If this were any other street corner, she might look like a lost farm girl. But this is Ninth Street and Benton, and the woman with the golden tan doesn't want directions. She wants a date.
A forest-green Ford Explorer slows, and the driver nods at her. "What's up?" he asks.
She walks toward the car. "What's up with you?"
A gold cross dangles from a chain just above the black, zipper-front sports bra that she wears all the time. Her stomach edges over the waist of her tight jean shorts.
Holding a big plastic cup filled with ice, she opens the door and hops in.
Sitting shotgun in the Explorer, Darlene sets a price, collects the money and directs the driver around Kansas City's Northeast neighborhood to one of the spots where she'll do business until police get wind of it.
She should be back at Ninth and Benton in 15 or 30 minutes, but that's never guaranteed. Darlene knows that she could end up in an abandoned house or floating in the Missouri River.
Even with a shot of pepper spray in her pocket, she knows that the odds are against her.
She has been in the Northeast drug trade for 15 years as a user and a dealer and has been selling sex for seven. She's one of about a dozen streetwalkers working the Independence Avenue corridor almost every day. She has 50 or so regular johns — "associates," as she calls them.
Most patrol cops know her by sight, if not by her first name. Some neighbors call 911 whenever she walks past.
The Explorer stops back at Ninth and Benton, and Darlene gets out. Her brown, wavy hair is fixed into a ponytail that sits high on her head and makes her ears stick out. She has a gaptoothed smile, and the bridge of her nose is scarred from when a man bashed her with brass knuckles a few years ago.
She makes her way down Benton toward the 7-Eleven on Independence Avenue to refill on ice. Ten minutes later, a tan Chevy Tahoe creeps past, and the driver signals with his hand.
"What's up?" she asks.
Independence Avenue is known for its drugs and prostitutes. Over the past two years, though, neighbors have noticed things getting worse.
In 2007, the Kansas City Police Department made 341 prostitution-related arrests. This year, police are on pace to make 400 arrests, nearly a 20 percent increase from 2007.
Will Royster was tired of it.
"I watched people deal drugs out there. You can't avoid seeing the hooks," he says. "The worst thing about it was, initially, having to deal with it with my kids."
Royster is a former Navy and commercial pilot who shakes hands with a death grip. He's a direct descendant of his neighborhood's namesake Scarritt family and lives with his wife and preteen kids in the house that his great-grandfather built on Gladstone Boulevard.
He says he likes the fact that the neighborhood is an amalgam of cultures and classes. What he doesn't like is that first-generation immigrants see it as a place to land and then leave. And he hates the gangsters, dealers, addicts, pimps and streetwalkers. Or, as he puts it, "assholes who want to come in and steal our neighborhoods and steal our quality of life and intimidate us."
Early last year, Royster started talking to police, prosecutors, judges and politicians about a drug- and prostitution-fighting effort called Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution and Stay Out of Drug Areas. The proposal, which quickly became known by the acronyms SOAP and SODA, would make it illegal for convicted drug and prostitution offenders to be seen north of Independence Avenue in an area between Interstate 35/29 to the west and a to-be-determined spot to the east. If enacted, it would initially cover the Scarritt Point, Pendleton Heights and Indian Mound neighborhoods — some of the city's busiest spots for sex traffic.