Killer Content is a part of the Underlined Paperbacks collection.
Knives Out meets One of Us is Lying! In this twisty thriller a group of famous TikTokers begin turning on each other when one member is found dead at their beachfront Malibu mansion.
35 million followers. One dead body.
The six teenagers who make up the Lit Lair have it made. A beachfront mansion, millions of followers, stunning good looks, and sponsorship deals worth more money than they ever dreamed. They live together, making videos about their perfect lives.
Except it’s not so perfect after one of them turns up dead in the infinity pool. When the group TikTok account starts posting cryptic messages, the police stop looking outside the house for suspects—and start looking straight at them. Everyone in the Lit Lair had reasons why their lives would have been easier without Sydney Reynolds.
But only one of them killed her.
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An Excerpt fromKiller Content
17 Hours Before
“I swear to God, if we don’t get it this time, I’m going to kill you both.” Cami’s face is red with exertion. She grabs my arm, her grip a bit too firm, and guides me through the moves again. “It’s right, left, turn, and pose, okay?”
“So basically, how we’ve been doing it?” I mumble.
“How I’ve been doing it. You’re still off,” Cami snaps.
Cami’s full name is Dolores Camila Villalobos de Ávila, but almost everyone calls her Cami, since, in her words, Dolores is a name for a grandmother, not a TikTok star.
She thinks she’s in charge because she’s the only one with “real” dance experience. She went to the School of American Ballet for two years, until she hit puberty and her curves became too pronounced for the world of classical dance. Cami’s always patronizing me for not being formally trained or knowing all the proper dance terms--A frappé is not just something you get at Starbucks, Gwen. If I wanted to, I could be just as condescending back. It would be easy to knock her down a peg--remind her that I’m the one with eighty million TikTok followers, while she lags behind by more than half. That although she may know the “correct” way to count music, there’s only one queen bee in this house: me.
But instead, I keep my professionally plumped lips sealed and nod along as she walks me through the forty-five-second dance for the tenth time. If I say anything now, things will just devolve into another fight, and she’s right, we don’t have much time left to get this right.
I honestly can’t tell the difference between what I was doing before and what she wants me to do now. But she seems pleased with my improvement.
“All right, let’s run it again.” She turns to Tucker, who had been filming us but is now lying across the foot of Cami’s bed, scrolling through Instagram. He’s gone ahead and made himself comfortable, with his long limbs sprawled out. Tucker is six foot two, and from what I can tell, there’s not been a moment in his seventeen years of life during which he’s worried about the space he takes up.
“Huh?” He looks up from the phone. His eyes go wide as he registers Cami’s expression: so grumpy she looks kind of constipated. “Oh, ready.” He stands up and adjusts the backward baseball cap on his head. He raises the phone and taps the screen to record. “Action!”
The music plays from TikTok, and we writhe and gyrate to the immortal sounds of the Pussycat Dolls.
“When I grow up / I wanna be famous / I wanna be a star.”
Forty-five seconds later, Cami yells, “Cut.” She snatches the phone from Tucker. “I think this is the one.” She turns the phone so I can take a look. I watch us dance on the small screen. “See, I knew it wouldn’t look off balance with just two of us.”
“Yes, why apologize to your friend when you can just ignore the rule of thirds?” Tucker says.
“Exactly,” Cami says, brushing off his sarcasm. She swipes through potential filters for our video. “And might I remind you that I’m not the only one Sydney’s mad at.”
We haven’t been able to dance in our usual formation--Sydney to my right, Cami to my left--since the big fight two days ago. Sydney stormed off that night, headed for her parents’ house in the hills. She hasn’t sent anyone here so much as a Snap or a text--let alone indicated she’s ready to shoot TikToks with us again.
“Are you sure about the song?” Tucker changes the subject from his girlfriend’s disappearing act. “You don’t think it’s a bit too on the nose?”
Cami shakes her head. “It’s tongue-in-cheek, Tucker.”
“What do you mean?” I say. Confused, I touch my own cheekbones, then the tip of my nose. Contour comes off on my fingers. “Does my nose look big in the video? Let me see it again.”
Cami rolls her eyes.
Tucker laughs at me. “Not literally noses and cheeks, Gwen,” he says. “They’re expressions.”
“Duh, I knew that.” I straighten my shoulders. “I was just trying to be funny.”
“Sure, honey,” Cami says with a look of pity.
Embarrassment burns hot in my chest. I hate when people think I’m dumb. People assume that since I’m seventeen, platinum blond, and basically as close to looking like Barbie as La Mer skin care, the Tracy Anderson Method, and Dr. Malibu (Plastic Surgeon to the Stars) can get me, I must also be shallow. But I’m not. I’m actually quite smart, in my own way.
I may not know much about the sorts of things they teach in school, or what “on the nose” means, which everyone else does, apparently. But I know the right time of day to post an Instagram, which is different from the right time to post a TikTok. I know which camera angles work best for me, and I know to match an ironic sound with a thirst trap, so you don’t seem too into your own looks. I know how to put out enough content to stay relevant without becoming overexposed.
And I thought up this plan. Everyone forgets that, because it was Sydney’s parents who signed for the mortgage. But it was actually my idea to form the Lit Lair--to gather a bunch of teenage TikTok stars and move into a Malibu mansion to create content together. I thought that if we appeared in each other’s videos, our accounts would all grow much faster than they would apart. And I was right. I recently learned it’s called synergy--when two plus two makes five instead of four. But even before I knew the term, I knew it was a good idea.
When it comes to turning myself into a brand, I have a gift. As Paris Hilton once said, “Some girls are just born with glitter in their veins.” That’s me. I always knew I was meant for this life. Even when my mom and I were living in a cramped studio apartment and my bed was a pullout couch, I’d look at my secondhand Barbie Dreamhouse and just know I was meant to live in a place like that.
It may look like fun and games, us all living in this house together--swimming in the infinity pool, making up dances, playing pool in the dining room--but really, it’s serious business. We have thirty million followers on the @LitLair_LA account. Plus, we all have our personal profiles, with at least ten million followers each (I’m the one with the most followers, and Sydney and Cami are always fighting for a distant second).
All these followers mean sponsorship deals, and not just with any random company--after all, we have our brand to protect. We work mostly with Fortune 500 companies. And my rate per post is at least $30,000. Since we moved into the house at the beginning of the summer, I’ve made more money starring in a series of sixty-second videos than most Hollywood starlets make for an entire film.
Not bad for a girl with no talent, as Kim Kardashian would say. And that’s the blueprint, really. If you’re going to monetize your personal brand, there’s no better example than the patron saint of influencers out in Calabasas.
That’s why lately I’ve been trying to diversify my portfolio. Things may appear perfect from the outside, but I’m terrified that one day I’ll just be someone who used to be famous on an app most people have forgotten about.
Because, sure, TikTok is, like, the biggest thing in the world right now. But what if it goes the way of Vine or Myspace? So even though I currently have the most followers of any individual on the app, I don’t want to just be a TikTok star. I want to be an It Girl. I want a makeup line, a lifestyle website, maybe a shoe collab. I want to publish a book made up mostly of my Instagram photos and have it hit the New York Times bestseller list. I want it all.
Some old dude once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This is how I know my life is worth a lot: it is examined by eighty million people every day. That’s like, more people than the population of France. Having all these people caring about me and the way I dance and the clothes I wear, it makes me feel like my life matters. I don’t ever want to lose that. I don’t know who I would be without it.
But my mom, bless her heart, is no Kris Jenner. Since I got famous, she’s spent her days playing tennis and drinking mimosas, not strategizing for my career. So I have to figure this out on my own. And with every comment below one of my videos from some troll saying I’m overrated, that I’m gaining weight, that no, I’m losing weight and must be anorexic, that my dance moves are too basic, that I am actually a conspiracy created by the Chinese government, or--most commonly--that I’m dumb, I can feel my fifteen minutes ticking by. And I worry they’ll be gone before I can build something that will last.
Comments questioning my intelligence coming from strangers stress me out enough. I don’t appreciate them from people who are supposed to be my friends, and especially not from Tucker.
“I guess you’re lucky that you know everything about everything, Tuck,” I say. I glare at him, thinking all the things I can’t say with Cami here as a witness.
He flushes under my glare. “If you have the shot, then I’m gonna go get ready for tonight.” He walks out of Cami’s room and away from my rage.
Cami captions the post Dynamic Duo and adds the two-dancing-girls emoji. Then she presses a button and the video posts to @LitLair_LA and its thirty million loyal followers.
Within seconds, I watch on my own phone as the video begins to gather likes and adoring comments. But even so, watching the TikTok back, I must agree with Tucker. It just feels like something’s missing without our other best friend dancing beside us.
“Syd will be back tonight, though, right?” I ask Cami.
“Of course,” she reassures me. “She might be mad, but she’s not stupid. She wouldn’t miss Drake for the world.”
I nod, but I’m not totally convinced. All I can think about is Sydney as she stormed out of the house, her Louis Keepall on her shoulder and her Away suitcase clunking on the stairs behind her. Her cheeks were stained with mascara, but what I remember most is her eyes. Because even though she was crying, she didn’t look sad. She looked pissed.
I leave Cami’s room and head down those same marble stairs, which are now soaked in Malibu sunlight. My perfectly manicured hand slides down the railing, and as I make my way downstairs, I hum quietly to myself, Nicole Scherzinger’s voice still stuck in my head.
“Be careful what you wish for / ’cause you just might get it.”
16 Hours Before
My father’s side of the family has been in California since the gold rush. My great-great-great-great-grandfather raced across the country in a covered wagon and ended up somewhere near Fresno.
His first week in the state, he found a small nugget of gold. He grabbed the gold, left his sifting pan in the river, and went promptly to the town’s only two permanent businesses: a saloon and a brothel. Within the month, the money was gone and he was back to searching for a glimmer in the California dust. He looked his whole life but never found more gold. He died completely broke; there wasn’t even any money left for a proper headstone. His descendants have lived in central California ever since.
My mom tells this story like a warning. Her family has a very different history. Her parents immigrated from Jamaica. Her mom became a nurse, her father worked in construction. My mom grew up and became a middle school teacher. Theirs is a story of hard work, staying in school, working solid union jobs. An American dream, not of ephemeral gold dust and that intoxicating promise of quick riches, but of daily bread carved from steady work.
So you can imagine how it went when I told her about coming here. To this get-rich-quick-influencer-palooza mansion.
My TikTok started as something to do for fun. Everyone at school had an account, and my parents didn’t care if I made silly short videos with my friends as long as I kept up my schoolwork. But for some reason, my follower numbers didn’t plateau around two hundred, like most of my friends’ accounts. My videos kept making it onto the For You pages of people I didn’t know all around the world. I had a few videos go really viral--like I’m talking my phone crashed during AP History because a video got a million views in three hours. And then, all of a sudden, I had 150,000 followers, then 400,000 a few days later, and then . . . well, you know how exponents work.
I’d been making a bit of money--a few hundred dollars here and there to promote small businesses--when I got the DM from Gwen. She told me she was making upward of twenty thousand for one sponsored post, and that she would love to teach me how, and would I like to come live with her and her friend Sydney in SoCal?
At first my parents gave me one month--June. This could be my summer job, my mom said. But I needed to make at least $480 a week--the equivalent of what I would make if I worked my old jobs scooping ice cream and babysitting in Fresno. In the first month, I made $40,000. It went right into the college fund, of course, except for what I spent on rent and an allowance for food and new clothes. But I still shopped at American Eagle and Target. I certainly wasn’t buying the latest Gucci with my income, like some of the other TikTok kids. And that was fine with me. The money just meant I could show my parents that what I was doing here was work and help me negotiate for more time. They agreed to let me stay the rest of the summer.
One summer making videos full-time. One summer in the now-famous Malibu mansion. And then I was supposed to go back, finish high school, take the SATs, and generally get on the path to a real, steady job that is definitely not being a comedian and relying on the whims of the internet to determine whether I boom or bust. As of today, I have three weeks left of living my dream.