Bai Ying. An extremely ordinary name.
But this extremely ordinary name instantly seized Ming Shu's attention.
When Qin Ying was rescued by the monks at Haijing Temple, he never told them that his surname was Qin. Furthermore, Qin Ying's adoptive mother's name was Bai Hong.
After leaving Haijing Temple, had Qin Ying named himself Bai Ying?
"This is the information Jingli City provided on Bai Ying, from Second Prison." Xiao Yu'an nodded to an envelope that he had already opened long ago.
Ming Shu took out the files that had been sent over, and the first thing he saw was a picture of Bai Ying.
Bai Ying's face was far more beautiful than that of most men, and his eyes were bright and expressive. He didn't look like a prisoner at all.
Ming Shu immediately loaded up the photo of Qin Ying that he'd saved on his phone. He compared the two pictures, side-by-side, and exclaimed, "Bai Ying is Qin Ying!"
"Correct." Xiao Yu'an stood up. "Twelve years ago, Bai Ying was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for aggravated assault which resulted in death. This photo was taken twelve years ago, when he was twenty-five years old. His appearance then wasn't much different from his appearance when he was sixteen. After serving five years of his sentence, at the age of thirty, Bai Ying escaped from prison and has been missing ever since."
Prison escapes were common in movies and books, but in reality, successful escapes weren't a very frequent occurrence. For one thing, each prison had its own security system which was capable of monitoring even the most brutal prisoners. For another, even after successfully escaping, a prisoner could only live the rest of their life in fear, constantly looking over their shoulder.
Very few prisoners chose to attempt an escape.
"Strange." Ming Shu furrowed his brow tightly. "Fourteen years for aggravated assault resulting in death can already be considered a light sentence. Bai Ying served five years. If he stayed on good behavior and showed positive signs of reform, he may have been able to get out before his fourteen years came up. He didn't have to take the risk of escaping. What was he like while serving out his sentence?"
"We don't know that yet. Bai Ying's behavior while in prison, and the specifics of his crime, still need to be verified." Xiao Yu'an steepled his fingers. "What we do know for certain is that the police didn't connect Bai Ying's escape to the murders of Gong Guozhen's family."
"How could they not make that connection?" Ming Shu was visibly confused. "A prisoner escape is something that should be investigated and reinvestigated until all the details are clear. Gong Guozhen died after Bai Ying escaped from prison. The focus of the investigation should have been on prisoners out for revenge."
"But according to the prison guards, Gong Guozhen had always been very good to Bai Ying when Bai Ying was a prisoner," Xiao Yu'an said. "Bai Ying had no motive to seek revenge against Gong Guozhen."
The furrow between Ming Shu's brows deepened, like he'd instantly come to a conclusion. "There's something wrong with this prison."
Xiao Yu'an nodded. "I only have a surface-level understanding of the situation so far. Our people haven't made it out there yet. A similar crime occurred in three cities—Gong Guozhen's family, Cao Fenghuai's family, and Qin Xiong's family must be connected to one another in some way.
"Based on what we've learned here in Dongye City, the 'connection' between these families is Qin Ying, who was also the Bai Ying who escaped from prison. But the other two cases may provide us with new clues."
"I'll go to Jingli City now," Ming Shu said with an intense look in his eye. "But these cases aren't under our jurisdiction. Have we gotten in touch with the local police?"
Xiao Yu'an checked the time. "The special operations team will handle the communications. You get ready to head straight to Jingli City and meet them there."
Inter-provincial investigations were never easy. Not all information was shared freely from province to province, city to city. Each region had its own network, which was one of the reasons roaming serial killers were so difficult to catch.
But if the special operations team was being dispatched, that would make things much easier.
Ming Shu and Yi Fei rushed out to Jingli City. As soon as they got off the plane, they stepped into a car sent by the special ops team.
"Ming Shu-ge, we meet again." The young man in the passenger seat had very big eyes and very short hair. He was brimming over with the essence of a special ops officer. Unlike the driver, who was dressed in a police uniform, this passenger was wearing a bright yellow jacket.
"This is Le Ran, you can just call him Lele," Ming Shu said, making the introductions for Yi Fei. "He's the most capable fighter in special ops."
Yi Fei smiled and greeted Le Ran. "Hello."
"Hey, Captain Yi!" Le Ran excitedly gave Yi Fei a high five, flashing his little white teeth.
"Is Captain Shen here too?" Ming Shu asked.
"Xun-ge is at the city bureau," Le Ran said. "This Bai Ying used to be 'undocumented', did you guys know that?"
Ming Shu nodded. "He's been 'undocumented' since he was a kid in Dongye."
"What we know now is that Bai Ying got his household registration at the age of eighteen, in Jingli City. A family with the surname Qiao helped him with that," Le Ran said. "After getting a formal identity, Bai Ying lived with the Qiao family for a while. Since he had no education and no connections, he could only work some relatively low-paying jobs. Before he was accused of assault at the age of twenty-five, he did odd jobs for a seafood restaurant."
Ming Shu had already spent his flight looking into the info they had on Bai Ying—
Twelve years ago, there had been an extremely famous seafood restaurant named Splendor in Jingli City.
The name 'Splendor' didn't actually suit a seafood restaurant, but it did suit the owner, Zhou Han, whose appearance was outstanding.
Many rumors floated around Jingli City back then. Some said that Zhou Han had a rich sugar daddy, while others said the rich heirs of some power families were fighting over her.
All that gossip only made Splendor more popular, and Bai Ying had worked odd jobs at that shop.
Six months after Bai Ying started working there, a murder took place in one of the private banquet rooms at Splendor. Zhang Long, a twenty-eight-year-old business owner, was stabbed with a sharp implement. His lung was punctured, and despite the hospital's best efforts, he was unable to be saved.
The fingerprints on the weapon and the blood trail at the scene all pointed to Bai Ying, who had just entered the private room and argued with Zhang Long at the time of the attack. All the evidence seemed to indicate Bai Ying was the killer.
Bai Ying pleaded guilty without causing any trouble for the investigators. He stated that he'd gotten worked up when Zhang Long picked a fight with him, and had accidentally stabbed Zhang Long with a kitchen knife.
The signs of an altercation at the scene, and the injuries on Bai Ying's body, all confirmed Bai Ying's words.
Ultimately, Bai Ying was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for causing someone's death through aggravated assault. He was shipped off to Second Prison in Jingli City to serve his time.
The case seemed to be very clear-cut, without any points of doubt. But Bai Ying's escape from prison was now the biggest point of suspicion.
Jingli City Bureau, Criminal Investigation Squadron.
When Ming Shu and the others arrived, Shen Xun was in the middle of talking to an officer with graying hair.
"Captain Ming, you're here." Shen Xun skipped the pleasantries and immediately got down to business. "This is Chen He, Captain Chen, who was in charge of the investigation into Bai Ying."
Bai Ying's case had been a small case, and Jingli City was just a small city. The local police had never worked with special ops before. When Shen Xun arrived, everyone at the city bureau was extremely nervous.
That was especially true of Chen He.
He had worked in law enforcement for several decades already, starting as a beat cop and eventually being promoted to a district precinct's criminal investigation squadron. After solving some easy cases, he was promoted again to the city bureau's criminal investigation squadron. However, since he was already getting on in years, he no longer worked on the front lines. He mostly worked in logistics, doing administrative work, these days.
As soon as special ops turned up and started asking him about the Bai Ying case from twelve years ago, panic seized his heart—could something have gone wrong with that case?
"Captain Chen, there's no need to be nervous," Shen Xun reassured. "We're just trying to figure out what happened with Bai Ying back then. Bai Ying escaped while serving his sentence at Second Prison. You know about that, right?"
Chen He nodded. "I participated in that investigation too."
"Based on your understanding of Bai Ying, what could have been his reason for escaping?" Ming Shu asked.
"I…" The wrinkles of Chen He's face seemed to quiver. After a long while, he continued, "What could I possibly understand about him?"
The look in Ming Shu's eyes subtly shifted.
A competent detective should never say a thing like that.
If one were to ask who should best understand a killer, Ming Shu would instantly answer—the police officer who pursued and captured them.
Ming Shu himself knew all the suspects he investigated very well. If he didn't understand them thoroughly, there were some cracks in their stories that he would never find.
Of course, not all detectives were capable of this.
Ming Shu sighed softly and said, "Then please tell us about the circumstances of your investigation into Bai Ying, twelve years ago. I'd like to hear the details, as well as your analysis on the clues you found. Your personal analysis. Not what's written in the case file."
Chen He met Ming Shu's gaze for a moment before looking away. "There was more than enough evidence in this case, and Bai Ying also confessed his guilt, so we didn't escalate it to the city bureau. If you ask me about the details now, I really can't remember too much. The investigation didn't encounter any problems, it was resolved very easily. I couldn't even tell you how many of these cases we handle each year."
"You just said you were involved in the investigation of Bai Ying's escape from prison as well," Ming Shu said. "Then you should be very clear on what Bai Ying's circumstances in prison were, correct?"
Chen He nodded this time. "I heard from the prison guards that he was serious about his rehabilitation and never caused any trouble while he was there. The only thing was, the other prisoners did bully him."
"What exactly happened?" Ming Shu asked.
"Bai Ying was a young, good-looking man, locked up with a bunch of gruff old men," Chen He said. "What Bai Ying must have gone through in prison… you can imagine it without me having to say it, right?"
Ming Shu furrowed his brow. "He was raped?"
"No, it didn't go that far," Chen He said. "The guards arrived in time to save Bai Ying when he was assaulted. Bai Ying was honest, hard-working, and very well-behaved. Most of the guards gave him special treatment and looked after him, so he wasn't attacked again. When we went to investigate Bai Ying's escape, we heard some of the other prisoners call Bai Ying the 'beloved son' of Second Prison."
"Was Gong Guozhen one of the guards who looked after him?" Ming Shu asked.
Upon hearing the name 'Gong Guozhen', Chen He's expression changed. He nodded nervously.
The case of the tragic deaths of Gong Guozhen and his family remained unsolved to that day, and it was still a dark shadow hanging over Jingli City.
One of the victims had been a prison guard, and the perpetrator was most likely a criminal with a grudge against that guard. When police officers and detectives investigated a case like that, it was hard for them not to imagine themselves in the victim's shoes.
"I actually…" Chen He looked up at Ming Shu and Shen Xun, like he wanted to say something yet couldn't.
"Captain Chen," Shen Xun prompted. "If you have any thoughts, please tell us."
Chen He bowed his head and remained silent for a long while before he sighed and said, "I actually really can't figure out why Bai Ying would break out of prison. He doesn't seem like the type who would do that at all. He already served five years, and he'd always been on his best behavior. He pleaded guilty without causing any trouble too, all for the sake of a lighter sentence.
"He got fourteen years, but based on his behavior in prison, he wouldn't have had to serve out the full fourteen years at all. He would have gotten out sometime in his thirties, which wouldn't have been too late for him to start a proper life. But he escaped, ruining any chance of a normal life."
Ming Shu had originally believed that speaking to the police who'd investigated Bai Ying's case would clear some things up, but Chen He provided too little information. After Ming Shu and Shen Xun discussed it, they decided Ming Shu would personally make a trip to Second Prison in Jingli City. Yi Fei would stay behind to look into Bai Ying's 'family'.
"They can't figure out why Bai Ying escaped from prison, but you think I can?" Huang Xiaochun, a prison guard, flipped through some old records as he was questioned. "If you ask me, any other prisoner breaking out would have been less strange than Bai Ying breaking out. There really weren't any warning signs at all. He was just gone one day. Before Bai Ying escaped, he even spoke to me about his plans for after he was released. He planned on getting himself a little shop and doing some business."
It was precisely because Bai Ying had been such a 'model prisoner' that no one had seen his escape coming. Everyone at Second Prison was in a panic when he disappeared, failing to respond quickly enough to apprehend him. Later, when they dispatched the city's Special Police Force, they were still unable to get Bai Ying back.
And when Bai Ying escaped, Gong Guozhen had been one of the guards on duty.
The investigation records showed that all guards on duty that day had been questioned after Bai Ying's escape, and all the guards had reported no abnormalities in Bai Ying's behavior.
But how could there have been no abnormalities in his behavior before he disappeared from a maximum security prison?
Someone had to have been lying.
Seven years ago, the police hadn't been able to figure out who was lying. But now, the truth was practically laid out right before Ming Shu's eyes.
The one behind Bai Ying's escape was most likely to have been Gong Guozhen. Otherwise, his family wouldn't have died in such a similar fashion to Qin Xiong's family.
But according to Huang Xiaochun and the others, Gong Guozhen had always taken good care of Bai Ying. When Bai Ying was almost violated by the other prisoners, Gong Guozhen was the one who'd come to the rescue.
If Gong Guozhen really had helped Bai Ying escape, what reason would Bai Ying have for killing Gong Guozhen's entire family several years after his escape from prison?
From Bai Ying's perspective, wasn't Gong Guozhen his savior?
The recorded sequence of events couldn't logically lead to the outcome that had come to pass. And if they were to think backwards from the outcome, the preceding sequence of events should have been completely different.
There must have been some sort of logical fallacy here.
Ming Shu calmed his mind and reanalyzed Bai Ying's supposed escape from prison.
After committing a murder, Bai Ying had willingly pleaded guilty in order to receive a lighter sentence. While serving his sentence, he had been on his best behavior. He'd actively worked to get his sentence reduced. Before escaping, he even spoke to the prison guards about his plans for the future.
What reasons could a person like this possibly have for escaping from prison?
Then, did Bai Ying not actually escape? Rather, had he been forced to leave for some reason?
And what role did Gong Guozhen play in all this? Not only was Bai Ying not grateful to him, Bai Ying had even killed him and his family some years later. What had he done to warrant that fate?
And what about Cao Fenghuai?
Had Cao Fenghuai, Gong Guozhen, and Qin Xiong all been Bai Ying's enemies?
Typically, the rules prohibited foreign police officers from freely wandering around the prison. But with his background of training in special ops, Ming Shu enjoyed some special privileges.
"I'd like to speak to Bai Ying's former cellmates," Ming Shu said.
Huang Xiaochun looked a little embarrassed, and answered that he would have to apply for permission with his higher-ups.
While he did that, Ming Shu gave Shen Xun a call.
And soon enough, Huang Xiaochun led two prisoners in to meet Ming Shu.
"There's just these two," Huang Xiaochun said. "The others have already been released."
One of the prisoners was named Wen Xiang, a man in his forties. The other was named Liu Li'gan, and he was in his thirties. Both were in prison for aggravated assault as well. People came and went from the prison; these two were the only ones left who'd interacted with Bai Ying all those years ago.
While Huang Xiaochun was present, the two prisoners all said the same things about Bai Ying—that he had been mild-mannered, hard-working, and well-liked.
Ming Shu listened for a while. He couldn't help but feel that Wen Xiang had a very interesting look in his eyes.
It was like those eyes held an unspoken message—
I know what you want to know, but I can't talk about it now.
Ming Shu excused Huang Xiaochun.
Nearly every nook and cranny of the prison was monitored, but those who had spent a lot of time there naturally knew where they could speak in private.
Wen Xiang led Ming Shu onwards until they reached a spot that was out of sight of all the other guards. It was only then that he said, "You all think Bai Ying escaped, but that isn't actually the case."
"We all think that?" Ming Shu shook his head. "If I believed Bai Ying really escaped from prison, I wouldn't have followed you here."
Wen Xiang raised his eyebrows and met Ming Shu's gaze for a second. Then he laughed and shook his head. "Aren't you surprised? I'm a prisoner. Shouldn't you be wondering why I'm willing to tell you so much?"
"There are a lot of things in this world worth wondering about," Ming Shu said.
Wen Xiang laughed a bit more jubilantly. But then his smile stiffened, before gradually disappearing.
After a moment, he turned and narrowed his eyes at the towering wall in the distance. "Bai Ying once asked me for help, but I refused."
Ming Shu calmly stated, "Someone forcibly took Bai Ying from this prison. Correct?"
Wen Xiang nodded.
In his eyes, Ming Shu saw guilt and remorse.
"I should have helped him. He helped me more than once, after all." Wen Xiang clenched his fists. "But, you know, in a place like this… the most important thing is that you can't offend the guards."
"Was it Gong Guozhen?" Ming Shu asked.
Wen Xiang was surprised. "You already know?"
Ming Shu maintained a calm expression, but his heart was already racing. "Why did Gong Guozhen do this?"
"I can only tell you the facts as I know them," Wen Xiang said. "The rest is my own speculation, from years of thinking."
Seven years ago. June 14th.
As per usual, a number of prisoners entered Workshop #3 to work. After they finished their tasks for the day, they returned to their cell. During that time, Bai Ying, who was supposed to be working in Workshop #3, never showed up.
After work hours, the inmates had one hour of free time. Wen Xiang passed by a storeroom during that time. He heard a small noise from inside, and when he took a closer look, he saw a person lying on a bed of cardboard boxes.
That person was none other than Bai Ying.
Wen Xiang was shocked.
That sound had been made by Bai Ying. Most likely, Bai Ying had been drugged by someone. He was completely incapable of standing up.
Upon spotting Wen Xiang at the door to the storeroom, Bai Ying weakly struggled to lift a hand, reaching out to him while tears poured from his eyes.
That image—that posture, and those eyes which pleaded for help—was forever seared inside Wen Xiang's mind.
If he could turn back time, Wen Xiang wouldn't have hesitated to rush in and carry Bai Ying out. But in reality, Wen Xiang had chosen to flee.
Just as he turned to leave, he heard Bai Ying let out a despairing noise.
Accompanying that cry was the sound of footsteps.
Wen Xiang hid in a corner and held his breath.
Soon, he saw a man creeping out from the storeroom.
It was the prison guard Gong Guozhen.
That night, the prison was suddenly locked down. The reason was that a prisoner had escaped. Later in the night, Wen Xiang learned that the escapee was Bai Ying.
"I saw it clearly back then. Because of the state Bai Ying was in, it would have been impossible for him to escape," Wen Xiang said to Ming Shu. His voice was trembling slightly. "It was Gong Guozhen, and probably some other people, who got him out."
After listening to Wen Xiang's account of the past, Ming Shu was silent for a while.
With a bitter smile, Wen Xiang continued, "I know it's hard to believe that there would be a prisoner who doesn't want to escape, but was forcibly taken away by a prison guard. It must sound absurd… back then, we were all questioned one by one. Even when the special police asked me, I didn't say anything. I didn't dare. It would have been useless."
"Then why are you willing to tell me now?" Ming Shu asked.
"I'm getting out of prison next year," Wen Xiang said with a shrug. "Once I got out, maybe I would have taken this secret to the grave with me. But I feel that someone needs to seek justice for Bai Ying. We're all prisoners here, that's true, but we take our rehabilitation seriously and don't think about escaping. Bai Ying served his sentence well. He was made into a victim. Why should he have to carry the charge of escaping?"
"Then, if you had to guess," Ming Shu said, "what would you say was Gong Guozhen's reason for getting Bai Ying out?"
Wen Xiang shook his head. "I couldn't guess, but it definitely wasn't anything good. Bai Ying, with the way he looked… he was always alluring to people like us, in a place like this. But Gong Guozhen had a wife. He didn't have to turn to men to sate his desires.
"Last year, the higher-ups came to investigate again. They said Gong Guozhen had been killed. I thought back then, maybe it was Bai Ying. But then I thought again and figured… Bai Ying may have already died."
Jingli City, Mu'ming Street.
Yi Fei was cutting through a narrow alleyway, following a police officer from the local police post.
"That was Bai Ying's home," the officer said, pointing to a small shop. "There's not really anyone left."
This street was full of old homes. Some of the ground-floor shops were at street-level, while some were slightly sunken into the ground. One would have to descend four or five steps to enter those shops.
The local police had already told Yi Fei what they knew. They clearly stated that Bai Ying had arrived in Jingli City as an 'undocumented' person, then later settled on this street and started working for a tailor's shop. The owner of that shop, Qiao Ying, was a good man who once had a son the same age as Bai Ying. But Qiao Ying's son had died of illness before Bai Ying came to Jingli City.
The grief-stricken Qiao Ying had taken in Bai Ying as his own son. He'd helped Bai Ying get his household registration. Right up until Bai Ying came under investigation for murder, he had been a member of the Qiao family.
Not many people used a tailor these days, and Qiao Ying had grown older as well. So he'd closed up his shop, though he continued to live there alone.
"There are some problems with his head," the police officer reminded Yi Fei. "You can't take everything he says seriously."
Yi Fei stood before Qiao Ying and studied this sixty-something-year-old man.
People in their sixties weren't all that old yet, but already Yi Fei couldn't see much vitality in Qiao Ying anymore.
"Are you here to look for A-Ying?" Qiao Ying asked. "I told you a long time ago, he isn't here with me."
Yi Fei could easily imagine that after Bai Ying committed a crime and escaped from prison, the police must have visited this small tailor's shop many times.
He suddenly felt some pity for Qiao Ying.
"I'm not looking for Bai Ying," Yi Fei said. "I just wanted to have a chat with you and ask how you met Bai Ying back in the day. And why were you willing to help him with his identification documents?"
After a long silence, Qiao Ying started to mumble, "If my son had been alive, he would have been the same age as A-Ying. It was destiny that brought A-Ying to me. He was my child, returned to me by heaven. You all say A-Ying killed someone, but I don't believe it. I lived with him for seven years. From the age of eighteen, he lived with me and learned to make clothes. I taught him how to be a person. I don't believe he would kill anyone."
Yi Fei tried to calm Qiao Ying, who faltered in his speech and wiped at the tears in his eyes. Qiao Ying seemed only capable of repeating, "I don't believe it, I don't believe he would kill anyone!"
On the way back from Second Prison, Ming Shu received a call from Shen Xun.
"We found Zhou Han, the owner of 'Splendor' from back then," Shen Xun said. "The one who gave her the money to open Splendor was the victim from Hongcheng—Cao Fenghuai."