mystery...Readers can only hope that a new teenage private detective series is in the works."—Kirkus
  • "Readers will anxiously follow Robert's...journey of growth in this coming-of-age novel filled with exhilarating chases and heart pounding moments."—SLJ

On Sale
Jul 14, 2015
Page Count
240 pages

Blake Nelson

About the Author

Blake Nelson is the author of many acclaimed novels, including Recovery Road, Destroy All Cars, and Paranoid Park, which was made into a feature film by Gus van Sant. His classic 1994 debut novel Girl was called a “seminal coming-of-age text” by Vanity Fair. He lives in Oregon.

Learn more about this author