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Rick van Lam is bui doi, "a child of dust," as the Vietnamese scornfully called a mixed-blood kid whose father was an unknown American GI. But Rick was lucky-in time he was sent to America. And he's ended up in Hartford, Connecticut, where he's made a life as a private eye after leaving a career as a cop at the NYPD.
Rick is also teaching a part-time course at Farmington College where brainy Vietnamese student Dustin Trang, a scholarship student with no social skills and an oddly hostile family, is scorned and bullied. It reminds Rick of his own miserable days in a Saigon orphanage and he reaches out. But Dustin rebuffs him.
One night as a blizzard strikes, a professor is shot down in the campus parking lot. The man had befriended Justin, but their relationship had visibly soured. Dustin is everyone's hot suspect for the murder, but Rick believes the boy is innocent. Oddly, Dustin seems indifferent to others' suspicion that he's a killer. And he seems resistant to helping his case.
Rick knows he owes who he has become to the loving support of his friend, Hank Nguyen, and Hank's multigenerational family. To pay it forward for Justin, Rick persuades Hank, a state cop, and some of his circle of Hartford friends to dig into Dustin's dysfunctional world, interviewing faculty and students, relatives, and a busy congregation that seems to be a focal point for the fractured Trang family.
As the investigation stalls and the cops close in, Rick realizes he has to break though a web of lies, anger, and betrayals, and force Justin to reveal whatever it is he fears more than arrest for murder.