There had been quite a lot of progress made at the building site at the top of the long straight road going down to the village square, and Bjorn, fascinated by the ambitious project, leant forward to take it all in. The concrete walls at the base of the building were in place, and the beginning of a stairwell and two elevator shafts could also be seen together with numerous columns.
Bjorn was about to wonder out loud about the insanity of building anything this large in a small arctic village when Ante made a remark about the road instead. "They really did do a good job of filling in those potholes," he said as he drove the car slowly down towards the village square. And shortly afterwards he commented happily on the activity down at the village square. "Well, things have clearly been happening while I've been away!" he said. "Just look at all those stalls!"
And even over the two days since Bjorn last was in Lundby, the village square had seen noticeable changes. There were more stalls, and all but a few of them were now under improvised roofs. It was now looking more like a real market, and business was as brisk as ever.
"Look at all those people!" Ante blurted out enthusiastically as they entered the road circling the square. "Are there anyone left in Kirkenes? It sure looks like everyone decided to come here for the night."
"Well, there were some people coming all the way from Alta this morning, up at the check point," Bjorn added, confirming Ante's impression that people were coming from far and wide to visit the village. "That's quite encouraging, don't you think?"
Cars were lining up for cheap petrol over at the petrol station, and Pingo was evidently doing well too, with people coming out with cartloads of stuff. Not everyone were in Lundby for a night out. Some were clearly heading back home now that the sun was setting.
There were a lot of cars parked over at the knoll down by the water, but there was no shortage of empty parking space to choose from, so Ante had no trouble finding a place for his car. And as soon as he stopped his car, everyone stepped out of it to stretch their legs, eager to get started on their adventure.
The very first thing they needed to do was to buy some local currency over at the casino, since everyone but Bjorn seemed to be short on Gram tokens. So they all headed across the square, skirting the market in order to get to the casino as quickly as possible.
"It makes no sense," Espen complained as they strolled along. "Why do they insist on using those tokens instead of real money? It only complicates things."
"It's to make it all the more difficult for the locals to escape this place," Thomas explained. "The tokens are not legal tender. They cannot be used outside the village, so if someone manages to escape, they will still be stuck since they will have no money to pay their way to Oslo."
"Is that so?" Frank asked, apparently new to this fact.
"The foreign minister said something to that effect the other day, on TV," Bjorn added helpfully, finding Thomas' explanation reasonable and logical, at least on the face of it.
The men walked in silence for a bit until they reached the casino with its new sidewalk being completed. The north corner was still being worked on, but the rest was fully in place, and it looked great. Ante was again enthusiastic about the changes, and was almost besides himself of praise for the fancy bit of artistry that had been accomplished since his last visit. But there was no time to dwell on this as they were all eager to get their tokens to start the evening.
The casino was nothing more than a large space divided into various sections, where the area close to the entrance was reserved for money exchange. There was a staircase going up to the next floor across from these counters, and beyond that there was a bar and a small stage, and off to the right, a section dedicated to gambling. There were hardly anyone in the bar, and only a few people by the slot machines, so the main activity in the casino was at the moment the exchange of real money for tokens.
Bjorn knew from experience, and from being told so by Ante, that many people would not accept any kind of real money, credit cards or electronic payments in the village, making it essential to have cash in the form of Gram tokens even for people like Ante who had earlier acquired a card for himself, as well as a card for paying for produces in Pingo. And when Bjorn's four colleagues lined up to get some tokens, Bjorn figured he'd buy some for himself too, just in case. Bjorn felt confident that he would come back to the village in the future too, so a few extra tokens would not go to waste. "Better to have a few tokens too many than too few," he thought to himself as he lined up behind Espen.
Thomas and Ante lined up at a counter to Bjorn's left, and Frank stepped up to a counter to Bjorn's right, marked clearly with a sign saying "Gold Members Only". Bjorn's immediate thought about this was that Frank must have overlooked the sign, but that was evidently not the case. Frank presented a gold card and was promptly given a small stacks of tokens in return.
Ante on his side, presenting a plain green card to the cashier was informed that he could better use one of the automatic teller machines over by the staircase, unless he had special banking needs he wanted to take care of as well. And realizing that the man in front of him was filling in a form to get a bank card, Espen too headed over to the ATM machines, followed by Bjorn and Thomas.
The ATM machines accepted various types of credit cards as well as real money and the local bank card that Ante was carrying, so there was no need to waste the cashier's time. However, Espen got very upset when he discovered that the exchange rate had actually gone up by a bit since last time he bought Gram tokens, despite the fact that the gold price had cratered a full twenty percent over the last week.
"What the hell is this?" Espen asked rhetorically. "They are ripping us off!" And with this he walked over to the cashier at one of the counters to demand an explanation.
"Well, that is the exchange rate we are offering," the lady behind the counter said blandly. "If you think it too much, feel free to find someone willing to part with their tokens for less."
"But that's absurd!" Espen insisted. "You're the only one selling these things."
"Exactly," the lady retorted, unimpressed by Espen's argument. "That's because no one except us are willing to part with these tokens at lower prices."
"But the gold price is down twenty percent," Espen protested.
"But this is not gold... These are tokens backed by gold... If you are interested in gold, we can arrange for that too. At the current spot price, you can get gold delivered in six months from now. However, if you want your gold now, you will have to pay the current Gram price, plus our service charge."