Zen's only advocate on the murder squad, his boss Moscati, has been replaced by the stern Ernesto Heuber. The new chief makes no secret of his loathing for Zen and is irate when the Ministry puts Zen on a high-profile case. The head of the powerful Miletti family has been kidnapped, and the family's lawyer, Francesco Pirotta, was shot and killed when paying the ransom. Because paying ransom is illegal in Italy, the Ministry wants the kidnapping and the ransom kept secret.
Interviewing the Milettis, Zen encounters the powerful industrialist's sensuous daughter, Cinzia, and her husband, the arrogant head of the Miletti Corporation, Carlo Fagioli. Cinzia's brother Silvio is a disreputable failure who wants to take a lead role in saving his father, whose approval he desperately seeks.
To his surprise and disappointment, Zen finds that he's been partnered with his smug rival, Vincenzo Fabri. Well-connected among Italy's elite, Fabri admits to being an old school chum of Silvio's and a fellow member at Fagioli's tennis club. Fabri claims that he'd been promised Moscati's job, and proposes to Zen that they sabotage the case in order to discredit Heuber. Naturally, he implies, Zen won't take any blame if he allies himself with Fabri.
Now, the kidnappers are demanding more money and the Ministry is only too happy to illegally supply Zen with the money, so long as he makes the drop. Zen and Tania fantasize about the ransom money — with their relationship intensifying, it has become much more complicated, and to disappear together with the money would greatly simplify matters. But Zen is determined to keep his vow to Pirotta's widow that he will find the lawyer's killer. Risking everything, Zen is poised to take a professional and perhaps fatal fall.
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
Paying ransom is illegal in Italy. So when Francesco Pirotta, lawyer to the powerful Miletti family, is shot and killed while making a ransom payment to the kidnappers of the Miletti family patriarch, Ruggerio, there are dual reasons for the Ministry to keep it quiet. The Ministry doesn't want the press looking closely at Miletti, as he bankrolls the party, and they don't want his secret ransom payment disclosed. To ensure Miletti's safe return with maximum discretion, they put their reluctant protégé Zen on the case.
But Zen's tyrannical new boss, Ernesto Heuber, is irate. The strict enforcer of a Code of Conduct took an instant dislike to Zen, and does little to hide his hatred. Without support from his chief, Zen is on his own.
Waiting to interview the Milettis in their lavish villa, Zen encounters a nun, Sister Anna, who praises Ruggerio's charity to her orphanages. The nun is then rudely dismissed by the Miletti family's vice president, Carlo Fagioli, who is equally rude to Zen. His wife, the sensuous and spoiled Cinzia Miletti and her brother, the debauched failure Silvio, are reluctant to disclose details, as officially reporting the kidnapping would trigger an immediate freeze of their bank accounts. But when Zen assures them that he's only there to bring Ruggerio back safely, they reveal that the kidnappers are now asking for more money, and will speak only to Cinzia.
Further obstacles arise when Zen's partner on the case, his rival Vincenzo Fabri, turns up, thanks to Heuber. Fabri is already tight with Carlo and Silvio through regular channels among Italy's elite, and he soon gives Zen another reason to watch his back. Confiding that he had been promised Chief Moscati's job, Fabri proposes that they sabotage the case in order to discredit Heuber. Fabri implies that naturally, if he allies himself with Fabri, Zen won't take any blame. Meanwhile, Francesco Pirotta's widow, Donatella, has gone public about the murder, the kidnapping, and the ransom payment. The Ministry advises Zen to instruct the Milettis to deny everything.
Zen visits the embittered widow, who has a theory about the question eating at Zen: why would the kidnappers murder the person who is paying them? Donatella explains that Francesco, ever loyal to Ruggerio, knew everything about the family and the company. Because the Milettis and Carlo wanted Ruggerio out of the picture for money, freedom, and control of the company, they had to get Francesco out of their way. Meanwhile, Zen is unaware of the man who is on his trail.
While Zen gets a break from the case with Tania, violating Heuber's moral code on his very desk, the complications of their growing intimacy unfold. Tania and Zen are in love with one another, but Tania is reluctant to talk about her failed marriage. They are interrupted by a call from Colonna. Zen goes to meet the Minister's aide and returns with a suitcase of laundered money — an illegal ransom payment which Colonna instructed Zen to pay the kidnappers, promising reward for performing the illegal act and professional punishment if he refuses. Zen visits his old chief, Moscati, who is convalescing after a heart attack. Moscati warns Zen of a similar case wherein the detective given money for a secret payoff took the fall when the kidnapping victim was released, his career permanently ruined.
Nevertheless, Zen shows the money to the Milettis and gives them instructions to convey to the kidnappers. He ventures to the bustling Roma Termini, the grand train station where he has planned the drop. But before he can make the drop, he is intercepted and arrested by undercover police. Heuber is delighted that Zen is guilty and disgraced, but when Colonna and prosecutor Nadia Pirlo arrive, the suitcase is opened to reveal not a large sum of money, but a selection of newspapers. Relieved, Colonna grants Zen total autonomy on the case, leaving the foolish Heuber humiliated.
Antonioni, the chief kidnapper, contacts Zen and reveals that his group didn't kill Francesco — the murderer followed the lawyer to the drop, shot him, and took off with the money. Zen reiterates that the powerful funders of the ransom want only for Ruggerio to return safely. They arrange a new, secret ransom drop. Meanwhile, Tania attends her divorce hearing. The suspicious man who has been following Zen is her husband, Luca.
Zen learns from his informant friend, Angelo, that the kidnappers do not belong to any of the usual crime organizations. He makes the drop then shares news of Ruggerio's pending release with the Milettis. From De Angelis, he learns that the tip-off about the Roma Termini drop came from the Miletti house.
En route to dinner, Zen and Tania are ambushed by Luca, who shoots at them, misses, then shoots himself. Though Luca survives, Zen gets awful news: Ruggerio has been found at the agreed location, beaten to death. Disgraced, Zen is suspended by an almost giddy Heuber.
Antonioni calls Zen. He claims that they left Ruggerio alive and fears that they've been used. When they couldn't reach Zen to alert him to the release, they called the Milettis. Zen confronts Cinzia and learns from a distraught Cinzia and Carlo that, when they went to retrieve him, Silvio beat his father to death in a moment of madness. Unable to deal with the guilt, he attempts suicide and is rushed to the hospital. Carlo, pleased, is ready to testify against his brother-in-law.
On a hunch, Zen returns to the widow Donatella's residence and finds her and Carlo together. They have been having an affair, and when he confronts Carlo about killing Francesco, stealing the money and plotting Ruggerio's death, Donatella bashes Zen on the head and the couple flee. During the ensuing chase, they crash into a tree and are killed instantly. As they are beyond Zen's help and beyond the law, he removes the suitcase of cash with which they had fled.
Colonna congratulates Zen on wrapping up the case. He intends to keep Heuber as chief...until Zen reveals his recording of Colonna ordering Zen to pay the illegal ransom. While Zen has nothing left to lose — his career over and Tania, overwhelmed by the complications of Luca's attack, having left — he wants Moscati back as chief.
A new day begins for the murder squad. Chief Zen — at least, until Moscati recovers — happily sets his men to work, while at a convent, Sister Anna finds an anonymous gift: a suitcase containing a large sum of money.